“He really loves you,” said an administrator at my son’s school today as I was checking in K.J. after a dentist’s appointment. I looked up from the check-in sheet. She looked directly at me and repeated the statement with a smile.
What did it mean? The simplest statement can have several possible meanings. But when a family is created through adoption, the possible meanings multiply.
There are assumptions made any time we communicate – whether we recognize those assumptions or not. Was this statement simply about the nature of my relationship with K.J. as MOTHER and SON? For example —
“It’s so nice to see a boy who loves his mother”?
“You clearly have a strong relationship and this is the first time I’m noticing it.”
Did the statement have more to do with ME? For example –
“You are an exemplary mother unlike others I have known!”?
“Previously, I thought you seemed cold and unlovable, but I now see that I was wrong.”
Did the statement have more to do with K.J.? For example –
“He really loves you and this is unusual for a 15-year-old boy”?
“K.J. was a mystery to me before, but I now see that he is capable of loving you.”
Was her statement a reflection about the effect of the SCHOOL on my son? For example –
“He really loves you because our school has turned him around and made him a better person.”
“You made the right decision sending him to this school. Why look at this positive outcome!”
OR Did the administrator’s statement include an assumption or two about ADOPTION? For example –
“He really loves you even though you are not his REAL mother”?
“He really loves you and that is unusual for an adoptee and his adoptive mother”?
“Most adoptees don’t love their adoptive mothers, but I see K.J. loves his.”
“I assumed K.J., abandoned by his first mother, would not be capable of loving you just like other sons love their mothers.”
It’s hard to know how to respond if you don’t know what assumptions are being made. Do I simply thank her for the complement about our relationship? Do I respond by raving about my son’s unique qualities or humbly accept her praise of me? Do I thank her and the school for all they have done to make this possible or congratulate myself for making the right decision about school for K.J.?
On the other hand, if the comment pertains to adoption, I have other decisions to make. I can turn a blind eye toward her ignorance about the nature of relationships between parents and children who are not related by blood, or I can engage in some educational feedback. There is some balancing to do. What will I gain? What will K.J. gain? What will the school as a whole gain if I put on my educator’s hat?
There are also privacy considerations. Any time I put on my educator’s hat, I put my children in the spotlight. They are my examples – if not explicitly, then implicitly. Whatever I say about adoption “generally” will be understood to apply to my children “specifically.” Do I have the right to open-up their lives for public viewing?
K.J. is, in fact, an easy case (so far). Of all our children, he has been the most open about his relationships with all of his extended family. He will tell you about his 3 sisters and 1 brother in Atlanta as well as his 3 brothers and 2 sisters in Nebraska without shame or embarrassment. I love that about him!
But if I begin to talk about the nature of “love,” of how and who he loves and in what way, have I gone too far into his personal stuff? All I can really do, I think, in fairness to K.J., is to talk about MY perceptions and MY feelings. I can talk about how special it is to share the role of mother with another mother who is just as significant in her own unique way. Together, we form the whole figure of a triangle or triad: birth parent, adoptive parent, and adoptee. But in this case, it is not the triangle of divided loyalties, e.g. husband, wife, and mistress, or child, mother, and stepmother. This triangle is a positive one that benefits us all. It doesn’t have to be any more or less stressful than the line between a mother and her biological son. It is more complicated for sure. But there is enough love to go around for everyone.
To be honest, it is only upon reflection that I unfolded the nature of my discomfort with responding at the time the statement, “He really loves you,” was made. As I recall, I replied – as I often do when I am uncomfortable – giving credit to others: K.J. and the school. I’m okay with that. But I hope, in the future, to tell my truth in ways that will be helpful to other families like ours.