I am the least likely person alive to want to be the word police, but the hyper-focus on word choice exhausts me. The insensitivity in infertility and adoption can sometimes wear me out!

how to handle insensitive comments in infertility and adoption


I was re-reading some of my previous blog posts in response to statements made in the comment section of a New York Times essay on the grief experienced by many infertile women on Mother’s Day ( A Non-Mother’s Day ). In both blogs (Why Not Just Adopt and Adoption is Not the Same as Having a Child of Your Own), I took exception to the sentiments expressed, but also to the word choice of some of the comments.

As a general rule, I hate the hyper-focus on using just the right words.  We are all guilty at times of offending someone inadvertently.  Sometimes we simply don’t know the correct words to use, and other times we speak or type without thinking of the impact of our words.  I know this better than most since I am on the radio every week, often talking about sensitive subjects.  We have consciously decided to not avoid topics that we think will help someone for fear of offending others or for fear that I’ll put my foot in my mouth.  I do my best, but I’ve made mistakes.  We all have.

Words Matter

Most times people don’t mean to hurt.  But words matter and words often reflect deeply held beliefs or misconceptions.

People really do wonder why an infertile couple doesn’t just quickly shift to adoption.  A kid’s a kid, right???

People really do believe that adopted children aren’t as fully “owned” by their parents, as a child born to them.  They are obviously an inferior substitute to the real thing, right???

Such ignorance is difficult to know how to handle.

How to Handle Hurtful Words

Words are powerful. Carelessly spoken, they can hurt those of us dealing with infertility and adoption.

As much as it pains me to hold my tongue, sometimes silence is the best option–the conversation too fleeting, the person too intransigent, the timing too awkward.  However, when possible, I think we should speak up for ourselves, for other infertile people, and for our children.  Although I know how hard it is to do, it really is best to assume that the person is ignorant, not malicious.

I usually employ the “educate briefly then change the subject” approach.

Infertility Cluelessness

Clueless: For goodness sakes, why don’t you and Harvey just adopt?

You (suppressing a sigh): Infertility and adoption are both pretty complicated issues, and we’re considering a lot of options.  How in the world did you make this delicious bean dip? (Unsaid: Looks like Open (a can) and Dump (in a bowl) is the best you can do.)
You: Neither infertility treatment nor adoption is easy or quick. Thanks for the suggestion, though.  By the way, I love your shoes.   Where in the world did you get them? (Unsaid: Do you think we have been trying for 3 years and haven’t yet thought of adoption?!?)

Adoption Ignorance

Ignorant statements about the effects of an inability to adopt, or a failed adoption, are hard to hear and even harder to be forced to address.

Ignoramus:  Adoption is just not the same as having your own child. OR Too bad you couldn’t have kids of your own. OR Is that your real child?

You (valiantly resisting the urge to smack the offensive mouth): Adoption and giving birth are certainly different ways to have a child, but either way, the child will be 100% ours.  Isn’t this a wonderful reception?
You: Actually, we feel very blessed to have this wonderful child of our very own.  Can you believe the weather we’ve been having?
You:  Yes, this is my lovely daughter; and yes, she is very real.  I’d offer to let you pinch her to make sure, but she’d probably scream a very real scream.  (Unsaid: And I’d have to hit you with my very real fist.)  Now, excuse me while I get back to squeezing these melons.

I know this is a bit naïve, but in some ways what offended me the most about the comments in the NYT’s essays was that some of the most offensive and insensitive comments came from women.  I know that women don’t have a corner on the family-desiring market, but honestly, is it too much to ask of other women, most of whom have or hope to have children, to at the very least understand the pain of someone who is struggling with this most basic desire?  Hey ladies, we need to support one another. Your path may not be mine, but I can at least understand your desire to be on the journey.

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Originally published in 2010; Updated in 2018
Image Credit: Karen Kirby
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