Insensitivity in Infertility & Adoption

Dawn Davenport


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.

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

14/05/2018 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 12 Comments

12 Responses to Insensitivity in Infertility & Adoption

  1. Avatar Junebug says:

    I try to focus on the belief that others are just misinformed and not trying to be malicious. But you are right. Words do hurt. Great article.

  2. Avatar Addie says:

    Thanks so much for writing this, Dawn. I’ve really tried hard lately to not be so sensitive to other people’s comments. I have both an adopted son and a biological son, and I see how much as babies they already know they are brothers. I am afraid that people in the future will try to point out that they aren’t “real” brothers – when in fact they are. Posts such as this help arm me with future patience, and also that fun bit of sarcasm I will need to navigate this in the future.

  3. Avatar Becky says:

    As someone who has been trying unsuccesssfully to get pregnant for 5 years, I’ve heard it all. I am definitely now the Word Police. It’s almost like I’m looking for people to be insensitive, even when they probalby don’t mean anything. I know it, but I can’t seem to stop myself. Infertility sucks and it changes you.

  4. Avatar Maddie says:

    What a great blog!

  5. I think that how we make our families is such a personal decision. When our families "do not match" because of transracial adoption, for example some of that personal or private decision making, becomes rather a public domain. People ask intrusive questions. I might wonder why someone would go into debt to have a birth child, or to adopt, but unless I am paying their bills, I have no reason to comment at all. Just because adoption was my first choice does not mean it is for everyone.

  6. Hi Dawn, THANK YOU for this post. It makes me crazy to think that women who have never walked in my shoes would have so much to say about me and women like me. For most of us, we yearn for the entire experience of motherhood, from conception to birth, etc. I would like to ask these other women, why they didn't consider adoption FIRST or foster parenting first before they went the biological route to motherhood. Thank you for such a thoughtful response to an all too often asked question. On this issue or any other, I think the world would be a better place if people were more compassionate and less judgmental. I know I have to try to temper the urge myself sometimes too.Thanks again!

  7. Avatar Lisa Dunbar says:

    I thought it was a good post and relevant to any sensitive topic. Many of us don't approach sensitive issues because we don't want to offend. Many of us accidentally offend at times. Many of us become offended, rightly or wrongly, by what we percieve others to mean whether that was true or not. Yet, on the opposite side of the spectrum, if we don't talk we don't learn and grow. So how do you toe that delicate line? Bravo to you Dawn for being courageous and caring enough to try. And thank you.

  8. Avatar Juliet R. says:

    I love it-The Word Police. We get the when are you going to have kids question all the time. I want to scream at the people: As soon as we can you stupid idiot. But I usually just say something snide. I guess I can try your approach and assume they mean well. I still wish they’d just shut up.

  9. Avatar Deathstar says:

    I can identify with this. I’ve had the odd, “That’s your son? Really? Really?”. Yes, really. I often have to figure out if I want to reveal the “truth” to a nosy stranger or not. It’s not that it’s a secret, but I’m tired of all the stupid ass comments or looks.

  10. Avatar LDA says:

    This is definitely a difficult area – as an adoptive parent, I’ve been fortunate to have not experienced the ignorant AND insensitive combination very often.

    I have honestly wondered if I am somehow offending/damaging/warping my kids because I am NOT all that sensitive to the wrong words being used – provided that the overall intent of the speaker isn’t negative and provided the speaker isn’t putting my kids under a microscope. I just respond with the more socially acceptable word choices and try to educate as much as I can, usually with more general examples of the process than with specifics about our story.

    And I’ve become quite comfortable taking the “some people just don’t get it” approach with my kids when that is appropriate – this also applies in many other areas of life as well.

    The single most challenging conversation was with a woman who was childless due to infertility and an unwillingness to adopt – she chose to question me about adoption but made her negative feelings about adoption very clear. I finally just had to say “It is a good thing you didn’t try to adopt if you feel that way.”

    Also, one more perspective to offer on word usage – a fellow adoptive parent and I were discussing an acquaintance who works with a home for troubled girls. I asked “Does she have any kids of her own?” and he responded “Oh yes, she has two boys of her own. They were both adopted from Russia.”

  11. Avatar Lisa says:

    Hi Dawn,
    I haven’t read the original New York Times essay, but I do read your blog. Like you, as a professional and a volunteer in the area of fertility, I am tuned in to the language of infertility and family-building choices. I also feel responsible for helping to educate others about the facts, news, myths and feelings around infertility, miscarriage and other obstacles to childbirth.

    I believe that most of the insensitive questions and comments on infertility and adoption are due to two different types of ignorance. One type is based upon lack of knowledge and experience. The other is based upon the same, plus a lack of imagination and sensitivity. We can gently educate the first type, but the latter won’t be receptive.

    I think it would be good for an infertile person or an adoptive parent to study your suggested responses and take them out in a verbal toolkit to use when confronted by insensitive questions or comments. The problem that exists is when we are hit unexpectedly by a comment so rude, ignorant or combative that it takes our breath away. That sets us up for hours of self-talk about how we should have responded.

    I don’t know whether someone who easily conceived and gave birth, can ever really understand what part of you infertility or loss touches. In the same way, a person who hasn’t adopted can’t know the desire, not only to parent a child, but also to love a child who needs a parent. I wouldn’t presume to know whether an adoptive parent loves their child any differently than I love the children I had naturally. I know that love can reach across huge divides and it doesn’t have to make sense or be justified to someone else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑

Content created by Creating a Family. And remember, there are no guarantees in adoption or infertility treatment. The information provided or referenced on this website should be used only as part of an overall plan to help educate you about the joys and challenges of adopting a child or dealing with infertility. Although the following seems obvious, our attorney insists that we tell you specifically that the information provided on this site may not be appropriate or applicable to you, and despite our best efforts, it may contain errors or important omissions. You should rely only upon the professionals you employ to assist you directly with your individual circumstances. CREATING A FAMILY DOES NOT WARRANT THE INFORMATION OR MATERIALS contained or referenced on this website. CREATING A FAMILY EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS LIABILITY FOR ERRORS or omissions in this information and materials and PROVIDES NO WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, implied, express or statutory. IN NO EVENT WILL CREATING A FAMILY BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES, including without limitation direct or indirect, special, incidental, or consequential damages, losses or expenses arising out of or in connection with the use of the information or materials, EVEN IF CREATING A FAMILY OR ITS AGENTS ARE NEGLIGENT AND/OR ARE ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.