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Adoption Blog: Familia Means Family

Does DNA Make a Family?

"How much did she cost?" "Why can’t you have biological children?" "Why did her birthmom not want her?" "Aren’t you afraid of how he will turn out?" "Do you know who her REAL parents are?"

When we walk around the block, or through the grocery store, or just about anywhere else, there's no hiding the fact that we're a family formed by adoption. Not that I would want to hide it -- ever. But I do sometimes cringe at those intrusive, tactless, ignorant questions that would never arise in any other context.

I keep in my back pocket an assortment of responses ranging from clever to educational: "We did not buy our daughter. We did pay a fee to the adoptive agency like you paid the hospital for delivering your child." "Why do you want to know why we don’t have biological children?" "Her birthmother loved her very much. That is why she chose to give her the best life she could have." "I’m more afraid that I will not be a good parent to him." And "Well, since there is no such thing as FAKE parents, I guess we ARE her real parents." No sweat!

Because I believe most people simply don't understand adoption but have a desire to learn more, I take on the role of adoption educator. I field most questions with a smile, hoping to bring the world one step closer to adoption awareness. As my kids get older and can understand the questions asked, I approach those exchanges more cautiously, trying to teach them how to respond appropriately as they listen.

However there is a question that, no matter how much I rehearse come-back after come-back in my head, always catches me off guard. It also stirs in me feelings that go deeper than education, politeness, or promotion. And when it does, I nervously find myself explaining away, answering the question behind the question, or giving more information than I intended. And when I walk away, I kick myself over and over. For the last four years, this question has bothered me, bewildered me, and frustrated me more than any of the others.

Each time I hear it, there is a pain in my heart that makes me catch my breath:

"Are they brother and sister?"

It started with Noah’s arrival. Because both of my children are African-American, it's true that they could share a biological connection. The question in itself, which any parent might be asked in any circumstances, may not seem like a big deal at first. It's not a rude question, per se, and I do believe that most people who ask it aren't being intentionally thoughtless. But it's the implications behind the question that hurt my heart. What does it mean to be brother and sister? How does that strange, wonderful relationship happen? Is it in the sharing of DNA and the splitting of genes? Is it in the growing up together, laughing, playing, and fighting? Are they mutually exclusive? Can one not exist without the other?

I know what the person is asking: Are they biologically related? But that is a very different question, isn’t it?

Every time I’m asked that question, I am reminded that our society, which claims to see adoption as a truly viable option to form a family, still considers adoption the second best thing to sharing a blood connection. It seems crucially, inexplicably important for people to establish this piece of information about my children early into our discussions. These are two children being raised by the same parents, under the same roof, and who share the same last name. What else do they need to be considered siblings? Being siblings has less to do with biology and more to do with shared experiences and love.

Yes, they are brother and sister! And they happen to be biologically related as well.

Time after time, I vow to simply answer "yes" the next time the question comes and let the person asking figure out what that means. Time after time I find myself explaining: "They have the same birthmother." Inevitably I get angry with myself and I think about the day when we have a third child who does not share DNA with Isabel and Noah. What will I say then? “Well, these two are brother and sister, but this one is not”? Is NOT? If they are not brother and sister, all three of them, because they don’t share the same bloodline, then they are not really my children because WE don’t share the same bloodline. And if they are not really my children, then what is adoption but a fantasy?

Maybe, by the time baby number three comes along, I will finally have learned to quit blubbering like a fool when asked and simply, resoundingly, and decisively say: "Yes, yes they are."

Related Posts on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle


Oh, those intrusive adoption questions.  They can feel relentless after a while.  Even though those who ask them may be merely curious, the result of the seemingly endless interrogation is that we adoptive parents end up feeling like we’re always on the defensive, always having to justify our families or educate people or represent the adoption world as a whole when all we want to do is go out to dinner or shop for groceries. 

It can be exhausting.

It sounds like you do quite well with these comments and questions.  I think you answered your own question about the “brother and sister” question, too: “Yes, yes they are.”

It’s always your right—and your children’s right—to keep this information private.  The details of your kids’ stories belong to them, after all.  As their mom, you may have made a conscious decision that you will share certain parts of that story with other people, but you should never feel compelled to go beyond that.  I’ve had to endure angry words and more from relatives from whom my husband and I have decided to withhold the most personal details of our daughter’s adoption story, but we get through that by reminding ourselves that we’re doing what’s best for her, not them.

The bottom line is that of course adoption isn’t second-best, but when we’re constantly confronted by other people’s judgments, even in the form of questions, it can leave us feeling inferior and like we have to prove something.  It’s one thing if someone is close to our family or if she’s genuinely seeking information about the adoption process.  But often, neither of those is the case.  Most of the time, it’s someone who doesn’t even recognized he or she has leapt right across a privacy boundary, and in that case, it’s perfectly okay to put our kids first.

After all, sometimes our kids are listening to our answers.

By Tracy Hahn-Burkett on Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm.

Thank you for your comments and insight, Tracy! We have been blessed so far to have only encountered well-meaning questions, even if they are inappropriate. Nobody has yet said anything mean-spirited or ugly to us and I pray this continuous to be the case smile

By Gaby on Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 8:57 pm.

One of the best things that you or others can do for their children is to be direct and not duck the real issues, but set and keep boundaries because our children decidedly DON’T like feeling that they are the objects being ogled as though they are out for Adoption Show and Tell.  As an adoption therapist, I hear this complaint from our adopted youngsters all the time, and in whatever city in which I am presenting.  We have to learn and practise how to minimize the number of questions and comments we receive (and we CAN), and also interrupt the series of questions before they get more pointed, which is the usual flow of conversation.  The first question or two is often more innocuous, as though the question-asker is trying us out to see whether or not he/she can ask the more loaded questions and get us to answer.  We have more control over this than we may realize that we do.

    I coach parents to: first, try to stop the questions and comments before they start.  We usually know when someone is about to approach us because they’ve been staring, and they have those big smiles, and tend to make a beeline for us and our kids.  Using non-verbal language (a hand up as though we are stopping traffic, for example, or putting the palms of both hands up and then looking at and tapping our watch) convey that we don’t have time or are disinterested in being approached.

    We can also be quite direct and still be polite, in order to set boundaries.  We can answer that first question IF its not intrusive and then say:  “I appreciate your interest in our family, but I should tell you that we do not answer personal questions about family members, or how we became a family.”  That stops any and all questions, and most of the inappropriate comments, too.  Not only does this interrupt the likely damage to our children and families, but it also eliminates the need for us TO have snappy come-backs or lots of ready-answers and responses.  We have simply conveyed that we recognize the voyeuristic interest in our families, but intend to protect our children from that because it is uncomfortable. 

    If you are wondering where I learned to respond in that way, I’d be happy to share.  Our adult adopted sons and daughters decided that they were not going to put up with their younger siblings being tormented by others’ intrusive questions and insensitive comments, or our attempts to educate others at the expense of their young siblings’ sense of self worth and right to go about their lives without being targeted by others’ inappropriate behavior or conversations.  They were right on target—no?

Jane A. Brown, MSW

By Jane Brown on Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 9:25 pm.

Wow, thank you for the suggestions, Jane! They are great and definitely becoming more and more needed as our children are old enough to understand the questions and comments. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

By Gaby on Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm.

You are most welcome, Gaby.  I have observed, over my years of involvement in the adoption arena, that few adoptive parents with adult sons and daughters stay around long enough to share what they have learned, so as to give parents of young children a proverbial leg up in acquiring the specialized skills and knowledge necessary to be an effective adoptive parent.  The knowledge is often hard-won. We try to learn from one another at first, passing both expert knowledge and common beliefs that are really not so terrific, before realizing that it is the adult adoptees, parents of adults, and longtime professionals who are veteran therapists and researchers whom we need to consult with.  I’ve reached that point in my own parenting and professional career.  I do not know it all, but recognize that the children I’ve parented and worked with over the years have taught me a great deal that I feel obligated to pass on.  Hopefully, that is what we will all do more of—pass along what we have been blessed to have learned. 

    I do have another thought regarding the constant and continual barrage from outsiders regarding the authenticity of our children’s sibling relatedness.  Again, I believe that it is most helpful and instructive for our children when we go to the heart of the matter, and do not duck the question.  What I encourage adoptive parents to say is something like this, when someone asks if they are “really siblings”  :  ” I am guessing that you are aware that children who are members of the same family are “really” siblings, regardless of whether they became siblings via adoption or by having been born to their parents—right?”  What that response does is press the question-asker to answer their own question, and in a way that validates what we already know as parents, and what our children need to hear EVERYONE affirm—that they are “real” siblings, and that we/they should not have to defend the fact that our family relationships are as authentic as those in families where all of the members share an ancestral and genetic history. 

    If and when people persist, and pursue trying to get you to reveal whether or not your children share the same original family, I encourage you to ask them why they think that they have the right to ask.  i.e. “I believe that I’ve already answered your question when I told you that they are “real” siblings.  I am guessing that you are trying to figure out whether they were born to the same parents, originally.  You may not realize it, but that is a very personal question and I already told you that we do not share personal details about members of our family. I’m guessing you can understand, since there are probably many details of your own family history and relationships that you do not give away to strangers. I’m going to ask that you respect our boundaries.” 

  Again, while it can feel uncomfortable at first, to be so direct, there is a big difference between being aggressive and confrontational, and being assertive.  The latter approach is what best protects our children, conveys our confidence in stating that we ARE members of authentic families, and models our competence in facing societal misperceptions and stereotypes to and for our children.  All of the words I wrote here can be said with respect and a smile. 

    Again, you are very welcome, Gaby.  I hope that you and others will find your own, unique way of responding to the many challenges you and your children will face.  The earlier we, as adoptive parents, build an assertive stance about these the better, for even very young children pick up on our non-verbal cues and our attitude, long before they can understand the words and what they mean.


By Jane Brown on Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 1:14 am.

Thank you for this article, and I must agree that “are they real brothers?” is the question that I get most often and that I hate the most.  I agree that the insensitive questions are abundant, and also that most people are well-meaning, but have no idea how rude their inquiries may come across.  One of my favorite comments was from several years ago when we were living in East Tennessee.  The barber cutting my then 2-year-old’s hair asked, “Where’d you get him at?”  Like we had just picked him up at Wal-Mart! 

While the rude questions from strangers certainly seem more abundant to me since my family too was obviously created through adoption, I do know that some people in this world are simply inclined to ask questions that are not their business.  I was having lunch yesterday with a professional friend who has a great head of hair for a 42-year-old man, and he recounted that recently a total stranger asked him, “do you wear a wig?” 

So, take heart that these questions are not limited to just us adoptive families.  If there is a positive learning from this, it is that we should all be more respectful of our comments and questions to those around us!

By CrobermillerMom on Friday, October 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm.

Jayme, you raise some important questions. The bottom line is this: you don’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to answer. “Are they siblings?” “Yes.” “Are you babysitting?” “No.” “Are you a foster mom?” “No.” and walk away if you feel the person wants more information than you want to give. As your kids get older you can ask them: “do you feel like answering these questions?” and take their cues. That lets the person know that your kids are involved in the conversation. No questions will harm your children if you talk to them afterwards about it. Explain why the person asked what they asked and why you answered how you did. Open dialogue will help you navigate these times. Best wishes on your upcoming new arrival!

By Gaby on Friday, October 28, 2011 at 5:21 pm.

CrobermillerMom,  you’re so right. These questions happen everywhere! But for some reason it seems as if adoptive families are free-for-all when it comes to questions, doesn’t it? smile

By Gaby on Friday, October 28, 2011 at 5:25 pm.

How about responding with the question, “Why do you ask?” Does that deter the simply-nosy but invite the adoption conversation from other adoptive families-to-be?

By mamabear12345 on Friday, October 28, 2011 at 6:19 pm.

Mamabear, that is also a great way to answer, although there are times when I just don’t feel like continuing the potential conversation that can ensue smile

By Gaby on Friday, October 28, 2011 at 6:31 pm.
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