What the Receptionist Said (And What I Need to do About it)

A few weeks ago I hauled all six kids to a doctor's appointment for Fikir, my seven-year-old. She had a skin issue commonly seen in kids who have spent time in institutional settings with lots of germs and close quarters. It was out of control, getting worse even though she's been here in the US six months, and the doc, who I adore, squeezed me in for the last appointment of the day. I left five of them in the well-stocked waiting room and took her in. We were the only ones left in the office so I didn't worry too much.

I really have loved this new pediatrician who is supportive of our family, he is knowledgeable about other countries, understands kids who've spent time in orphanages, sleep issues, breathing issues, emotional issues, is open and non-judgmental about alternate vaccine schedules, doesn't get on my back about things but jumps to chime in when I need him: my kind of doctor.

We wrapped up the appointment and the receptionist, who is extremely kind and did not get in my face about choosing to leave my kids in the waiting room while going in an exam room -blessherheart- chatted with me and handed out stickers to the kiddos.  Another nurse or physicians assistant materialized to head out to the car as well as office lights shut off.

-Looks like my kids are having so much fun, they might want to spend the night here!

She laughed and responded while I put Fikir's coat on

-Another mom was here earlier who was about ready to give her kids up for adoption they were being so bad

I felt like I'd been punched in the face. She looked stunned herself. I had the wind knocked out of me and couldn't speak. I waited for her to apologize since it was obvious she knew she'd said something in the Not Okay Realm.

And then she didn't. She didn't take her words back. And that other lady was standing there and my kid, who I wasn't sure heard or understood was there. And I, the passionate crazy lady, didn't say a freaking word.


I didn't want to make a scene. I didn't want to embarrass myself or anyone else. I needed time to process. So I ushered the kids out and they followed behind me and I drove away, my jaw hanging open. Feeling paralyzed.

It's now been three weeks and I still have not had the guts to follow through on my resolve to address this moment with the receptionist. I am not sure what my problem has been aside from going out of town, because resolve I do have.  Here is why: Early in my freshman year of college, I sat at a table in the cafeteria eating with some friends. I said something terrible.  I casually remarked that something was "so gay." Lots of kids in my high school said it and it clearly meant in this context "so lame," "so stupid," "so ridiculous." I had never thought about it as anything but a phrase. My dear friend Lex told me immediately that what I had just said was hurtful and not nice.

I don't know how I responded in that moment, but I remember realizing that what he was saying was true. I felt badly, as I should have. I will always be grateful for his willingness to not patronize me, to stand up and let me know how he felt when he heard my words. I am humbled and grateful for my moment of shame followed by years of increased sensitivity about gay and other marginalized people. But I am sad to say, I also needed this same speech from my friend Michelle about the R word. Retarded. It is unfathomable to the person I am today that ten or twelve years ago I needed to be told by someone who loved me that THAT WORD was hurtful.  I needed someone kind, in both these instances, to tell me what my gut should have already known: it was not OK to speak like that, even if it was just a "joke." These people changed me for the better.

All of us are learning in life. We are all in different places. I know this woman at the doctor's meant no harm. Heck, she'd spent forty five minutes being supportive and sweet to my family which is not any easy thing to do, we are a lot to take in. But what she said was ugly. She said in front of a vulnerable, traumatized, obviously recently adopted child that mothers give their children up for adoption when they cross a threshold of acceptable behavior. In her joke, she essentially said that when kids are bad, their moms give them away to be adopted.

It is the untruth that children (and adults) who are adopted often believe about themselves and it is filled with shame and fear and sadness and loss. That they were bad. Unloved. Unworthy. And she made a joke about it. Tears come to my eyes when I think about it, because I am positive that she has no idea what she said and what it meant. So often, our brains are not connecting to our words, and if they were, we wouldn't say what we say.

I am writing about this here, because I need to call her. Or visit again. I want to tell her how much I appreciate her and this medical practice. How it has changed my life for the good to find a doctor I trust. I want her to know I don't have bad feelings about her. But I also need to tell her, just like Lex and Michelle needed to tell me, that what she said is hurtful and never OK. I need to tell her that never again should she ever suggest, in my earshot or to anyone ever, even in a joke, that an adopted child was separated from her family because she was bad. She needs to know that all adoption is founded on the most painful and terrible of all losses and that making light of it is hurtful. That her little joke stigmatizes adoptees and birth parents in a negative and false way.

I am mad at myself that I didn't say anything right then. I am mad I missed a moment. But I am vowing here, in this space, that I will not let it lie. I owe it to my kids and myself to end stupid comments that don't mean any harm but do, in fact, hurt. I was changed by people who bothered to speak up. Maybe if I speak with compassion and kindness, I can change her, too.

*PS. My friend Lex is not gay. But he was hurt on behalf of gay people he knew. If you are not an adoptive family but hear a comment like the one I heard, families like mine will appreciate you standing up and saying something. We need more of you in our corner. It may seem small, or nitpicky, but it means a lot. Thanks.

*PPS. Because I wasn't sure what Fikir heard or if she understood the English, I did talk to the kids the kids in the car on the way home about it. I will save that part of the story for my follow up post: What I actually decided to do about this.


Leah said...

I have heard such hurtful comments related to adoption, and unfortunately, they usually knock the wind out of me initially, that I leave feeling like you, and knowing that I missed an opportunity to educate.

I don't use the word gay in the context you described, (although I have in the past) and I don't use the "R" word, (although I have in the past) I too, was given the gift of a kind soul giving me a teachable moment, and I'm a better person because of it. I look forward to hearing about how you handled it. I need some lessons in this myself.

AnnaJ said...

HI. I think sending her a copy of the post and a personal note explaining how you love the medical practice and are not slamming her but offering some education would be a kind way of dealing with a very hard thing. But, if you need to see her face and explain in person, that would be good too. So much of what comes out of our mouths is unfiltered when it should be. Mindful speech is important, difficult and takes relentless practice. Thank you for your post and the sharing of a difficult situation.

Aunt Slugger said...

I have to disagree with the suggestion that you print this out for her. I think this is a great post, but if I were in her shoes, I'd feel as though I were being publicly humiliated if I read this and knew it was a blog post. I'd feel as though my faux pas had been put out there for all the world to see. I don't object to your writing this post, of course, but I think that if she knew it were a public blog post, her humiliation would be compounded.

If I were her, I'd want a very quick in-person mention of it. Said in a friendly way, it'll still embarrass her, but reading a multi-paragraph account of how she offended you will make her feel really, really bad, and it sounds as though she doesn't deserve that level of guilt. She may already know that she upset you, based on your reaction at the time of the incident.

In my experience, people like her need to be told exactly one time, quickly and in a nice way. People who are trying to help and are always friendly when you see them are usually not ill-intentioned. I think she'll get it, especially if you frame it as "I know what you meant - you meant it as a joke. But my kids don't necessarily understand the nuances of adult humor and may come to believe that their separation from their birth families was their fault. I always try to be really mindful of how I use the words 'adopt' and 'adoption' because adopted kids and families who adopt may be inadvertently hurt by what we say." Something like that.

^Writing that paragraph just 100% took me back to RA training. "Use I statements," they would say. "Try not to place blame," they would say. I used to want to get up and leave during those trainings...but unfortunately, that BS really does work. Like all the time. I will begrudgingly give credit to the RA trainers for their wisdom.

Andy and Kristen said...

I think I have to agree with Aunt Slugger. It sounds like she is a very nice, well-intentioned woman who unfortunately let some words slip out that she probably regretted the instant she saw your reaction. She probably feels awful and just didn't know what to do after the words came out. I think a friendly mention of it (without discounting the hurt your kiddos may have experienced if they heard it) will probably do the trick.

Thank you for your beautiful blog and a glimpse into your family. I'm a long time reader but first time commenter also going through the adoption process. I learn a lot from you :)


Mary Kathryn Jasperson said...

Okay so my opinion on this is--- there are so many "normal" phrases out there that are super offensive to others. I have a friend that has a brother who is mentally handicapped.... and when people use the word retard as slang it gets her all fired up. However, being friends with her, reading your blog, and being open to the divers world we live in has brought the phrases to my attention to make sure I don't say them and that my kids don't. You are teaching others. I think if you can come up with a loving way to calmly and nicely express to her, "Hey, I don't know if you realized but when I was here last you said this.... and it was offensive to me and my children." I agree she needs to know but it may possibly be something she has completely forgotten about herself.

Three Lads and a Lis said...

i have two sons with moderate hearing loss, in turn they were hearing aids. During a primary sharing time, some of the children were being rowdy and loud and they were trying to communicate and one girl get saying "What did you say?" And a boy, whom I've learned to love dearly over the years, responded sarcastically "Are you deaf or something, get some hearing aids!"

My mamma bear went into action and I quickly reprimanded him, he didn't really know why I was upset and thankfully another leader pulled him aside and let him know why I was so hurt (thankfully my children were in the younger primary classes and didn't hear it). But he apologized sincerely and I've like to think that his perspective changed that day.

I ran over the scenario in my head a billion times and wondered if I reacted the correct way, perhaps it was perfectly done, but I'm glad it happened.

Sarah said...

I definitely agree that you should lovingly share your correction and I also agree that she probably didn't consider the insinuations in her unfortunate phrasing.
I personally wouldn't print off the post though. I'm inclined to think that reproving with sharpness usually means you don't need to explain every detail, but that the correction should be clear and direct. Recall the facts (what was said), share your feelings (sadness at the insinuations and why), and reaffirm your gratitude and love for her and the office. Hopefully your teaching moment goes well!

AnnaJ said...

In reading the responses I think I will recant my note that encourages you to give her the blog post. The thoughtful response from Aunt Slugger rings true and I would hate for her to be humiliated when educated was the point. There may be a more appropriate time to share with her in depth. I hope whatever you decide to do feels right to you, affirming of your kids and calming to your heart and soul.

Kyra said...

Another vote for Aunt Slugger's comment. I would definitely not print this out and give it to her. It will almost certainly make her defensive and less likely to listen. I'm hearing that your goal is not to scold her but to teach her, so getting her defensive would be counterproductive. I'd go with Mary Kathryn's approach.

scooping it up said...

Thank you ALL for thoughtful comments and support. I think I am going to do it in person. I think I can pull it off kindly. I do NOT want bad feeling because we really want to stay at this practice big time. I think I can squeeze in enough positive to soften the blow but make it clear it was hurtful to our family.

I am feeling bolstered. Thanks friends.

Anne Seichter said...

We learn from others. I think the only way you could do it is lovingly, because that is the kind of person you are!