20 Reasons To Not Ask Childless People About Adoption


Not even two months after my final failed fertility treatment, I had entered the adoption option’s funnel cloud.  As harsh realities and impossibilities swirled from every direction on this front, I was also sharing myself with people as I tried to make my way out into the world again.  I’ve noticed since this is something that other grieving people commonly and spontaneously tend to do.

After conveying some grief over my unfruitful attempts at trying to conceive I was told by an acquaintance I thought well of, “Well, you can ALWAYS foster or adopt…..”.  Given that this was someone with a few healthy biological children of her own, I was thrown by her unyielding certitude.

As the realities of adoption coalesced in my throat and the thought of “Really, how in the heck would YOU know??” dominated my head space, I was at a loss for spoken words.  This would have been even worse to hear had it been the result of the all too common unsolicited grillings childless people randomly get out in the world as to why we aren’t parents. 

In another situation when adoption was brought up, this time by the person who had been cleaning my teeth for a number of years who I held in high regard, I was suddenly being questioned out of nowhere.  “You don’t think you could love a child that isn’t yours genetically?” she presumed with a bewildered indignance.  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly my and my husband’s infertility could morph into a trial on my capacity to love.  A capacity, I can assure you, that is alive, well, kicking and fully abundant!

To this day almost eight years later, whenever a stranger slides a picture of a lost loved one in my direction, or an acquaintance confides in their grief over a life changing loss, I feel a kindred spirit.  I do my best to stop and pause and acknowledge them, and their loss or losses.  I might try to say a validating thing or two.  But mostly I just listen and give their wounded state some space to breathe in the presence of another human.

I don’t always get it right certainly, it is inherently an imperfect process, but I commit to doing this for two reasons: 1) It is when I feel the comforting presence of my unborn the most and 2) As someone with a yet to be societally recognized loss, I know what it’s like to not receive this from others when you really need it.

It’s not just the intrusive and inappropriate nature of adoption overtures that is the issue here.  My number one reason why adoption shouldn’t be mentioned in response to someone’s infertility and/or involuntary childlessness?

It’s standing in the way of what people really need to be getting: acknowledgement, empathy and for those who are not so raw, an interest in their journey forward.  

Grief is paradoxical in nature – while it is an acutely solitary experience, it is also a social and communal experience.  Research has shown over and over again that validating and non critical social support is an essential component in the healing process.  And it has been found that the level and quality of social support one does or doesn’t receive is a greater predictor of PTSD than the actual trauma itself.

What TO do and say instead in response to someone not being able to have children for whatever reason?  Something acknowledging is a good direction to go in.

“I’m sorry to hear that” or “That sounds tough, how are you doing?” is a good bet for someone who is still raw with it.

“How has that been for you?” is an option for someone who is years into it.

If the situation is unsure, even an interested and thoughtful “Oh.  Really?” accompanied by a nod and some space in the conversation (for the other person either to elaborate or change the subject) is miles more useful than inserting adoption as an attempt to fix the unfixable.

Which brings me to reason #2 to not ask childless people about adoption: Because that’s what responding to childlessness with the topic of adoption really is – it aims to hold the childless person accountable for the purpose of sustaining a view of the world as a fair and just place.

Childlessness is not the only area where humans have the habit of attempting to backseat trouble shoot others’ random misfortunes though.  In her thoroughly researched book “Shattered Assumptions, Towards a New Psychology of Trauma”, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman writes: “A great deal of victim blaming follows extreme, negative life events.” and, “….if the victim can be blamed for what happened, then the world is not a random, malevolent, meaningless place.  Rather, it is a place in which outcomes are contingent upon who you are and what you do.”

All of that said, had I gotten to be on the parented side of fate’s fickle finger, I could very well have been that person raising the topic of adoption when not appropriate.  Much though it makes me cringe to admit.  Adoption practices and possibilities have changed drastically over the last fifty years, in many ways not talked or written about.

Although it seems to me an outlandish thing to bring up in response to the loss of someone’s potential children, parenthood and grandparenthood – people wouldn’t bring up adoption in response to the tragic loss of someone’s physical children – on some levels I get the misunderstanding we childless folks have thrown on us.  And I can see why people might desire a clearer understanding of why people don’t adopt.  After all, when done under the right circumstances, adoption can be a positive thing.

A good starting point is to ask yourself why you haven’t adopted.  To some extent, those will be some of the same reasons why childless people haven’t adopted.

Also, having a numerical context can shed some perspective.  Approximately 2.5% of children in the United States are adopted.  Approximately 2% of parents in the United States are adoptive parents.  Approximately half of these adoptive parents also have biological children, meaning that childlessness was not why they adopted.

Approximately 15% of adults in the US over 45 do not have children.  Rates of childlessness are higher in other countries, as high as one in three people in some. Meta-analysis of data (By Professor Reske Keizer, 2014) has shown that as much as 90% of the world wide population of people without children in fact wanted them.

One fact from this data blatantly stands out to me – far more people who wanted children do NOT go on to adopt than those who are able to.  

Here are just a few reasons why:

18 more reasons you should not ask childless people about adoption:

#3 Just like the 99% of the parented population in the United States, many childless people also wanted their own biological children.  Genetic connection is generally under rated in our collective consciousness and in many ways can’t be appreciated until one outright looses it. 

#4 Maybe they fall into a category of people who typically get denied the privilege of adoption or at least are far less likely to get chosen by birth mothers – People who have a history of mental health issues, of chronic health issues or disease, people who are single, people who are on the “older” side (meaning, not in their thirties anymore), people who don’t make enough money, people whose 4th toe is longer than their big toe and…..well, you get the point. 

#5 They don’t have the immigration status to do the travel required from both parents for international adoption.

#6 They can’t find an international adoption situation that is workable due to the disintegration of international adoption systems in the past two decades (due to a lack of oversight and corruption).

#7 Maybe they are still in the process of grieving their children they couldn’t have (which is the healthy thing to do for all parties involved).

#8 Third party parenting isn’t right for them.  Open adoptions are the most common these days and adoptive parents who agree to an open adoption are more likely to end up getting chosen by birth mothers.  Open adoptions typically involve active contact, possibly both correspondence and in person, with birth parents and even birth grandparents.

#9 Maybe their current life situation, for whatever reason, is not the best one to bring an adoptive child into.  Maybe they understand that at the end of the day, becoming a parent is not about them but rather first and foremost it’s about the potential children involved.

#10 They’ve already fought a years long battle trying to conceive and are at their breaking point, having had all of the trauma and loss they can handle.  For the sake of their own mental and emotional health, a failed adoption is not something they can afford to risk putting themselves through.

#11 They are still reeling from the trauma of trying to conceive and are concerned about blending their own trauma recovery with meeting the needs of an adoptive child.

#12 Their mental health can’t take yet another oddessey that will impact them greatly but yet over which they have absolutely no control.

#13 After years of fertility treatments, they can’t navigate one more unscrupulous business that doesn’t have their best interest at heart.

#14 Regarding a private adoption, perhaps the PTSD trigger of having to market themselves as prospective parents to pregnant women is not in the best interest of their mental and emotional health.

#15 they don’t have the outside family support or other support systems or the kind of work life that can accommodate a child with special needs.

#16 Committing to taking a child exposed to drugs and/or alcohol in utero is not right for them.

#17 The temporary and uncertain nature of fostering will not go well with the PTSD they acquired through multiple failed fertility treatments and years of waiting for their children who never came home.

#18 Money, money and money – Did I mention money?  Adoption, unless it’s done through foster care, is EXPENSIVE.  The average cost of an Agency Adoption in the US is $39,966, for private adoptions it’s $34,309.  International adoptions can average $45,000. It’s also a financial gamble, as many adoption agencies go under and are not able to repay their clients the thousands of dollars they’ve already invested in the unfinished process.

The average person doesn’t have tens of thousands to play with, especially if one is single and/or coming out of multiple costly failed fertility treatments or some other cyclone of reproductive trauma.

So, as you can see……..just because your Aunt Mary’s second cousin’s across the street neighbor had a successful adoption doesn’t mean other people will be have the same options and luck.  Each childless person would have a bit of a different list to offer as far as why people don’t adopt, depending on whether they are childless due to not meeting the right partner in time, chronic illness, infertility or for some other reason.

Ultimately, adoption should not be brought up by those who have never had to consider it themselves.  Something that is so emotionally charged and rife with layers, delicacies and complexities is not a fit for casual conversation.  Explanations can not be conveyed in the pat and clipped responses most people seem to be looking for.

If one is still compelled to bring the topic of adoption up, it is necessary to inform oneself first.  It is not the job of people who are in deep grief over their unintended childlessness, and perhaps as well in trauma recovery from trying to conceive to explain to anyone the realities of adoption and why it’s not feasible more often than not. 

One final fact to keep in mind: The involuntarily childless are no more responsible for the parentless children on the planet than is anyone else.  We childless folks are not part of the problem.  We are, in fact, already part of the solution in that we haven’t brought a child or children into life circumstances where they cannot be appropriately taken care of.  One common thread that runs through our demographic is that many of us find ourselves here because, or at least partly because, we approached parenthood with high levels of consciousness. 

10 thoughts on “20 Reasons To Not Ask Childless People About Adoption

  • This is perhaps one of the best articles I’ve read about the contentious ‘oh, but you should JUST adopt’ comments. If I had a printer I’d print this out and then just silently hand out to those who transgress this delicate social boundary. Obviously, I’d need multiple copies. I wondered why I felt so incredibly weary when I was asked why I didn’t adopt, or the even worse ‘have you thought about adopting’ – me – ‘why no! Please tell me more about this marvelous thing called adoption!’ Of course I f**k!ng have you moron!!!!!!! You are right, it’s not my job to explain a multi layered, emotional subject to them but unfortunately if I don’t, and just walk away after giving a thin smile, I then ruminate about what they must think of me. But at least your article has given me some ammunition in the war.

    • You crack me up Lesley! Especially the image of this post being handed to people as a response. And I know, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t as far as us answering. When I wrote a draft of the chapter on why we didn’t adopt, it came out to over 6,000 words. It was then I had to reconcile that “You know what, these adoption questions are truly unanswerable”. But they are dispensed with the greatest of mindless ease! I started at one point telling people that while it’s an issue rife with complexities, we didn’t adopt for primarily emotional and financial reasons. And they still looked at me like I had 5 heads!

  • You hit the nail on the head with this post. Good job! I’ve personally started telling people who bring up fostering/ adoption that it is calling akin to the priesthood. That tends to appear to make them think. Stops the conversation at any rate.

    • That’s a creative approach! I’m laughing just picturing the bewildered looks on people’s faces. And the conversation stopping aspect of it is worth its weight in gold.

  • I used to want to educate people on the multi-faceted topic of adoption. Now I’m just tired. Plus, people aren’t very good at actually listening anyway. It’s better if I just save my energy.

    I wanted to adopt. I used to work for a foster care and adoption agency so I wasn’t going into it uninformed. I wholeheartedly believe in open adoption. But I couldn’t start that process right after all of my fertility treatments failed. My spirit had died during my years of infertility. I needed to figure out how to come alive again. Well first, I needed to figure out if I even wanted to come alive again. Then I needed to figure out how to do so. It was extremely daunting.

    So, with the welfare of myself AND any child I potentially adopted in the future, I made the conscious decision to hold off on starting the adoption process in order to first take care of myself. I decided to re-evaluate adoption in a year. But in that time, the agency I had selected (after years of research) went bankrupt. Abruptly. Basically overnight. Leaving all of the families they’d been working with penniless, childless, and hopeless. That’s when I really said no to the adoption process. Too unethical. Too heartbreaking.

    And none of that is casual conversation banter! Go figure!!

    Please excuse the lengthiness of my comment… This topic is a sore spot for me… The people that think adoption is an easy solution to loss of motherhood and childlessness are so shallow and cursory in their brief assessment of what adoption really is.

    • So much YES to this!! My husband and I really thought we’d adopt if treatments didn’t work out, and were shocked to be met with adoption’s harsh realitites. It was a lot to absorb after all we had already gone through. So different from the choked up, fate infested adoption stories that are portrayed on TV. Your comment made me wonder if the adoption issue, though tough for everyone, is not a particularly sore spot for those of us who really thought it was a feasible, likely option. Until we got there and found ourselves in completely alien and unanticipated territory.

  • As usual, I am late to comment on your post. Not because I hadn’t read it (I always do), but because I need to go away and think about it.

    I love your final paragraph! That’s rarely thought about – especially as most fertile parents say that they didn’t think about adoption because they didn’t have to.

    I always think the “have you thought about adoption” question or comment shows an extreme lack of imagination or empathy. I mean, what involuntarily childless person has NOT thought of adoption? And if we’re not pursuing it, we must have a good reason (or 18 of them!) rather than forgetting to consider it. lol

    • Thanks, Mali. It does seem absurd that people wouldn’t stop to think that there must be a whole host of good reasons why people don’t do it. The notion that those of us who wanted children but didn’t get to have them must have “missed” something is so prevalent – not to mention ironic! In thinking about it though, I can recall a few situations I was in where people knew of what I had recently gone through….situations that were otherwise fraught with judgement more so over my grief state, but where the adoption thing didn’t come up. I realize some people do stop and think “Well that wouldn’t have worked for me either”, it’s just to bad they are the distinct minority!

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