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. She is my seven-year-old recently adopted from Ethiopia. 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 waiting room that was well stocked with books and toys, 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 freak out about me choosing to leave my kids in the waiting room while going in an exam room -blessherheart- chatted with me and handed out stickers to my little ones. Another 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 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 my words were hurtful. I needed someone kind, in 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-0five 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 some 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.

Incidentally, 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.

Come self-medicate with me at www.scoopingitup.blogspot.com

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