One comment. Someone made an ignorant comment about adoption, giving no thought to the consequences of his words. Hey, it happens all the time. Maybe the particular subjects of the comment were hurt, maybe not. I don’t know them. But I do know that this time, the comment was made in front of an Olympic-sized audience.
Here’s what happened: On Sunday, NBC Sports announcer Al Trautwig referred to American gymnast Simone Biles’s adoptive parents as her grandparents. In fairness to Trautwig, Biles’s father is her biological grandfather. He and his wife legally adopted her and raised her from a young age; thus, they are legally and otherwise her parents. Quite a few people, including at least one adoptive parent, pointed out this error in Trautwig’s reporting. To my mind, the error might have been forgivable. A simple, “Oops, sorry,” plus a correction could have ended the controversy there.
But that’s not what Trautwig did. Instead, he tweeted, “They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.” (Emphasis his.) After a storm of comments, interviews, and words with superiors at NBC, Trautwig apologized and deleted the tweet. But what goes out on the internet is forever—just ask my kids, to whom I’ve lectured on this topic many times. You can read about the incident and apology at the Washington Post here.
You might wonder, what’s the big deal? A sports reporter made a dumb comment, then he apologized. Over and done. Or maybe you’re inclined to say, mountain, meet molehill. Or, well, he was just clarifying facts. He didn’t intend any insult. There wasn’t anything behind what he said.
Before I explain what’s wrong with Trautwig’s comment, I want to note that I considered for a long time whether to write to condemn it. After all, Trautwig did apologize, so case closed, right? Especially in the current political and social climate, maybe we should stop looking for reasons to be angry or offended, and search instead for opportunities to give people the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think Trautwig meant to demean or hurt anyone. I’m sure he thought he was just clarifying the facts.
But as a parent by both adoption and biology, I decided I had to speak up. Because while ill intent sometimes is the catalyst for awkward or painful conversations in adoption, thoughtlessness of the type Trautwig exhibited in this instance is far more often the culprit.
Here are the problems with what Trautwig’s said: first, that “NOT” in capital letters implied that Trautwig was writing with an air of authority, when he not only didn’t understand the reality of the topic he was discussing, but he was legally and factually incorrect. Second, Trautwig issued that seemingly authoritative comment specifically to contradict an adoptive mother whose understanding of the legal and everyday reality of adoption was superior to his. Third, Trautwig apparently did not stop to think that what he was writing might have any real-life consequences, such as a young woman who ought to be free to focus on her Olympic performance being forced to defend her family in an international arena for no reason other than a reporter’s ignorance. Fourth, Trautwig didn’t seem to realize that in questioning the legitimacy of Biles’s parents as her parents, he, like so many before him, was questioning the “realness” of all adoptive families and of the adoptive parent-child relationship.
Adoptive families are called upon by relatives, acquaintances and strangers to explain how and why they’re just as real as other types of families all the time. And wow, does it get old.
When I learned about this incident with Simone Biles, I perused some of the comments on the Washington Post articles above. (I know, I broke the rule: never read the comments.) And with one categorical exception, almost all of these comments focused on the parents. The exception? The comments left by adoptees. They were the ones who wrote about what an adoptive child needs.
I believe nothing is more important than that an adoptee have someone she can call Mom(s) and/or Dad(s). Someone to fill that role or roles every single day and night. Someone to celebrate special days and wipe away tears at every childhood hurt. Someone to help with homework and drive to soccer tournaments and grit teeth through early violin practice even though the sound makes the cat claw up the furniture and celebrate every single hard-fought achievement. Someone to hold onto when he wonders if his birth parents liked to cook, too, or why her birth mother had to leave and will never come back. Because no matter how much your parents love you, you, the adopted child, will always have questions, and your parents—your real, adoptive parents—are the ones who will hug and kiss and love you, and sometimes absorb your anger, as you wrestle with bigger questions than most adults can ever understand.
But that’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s what we parents signed up for. It’s part of how we love our kids.
This is parenting in adoption. It IS parenting, and it’s parenting as much as parenting any child who derives from one’s own egg or sperm is parenting. If aspects of this parenting are a bit different from parenting a biological child, then show me a dozen different biological children from a dozen different families and I will show you a dozen different parenting stories. If there is anything we adoptive parents share, it is perhaps our weariness at having the legitimacy of our parenthood challenged, and our ache at the knowledge that as our children grow older, they will find themselves in the position of having to defend the legitimacy of their families, as if their families are not real or not as real or not as good as those families formed by biology. Would you want your child to be put in that position, time and time again? Of course not. We adoptive parents feel the same.
Simone Biles is a young woman who is also a world-class gymnast—and now, an Olympic gold-medal winner. Go ahead and interview her about her incredible accomplishments all you want. But Ms. Biles did not, by virtue of her talents, sign up for the press to question the legitimacy of her family due to the ignorance of members of that press. And she certainly shouldn’t have to answer for the rest of us. There is nothing to answer for.
Simone Biles and her parents is one version of what a real family can look like. Nothing fake about it. Has everyone got that?