My husband and I ran into an old friend, a lesbian who was surprised to see us pushing a stroller. (Our daughter was conceived with the help of a surrogate last year.) I understand that straight couples have been dealing with this question for eons, but it was our turn to be surprised when the friend asked us point-blank, "How much did she cost?" I didn't know how to answer, but my husband replied tartly that, "We didn't buy her!" Then he stalked off angrily. I'd like to have a good answer for this kind of question when it comes up again, especially as the baby gets older and can understand the conversation. She's not an accessory!
This is one example of bad manners over which LGBT parents can commiserate with straight ones -- any family formed through assisted fertility, adoption or other nontraditional methods seems to be a regular target for intrusive questions. Nobody would ever ask a biological mom how much her Cesarean cost or how much her out-of-pocket expenses were for a week of neonatal ICU for her preemie. But let anyone know you adopted or used a gestational surrogate or egg donor, and people feel entitled to ask the price tag. Of course, part of the problem is that there's still a novelty aspect to same-sex parents with kids that surprises and flummoxes even our LGBT friends.
There are really two different faux pas going on in a question like the one your friend asked: first, she referred to your child as a possession (even if that wasn't her intent), and second, she asked a way-too-personal question about your financial life. It makes sense, then, that you tackle both in your reply.
One lesbian mom I know says she uses the "incredulous stare," which literally means, "How dare you?" in response to over-the-top questions. "Sometimes that alone works to make someone realize how inappropriate the question is," she says. "At the very least, it can prompt them to stammer out something like, 'I mean, I know adoption is expensive...' And if nothing else, it turns the topic away from my child being a commodity and back to being just a rude question about money."
Of course, you're not obligated to answer such probing queries at all, and can instead say, "I'm sorry, we don't answer questions that are so personal." Keep in mind, though, that your answer is an opportunity to help teach your nosy friend something about nontraditional families, as well as about manners, so thinking of it as an opportunity instead of an affront may help.
As for your husband's stalking off in a huff, "being angry is not useful," says Dr. Jane Aronson, a New York pediatrician specializing in international adoption (and a lesbian adoptive mother herself). "When dealing with these private issues about family creation, education of those who are curious should be the goal. Sometimes humor works well. I have often turned to people in public who have asked me indelicate questions about my adopted children within earshot of my children, and said, 'So how much money do you make yearly?' Or, 'How many times a week do you have sex?'"
As you mention, your daughter will someday be listening to these conversations, so you're smart to be thinking about how to respond appropriately for her ears as well as your nosy friend's. A young child might be confused by the whole exchange, but children of almost any age understand when a parent steps up to protect them. And that's an important lesson to start teaching from day one.
"If my children are listening intently, I actually tell the person that this is not respectful to my children -- and I say it very gently," says Dr. Aronson. "Then I talk to my children after such a moment to help them understand what happened." Dr. Aronson also finds this a good time for a parent to reinforce to their children that some things are private and not for public discussion at all.
You and your husband will probably get more questions like this as the years go on, so you might want to have a conversation about how best to react, so your child hears a consistent response. Don't criticize your husband for his huff this time, but practice some well-mannered responses for the future.
This column originally was published on Advocate.com.
Steven Petrow is the author of the just-released Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Life and can be found online at gaymanners.com.