When Kim Kelley-Wagner adopted two little girls from China, now ages 13 and 7, she never imagined that her family would attract much attention. So the barrage of rude and ignorant comments she's received on a daily basis over the years has shocked her. But instead of dismissing her critics, Kelley-Wagner has created a controversial photo series starring her daughters, hoping to show others how words can hurt.
Though the 55-year-old communications director at a middle school in Charlottesville, Virginia, never married, she had always known that she wanted kids. Her life changed thanks to a tiny photo accompanying a story about Chinese orphans in Time magazine. “It was an image of six babies sitting in a circle on the floor, and one had the most serious facial expression,” Kelley-Wagner tells Yahoo Shine. “That image stayed with me.” At the time, China was one of the only countries that allowed single people to adopt, so a few years later, in 2001, Kelley-Wagner adopted 10-month-old Liliana, and in 2008, she adopted Meika, then a 2-year-old special-needs child who had a bilateral cleft lip and palate when she was born.
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“The comments began right from the start,” Kelley-Wagner says. “We would be shopping, and cashiers or store clerks would say things like, ‘How much did she cost?’ or ‘You could have bought a car for what it probably cost to adopt her.’ I would answer, ‘Are you interested in adoption?’ If they said no, I’d say, ‘Why are you asking?’ My response made them consider the impact of their words and sometimes they apologized.”
Questions and comments directed at both mom and daughters have ranged from combative to misguided. Some that Kelley-Wagner remembers include, "They hate girls from the country you come from — you know that, right?" "Why don’t you look like your mom?" "Your mom is a real saint for wanting you" "What a China doll!" "But what are her emotional issues?" and "Why would you bring more immigrants into our country?"
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“One time, I was at the mechanic and the counter guy said to one of the girls, ‘You know that’s not your real sister, right?’” Kelley-Wagner recounts. “His coworker rushed over and apologized for him. On another occasion, a bookstore clerk asked, ‘Um, does she look like her real father?’”
After fielding so many inappropriate questions and comments over the years, Kelley-Wagner was struck with an idea. “I wanted to turn this into a teachable moment, especially because I don’t want the girls to internalize this negativity.” So she asked her girls if they felt comfortable posing for photos while holding signs with the comments written out. “They were all for it,” she says. “Lily even said, ‘I think people need to know how rude people are.’ We sat down and made a list and I was surprised at how many incidents the girls remembered that I didn’t.” Kelley-Wagner titled their project, “Things said to or about my adopted daughters” and in January, she posted it on Facebook. This week it began making the rounds on the Internet after getting picked up by a few small blogs and websites.
Some see the project as exploitative. “Yesterday, a woman online said that my project was a parental fail,” says Kelley-Wagner. “But I want my kids to be aware of the ignorance in the world so they’ll know how to handle it.” She admits that it can be hard for her to stay calm at times; she doesn’t want her children to respond rudely but instead to make the other person think. “My advice to them is, leave your offenders speechless,” she says. Liliana is learning — recently, a couple approached the family and the woman remarked, "I couldn’t love someone I didn’t give birth to," to which Lily cleverly responded, "Oh, did you give birth to your husband?" before walking away. “I was proud of her,” says Kelley-Wagner.
She doesn't believe that people are being purposefully cruel; she thinks that in most cases it’s simply ignorance. “I think people are curious and don’t know any better,” she says. “Fortunately, my daughters have never questioned their place in our family or felt out of place.”
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