How We Talk About Adoption in Our Family

I feel like a post of this kind needs a few prefaces. First of all, picture that we are having this conversation on my living room love seat. I'll take your coat as you slip off your shoes. I'll hand you a warm mug of steaming coffee with a plate of goodies on the coffee table as you sink back and curl up into the pillows (I love a good throw pillow about as much as I love coffee!) We'll look each other in the eyes and speak lovingly as we try to figure this thing out.

Secondly, I need you to know that I love to give people the benefit of the doubt. I realize that most are nicer than they sound. Most of the time the way that we speak about adoption is simply how we have heard other people speak about adoption. Really, I get it. Only 2% of the population has been impacted by adoption so for most people it's something that has affected "other" people and have never had to think critically about how they speak about adoption. And I've entered into most conversations with people as they say, "Well you know what I REALLY mean."

And here's the thing: most times I do. I know what's in your heart. I know that you are loving, empathetic, generous, and thoughtful. I know that you believe that family comes from attachment and commitment and love, not solely from the sharing of DNA. I know that you believe there are no qualifiers, no second class family members.

I know that. But I've also come to realize that hearts change before language changes. And it wouldn't be such a big deal except......little ears are listening. Precious little ears that mean the world to me. Little developing ears are soaking up what is said about them and how they came into their family. I know that the way other people talk about us can shape our perception of ourselves and our place in our family and world. Language is powerful. So let's all get on the same page and use language to accurately reflect what's in our hearts :) Here we go:


What we say: Parents / Child
What we don't say: Adoptive Parents / Adopted Child / Adoptee
Why: There are no qualifiers in our family. While adoption might accurately describe the process by which we became a family it is not our primary label. You don't call other people "The daughter we didn't plan on having," "Our son through fertility treatments." Most of the time labeling someone is meant to set them apart as a way of identification. In our family, our primary roles and identification remain the same as most families.

What we say: Was Adopted 
What we don't say: Am Adopted
Why: Adopted is a past tense verb, not a present tense adjective. It's a small grammatical shift that identifies a huge shift in meaning. It describes an act that happened, where we were brought together as a family, not a label to continually carry through every interaction in life. Adopted is one and done. Done. Forever.

What we say: Birth Parents / First Parents / Biological Parent
What we don't say: Real Parents/ Natural Parents
Why: This falls under the category of "just what people have always said." And while it might take a conscientious effort to change the terms you use, it clearly and accurately describes the relationships in our family. Nathan and I are the real parents and calling us anything other than that might invite doubt or confusion or fear into our place in the lives of our children. (Birthparents are really parents too and have a special sacred place in our family.) 

What we say: Placed for Adoption / Made an Adoption Plan
What we don't say: Gave Up for Adoption/ Gave Away
Why: While it's okay to acknowledge the loss and grief involved in making an adoption plan, we don't use passive terms. Placing a child for adoption is an active, thoughtful, selfless act that takes lots of meetings, planning, and care. In most modern adoptions, birth parents (dads too!) take an active role in seeking out the family they want for their child. We want to use empowering language that accurately describes the dignity and effort of selfless love needed for a child to be placed for adoption.

What we say: Decide to Parent a Child
What we don't say: Keep a Child
Why: Family isn't about possession. We don't want to use language that polarizes Parents "versus" Birthparents. It's not about who "gets" whom. It's about placing a child in the best situation for him/her. Often times that's a decision best left to birthmothers (with support from lawyers and Social Workers) who are the experts on their circumstances, resources, and goals.

What we say: Family Day 
What we don't say: Gotcha Day
Why: This is related to what we talked about above. We don't want to use terms of possession when we speak of family. It's about celebrating the love and commitment of family not "getting" someone from someone else.

What we say: Unexpected Pregnancy/ Unplanned Pregnancy
What we don't say: Unwanted Pregnancy/ Crisis Pregnancy
Why: Even in the most traumatic circumstances, I believe that every child is a wanted child. Making an adoption plan for your child isn't a matter of desire, it's about circumstances that impact your ability to parent. Ask yourself: How would I feel if I heard my coming into the world described as "unwanted" or a "crisis"?

What we say: Biological Child
What we don't say: Child of Our Own
Why: Because, really, even when children don't come through our bodies, they are our own. Forever. And because I'm sure you want to join us in sending the consistent message to our children that they have a solid, sure commitment in our family. Forever. 

Other things to avoid: Jokes where adoption is the punch-line.
What's underlying in these jokes is the assumed understanding that coming into a family any way other than birth is something to be make fun of.

So there ya go. How we talk about adoption in our family. I know that when I challenge words, terms, and labels that have been used for generations to describe adoption there is often defensiveness and push back. It's not anything personal. Truly. It IS about what is best for our children. Advocating for their place in our family and for their developing self concept is something I'm committed to. I'm sure you agree. And know that you know, we can be in on it together.


chad adelmund said…
This is very true! Thank you for sharing :)
mom said…
What a beautiful and thoughtful way of convey this message! Love you all so much!