Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What We Wish You Knew: Adoption Terminology Education

I was watching the news last night and they were covering a story about a Corrections Officer who was recently murdered. The reporter said "He was the father of an adopted son, and he and his wife also had a child of their own on the way." This kind of language is something adoptive parents encounter often. I really think it's so frequently spoken out of sheer ignorance and not malice. Language is such a powerful thing and even the slightest nuance can communicate a very different message than the one intended. Another blog I read occasionally is doing a "What I Wish You Knew" series so I thought I'd follow suit and take this opportunity to educate.

So, to that end, please allow me to share the following:

Adoption is a beautiful word that should be celebrated! In most families, adoption is not a secret and it is an integral part of a child's personality. Adoption is a positive word, should always be referred to and with accordingly, and not talked about in secretive, tentative or negative tones and terms.

However, there is a proper time and place for all discussions, including those about adoption. While "Adoption" is a beautiful word, it is not always a relevant word.

Often times folks will refer to a child as "So-and-so's adopted child" just as the reporter did last night. However, I urge you to consider this: parents do not walk around introducing their child as "my biological son Billy" or better yet "my honeymoon son Billy" or "my test tube baby Mary" or "my one night in Vegas twins." Good adoptive parents do not introduce their child as "our adopted daughter Suzy." Biological children are not qualified in introductions and how they came to join a family is usually not mentioned in passing conversation.

Likewise, how and when an adopted child was born to a family is often irrelevant to the conversation at hand. These children are no different than biological children and deserve the same courtesy paid when introducing them. While adoption is beautiful and should be celebrated, often an explanation of which children share the same DNA as whom is offered to point out difference, and that difference is often irrelevant. What matters in most cases is that Billy and Suzy are the children of John and Jane Doe. Period.

However, if distinction must be made, please consider these ideas. First, please refer to an adoption in past tense. A child was adopted. It is not ongoing. The commitment to the child has already been made and the grafting in as part of the family has already taken place and is completed, not in transition. Just as being born is a one time, past tense occasion in a life, so is adoption. A child "was adopted" rather than "is adopted." Referring to it in the present tense implies that something is unfinished. As children who were adopted can struggle with feelings of loss or a sense of "betwixt and between," reinforcing their solid, secure place in a family helps cement the message that they do belong.

When distinguishing between children biologically related to the parents, please use the term "biological children" rather than "own children" or "natural children" or "real children." Children who were adopted are their parents' own, they ARE natural (as opposed to the opposite, which is "unnatural") and they are legally, their parents' "real" children. I tend to shy away even from the term "miracle baby" because all babies are miracles-biologically related to the parents or not. Adoption is a miracle, too, just of a different sort.

The most respectful way to refer to the adoptive parents is just as the child's "parents," with no qualifiers. If a distinction must be made, "adoptive parents" is appropriate. The respectful terminology we've been taught for the adopted child's biological parents is as "birth parents" or "biological parents" (or in the case of Snowflake Adoptions, "Genetic Parents" or "Placing Parents") as opposed to the frightfully-oft spoken "real parents."

Also, the term "giving a child up" for adoption is outdated. The term harkens back to the days of Orphan Trains when children were literally held up. Terminology like this does not account for the intentional decisions made in contemporary times by a birth parent who chooses adoption out of love because he or she thinks it is best for the child. A better term is "place for adoption" or "make an adoption plan" because these terms recognize the intentionality on the biological parent's part.

I believe that honoring adoption by the deliberately choosing our language when referring to it honors all the parties involved in the adoption triad, and is in the child's best interests. Using precise language enhances both our compassion and our accuracy.

If you've said any of these things to your friends whose families were built in whole or in part through adoption, don't fret! These are things we hear dozens, if not hundreds of times and you learn to just sort of dismiss it. But I can tell you that if you make an intentional effort to use the correct terminology, your friend will notice, and will be blessed by it and appreciate the time you have taken to learn more about their family's precious dynamic.

UPDATE: The reporter wrote back! I'm so impressed. My letter to him actually contained much of what is in this post-I just copied and pasted pieces of the letter here. He was very receptive! I am very impressed. To give credit where credit is due, thanks Peter Busch from KPHO Phoenix! I look forward to your future stories about families built through adoption!

Edited to add: I realize that adoption has not always been beautiful, pleasant or respectful of all parties involved and that it is always difficult for the placing parent(s). I know there is a sad time in our history when biological parents had their children stolen from them in the name of adoption, or all but stolen. I don't disrespect the loss experienced by those people at all or legitimize the system that victimized them. I also know that there is a completely different set of rules and language when interacting with a large number of adoptions from this era and the people involved in them and that no semantics will heal those wounds.

But I firmly believe today's system is vastly different and that the majority of today's adoptions in this country are legitimate and that's the framework in which I advocate this specific language.

However, specifically because of the history of the adoption world, I encourage anyone considering adoption to always use a legitimate adoption agency and/or adoption attorney. I'd even go so far as to implore you to choose a service that also has sound services in place to protect and serve biological parents. In our Agency's case, the birth mother gets her own caseworker, whose sole responsibility is to help the birth mother make the best decision for her and the child. Sometimes that means choosing to parent, and sometimes it means making an adoption plan and the caseworker helps with both. We valued that they have staff committed exclusively to helping the birth moms so they can feel as secure and at peace about their decision as possible.

And certainly if someone's specific experience colors certain terms and they make their preference for different language known, the respectful thing to do is to use it.