Positive Adoption Language: Why It's So Important

Words have the power to shape the way we feel about things. The words we choose when we talk about adoption affect us all, whether we are adoptive parents, birthparents, adopted children, or anyone else whose life is touched by adoption-and that includes just about everyone.

When we talk about how a flower smells, we can use the word "fragrance" or we can use the word "odor." Both words mean "scent," and describe a characteristic of flowers, but most of us would rather receive a bouquet of flowers with a fragrance than flowers with an odor.

The words we use when talking about adoption carry significant emotional freight. And nowhere is it more significant than when describing a child who came into his family through adoption.

I have two teenage sons, one whom I gave birth to and the other whom I adopted. Just yesterday (Mother's Day!) my very intelligent, very sensitive yoga teacher asked me which one of my children was my "real" child. A decade ago, I would have lambasted her in the guise of educating her about adoption. Yesterday, I just smiled and said, "They're both my real children." She thought about it a moment, and said, "Oh, yes, of course!"

All of our children are real regardless of how they came into our families.
When we talk about "natural" children or "real" children, "real" parents or "adoptive parents" we are using a mindset where biology is the highest form of relatedness. When we call children we adopt our "adopted children" while calling children we give birth to our "own" children we are again implying that biology trumps everything. Wouldn't it be better if we just called children "children" without using all these adjectives?

We often call a pregnant woman considering placing her child a "birthmother." Not too long ago many people realized that a pregnant woman doesn't become a birthmother until she places her child in his new parents' arms. By calling her a "birthmother" before this happens, we are defining her through the eyes of hopeful adoptive parents rather than who she actually is-a woman with a difficult decision to make.

Have you heard someone use the phrase "she put her child up for adoption"? This expression comes from the days of the "Orphan Train," when orphans were taken out of cities in large numbers and brought to the Midwest by train so that farmers could put them to work on their farms. Some of these arrangements worked out well for the children and some did not. These children were cheap labor then, and a formal adoption did not always occur. The children were literally "put up" on wooden platforms near the town's train station so that farmers could look them over and choose the children who looked the strongest and healthiest.

Today, we avoid using the language of the Orphan Train days. Now, a pregnant woman "places" her child or "makes an adoption plan" for her baby. And, adoptions are legal and permanent, rather than informal arrangements.

We need to stop ourselves and others from talking about birthmothers "surrendering" or "giving up" their children for adoption. This makes it seem like they are criminals who must return children they have no right to raise. The days of stigmatizing unwed pregnant women are over! While throughout the fifties and sixties these women were hidden from society, they are now active participants in the adoption process.

Have you heard the trinity of birthparents, adoptive parents, and adopted child referred to as an "adoption triangle"? Triangles tend to be problematic: Consider a "love triangle," which is three people tugging at one another's heartstrings in a dysfunctional way. We need to call a birthmother, adoptive parents, and child an "adoption triad." A triad is defined as a "union or group of three." (Though in reality, there may be more than three people in an adoption when adoptive parents and both birthparents are part of the equation.) This is more positive adoption language since it involves a union of people who are working together to do the best thing for the child.

It's also time we stop calling our child's birthmother "the birthmother." Automatically placing the word "the" before birthmother creates distance between this woman who entrusted her child to you and the child himself.

People often ask me, "Do you know who the birthmother was?" I answer, "Yes, her name is Barbara." This puts my son's birthmother squarely in the present (which is where she belongs as she is neither dead nor forgotten) and tells the questioner that she is a real person with a real name.

Someone I know used to call her child's birthmother "the nice lady who gave you to us." Yikes! A birthmother is a birthmother, and the sooner we use this word with our children the better.

Recently, someone I know asked me if I thought there was a "language of adoption." Yes, there is, some of it is fractured, some of it is fabulous. It's a language we can all learn if we listen carefully and practice frequently. And we all have what it takes to become fluent!

Carolyn N. Berger, LCSW, is AFA's Adoption Coordinator. She has a private practice specializing in Infertility, All Family Building Options, & Adoption.