Can we talk about Adoption Language?

Potentially an iffy area…and one that people can be very fiercely opinionated about. But that makes me want to talk about it even more….this week for #WASO I want to talk about the language we use, why we use it, and the language that other people use.

“Oooh, do you anything about his/her real parents”, “So, are you going to contact your real mum”

Yeah, I think most adoptive parents and adoptees have heard something along that theme in our time, whether from our own family, friends or even relative strangers. When people who are not connected to adoption in any way, feel free to nosy about very private things, using language that most connected-to-adoption people find offensive (but not all, and that’s important for this post), it’s frustrating, and annoying. People who ask small children about their very private story and their past get my special evil eye….the eye that means ‘what the f*** do you think you’re doing? SHUT UP”

But actually…that’s not really what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about language among the adoption community, not outside it.

I will try my hardest not to say anything offensive in this post. I don’t want to upset anyone, but I also want to challenge something.

I am very grateful to my daughters “Rhea”  and “Kestrel” and also to my neighbour and friend “Annie” and to an old friend “Charlotte” for allowing me to write a little about their views and story in this post. Thanks so much, there’s no better way to illustrate what I want to say than with real examples.

This is my issue – in the last 10 years or so, there’s been a real move towards “adoption positive”  langauge. Why? Mostly because adoptive parents (and some adoptees) got fed up with strangers (who weren’t connected to adoption in any way) saying stupid things, as above. Collectively, there was a move towards “let’s educate the general public, and then everyone will feel more comfortable”. Which is great.

Except when it’s not. Or at least, especially when you get bad knock on side effects.

Me, my daughters, and pretty much every adoption-connected person we’ve ever met, has a real problem with being told what to say by other adoption-connected people. But that’s what I’ve noticed happening.

The message of ‘adoption positive’ language is suddenly “if you don’t use adoption positive lanaguage, you are talking negatively about adoption. Everyone should use it, and you have the responsibility to correct everyone who doesn’t use it, so they are educated”

Suddenly, it’s not only acceptable to correct and tell your family, friends and strangers in the playground what language to use…it’s semi or completely acceptable to tell other adoptive parents and adoptees what language they should use. About their own lives and situations.

This is what I have an issue with. Usually because I’m the one on the recieving end of well intentioned ‘education’.

We all choose our own language, based on our own experiences, and lives, and on what sounds best when said aloud, what we associate certain words with etc. We choose what works for us. Whether that’s the words we choose to refer to sets of parents, or any other kind of adoption language.

If you’re an adoptive parent, or adoptee (or mother/father whose child has been adopted), why did you choose the laanguage you use. I expect it sounds right, and you think it describes your life and situation accurately or mostly accurately. Same with me :)

Here’s what I want everyone to know – I respect your language choice. Whatever it is. If you use birth parent, first parent, life parent, natural parent, real parents, whether you say ‘I am adopted’ or ‘I was adopted’, whether you are ‘in reunion’ or ‘making contact’, whether you are happy to call yourself an ‘adopter’ or think it sounds horrible and disrespectful…you chose your language for a reason. It fits your life best. And I respect that.

In return, please respect the language I use. Because I use it for a reason, and it fits my life the best!

Let me give a big example. ‘Was’ versus ‘is’ adopted. According to PAL (positive adoption language), saying that somebody ‘is adopted’ is negative, and we should all say everyone ‘was adopted’. I know plenty of people who only use ‘was adopted’ and I respect that. “Annie” included. She doesn’t see adoption as a daily happening in her life, she doesn’t really think about it often, so she says she ‘was adopted’. I totally respect her choice of language.

The thing is, I don’t share Annie’s experience. And I say that my children “are adopted”. Rhea says ‘I am adopted’ the majority of the time, Kestrel always says ‘I am adopted’.

If you use ‘was adopted’ exclusively, you may be wondering why I use that, because you may think ‘is adopted’ can only be a negative thing to say. Well, I’ll explain.

Rhea was adopted when she was 8, by a married couple. Less than a year in, the adoption disrupted. It was never finalised, but we all say ‘adopted’ because we think it most accurately described what was going on. It was never intended to be a foster placements, and that’s not how everyone was acting.

I was told about and adopted a 10 year old girl who ‘was adopted less than 2 years ago, but it sadly disrupted’.

I raised a girl who would tell people, “I was adopted when I was 8 but they put me back in care, and now I am adopted by ‘Wren’, she adopted me when I was 10″

I have supported several people going through adoption disruption, or who have thought about it

In my brain, ‘I was adopted’ is very linked to the idea of disruption. Annie (who was adopted) was the first peron who ever said to me ‘I was adopted’. The very first time it happened (she didn’t tell me about having been adopted until I became an adoptive mum), my immediate thought was, “she was adopted, like Rhea was? How awful for her, no wonder she’s never mentionned anything adoption related before” Then I realised that I’d met Annie’s mum and dad, and they certainly didn’t seem like foster parents, so I asked for clarification, and realised what she was actually saying.

For me and Rhea, and us only, she is adopted. She is adopted like she is married. It happened on a certain date, and the legal order is still in force and exists. She was adopted yesterday, I am her adoptive mum today, she will still be an adoptee tomorrow. It will not end. If she was adopted…then to her, that means she isn’t adopted any more. It was…it is no longer. Same with my other two, although if either of them decided to change what they say, I would respect that and not say to them ‘You are adopted’.

And yet, every so often, in ‘real life’ or on a forum, the subject comes up, and several people feel the need to explain that what I am saying is wrong. Because…..because why? It feels wrong to you? Okay, I totally get why you might personally dislike the term, and wouldn’t use it about your own life. But actually, I have every right to choose what language to say, can you please respect me and my children in return? I’m not being negative, nor is Rhea/Kestrel, we are just being honest about our own situation.

“Charlotte” was adopted in the ‘bad old days’ when homestudies/checks were pretty pathetic and had little hope of weeding out unsuitable parents. Her adopters were emotionally unavailable and physically/sexually abusive. She has since reunited with her real mum, and whilst they aren’t one great big happy family and have their own challenges, her mum sure isn’t an abusive woman. As you might have gathered, Charlotte chooses the language, ‘my real mum, ‘I was adopted’, ‘X and Y, my adopters’. And yes, I respect that. And yes, when talking to Charlotte about her own life (not my life or my childrens adoptions), I use her language, and I say ‘your mum’, ‘your adopters’, ‘reunion’ and ‘when you were adopted’.

What I aim for, and what I genuinely think should happen in the adoption community, is respect for other choices. That doesn’t mean we should use their language to talk about our own lives. But I think we should use others language to talk about thier own lives. For instance, when talking to Charlotte, I would never dream of saying ‘your birth mum’ to her. It would be a really rude thing to do, IMHO. The last time Charlotte spoke to Rhea however, she asked Rhea ‘I know this is really nosy and you know, feel free to tell me to f*** off, but have your birth parents ever tried to contact you?’. She said ‘your birth parents’ because that’s how Rhea often describes her birth parents. Likewise, Rhea says ‘how’s your mum?’ to Charlotte, because that’s accurate.

That’s what I mean by respect. I call my kids birth/first parents by the language they and i choose, and when I meet another adoptee/adoptive parent and the topic comes up, I refer to their or their childrens birth parents by whatever language they so choose.

At the risk of upsetting someone….as a minimum…can we all strive to resist the urge to “correct” other people? I really, truly dislike it when someone online tells me that only the term ‘birth parent’ is acceptable, I really resent anyone saying ‘parents should always say my kids were adopted, it’s far better’. And yet, the people who said that, weren’t saying it out of any bad intent, only the best intentions. But perhaps they didn’t consider that maybe we all have a good reason for saying what we did?

Charlotte can’t stand it when she says tell people about her adopters and real mum, and someone replies “but you’re adoptive parents ARE your real parents”. She usually says ‘actually they aren’t’, but once while I was with her, someone pushed the issue, and she got pretty angry and told them what happened to her, and that “if you think child molesters are real parents, that’s your lookout, I think that’s a disgusting attitude”. It resulted in silence, a red face, and a ‘sorry’. Unsurprisingly. But she should never have needed to get angry. Truly, the other person should have left it and said nothing, and referred to Charlotte’s mum as ‘your mum’.

Annie has two real parents and two birth parents

Kestrel has two mums

Rhea has me (“you’re my true mum, Wren”) and two ‘people who gave birth to me’/’birth parents’

Charlotte has two adopters and one mum

My kids are adopted

Annie was adopted

Because it’s our lives, and no one set of words exists which could ever describe the lives and experiences of everyone who is adoption-connected in this world.

My readers – I repect your choice of language. I truly do. Can you repsect mine? Can you respect Charlotte’s? By which I mean – if ever you hear an adoptive parent or adoptee use a certain phrase or word you personally dislike…will you think very carefully before saying anything, or even indicating any feelings of discomfort? Because they probably have a reason for saying what they do.

All holds off for that stupid nosy so and so, who just asked, “Ooh, is your Daisy’s real mum a druggie then??!”

This is only about language within our community, it doesn’t apply to them :D

And if you are NOT an adoptive parent, or adoptee, or birth/first/natural mother, and are just reading this out of interest, maybe you are now thinking ‘what languge should I use then???’. Well, if someone brings it up, use their language back at them, they’ll probably be most happy with that. If you ever want to bring it up, firstly ask yourself ‘is this appropriate, or is it too nosy’ but if you ever truly need to, always avoid the terms ‘real parents’ UNLESS the adoptee/adoptive parents says it to you, like Charlotte might (and no, she’d never shout at you if you innocently asked her about her birth mother, without realising what terms she prefers). Usually, ‘birth parents’ is the safest term to use, because most people find it appropriate and most people use it themselves, so I recommend always using that if unsure. Was/is adopted…um..honestly, both of those terms are used frequently and there’s no way to predict what the other person uses, so pick either of them, and modify your language of they gently correct you.

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7 thoughts on “Can we talk about Adoption Language?

  1. Great post and as you often do, you have the cogs of my brain whirring. I’m trying to think what our language is because I’ve never really worried too much about it before. However I totally agree with you about respecting peoples choices over the words and language they use, at that people can be so rude about those choices makes me cross. For us, I will probably listen a little closer to the language of my children and ensure i’m mirroring it for them but only really draw attention to it if they show some concern.

    Thanks for sharing your post on The Weekly Adoption Shout Out.

  2. Great post. I was adopted, but I don’t get upset by people saying “I am adopted.” :)
    I do get weary of the “real mom” questions. As a child I was asked “When did you know you were adopted?” and I said back “When did you know you were born?” I wasn’t trying to be fresh. It made perfect sense to me.

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