When talking about adoption, have you ever considered the language you use? As an adoptee, I have heard, and continue to hear, some very insensitive terms regarding my adoption. I have spoken with adoptive parents, biological parents, and adoptees who have experienced this as well. Believe it or not, there is an entire adoption vocabulary. These are important terms that I would encourage you to learn, especially if you are considering adoption.
I was adopted at birth, 25 years ago. At this time, the internet was budding and adoption information was beginning to become more accessible. Unfortunately at this time, information was still very limited. I did not know I was adopted until I was 8 years old. When I found out, the information spread through my community. And naturally, other children had questions for me. The main question was, “who are your real parents?” As a young child, this question was bothersome. I understood what people were asking, but I did not like the way they asked it. I typically would respond with answers like “I don’t know;” or, when I was feeling snarky, “My REAL parents are Thomas and Kelly!” (Those are my adoptive parents’ first names.) The term I prefer to use, as do many other adoptees, is biological parents or birth parents.
It took me a long time to figure out why the term “real parents” was a bothersome statement. If my real parents are my biological parents or birth parents, what are my adoptive parents? Are they not real? Was my childhood not real? Was my family fake? Well, of course, it was not! As a kid, I would try to explain this to other kids. Usually, they would laugh and say “you know what I mean.” Well yes, I did. But it did not make it any less rude or hurtful. The lack of education surrounding the topic in my community was apparent. It was especially surprising in my Christian community where so many children were also adopted. This is something that has been troubling me my entire life. I want people in my community to understand adoption better, and I think that starts with language.
You can only begin to imagine how the term “real parents” would hurt my adoptive parents. This phrase completely delegitimized our entire family: A family that they had struggled and fought to create. I’ve heard my mother say things like “do fake parents change diapers? Do fake parents give baths, feed, and clothe a child?” Well, of course not. My adoptive parents are as real as any other parents. How your children come to you does not make you any more or any less of a parent. I understand that the majority of people who have referred to my biological parents as “real parents” have meant no harm. But I still want to encourage people to use the right terms.
There is nothing wrong or harmful in distinguishing between adoptive and biological parents when speaking on the subject of one’s adoption. I like to use the term birth rather than biological. Birth feels a little less medical to me. But, either birth or biological is fine. These terms simply state the facts of the matter. The word “real” insinuates so many unnecessary things about one’s parentage.
Another term I hear thrown around in the adoption community is “children of our own”. If you do not think about it, you might think this is harmless; but I would encourage you to read it from an adopted child’s perspective. Many times as a child growing up, I would hear people ask my parents, “do you want any children of your own?” My parents were typically pretty quick on their feet and would say “this one is our own!” referring to me. And then, of course, the questioner would say “you know what I mean!” Time and time again, adoptees and their adoptive parents have to defend their families.
Again, saying “children of our own” delegitimizes adoption. It gives the overall impression that adoption creates fake families. Children who are adopted into a family are their parent’s children! We are not any less of a member of the family because of our adoption. I recently had a friend of mine tell me that she and her husband would like to have a few children of their own and then try to adopt. I tried to explain to her that all of the children would be her own, regardless of their biology. The right way to distinguish—when necessary— between adopted children and biological children is just that. Biological children and adopted children. All are equal members of their families regardless of how they came to join.
Another common misspeak in adoption is “gave up for adoption.” My birth mother did not give me up, or give up on me. She chose life for me, protected me, and fought to place me in a loving home. I have also heard people say “put up for adoption” as if the child is a kitten or a puppy. Adopted children are placed or in some cases, relinquished into adoption. We are placed from one family to another. I often, as a child, would be asked “why did your birth mom give you up?” Well, she didn’t. She thoughtfully and carefully chose my family and placed me in their care.
I have heard birth mothers referred to as birth mothers before they place their children for adoption. This kind of language can be hurtful too, as it implies that parenting their children can never be considered. I cannot personally speak on this, but I know of many women who have been upset by being called a birth mom before their child is born. Birth mothers are not birth mothers until their children are placed into the adoptive family, and the relinquishment of parental rights has been signed away. I am thankful to have grown up in an adoptive home with parents who understood the importance of adoption language. Nearly 25 years ago, there were not many resources for adoptive parents, but mine still understood the need to use the right words. Words matter and they can be harmful, especially to small children trying to understand something as complex as adoption. I do not have any adopted children, but I do have three biological children. I am in a reunion with part of my birth family and navigating the topic with my three little kids can be tricky. I am trying to teach them proper language so they can best understand the conversation better. I also want to give them the proper tools to approach and converse with other adopted people in the world. It is so important to me that they don’t accidentally harm someone with their words like many children did to me when I was growing up. Adoption language can be a tricky subject to navigate. I hope that by learning the proper terms and phrases, we can all begin to unravel the complexities of adoption in their entirety. I hope that people considering adoption will turn to those who have adopted before them and learn the best ways to speak about adoption.