I was standing at the checkout counter of Oshkosh on Black Friday of last year. I had a pile of size 4T and 5T on the counter and the woman bagging up my purchases naturally asked, “Are these for your children? How many do you have?”
Whenever I answer that question, there is always a follow-up. I refer to my two youngest as “I have two 5-year-olds,” which always begs the follow-up, “Oh, so you have twins?” And of course, my response is, “No, they are not twins. They were adopted from two different parts of Ethiopia and are about two months apart.” And with that, the conversation on adoption always begins. I have a photo on the lock screen of my phone showing all four of my children, and it has been a handy way to explain to those I am talking to the ages of my people and how we all came together as a family.
Unfortunately, more often than not, the smiling follow up from the person I am speaking to is, “Oh! They are SO lucky to have you!” or, “How wonderful that you saved them!”
It is this kind of language that is inaccurate, hurtful, and uneducated. One could make the case that ALL children, regardless of how and where they were birthed are “lucky” to have their parents. But how does it sound to my two 5-year-olds when that kind of statement is made in their presence? Or worse, when all four of my children are standing there? Is one life more important than the other? Are two of these children “luckier” than the others? As my younger two children grow older, are they supposed to feel a sense of greater gratitude for their parents than my older two children? No, no, and no.
I have found that the best way to change the language of adoption is to gently correct and educate while in the moment, most often with strangers. Instead of agreeing that yes, they are lucky to have us, I turn it around. “Well, we are so lucky to have them! Our family is blessed to all be together.” Simple, short, and accurate. All children are a blessing, regardless of how they are grafted into a family.
Not everyone has the blessing of that perspective, however. The young woman who was bagging up my purchases that day was very young, probably 18 or 19. She wasn’t saying anything hurtful. She was engaging in a conversation about something that, to her, was probably a little different. She, herself, told me that she had never met someone who had adopted internationally. Her gut reaction and follow up response was that of an adult swooping in and “saving” a baby.
When we change the language surrounding adoption, we change the mindset of adoption. And slowly, we can change the world of adoption. It starts small, with everyone we meet who comes into contact with our children. Gently correcting and educating. For all we know, those we are talking to have never met someone who has adopted. Or been adopted! We may be their first experience in that world.
I have also found that it is good to have a few go-to statements. Sometimes adoption-related conversations may catch us off-guard, and it is great to have some ideas ready to go. I now know what to say when someone exclaims that my children are so lucky I adopted them. I know what to say when someone asks why we adopted internationally instead of right here in the United States. It took some time to get those ideas into my personal adoption lexicon, but now I am ready to go! I am ready to educate and gently change the language.
Remember: when you change the language, you can change the world.