A popular saying says that repetition is the key to learning. Another saying says that practice makes perfect. Both quotes have much application in many areas of life, but they are especially true when teaching children of adoption their story with appropriate adoption language. Even though we recount our sons’ stories at every stage and as their questions arise, the stories must be repeated, clarified, and sometimes rephrased. Each time I repeat it, I teach my child about adoption language.
Not too long ago, my son was asked by his friend if he remembered his “old family.” Not quite sure how to respond, Joshua asked his friend what she meant. She then clarified that she was talking about the family he had before he came here. Joshua told her that he thought he remembered a little. That seemed to mollify his friend, and they moved on to ride bikes. Later that evening, Joshua came to tell me about the conversation. While his answer satisfied his friend, it did not satisfy him. It could be that he wanted to understand his story, and so I happily told him again.
I realized that Joshua couldn’t have any memory of his birth mother. He had never had the opportunity to meet her. He left the hospital in the care of our social worker and was placed with a beautiful interim care family for a few weeks until we were identified as his parents. That being said, he has seen pictures of his interim family and even met them a few times, so he might think that is who he is remembering. It is up to me to guide his thoughts and teach him how he should respond when curious and well-meaning people ask him poorly worded questions or make rude comments. If I guide him using proper adoption language, he will be able to help his friends and others understand proper adoption semantics.
Cultivating a Positive View of My Child’s Birth Family with Proper Adoption Language
To teach him properly, I need to personally have a positive view of his birth mother. At the most basic level, she is a person just like me. She is a sinner just like me. She makes mistakes just like me. Jesus died for her just like he did me. The same is true of any birth mother and birth family anywhere. These are the basics that every adoptive child has in common regardless of the circumstances surrounding their birth and placement for adoption. When I look at my boys’ birth mothers as women who, just like me, are deeply flawed and in need of God’s grace, it is harder to judge them for their choices. Realizing these truths also helps me to speak of my boys’ birth mothers in a positive light. How I portray them is how my boys will view them.
My husband and I determined long ago the wording we would use when telling our boys their stories during their early years. They know they are adopted, but they do not always understand what that means. When we see a pregnant woman or learn that a baby has just been born, they naturally have questions about their births. At this point, we simply tell them, “Another woman carried you in her belly, but she could not be the mommy that you needed, so she chose us to be your parents, and we are so thankful that she did.” This is all they need to know at this time, and it is the most basic version of their stories while still holding to the truth. We will fill in their stories’ unique details in an age-appropriate manner as they grow. The way we speak influences the way we teach our children to believe and how they respond to questions regarding their adoption. The Bible says that “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” I can use my words to build up or to tear down. I choose to speak positively and use proper adoption language.
Adoption talk is a normal occurrence in our home. By normal I do not mean that we speak of it all the time, but that it is not uncommon for adoption conversations to arise. This is by design. My husband and I have cultivated a safe and open environment in which adoption conversations can occur. When we know someone has been adopted, we point it out to our boys so they can know that others may have similar stories. Not too long ago, friends of ours adopted a little girl. When they were in the process of adopting her and were waiting to be matched, we recounted our adoption stories to our sons to let them know what was happening in the process. We told our stories with joy and thankfulness and showed God’s hand in the forming of our little family. When the little girl came home, we rejoiced.
We normalize adoption as best we can. It may mean pausing a movie to address negative adoption comments with proper adoption language. It means keeping our fingers on the pulse of world adoption affairs and discussing them. It means being aware of our words and jests and how they affect adoptees. It means donating clothes to a local adoption agency for babies and children who need clothes. It means socializing with others who have been adopted. It always means keeping the lines of communication open so our boys can work through the concept of adoption in their minds. We hope that as our boys grow older and have harder questions that they will feel confident in coming to us with those questions. And because we have been open and honest all along, maybe the conversations about the hard parts of their adoption stories will be easier for us to tell and for them to accept.
Repetition is the key to learning and remembering adoption language
Part of normalizing adoption language is the promise we made to always speak openly and honestly about adoption and to answer our children’s questions should they arise. A frequent question arises when someone becomes pregnant or we see a new baby. It is not uncommon for one of the boys to assume that they were in my belly the same as the new little ones were in their mamas’ bellies. Here is where having a predetermined set of adoption semantics becomes very useful. I do not have to ponder how to respond. I simply repeat what I have said countless times before, “Sweetheart, do you remember that you did not grow in mommy’s belly? Another woman carried you in her belly, but she could not be the mommy to you that she wanted to be, so she chose to place you for adoption and picked your Daddy and me to be your parents. Remember, God forms families in different ways, and for ours, it was by adoption. I waited my whole life to be your mommy. You may not have grown in my belly, but I love you just the same. From before time began, God knew that you boys were going to be in our family and that I was to be your mommy.”
Knowing What Not to Say
Proper teaching of adoption language would be incomplete without the discussion of what not to say. This gets to be a bit trickier because society often uses incorrect terminology. I can combat the inaccuracies by always using proper adoption talk when I speak to my boys or anyone else for that matter. I have heard so many ludicrous statements and phrases over the years. Here are a few cringe-worthy ones that need to be addressed when they arise.
Why did his real parents give him away or put him up for adoption?
This one annoys me and the statement is wrong on so many levels. First, the term “real parents” indicates that I, the one who has taken care of him for his entire life, am not real. When my boys hug me, they feel my arms around them. When they cry, they can feel me wipe away their tears. When they wake up from a nightmare, it is me who soothes their brow. I am very much a real person. Their birthmothers are very real too, but they are not active parts of their lives at this point. They are my boys’ real birthmothers, but I am their real mother. If you do not believe me, just ask them. When Joshua’s friend asked him about his real parents, he was baffled because to him I am the only mom he has ever known. I jokingly told him that he should have told his friend that if he pinched me, I felt pretty real. I also told him that he could gently correct his friend’s wording by responding that he never had the opportunity to meet his birth mother, therefore he could not remember her.
“Give away” or “put up for adoption” are two terms that imply that the child was worthless so the birth mother did not want him or her. That is so far from the truth. In the case of my boys, both women chose life for their babies when society told them they should terminate their unexpected pregnancies. At that basic level, they were valued. Their birth mothers also chose to make an adoption plan so they could choose the family that they wanted to raise their babies. The boys were not given away or put out there for inspection. Their birth mothers took the time to look through profile books and select a family who desperately wanted children but could not have any biological ones. I realize that not all children have this part of their story, but at the very least, those children were given a chance at life. I believe that at that level, every child is a wanted child.
Did it cost a lot of money to get him?
Let me clear something up. It is illegal and immoral to sell a child in any fashion. Adoption is not a baby or child market where babies and children are sold to families who can afford them. It is vulgar to think this way and so far from the truth. Yes, money is necessary for many adoptions to be completed. All fees associated with the adoption are used for the agency and governmental services and expenses to make our sons legally and irrevocably ours forever. Many things in life have red tape and bureaucracy; sadly, adoption is no different. A child’s life is priceless and precious; there is no way to put a monetary value on it. Besides, when a person is talking about money, is it not presumptions and nosey to think that they have the right to ask about finances? I concede that unless a person plans to adopt they leave this question alone and especially never ask it in front of children. My response to the inquiring adult may be snarky, but in the effort to teach my child proper adoption language, I need to gently correct the inquirer by adding the fact that my child is priceless, and his father and I would do it all over again to make him our son. When I do this, I not only teach proper wording and concepts, but I provide affirmation and love to dispel any doubts that the rude question may have created.
Why did his mother not want him?
This is so cliché. Lifetime has done a good job of portraying adoption and birth mothers horribly. All adoption comes from a hard place, but not all birthmothers are immoral druggies who abandoned their babies. This may be the situation for some, but the truth is that I know of far more situations where the birth mother or birth parents chose adoption as an opportunity for their child to have a better life. These women and families chose to place their babies in families where they could grow and thrive. They were selfless, not thinking of the pain of separation that they would endure when their arms were empty. I have no doubt my boys will be asked this question at some point in their lives. The answer they choose to give will be entirely up to them. However, as a mother, my job is to tell them their stories— all of their stories, even the stuff that is hard to talk about. Regardless of the circumstances of their births or the decisions that led them to our family, their birth mothers chose life and chose us to parent their precious boys. They were never unwanted or unloved. However, when they mature, the details need to be shared with them. It is their story, after all. Here is where normalizing adoption talk and keeping the adoption conversation open and honest comes into play. They will know that their dad and I have always been open and honest and have allowed real conversations to follow and a proper view of birthmothers to be retained.
Do they know they are adopted?
Recently an acquaintance and I were talking about adoption. Her daughter had adopted two children, and she was very excited to meet them at Christmas. So, I in turn shared that my boys were both adopted. I was stunned when she glanced around to see if anyone was listening before leaning in to whisper, “Do they know they are adopted?” I promptly replied, “Well, of course! It is not a family secret. We talk about it openly and frequently.” However, in the case of her daughter, she did not want to talk about the adoption in any fashion. My heart broke for those children. I cannot imagine keeping the reality of their adoption a secret. There are some things that a family may consider keeping secret, but adoption is certainly not one of them. To hide it is to imply that there is something shameful about it. Adoption is beautiful. In our family, it is a badge of pride. It reminds us to look at what God did and be thankful for two amazing little boys who bring light and life to our family.
To help my son visualize his story, I used a photobook company to create a little book that tells his adoption story through pictures and carefully chosen words. My son loves it. He is the main character of the story. As I read the story to him and he looks at the pictures, it begins to solidify his story in his mind using words that we have carefully chosen. It also shows the details of how God brought him to our family. The Bible says that “every good and perfect gift comes from the Lord above.” Our boys are truly gifts from God. He knew from before time began that they would complete our family. The manner he brought them to us is unique to each of them. It is my job as their mommy to keep their stories before them and to always use proper adoption language when anything adoption-related is referenced or discussed. As my boys grow, I want them to not only know their story well but also to be able to tell others and correct improper terminology they encounter. I want them to know that God brought them to us. They are chosen. They are loved. They are treasured.