It was just a quick trip to the bank to do a financial transaction that required a banker and not a teller. I had a couple of my children along. We were sitting and waiting for the transaction to go through when the banker decided to make some small talk. “Are you an exchange student?” she chirpily asked my son. My son who, I must add, had already referred to me as “Mom” a couple of times during the wait at the banker’s desk. There was a brief pause in the conversation as our brains struggled to make sense of the question. I was the first to become coherent and replied, “No, this is my son, and this is my daughter,” in a tone that I felt left little room for further interrogation. The banker turned out to be tone deaf and then demanded to know when we got him. I won’t recount the rest of the conversation, but just imagine it being as much fun as the beginning.
I admit that I was a bit blindsided by this encounter. It had been a very long time since I had had anyone so directly demand an accounting of our family. I’m usually pretty good at fielding nosy questions, but for some reason, the incident with the banker was not my finest hour. Part of the reason was because my son was right there. When you have teens, it’s a fine line between politely asserting yourself and being that embarrassing mother who caused more distress than the original question. I had asserted his place in our family, and since he was not giving signs of being annoyed or distressed, I let the matter drop instead of moving into my already prepared lecture of “Appropriate Adoption Language and Interactions 101,” which was what I really wanted to do. If you don’t have much experience with adoption, you might wonder what got me so bent out of shape about this banker’s innocent questions.
This is just a day in the life of an adoptive family, and a pretty benign one at that. We’ve weathered much more egregious comments over the years. But what I want to know is why we have to weather them at all? Why should adoptive families have to figure out how to navigate comments and questions such as:
How much did you pay for her?
What’s wrong with her?
Why did her real mother give her away?
Are they real siblings?
Oh, I want to get a China doll, too!
You know, my cousin’s mother-in-law’s best friend adopted a kid, and he burned the house down.
Couldn’t you have your own kids?
Did you get a discount because he’s broken?
Your parents must not have liked you much since they went and got another one.
I could go on. And on and on. But you get the gist. These are all pretty dreadful and dehumanizing statements and questions. At least, I hope you recognize them as dreadful and dehumanizing. They call into question the value and humanity of the child who was adopted. They call into question the legitimacy of a family formed by adoption. They treat a human being as an object to be bought, given away, or replaced.
Caring about appropriate adoption language means that you care about the humanity of the people you meet. You don’t know if someone who sits across from your desk was adopted…or has adopted…or has made an adoption plan for their child. Just because you haven’t adopted doesn’t mean that you will never cross paths with someone from the adoption community.
Are we making too big a deal about this? I don’t think so, and here are three reasons why it is important to learn and use appropriate adoption language.
1. You will never accidentally hurt someone. Notice I said hurt and not offend. My children have been caused genuine hurt by thoughtless, inappropriate comments. Having others question your value as a person, your place in your family, or your parents’ motivation for adopting you touches places that have experienced deep loss. Thoughtless comments do hurt. We still deal with the effects of some comments said to my children months after the fact. This goes way beyond offending someone.
2. It shows that you care about the personhood of the people you come in contact with. This is the same motivation behind all person-first language. We think of someone as human first, and not label them as second-rate or less-than by the words we choose to use.
3. You become aware of your own biases. This one is tricky. The trouble with our own personal biases is that we often aren’t aware of them until we are on the other side. I know that when I had one or two or three or four or even five biological children, I had no idea how invisible my family was. Sure, people occasionally commented that I had my hands full, but not always, and 99.9% of the time, the comments were positive. I just assumed that this was how life was for everyone else. If it wasn’t, then surely it was because they were doing something to provoke the attention. And then we adopted, and I took my new little boy to the grocery store. It was practically the first place I took him once we were home. I arrived at the store, set him in the grocery cart, and a woman looked at me and said, “Is that your son?” I replied,”Yes,” rather proudly, because I loved him, and he was extremely cute. I was used to people agreeing with me about my children’s cuteness. Instead, she immediately began an angry diatribe about how people should adopt ‘our own’ children. I was so thankful that my darling boy still spoke very little English at that point. I also realized that since she had gone from 0 to 100 in the span of two seconds, trying to educate her or speak reasonably to her was pointless. Instead, I ran, and still to this day, when I am out with my children, I think about that encounter and wonder when the next one will come.
If you care about the people you come across and interact with, think of them as people, and treat them as you would want to be treated. Do you want people to come up to you and ask you personal questions? Then don’t do it to others. Do you want people to comment on whether you belong in your family? Then don’t do it to others. Do you believe that the world at large has a right to know everything about your private, personal story? If not, then don’t assume you have a right to someone else’s. It’s not hard. Before you say something, stop and think a moment about how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of your question or comment. If you aren’t sure of a term, ask. And remember just because the other person is a child does not mean that the rules change. If anything, be more careful about what and how you say things. Little ears are listening.