Words Don’t Have to Hurt

The words people use aren’t always appropriate, but it doesn’t make them bad.

Sarah M. Baker December 10, 2014
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“Where is her real mom?” or “Why did his real mom give him up?” Sometimes the things people say to us make us cringe. We get defensive and sometimes fire back the answer with the intent to offend or belittle the person asking. We react because it causes us pain. It attacks that soft spot of infertility that not having biological children left many of us with. It may reopen a wound we thought had closed. We fear it may confuse our child. We worry about how the words of others will affect the emotions of our little ones. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. While that little rhyme might not always be true, we do have power to decide what we allow to hurt us.

One thing I have learned, and maybe it’s thanks to many friends in the adoption groups I am involved in, is that I don’t have to take everything personally. Whether I am learning directly from someone with wise insight or I am watching a very emotional parent spill their story of the words that hurt them so badly, I have found that ignorance is common out there; but our reaction to it doesn’t have to be so bad.

I grew up with divorced and remarried parents. I lived with my mom and step dad. While I called both my step dad and real dad “Dad,” I referred to them each with those prefixes attached when referencing them in conversation with other people. Calling my biological father my “real dad” didn’t diminish either of their roles. It was just the terminology that I knew and understood. I also have a stepbrother, stepsister, and half brother. They are all my siblings. I don’t have any full biological siblings, otherwise referred to as real siblings. These qualifiers I used were never meant to offend people; I can certainly see how they could, though! It was just normal language for our family and situation to help others understand the dynamics and relation to me of the people involved.

I’ve given you this example of my childhood because still today, when I hear the word “real” in combination with parent, I think biological. When I was a kid it seemed rude to call my dad my biological dad. I felt that if I called him “biological dad” it was too formal, medical, and distant. Something so proper seemed like it would reduce him to a sperm donor. I was a kid and the terms I used made sense to me.

I share this story in hopes that you will see that these questions people have about your child’s birth parents aren’t meant to offend you by the descriptive words they use. They are formed out of ignorance. Language evolves. What was once considered modern is now outdated. When you aren’t in the world of adoption, you don’t know that the rules have changed. Just as these people weren’t delivered the memo saying “given up” was swapped with “placed,” they also don’t realize the pain it might cause you when they ask about your child’s “real” parent. You want to scream from the roof tops “I am his real mom! I’m not fake!”

But come on, are they really calling you fake? Just because they don’t know that this makes you feel less value doesn’t mean they are doing it on purpose. You may correct them, but do so with the intent to help them learn, not to prove a point or embarrass them. Some people are terribly inconsiderate people that don’t see you as your child’s mother, but most of the people that say “real mom” are doing so for lack of knowing the more accepted term.

I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to educate people on modern adoption language and how word choice can be very hurtful without the intent to hurt. I find that people that are lectured on the spot may become defensive or feel very embarrassed. If you cause them to feel belittled and reprimanded, it won’t improve anything. Finding a subtle and practiced way of correcting them with a smile is a great way to help them grow. Sometimes it’s a well-meaning stranger and you can just walk away. Sometimes it’s someone you know well. If you are caught off-guard by their question because of word choice, maybe you can follow up with them later with a text, email, article, or other way of helping them learn more about how your family developed.

My son has two real moms and two real dads. None of us are fake! He has birth/first/biological parents, and he has us. So let’s cut people some slack and not jump all over their backs when they say things out of ignorance. Some say ignorance is bliss. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know any better. I do know better, but also remember when I didn’t.

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Sarah M. Baker

Sarah is a Staff Storyteller for Adoption.com and passionate about teaching others the power of open adoption. She is very active in the adoption community, where she spends a lot of time advocating as the founder of Heart For Open Adoption. She is the mom of two boys in addition to parenting her niece. She is a mother biologically and through domestic infant open adoption. Sarah promotes adoption education and ethical adoptions. She and her husband were featured on Season 2 of Oxygen’s “I’m Having Their Baby,” which tells the story of their first adoption match failing. Sarah hopes to bring her personal experience to you and help anyone who wants more information about adoption to find it with ease. Though it was once a taboo subject, Sarah hopes to make adoption something people are no longer afraid to talk about. You can learn more about Sarah and her family on her blog.


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