July 1, 2011

Use Positive Adoption Language

Nearly sixteen years ago, we welcomed an eight-month-old, blue-eyed baby girl into our lives. Her adoption is a fact that we all discussed openly and enthusiastically.

So I held my breath when our daughter told me that a classmate had asked her, “Why don’t you go back to your old parents?” When I asked how that made her feel, she blew it off with an exaggerated drawl: “Aw, she’s just thinkin’ outta the wrong side o’ her head!”

I chuckled, grateful for my daughter's perspective. And I was also thankful for the wisdom of other adoptive parents who had helped us learn how to communicate with her about her past. They encouraged us to talk openly and use positive language—vocabulary chosen to assign maximum dignity to the way our family was built.

First, we avoid saying “our daughter is adopted.” Using present tense suggests that her adoption is ongoing. When it is appropriate even to refer to her adoption, we say, “She was adopted,” describing the way in which she joined our family.

When people ask if she is our natural child, we affirm that she is — she's certainly not our unnatural child. As she has described it, “Mommy’s tummy was broken, so I grew in her heart instead.” We refer to her genetic family as her birth parents. She is not our genetic child, but she is naturally ours. And her birth mother and birth father are not her mother and father. We are.

Is our daughter “one of our own”? Certainly. We laugh when she’s funny. We discipline her when she sasses. We drag ourselves out of bed when she’s sick. We are her parents, and we love her as much as any parent could love a child. The institution of marriage demonstrates that one can love as family a person to whom he or she is unrelated genetically. My sister, the biological mother of one and the adoptive mother of another, insists that adoptive ties are as strong as genetic ones.

Today’s birth parents do not surrender, relinquish or “give up a child” to adoption, except in cases of involuntary termination of rights. Instead birth parents “make an adoption plan.” Theirs is an active, not a passive, choice. They recognize they are incapable of giving all their biological child needs for wellbeing, so they proactively choose a better life for that child. When our friends talk about this, we prefer that they emphasize the love part over suggesting our girl was abandoned.

Some prospective parents opt to adopt a child from another country. The preferred label for this is not foreign adoption but international adoption—just as we would say “international students” not “foreign students.”

We do not refer to other’s children who were adopted as their “adopted children.” They are simply their children. As author Patricia Johnston points out, we would never describe little Jimmy as Tom and Meg’s “birth-control-failure child.”

We prefer that people use this positive adoption language. Yet it doesn’t usually upset us when they don’t. We don’t expect them to know. But we do appreciate it when they listen and learn.

Each year in the United States, more than 120,000 families experience adoption, and we are among those blessed families. When I sing “God bless the broken road that led me straight to you,” I glance in the rearview mirror and smile at the girl who made us parents, the girl who grew in my heart. She is ours, but she’s not ours. She is, as are all children, on loan to us from God.

PhD candidate Sandra Glahn teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, where she is editor in chief of Kindred Spirit magazine.  She is also the author of seventeen books that include When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden (Kregel) and the Infertility Companion (Zondervan). Author Website: Aspire2