Sunday, June 2, 2013

The language of adoption

I've seen many lists of things you're not supposed to say to adoptive families. Don't say "is adopted" because it implies that adoption defines our relationship; say "was adopted" instead. Don't ask if our boys are brothers, because even if they weren't biologically related, the adoption would have made them legally related. Don't ask me if I have or want "my own kids" because these are my kids even if I didn't birth them. Don't ask about their "real family" because it implies that our family is not real.

Honestly, none of these phrases and questions bother me. I don't expect the general public to have given that much consideration to the language of adoption. And I understand the thought behind the words. When you ask about our children's "real family," you are not passing judgment on the realness of our family, you're just asking about the family they came from and you lack the approved vocabulary. More importantly, these words don't do any harm to our boys. Their "real family" i.e. their family in Ethiopia is after all a real family, too. So you're not insulting them by calling them "real" and that's really what matters to me - that our boys' history and family is respected.

I also feel that if you're going to adopt transracially, you need to expect these phrases and questions. You can't let yourself get upset every time a little kid asks, "Why are you different colors?" Why not just have an answer ready, use it, and move on. When very young children ask me why I'm "pink," I tell them that mommies come in all different colors. Some mommies have brown skin and are called "black," some mommies have skin like mine and are called "white," and some mommies have blue fur and eyes on the top of their heads and like to eat cookies - wait, that's Cookie Monster! See what I did there, I gave them the basic message that families come in different colors and then I changed the topic to a silly, preschool level and from there we can talk about Sesame Street characters. And really, this is not about the child who is asking; this is about the child who is listening, my child. He heard me affirm our family, heard me take the question in stride, and heard me start a much more interesting (in his opinion) topic. I'm modeling for him what he can do - answer the question in a way that shows pride in our family and then move on.  I've practiced this with him, too.

If an older child asks me why we're different colors, I may give a variation of "mommies come in all different colors," or I may say that I adopted my children and that I'm white because I came from Europe and they're black because they came from Africa. Then I'll ask the child a question, again to move on to another topic. I have witnessed A giving much more information about his personal history, and I've told him it's fine if he wants to do that, and it's also fine if he wants to answer like I do. My point is that we don't need to let these questions bother us.

But. There are some words that do bother me. One is when adoptive families say "coming home." First of all, it doesn't make any sense. If you ask me when we moved to Pennsylvania, you say, "When did you move to Pennsylvania?" not "When did you come home to Pennsylvania?" I didn't live here before, so how could it have been my home? Same with our boys coming to the U.S. Secondly, there is the implication that they should have been with our family all along. They belonged with us, and finally, after some unfortunate delay, they made their way "home." That is backwards. They belonged with their first family - you know, their real family - and then because of almost unimaginable loss, they came to us. Don't dismiss their history by saying they came home. (I also have a little bit of an issue with "birthparents," "birthmother," and "birthfather." If a child's first parents truly ended their involvement with the child's birth, then the phrase makes sense. Our children's family had, and continues to have, a much bigger role than just birthing them. Just say "father," "dad," "mother," "mom," "grandma" etc. I can figure out who you're talking about.)

The other thing that bothers me is when people ask what happened to the boys' family. I don't mind if the person asking is a close friend, or someone offering a resource, or an Ethiopian showing concern for their fellow Ethiopians. It's when people ask out of morbid curiosity. I had a woman at one of A's baseball practices ask me if my kids had experienced any trauma, "because my friend adopted two children from Chad and their mother was raped and murdered in front of them... Did anything like that happen to your kids?" Seriously? In what possible scenario would that question be OK? Do you approach people and ask them if their loved ones are being abused or dying of cancer just to, you know, make conversation and get a juicy bit of gossip for the next game? (And why did this friend share this information about her children? And does she know that it's being casually passed on?) This question bothers me because the thought behind the words is unkind. The thought is that our children deserve less respect and less privacy because they came from somewhere else. That their lives are weird and sensational. That you and I are on the same team so we can share this gossip, but my children are the other, so they can be gossiped about.

This post has turned out much longer than planned. What I meant to say was that the words people use don't really matter. If you ask me how long ago our kids left their "birthparent" to "come home" I might tell you the words I prefer, but I won't be offended. But if you treat my kids as something other than two real children with complicated lives that include families and history in two countries, then I'm going to walk away from you, and I'm not going to bother explaining why. Because while I am willing to teach you the words, it is not my job to teach you to be kind.

23 comments:

  1. I love your thoughts here. I'm totally going to use your Cookie Monster segue - what a great way to answer a question and shift the topic in an age-appropriate way!

    I think adoptive families use different terms depending on the circumstances of their adoptions. For example, I do say things like "she came home." But our daughter didn't have a home in Ethiopia. If she had, I'm almost certain I wouldn't feel comfortable using that terminology. (I do find myself saying "she joined our family" instead of "she came home" more and more... so maybe it's something I'm naturally shifting away from anyway.) And I use the "birth family" term as well, but again in her circumstances I feel it's appropriate. However, I find that when I am talking with other Ethiopian APs, I don't use the "birth" prefix when talking about her family. We all seem to understand what - and who - we're talking about. The challenge is the rest of the world, who for the most part is not familiar with the notion that one child can have more than one family.

    I think it's important to speak up if we hear terms or thoughts that are offensive, or if we think we can provide some simple education that might be helpful to others. But, as you note, some things are just not worth engaging in at all. The example you gave is a prime example of why we should all hold our kids' stories close to our hearts. I imagine the parent who shared that information never guessed that it would become sideline conversation at a baseball practice... but unfortunately that's exactly what can happen when important, private information is shared and you no longer control it. How utterly terrible for those children, to have that sensitive information broadcast like that.

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    1. Thanks, Kelly! I agree about educating when we can if it's a simple thing like, "I prefer this wording." And of course each family will have different preferences on wording. But when it's just disrespectful... our duty is to our children, not to the thoughtless people at the park.

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  2. So well said. thank you. I too am not offended by most of the questions; I get it. When I respond I always incorporate my preferred language. I think this is SO important; not just to 'teach' the person asking the question, but also for my kids who hear what I say in response. How our kids see us react is critical--b/c they don't miss a thing!. REcently we were at a bakery and my son began telling the staff about all his brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. This made me really happy b/c he's getting more comfortable and confident in the make up of his extended family.

    Great, great post!

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    1. That is great that he felt comfortable doing that. A credit to your parenting.

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    2. Oh, I wish the boys were this comfortable talking about it. Honestly I think I've made them feel too "secretive" by making it their story rather than my own, and, well, I really regret that. But I'm not sure how to move forward now. It still really IS their story to tell. They're just not ready to tell it. (Giant segue from your original post, by the way. Sorry, Kyra.) :)

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    3. They might feel that way now, but keep bringing the topic up every now and then so they know they can change their minds.

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  3. I guess everyone is really different. The "real family" bothers me a lot, especially when said in relation to them being "real" siblings. However, the "coming home" doesn't bother me at all. I totally agree with you on the birth family term, though. Since our kids had a family who did more than birth them, I think that makes all the difference. It's all so complicated. I totally get why kids just want to a "normal" family...there are some days when I wish there weren't so many questions to answer.

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    1. It's going to be different for every family. I would probably feel differently if we had biological children and someone made a distinction between the kids that were "real" siblings and the kids who weren't. But since both my kids are adopted, I don't have strong feelings on that one. I think it comes down to what feels respectful to our family, and especially respectful to our children.

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  4. This gives me a lot to mull over. We have tried to be sensitive with language because our kid is really sensitive to language. For example, if someone were to say "your own kids" and mean it in a way that doesn't refer to her, she would be really hurt and confused. Similarly, "real family," to her, would also confuse her since she has struggled to feel secure both in her place in her Ethiopian family AND in our family. I'm not going to make a big deal out of things, but I do respectfully correct if I feel like it's something that will be hurtful to Z. Nine times out of ten, people say things with her standing right there, as if she can't hear them, and this is what bothers me most of all. I want to show her how to respond with understanding and grace, but also stand up for her.

    I had a hard time figuring out what to say instead of "coming home" and still have people understand me. I'm sure I used those words on our blog at some point. Now I tend to say, "when she came home with us." I'm not sure there's a perfect way to say all these things, but my aim is to respect my kids, their stories, and their families in Ethiopia, and I hope that I at least get some of it right.

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    1. It sounds like you have given this a lot of thought and you have your own list of things you are OK and not OK with people saying. I was sharing my thoughts; I'm sure every family has different language that they are comfortable with. I think we're saying the same thing though, about considering our children's feelings, especially if they are standing right there and the person speaking acts like they can't hear. That's when it's most important to model the message we want to give our kids.
      Oh, and instead of "came home" I say, "came to the U.S."

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    2. I didn't mean to make it sound like I disagreed with your reasoning - sorry if it came off that way! We definitely have to figure out what works best for each of our families. I do wish sometimes that there was some standard way we could all speak and teach others to speak, just to simplify things. But I guess that, just as different kids have different learning styles, different kids have different needs for understanding family in the context of their adoption.

      What's funny (or maybe not that funny?) is that when I've said "came to the US," some people have been confused about whether we had adopted Z already at that time. But if I say, "came home with us," they seem to get it. Maybe I am talking to the wrong people? ;)

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    3. No, you didn't sound like you disagreed... did I sound like I thought you disagreed? Ah, internet conversations. Maybe if we use more emoticons? :)

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  5. Great post. We never refer to our daughter's biological relatives as anything other than "Mama," "Baba," etc. We all know which Mama or Baba we're talking about. Just this morning at a bakery someone asked me when she came home. I just answered that she'd "been with us" for four months. I don't ever really feel the need to correct anyone's language unless it is obviously coming from a cruel place, or it seems to hurt my daughter. I do have a question for you- how do you handle it when it's another child asking "What happened to her parents?" The "why are you different colors?" isn't a tough one for me, and I am fine with saying "It's private" when an adult asks why our daughter had to be adopted, but sometimes I find myself at a loss when it's children who ask. When I would walk her in to school, I would always get this question from other kids going into school. I guess just saying, "It's private" is the best way to go? Does that make it seem like a shameful secret? I want to model what's best for my daughter.

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    1. You know, I haven't gotten this question much. My older son has, at school, and I know he's answered very openly, with more information that I would have shared. I've told him he can do that or he can say that he doesn't want to talk about it if it's going to make him sad, and he can answer one way one day and a different way on a different day, and that's fine, too. With my younger son, I've found saying "He used to live with his other family and now he lives with us" is enough to satisfy kids his age. It kind of sidesteps the question but it seems to work. Once I had an older kid come out and ask me what happened to their parents, a kid who we know pretty well and see a lot. I asked him if he thought it was a happy story or a sad story. He said sad and I agreed with him and told him I wasn't going to tell him the story and he seemed to understand that.

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  6. I was adopted (court process) and I am adopted (part of the family) ...

    I was married (legal process) and I am married (living as a married couple)...

    Unless an adoption is disolved you will always be adopted - its a legal process that happened that made me the child of mom and dad - unless they decided legally I was no longer their child - then I am still adopted because I am their child.

    Unless you get a divorce you are still married...

    I have four real parents - my mom and dad and my mother and father. Pretty sure anyone reading this can figure out who each is to me - no qualifiers needed. The English language is fairly adept in the structure within a sentence to identify to the listener who is who - you would not be referring to yourself if you said: "A's mother sent him a letter" - if it was you, then you would say "I sent A a letter".

    One of my pet peeves is the need to have fluffy language - just use plain old common sense.

    For the record - birthparent or birthmother etc was not invented when I was adopted - so mom and dad used your mother or your father to refer to our other parents - still do half a century later.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I hadn't thought of the distinction between the legal process of adoption and the lifelong status of adoption. So there would be reasons to use both "was adopted" and "is adopted." Also didn't know that "birthparent" hadn't been around that long. Do you think there is an appropriate situation for using that term?

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    2. I think every family needs to decide what works best for them (both families) and if used with respect, and honor, rather than dimissive, or of no importance. The intention matters which is hard to convey on-line.

      I use a variety of terms depending on my mood - the default is just Mother or Father because that has always been my norm - sometimes I use their first names (my mother passed before I knew her name and father is not interested), sometimes I just refer to my family of birth or my genetic family if I need to distinquish between the two. I find the switching the order around to family of birth more gentle and sincere rather than applying a label qualifying the relationship first.

      What is never appropriate is to use birth mother before the surrender/adoption has happened as birth mother according to the industry is the term used afterwards. Using the term prior can be coercive (specifically in domestic infant adoption) because it presumes the decision is a done deed, and specifically for mothers considering adoption after birth to me is coercive and almost, or is, subliminal messaging (along with other practices).

      Personal preference combinging birth mother into one word comes off on-line as disrespectful to me - and I realize mothers use it and it isn't to them.

      Using the first two letters of the two words to refer to her makes steam come out of my ears because of what those two letters is commonly used to describe. Sorry I can't even write the two letters together...

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    3. Using the term "birth mother" before a woman has made her decision about adoption would be one of those things that just doesn't make any sense, like "coming home."

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  7. Kyra - I know your intention and respect for your children's other family so your using the terms birthmother or birthfamily combined as one word does not bother me because you honor their family, while also honoring the family you have become. Your writing has the ablity to make yourself clear on how you feel. (just didn't want you to think I was trying to say you did it wrong because you don't with the respect you show not only in your posts but I think in your daily life too.)

    Also wanted to note I do know how to spell combining correctly and sorry for the typo above...

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  8. great post & I agree with you on all accounts. we have no out of the ordinary names in our house for our son's mothers & fathers, it seems to be self evident when any of us are talking about whomever. and as far as I know we are all real ;) so we don't get our "knickers in a knot" about how anyone externally refers to us, we are all confidant in our relationships with our son to not feel threatened when someone 'outside' gets it wrong - and frankly I think that is what it is about. really appreciate your posts.

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  9. Hi! Lovely post. I've just found your blog and it's great to find another non-Christian family with a blog. I think it 'takes all kinds' in adoption, but sometimes I find it difficult to relate to some of the Christian-based posts when I am not a Christian.

    Anyway, I wanted to comment that we use the term "birthmother" because our son was in his orphanage by three months of age and with us by 20 months, but I'd never thought about how that term might be different for those children (and their families!) who were adopted at an older age as we don't generally have programmes for older-child adoptions running here in New Zealand at present. It's nice to have come across your post before I've met anyone who has adopted a child with more of a first family history. So, thanks for opening my eyes to that.

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