Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What We Wish You Knew: Adoption Terminology Education

I was watching the news last night and they were covering a story about a Corrections Officer who was recently murdered. The reporter said "He was the father of an adopted son, and he and his wife also had a child of their own on the way." This kind of language is something adoptive parents encounter often. I really think it's so frequently spoken out of sheer ignorance and not malice. Language is such a powerful thing and even the slightest nuance can communicate a very different message than the one intended. Another blog I read occasionally is doing a "What I Wish You Knew" series so I thought I'd follow suit and take this opportunity to educate.

So, to that end, please allow me to share the following:

Adoption is a beautiful word that should be celebrated! In most families, adoption is not a secret and it is an integral part of a child's personality. Adoption is a positive word, should always be referred to and with accordingly, and not talked about in secretive, tentative or negative tones and terms.

However, there is a proper time and place for all discussions, including those about adoption. While "Adoption" is a beautiful word, it is not always a relevant word.

Often times folks will refer to a child as "So-and-so's adopted child" just as the reporter did last night. However, I urge you to consider this: parents do not walk around introducing their child as "my biological son Billy" or better yet "my honeymoon son Billy" or "my test tube baby Mary" or "my one night in Vegas twins." Good adoptive parents do not introduce their child as "our adopted daughter Suzy." Biological children are not qualified in introductions and how they came to join a family is usually not mentioned in passing conversation.

Likewise, how and when an adopted child was born to a family is often irrelevant to the conversation at hand. These children are no different than biological children and deserve the same courtesy paid when introducing them. While adoption is beautiful and should be celebrated, often an explanation of which children share the same DNA as whom is offered to point out difference, and that difference is often irrelevant. What matters in most cases is that Billy and Suzy are the children of John and Jane Doe. Period.

However, if distinction must be made, please consider these ideas. First, please refer to an adoption in past tense. A child was adopted. It is not ongoing. The commitment to the child has already been made and the grafting in as part of the family has already taken place and is completed, not in transition. Just as being born is a one time, past tense occasion in a life, so is adoption. A child "was adopted" rather than "is adopted." Referring to it in the present tense implies that something is unfinished. As children who were adopted can struggle with feelings of loss or a sense of "betwixt and between," reinforcing their solid, secure place in a family helps cement the message that they do belong.

When distinguishing between children biologically related to the parents, please use the term "biological children" rather than "own children" or "natural children" or "real children." Children who were adopted are their parents' own, they ARE natural (as opposed to the opposite, which is "unnatural") and they are legally, their parents' "real" children. I tend to shy away even from the term "miracle baby" because all babies are miracles-biologically related to the parents or not. Adoption is a miracle, too, just of a different sort.

The most respectful way to refer to the adoptive parents is just as the child's "parents," with no qualifiers. If a distinction must be made, "adoptive parents" is appropriate. The respectful terminology we've been taught for the adopted child's biological parents is as "birth parents" or "biological parents" (or in the case of Snowflake Adoptions, "Genetic Parents" or "Placing Parents") as opposed to the frightfully-oft spoken "real parents."

Also, the term "giving a child up" for adoption is outdated. The term harkens back to the days of Orphan Trains when children were literally held up. Terminology like this does not account for the intentional decisions made in contemporary times by a birth parent who chooses adoption out of love because he or she thinks it is best for the child. A better term is "place for adoption" or "make an adoption plan" because these terms recognize the intentionality on the biological parent's part.

I believe that honoring adoption by the deliberately choosing our language when referring to it honors all the parties involved in the adoption triad, and is in the child's best interests. Using precise language enhances both our compassion and our accuracy.

If you've said any of these things to your friends whose families were built in whole or in part through adoption, don't fret! These are things we hear dozens, if not hundreds of times and you learn to just sort of dismiss it. But I can tell you that if you make an intentional effort to use the correct terminology, your friend will notice, and will be blessed by it and appreciate the time you have taken to learn more about their family's precious dynamic.

UPDATE: The reporter wrote back! I'm so impressed. My letter to him actually contained much of what is in this post-I just copied and pasted pieces of the letter here. He was very receptive! I am very impressed. To give credit where credit is due, thanks Peter Busch from KPHO Phoenix! I look forward to your future stories about families built through adoption!

Edited to add: I realize that adoption has not always been beautiful, pleasant or respectful of all parties involved and that it is always difficult for the placing parent(s). I know there is a sad time in our history when biological parents had their children stolen from them in the name of adoption, or all but stolen. I don't disrespect the loss experienced by those people at all or legitimize the system that victimized them. I also know that there is a completely different set of rules and language when interacting with a large number of adoptions from this era and the people involved in them and that no semantics will heal those wounds.

But I firmly believe today's system is vastly different and that the majority of today's adoptions in this country are legitimate and that's the framework in which I advocate this specific language.

However, specifically because of the history of the adoption world, I encourage anyone considering adoption to always use a legitimate adoption agency and/or adoption attorney. I'd even go so far as to implore you to choose a service that also has sound services in place to protect and serve biological parents. In our Agency's case, the birth mother gets her own caseworker, whose sole responsibility is to help the birth mother make the best decision for her and the child. Sometimes that means choosing to parent, and sometimes it means making an adoption plan and the caseworker helps with both. We valued that they have staff committed exclusively to helping the birth moms so they can feel as secure and at peace about their decision as possible.

And certainly if someone's specific experience colors certain terms and they make their preference for different language known, the respectful thing to do is to use it.


  1. I have to disagree with you on one point,and that is what you refer the biological parent of the child you have adopted. We are not birthparents, a coined term designed by the industry to limit our function to the mere birth of our child. That notion has been made a lie of with open adoption and the reunion of so many adopted adults with their natural parents on reaching adulthood. We are not listed on the birth certifiate that we sign as anything other than mother. Most of us find the term natural mother, or simply mother acceptable, but birthmother is unacceptable to many of us. I personally, refuse to answer to that term, as do many other mothers I know. Even the term Biological Mother is preferable to Birthmother because it is at leas truthful.

    If you are concerned about the opposite thing,ie. natural motheer indicates that the adopter is an unnatural one, then consider that the opposite of Birthmother is Deathmother, or Can'tbirthmother. How does that make you feel? It isn't pleasant, is it.

    Sandra Young
    Natural Mother of son lost to adoption in 1967.

  2. Hi Sandra (Sandy?),

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I've actually never heard that preference voiced. The few biological mothers with whom I've interacted have preferred the term "birthmother." I know when I say it, I mean it as a term of honor as in "giver of life mother." Conceiving and giving birth is something I can't do and therefore I almost place MORE value on it, if that makes sense?

    I don't think the opposite is "death mother" but rather "non-birth mother" which in most cases, is accurate. I don't like "natural" for the reason you specified-the opposite is "unnatural."

    However, I think you make good point in that, like with most things subjective, it is a personal preference issue. Do you think it could also be generational? I know adoption was a lot more shady in your day.

    I don't mean to argue with you--just dialogue. Certainly you're entitled to feel honored by one term and dishonored by another and I think the take away point for readers is that if you know someone's preferred language, use it.

    Perhaps the safest term is "Biological Mother?"

  3. Hey Jen -

    You know, a lot of what you said makes sense to me. But, as one of three adopted children, we always referred to our biological parents as "birth parents". Not because it was the politically correct thing to say, or what our biological mothers would have preferred, but because it was the easiest term for a 3-4 year-old to understand, and it became habit. As an adult, my biological mother is simply "Denise", and if I need to give her a title in conversation (to differentiate from my actual Mom), she's "my birthmom Denise". Again, not because it's the correct term, but because it's how I grew up referring to her, and it makes for simpler conversation.

    That being said, I had friends/relatives who referred to Denise as "your real mom", and I always corrected them. In fact, my youngest sister occasionally slips and talks about her "real mom". And THAT term - more than any other - is the one that makes my blood boil. CHERYL is my "real mom". She fed me, clothed me, cleaned up my vomit, put me through college. Denise gave me an amazing gift, and she's a very important part of my life, but she's not my "real mom".

    Anyway, my point is, I don't think there's any right way to refer to adoptive/ biological parents. It's all about semantics, and what's easiest for a child to understand, and what both sides are most comfortable with. There are certainly WRONG ways to refer to adoptive and biological parents, but I think they have more to do with intention than actual words used. If that makes sense...

    You ARE correct on your main point, though: Adopted children are just children. No qualifiers.

    How nice that the reporter wrote back! It's so great to know that sometimes your voice is heard and understood.

  4. There is a very interesting article online, by a woman named Diane Turski, entitled, "Why Birthmother Means Breeder". That pretty much sums up the feeling that most of the more senior mothers feel about the term.

    If it is a generational thing, which I doubt, having been on the board of directors of OriginsUSA, and having been actively involved in the adoption community for decades, it is an opinion borne of years of living it. My son and I have been reunited for 19 years. The younger mothers with whom I have worked also dislike it, so perhaps you are not hearing the entire truth from the women with whom you are dealing, or they are a bit more circumspect if there is the slightest possibility that their own relationships with their children's mothers could be compromised, ie, closing an open adoption, by their speaking out. I have heard many say that. And, there are a few who feel that is what they are, all they are, and all they ever will be. I feel such compassion for them, as they clearly have some very real problems with their self esteem.

    I will only answer to the language of the time that I was forced to surrender. I was then called Mother, or Natural Mother. Those are the only terms that are acceptable to me. That was the common language of the day and that is what was used in describing me. I see no reason to change that, since I never was consulted or agreed to any change in nomenclature. Therefore, I am my son's mother. The woman who raised him is too.

    That's the reality of adoption.

    Sandy Young

  5. Sandy-
    Perhaps you misunderstand me. I don't at all suggest that you change your preferred moniker. And I also amended my post to say that adoption of your day was very different than adoption of today, that there were often issues of involuntary surrenders, and that no language is going to correct the deep issues that occurred in the nation's adoption history. To be fair, I think that entire era has a different set of rules, and language.

    But I firmly believe today's system is vastly different and that the majority of today's adoptions in this country are legitimate and that's the framework in which I advocate the specific language that I was taught and that we choose to use in our family.

    But I wasn't at all intending to argue with your experience or your preferences. I was merely pointing out that my experience and exposure has been different than yours and that I've used that language because you're the first to ever express to me that you don't appreciate that language.

    And by my suggestion about the term "biological mother" I meant that perhaps it is the safest generic term when one doesn't know the preference of the person in question because it seems to be both truthful and neutral. I did not mean that you should change what you prefer to be called.

  6. Wow, Jen, what a great article! I'm so glad I got to read it! You always write so clearly and graciously. I'll try to keep that in mind (though culture dies hard, and I'm sure I will slip/have slipped many times).

    We do the same thing in the birth world - rephrasing terminology to be positive and honoring rather than diminutive and negative. For example: "birth show" instead of "bloody show," "client" instead of "patient," "surge" instead of "contraction," etc. Terminology and the attitude behind it makes all the difference!

    Great article!

  7. Thank you for your article and passion. I just blogged about it and hopefully will send a few people your way!

  8. what a healthy debate in this comment section.

    i was anticipating to write my own comment but learned quite a bit just reading the comments.

    i've never thought of adoption as a negative thing...always positive...of course, there are instances where things can go wrong but as a whole...very positive.

    I've been adopted into the family of God...

    what i don't 'get'...is this...and I sincerely don't mean any disrespect or to be argumentative...

    Why all the need for the entire society to get every terminology correct when they aren't going through the same scenario? I understand the importance in general...at least knowing the difference between mother's and so forth and the process...but it seems that you're holding society up to the standards of what you went to a class to learn...that it is not common knowledge so why expect it to be? If it were common knowledge why did you need to attend a class to understand it?

    when i was giong through ivf if my friends asked me about the process i shared it with them... i rarely corrected their terminology unless they looked unsure about something or asked me..."now what did you call ____."

    for example...even on Discovery Health shows they use the wrong terminology for the TRANSFER (when referring to the embryo)...many many say IMPLANT. this is obviously insanely wrong...if any doc could force an embryo to implant now that would be out of this world science fiction. the embryo is transferred...the implantation is the only "natural" part of the process seemingly. Right?

    I just cough it up to the fact that they haven't gone through every class, appointment, meeting, website, pamphlet, book, & heartache to know this as I have. It is not their fault and it is not truly necessary for them to learn the ins and outs...not really? I use the terminology that is correct in my language and sometimes then they ask me..."oh, is that teh correct way to say this or that..." or the next time they mention it they use the right words...and I am proud of them for remembering but am never offended or "eye-rolling" b/c they don't know everything like I do...why should they?

    I guess my concern is that we go to classes to learn this kind of stuff...so why should we hold those who haven't (and don't need to) to our standards? We just can't. There are absolutely instances where people should do their best to understand the terms...my mom was great about it. she knew almost everything that i did going into IVF and was a great informer of how it was all going down...but we should not at all be offended by anyone who uses the wrong term purely b/c there is no way for us/them to know the difference. There are absolutely times where "educating" someone is necessary...those will be personal choices...but

    I'd hate to put everyone on the position of offending me just b/c they haven't attended classes to understand the ins and outs of everything that I've learned for my specific need. Does that make any sense at all?

    again, not trying to be argumentative but being that i've gone through a touchy and contraversial issue myself, I have been in similar scenarios...thought I'd share my perspective.

  9. Sandy,
    I think you and I have fundamental ideological differences and so I don't think we're going to come to agreement on this, though I appreciate the healthy discussion. I wonder though-you demand respect as a natural mother, yet in your own blog you make it evident that you have no respect for adopting parents or really, for the entire existence of adoption at all. With such fundamental differences, I don't know how consensus can ever be reached.

    You have given me much to ponder and I agree with some of your points. Others (namely the motives of adoptive parents (anyone who raises (parents) a child is a parent) I think are patently false and so I'm not sure where this leaves us.

    I appreciate that you're a passionate advocate for what you believe in and that you've taken the time to share with us here. I've appreciated the healthy discussion.

  10. Yes, you are probably correct in your assessment that we will never reach consensus, however, I really am not trying to change your mind. I am merely attempting to open your eyes to the truth that adoption is predicated on a woman's sorrow, and it is not a wonderful thing for all the parties involved.

    Yes, the time period in which I lost my son was an aberration, but unfortunately it was also a time when an often corrupt industry grew to the state it is today, and it remains largely unregulated. If you doubt that corrupt practices occur even today, read some of the mother and adoptee blogs on the internet. One would be Marley Greiner's The Daily Bastardette. She is an adoptee, and blogs about adoptee issues, including the tragedies. Also, if you read my blog you will see the information there about a young Ohio woman that I have been advocating for, Stephanie Bennett. Her story is a very recent tragedy.

    My intention in responding to your blog was not to be rude, offensive, or otherwise. I wanted merely to expose you to another persepective and I appreciate your openminded attitude. I won't post again.

    Thank you
    Sandy Young

  11. Oh Sandy-

    You're very welcome to keep posting. =) I just didn't want to keep going back and forth because I didn't want it to seem like I was arguing with you. You have given me a lot to think about! =) Please keep posting--I like hearing the other side of the coin.

    I do appreciate the other perspective. I don't doubt that corruption occurs in every facet of every industry, adoption included. And my heart hurts for those women who have been victimized by it. I just believe that it doesn't characterize the entire process.

  12. News is about reporting FACTS. If adoption is not a "dirty little secret" why not report it as the way the child entered the family? Most step-parents identify their step relationship to their chidlren and no one complains about that.

    Further, I not that adoptive parents seem to want it both ways. Celebrities, politicians and many others wear their adoptive status on the sleeve as a badge of their liberalism or altruism.

    "The respectful terminology we've been taught for the adopted child's biological parents is as "birth parents" or "biological parents" (or in the case of Snowflake Adoptions, "Genetic Parents" or "Placing Parents") as opposed to the frightfully-oft spoken "real parents"."

    I am afraid to inform you that you need r-education. I suggest: http://tinyurl.com/6nv8oh

    Also, we did not "place" our children...we LOST or surrendered them.

    I hope this helps you to help others.

  13. First of all, this isn't "news." It's a personal blog and this discussion is about a subjective topic, so "facts" is a relative term. I am educated. Refusing to tow your same line is not ignorance, it's a difference of opinion, and I give you the same courtesy and don't think you're ignorant just because you've come to different conclusions that I have.

    I don't advocate hiding how a child came to join a family. Our children as well as the relevant people will always know that they were adopted. But that information is not relevant to every discussion, just like I don't know if you were a baby from a test tube, from 5 years of trying, or from a one night stand. How you came to be and whose child you are is none of my business and is not relevant to most conversations. That's my point.

    And for the record I AM a step child. He is my father, I am his daughter-no qualifiers about it. The jerk whose sperm actually created me is no more a father to me than a stranger on the street.

    Frankly, I refuse to discuss this any further until the playing field is level and you (collective) give the same respect to adoptive parents that you demand from them. Until then, you have very little credibility with me. I'll call you what you want to be called, but I think it takes a lot of nerve to not reciprocate the same courtesy.

    Frankly, I don't think the entire adoption world is out to get you, that adoptive parents are just baby thieves, that adoption is NEVER better for the child or mother (or both) or that the entire industry is corrupt. That is such a huge idealogical difference that I see any further discussion as utterly pointless.

    I've already shared previously the concessions I'm willing to make and the expectations that I have. I'm sorry for any pain and trauma you've experienced and I'm sorry that that pain has been at the infliction of others. But I refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater and damn and entire people group.

    The fact remains that my experience is different than yours, as is the experience of natural mothers I've interacted with, who basically say things completely opposite of what your movement has said, and all of those are equally valid. At the end of this day, this is MY blog, dedicated to communicating with my friends and family, helping educate them about OUR adoption journey. What we choose to advocate and share is our educated decision.

  14. Really interesting conversation here... another example of "different strokes for different folks"!

    I have not been involved in any kind of adoption but my opinion is that if our intentions are respectful, then we would "speak the truth in love" - and that could mean adjusting some of our language as a sign of respect to whomever we are talking to.

    That may mean that if someone feels offended by certain terms, that we can avoid those terms. That may mean that if someone prefers certain terms, that we can use those terms.

    I know adjusting our language takes effort, a lot perhaps ... (and some would argue too "Isn't that not being true to one's self?") Paul did something similar, too, although not in terms of language but in terms of lifestyle - "I have become all things to all men..."

    Of course, these things make sense only to those who have similar beliefs.

    Arpee @ The Saga of Becoming Fruitful

  15. Arpee-that was precisely my point and I suggested a couple of times that if we know someone's preferred language is different, then we ought use it. But I think in this particular instance, it's impossible to say there's a universally correct set of terms, as evidenced by this discussion here and how strongly and differently folks feel about different terms. So I think the best we can do is choose what we think is best both most respectful and most accurate, and then make adjustments if someone in our sphere specifically requests it--at least when speaking to or about them, if not always.