When my daughter, Alexandra, arrived home from school today, she told me one of the girls in her class didn’t “get” adoption. Apparently this fellow student looked down on Alexandra and asked, “Why don’t you go back to your old parents?” Sadly, when Alexandra tried to explain, she didn’t get far.
Almost ten years ago, Gary and I rejoiced over the arrival of the girl—an eight-month-old, dark-haired, blue-eyed baby—who came storming into our lives. (Alexandra does nothing subtly.) Her adoption is a fact of her life that we discuss openly and with enthusiasm. And we do so using positive language—adoption vocabulary chosen to assign the maximum dignity to the way our family has been built. It is language that has helped us to eliminate some of the emotional overcharging that for years has helped perpetuate the myth that being part of an adoption means that one has somehow missed out on a real (or, as in today’s case, old) family experience.
Here’s how that looks in our house.
We avoid saying “our daughter is adopted.” Phrasing it in the present tense suggests that adoption is ongoing. When it is appropriate to refer to the fact of her adoption at all, we say, “Our daughter was adopted,” referring to the way in which she joined our family.
When people ask if she is our natural child, we affirm that she is—the alternative being that she is our unnatural child. As she describes it, “Mommy’s tummy was broken so I grew in her heart instead.” We refer to her genetic family as her birthparents. Everyone has birthparents, but not everyone lives in the custody of his or her birthparents.
People often want to know if we have ongoing contact with our daughter’s birthparents. The answer is yes, we have an open adoption. At this point people often shudder, confusing open adoption with shared parenting. I have never met our daughter’s birthmom, though my husband has. But we know her name and her health history and we exchange cards on Mother’s Day. We speak respectfully about our daughter’s birth parents as those in a unique group of fewer than one percent of the population who make such a loving choice.
Is our daughter “one of our own”? Certainly. We kiss her boo-boos when she hurts, we laugh when she’s funny, we pray with her. We drag ourselves out of bed in the night when she’s sick. We help her with her homework. We are her parents, and we love her as much as any parent could love a child. The very institution of marriage demonstrates that one can love as family a person to whom he or she is not genetically related. My sister, who is the biological mother of one daughter and the adoptive mother of another, insists that genetic ties are no stronger nor enduring than adoptive relationships.
Today’s birthparents do not surrender or release or relinquish or give up their child to adoption, except in rare cases of involuntary termination of parental rights due to abuse or neglect. Instead birthmoms and dads “make an adoption plan.” They recognize that they are incapable of giving their biological child all that is needed for his or her well being, so they proactively choose a life for that child which demonstrates selfless love.
Some prospective parents choose to adopt a child from another country. Formerly this was referred to as foreign adoption, but “foreign” often has negative connotations: “I got a foreign object in my eye”; “His thinking was foreign to me;” “Don’t possess foreign substances.” So the preferred label is international adoption. (In the same way, we now refer to students who come to the United States seeking education as “international students” not “foreign students.”)
We describe parents who have chosen to adopt sibling groups, older children, or kids facing unique challenges as parenting special-needs children. This is preferable to saying their children are hard to place.
We refer to our friends’ children who were adopted not as “their adopted children,” but simply “their children.” Adoption is a way children join a family, but the modifier “adopted” is unnecessary as an on-going label. (As adoption expert, Patricia Johnston, points out, we would never describe little Jimmy as Tom and Meg’s “birth-control-failure child.”)
We didn’t rescue our daughter. If anyone was rescued, it was Gary and me… rescued, for example, from seeing dust particles in the sunlight as signs of filth when the child in our home perceived them as bubbles. So much beauty we were missing….
Speaking of missing beauty, that’s what happened to Alexandra at school today–her classmate mistook beauty for loss. Fortunately, our daughter knew better.
Each year in the United States, more than 120,000 children join their families through adoption. In ancient history, Moses lived in an adoption arrangement, as did Esther. Paul says God has adopted us into His family.
If adoption is a metaphor for how God views us, perhaps we can find ways, dignified ways, to express that truth and, as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would say, teach our children well.