by Sandra Glahn, ThM
About nine years ago my husband and I rejoiced over the arrival of Alexandra—a dark-haired, eight-month-old, blue-eyed baby girl—into our lives. She was a long-awaited daughter who joined our family through the miracle of adoption, and we’ve never stopped celebrating.
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 adopting means we’ve somehow missed out on a “real” 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 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’s our unnatural child. Yet we clarify that she grew in our hearts but not in my body. 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 she sends us cards on Mother’s Day and Father’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 parent of another, insists that genetic ties are no stronger nor enduring than adoptive relationships.
Rarely these days has an adopted child been abandoned. 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 with parents who can provide for such needs. In doing so the birthparents demonstrate amazingly selfless love.
Some prospective parents choose to adopt a child from another country. Formerly this was referred to as foreign adoption, but those working in the adoption field have pointed out that “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.”)
Words are important. They have the power to damage or to bless. We choose our words carefully to help our daughter understand that adoption is a terrific way to build a family. Each year in the United States, more than one hundred twenty thousand children join their families through adoption. Let’s affirm by the way we talk that our children bear no stigma due to their adoption, which is a normal, respectable way to build a family.
Adapted from an article that first appeared in The Mesquite News. For more on adoption, check out our book, The Infertility Companion: Help and Hope for Couples Facing Infertility. To download the first fifteen pages follow this link and then select “Take a Closer Look” (PDF file).