Interpreting the Language of Adoption

I graduated from the School of Languages and Linguistics at Georgetown University. I love words, their meanings, their mysteries, their possibilities.

In the world of adoption, words are loaded. One must choose one’s words carefully, because one is pretty much guaranteed to offend someone, no matter what one says. Some words are offensive at first glance; some at second or third glance. Some are not offensive at all. Like beauty, offensiveness is in the eye, ear, and experience of the beholder.

This volatility is but one reason adoption reform is so complex: finding a common language is not easy. As my awareness of adoption language has evolved, so has my understanding of the complexity of adoption itself.

I was recently asked to write about the “evolution” of my views about adoption, from the time I worked with adoption agencies until now. I’ve picked up that gauntlet. Over the course of a few posts, I’ll work my way through my evolutionary process.

I’ll start with some basic words and phrases.

Adoptive parents: Depending on point of view of the speaker or writer, this term can also be APs, apars, infertiles, adopters, adoptoraptors, saints, entitleds, parents, kidnappers, traffickers, baby buyers, inspirations, rescuers, saviors, or selfish morons.

Birth Mother: Other variations include original mother, real mother, mother of loss, breeder, incubator, first mother, bio or biological mother, mother, natural mother, BM.

Adoptee: For some, this is too close to Amputee, and so Adoptee should not be used. Other possibilities: orphan (half, double, single: there are many definitions, from Charles Dickens to the US State Department), bastard, adopted person, adopted adult, son, daughter.

Adoption: Trafficking. Win-win situation. Blessing. Curse. Forever. Travesty. Lifetime loss. Legal arrangement. For always. Permanent. An option. A family affair. Full of miracles.

Angry + Adoptee: A volatile combination of words. Use carefully.

Adoption fog: A phrase used to describe adopted persons who say they have no problems with adoption or with being adopted. Sometimes also used for those who have no interest in searching for their original/first/bio/birth family.

Adoption triad or triangle: This is a now rather archaic term that once referred to the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee. Today, adoption circle or adoption constellation is often used.

Put up for adoption: No. Placed for adoption, surrendered for adoption, made an adoption plan, separated by adoption: Maybe.

The list above is just the tip of this particular berg.

There’s also the perspective of Positive Adoption Language, Honest Adoption Language, and Inclusive Adoption Language. All have their merits and value. My experience has taught me that what one person defines as positive, honest, and /or inclusive depends very much on where the person is situated in the adoption triangle/circle/constellation.

Imagine what happens when we discuss “adoption” in other languages and in other cultures and countries. Some languages have no translation of (distinction for) “birth mother,” for example.

If there is going to be progress in making adoption more ethical and more transparent, we have to acknowledge, without fear or defensiveness, the realities of each others’ (good and bad) adoption experiences. Those realities are often reflected in word choice. One part of my adoption evolution has been awareness of the power of words. I’ve worked hard at listening to how people define themselves and how they define others. It’s work in progress.

8 thoughts on “Interpreting the Language of Adoption

  1. I so much appreciate your honesty about your own journey of learning. This really resonated with me, as my experience is very similar. I went from blind commitment (clueless) and am now somewhere in between deer in headlights and passionate awareness. There’s definitely conflict in my feelings toward the concept and reality of adoption. What remains constant is how much I love my kids–I hope I can share my experiences and learnings with others not because of them, but for them.

  2. Thank you Maureen, well done. There is definitely an education to be had in the “Language of Adoption”. I, for one have been schooled more than once when trying to communicate with others whose lives adoption has touched. For those who are fluent in this language, please know that for some, we do not want to cause harm, we are just uneducated. I am also a work in progress and I wholeheartedly welcome the knowledge.

  3. Thanks for this. I am not someone who has adopted or been adopted. However, my husband’s family has been touched by it quite a bit. He is American Indian and many family members were removed from his family because, at the time, social workers believed that American Indian children were better off in white homes. Sometimes, the families that took the kids in were wonderful. Sometimes not so much. So reading your list of words and definitions, I see many combinations for his various family members. He was one of 15 kids his mother had. Not unusual for her being born in 1908. Anyway, because there were so many, many family members were affected. Almost all have made contact with his family. SOme, because the parents generously reached out to share the children. SOme because conditions were so bad that the kids ran. Only three (that I know of) have not made contact. Including one of his children. However, he is at peace with this because he knows she is loved and cherished and is happy.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I hope your husband’s family story is preserved in some way–it’s fascinating and valuable. The history of adoption and Native Americans is long and controversial. And ongoing–Baby Veronica and ICWA are a current example.

      The University of Oregon is a great resource on adoption history. Maybe you’ve seen their information on the Indian Adoption Project? It’s here: I’m not certain that this was relevant to your husband’s family, but it is another dimension of the complex history.

      Thank you for your observation about the many combinations for the the various family members. You are right on point, I believe. We all need to find peace, and I’m glad your husband has done so.

      • Thanks for the link, it looks interesting. One family of 5, were taken illegally (long story) but were adopted by a couple in Utah who could not have children. They were wonderful people ( I met them) and it was through the mother’s work as a genealogist, that the contact was made.

        One thing I found out about was that the social workers and/or doctors flat out lied about the heritage! One family member said her parents were told she was Italian, when the birth mother told the doctor that she (birth mother) was half Indian and the father was full Indian. Another cousin’s parents were told he was of African American heritage (they were also African American) and he never understood why he looked so different!

        And I have been following the Baby Veronica case. It is a sad thing for all involved.

      • In regard to heritage: outrageous that the social worker lied. I’m so sorry hear that.

        One resource available to adoptees is DNA testing. It’s relatively inexpensive ($99) and can answer a lot of questions. I wrote a post about it, which includes links to websites:

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