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.