Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Not to Say Regarding Adoption....Not That We All Agree...

One thing I have learned during the whole, long adoption process is that we participants are a touchy bunch!  Like many adoptive parents, my journey began with years of failed fertility treatments, during which I got tired/annoyed/offended/whatever you choose to call it, at the comments people would make about everything from why I probably could not get pregnant, to what other things I should try, to why how I should be grateful for all the things in my life and not worry about it.  Blah, blah, blah.  As we have moved through the adoption process, and especially as we experienced a failed adoption, more opinions were offered up—opinions from people who had never experienced adoption in any form and yet seemed to have clear answers for us.  And now that we have an amazing little boy, more questions and comments come.  Not all of them are unwelcome, but some are said without much thought, that is for sure. I read somewhere recently that children don’t process intent until about five years of age.  In other words, when they are acting out at you, or treating another child badly, there is no intent of hate or animosity behind their actions.  The article made a point that has stuck with me.  It said something about how their actions aren’t at all about how they feel about the person they are mistreating, but they are all about how that child feels about him or herself.  For example, a three-year-old girl hits another child.  It has nothing to do with whether or not they like that child.  It has to do with how she feels about herself—maybe she felt threatened, or insecure, or jealous or frustrated, and most likely none of those feelings had anything to do with that child.  It is often more about something going on at home that is causing feelings that she then takes out on someone else.  We are the ones that read too much into their actions.  They don’t hate.  They don’t really even process love.  They understand feeling secure and happy and cared for.  I think, more often than not, this is still true as adults.  Not the part about not understanding love or other feelings.  But I think the things that offend or anger or upset us say a lot more about how we feel about ourselves than how we feel about the person that was offensive or upsetting.  A secure person is much more able to brush those things off and not internalize them.
I was on a Facebook page centered on adoption recently, and the question was posed “What phrase or question concerning adoption bothers you the most?”  I was kind of fascinated by it and followed the thread for a few days.  There were so many things.  And interestingly enough, some phrases that some people really liked were completely despised by others.  I won’t go into all of them, but there were some universally disliked ones (and a few others I’d like to address) that I think are worth mentioning.  I know we all need to be a little less sensitive.  I know that certain terms and phrases bother us because of personal experience.  It was interesting to see how birth mothers were offended more often by terms used by adoptive parents, and vise versa.  And in general, I think we all need to relax and take a step back and understand that there usually isn’t negative intent behind the questions/comments.  Usually it is ignorance.  That said, I find there are a few terms that are universally unacceptable, and if you know someone who is adopting, or has adopted, or is considering adoption, you might want to take notes.

Birth Mom/Natural Mom/Real Parent/Child of your own:  There were a few conflicting opinions on “birth parent” and many preferred “natural parent”.  However DO NOT, under ANY circumstances us the word “real” in describing a birth mother or adoptive mother.  What does that mean, anyway?!  Some people use “real” in place of biological.  Don’t tell me I’m not my son’s real mom, when I have spent three and half years wiping tears, changing diapers, caring for him when he’s been sick, playing with him every day, and showing him all the love I possibly can.  Don’t say it!  You won’t like the response.  Don’t say his “real sister”.  Although some people differ on biological vs. birth vs. natural parent, we all agree that we dislike very much the word “real”.  Someone commented on the thread that they had seen obituaries that read something like “so and so is survived by two daughters and an adopted son.”  Uh, no.  Big no no.  I consider my son just that—my son.  No need or desire to ever specify how they came to be a part of the family, especially in an obituary.   And we’re not step-brothers or step-sisters.  We are brothers and sisters.  And if in doubt, ask the person what term they prefer.

Personal questions about the process:  Okay, everyone feels differently about what questions are appropriate.  Personally, as you can see by my blog, I am very open to any discussion.  However, I think we all agree that you need to use some discretion in asking and NEVER ask these questions in front of the child!!  Never ask how much the child cost, (even the less-offensive question of how much the adoption cost) should not be asked in front of the child.  No child wants to feel like a pound puppy who got his shots, papers and for a fee was able to go home with a nice family.  I don’t mind being asked about it, but not in front of my son.  Some people are offended by personal questions and I’ve heard them say “you wouldn’t ask biological parents what position they were in when they conceived, so why would you ask about the details of adoption?”  Again, just ask.  I like to share the experience with others.  But some don’t want to.  Ask first, and not in front of the kids, and don’t be offended if it’s too personal to share.  Just think if someone wanted a play-by-play of everything that happened from conception to birth, or if you had a miscarriage—some things are too private and/or too personal for some people to share, and we need to respect those boundaries.

Opinions about adoption when you have never been part of the process:  This is one that got to me (and still gets me).  Many times, people who have never been adopted or placed a child for adoption or adopted a child, will have very strong opinions about the process—where you should go (foster care, private, international, etc.), what kind of child to take or not take, how adopted children will act.  It amazes me that they are so opinionated, and yet would never consider adopting a child themselves.  I’ve had people tell me how difficult adopted children can be, as if biological children are a walk in the park.  Don’t say it.  I have one parade, and you’re raining on it.  I have one option to have a child and you are telling me that path is sub-par.  Don’t say it.  Be supportive and show love—that’s the best thing you can do.  Any parent knows that life raising a child always has challenges.  Just because my challenges may look different than yours doesn’t mean it will be any less joyful and fulfilling.  And my guess is that 95% of our challenges will be very similar.

In general, as I said above, I think our sensitivity to the subject says more about how we feel about ourselves than about the person asking the insensitive question.  I believe that if we are okay with who we are, then a lot of that stuff just rolls right off of our backs and we don’t care.  But, it is something very close to our hearts, and it’s hard sometimes to not get emotional about it when someone refers to my beautiful little boy as not my real child.  If in doubt, pull the person involved aside and ask in sincerity what terms he or she prefers, and my guess is that 99 percent of the time, they will appreciate you for being sensitive and caring and showing so much respect.

If you are navigating the adoption process, or know someone who is , check out my post about seven things you should not say to people going through the process:


  1. Looooved this post, Susan. Did I ever tell you that my hubby and his two sisters are adopted?? People will always ask about his mom and say, "Oh, so that's his adoptive mom?" And I say, "No, that's his real mom." The mother that adopted him is his mother, and that's that. Ben always says that he was meant to be with his parents - he just had to go through the process in a different way to get there. We call his biological mom just that - his biological mom. His REAL mom is his adoptive mom. :)

    1. I had never heard that story. I know sometimes people think they are just curious or just clarifying, but they just don't get how it comes across! I'm glad he feels that way--I know there are others who struggle with it, and I hope Dylan grows up feeling like Ben. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Only last week a "well-meaning" and pregnant friend told me that it's a blessing that we are adopting because then I won't have varicose veins. What a comfort. She also gave me the reassurance that since her sister-in-law's two adopted meth babies turned out fine, I shouldn't worry about getting a baby exposed to drugs. Like it's no big deal.

    I think the longer we've been waiting in the adoption process, the more I have difficult feelings and thus become more sensitive to thoughtless remarks. I'm not one to be easily offended, but that's different than being hurt. And thoughtless remarks hurt, no matter how well-meaning they are.

    1. I still get upset/offended by those kinds of comments! When women talk about what pregnancy does to their bodies or how hard delivery is and then tell me how lucky I am that I didn't have to go through that--they just don't get it! Although, I have to say, sometimes I do think there are some nice things about adoption--the excitement of getting the call, and having everything happen so fast, and not having the physical strain in the middle of all of it. Would I love to get pregnant and have that experience? Sure! I would still love it. But it is an experience--that is the only part that is different to me. I know I could not have a stronger attachment with Dylan if I'd birthed him myself, because birth is an event. Motherhood is a calling. Motherhood is forever. I think there are lots of women who have biological children who still feel deep inside that the birth experience bonds them more to their child. But we adoptive moms go through a different kind of long, drawn-out, tedious birth experience that bonds us to our children equally, even if through a different path. I agree with you--I have been hurt by those comments. However, these particular comments are more about the language of adoption, and I think that's a little less offensive in general than the comments you're referring to--those can be really hurtful!