A little PSA for the day: Positive adoption language

If you get a bunch of adoptive parents together, often the conversation will take a turn towards the topic of horrible things that have been said to us. While some comments are just mean and horrible (and thankfully we, personally, have received very few of this type), most comments and questions that end up in the questionable category are a result of ignorance and not mean-spiritedness. If you haven't had adoption be part of your life, you probably also haven't thought about how certain comments are felt on the receiving end. We know that people (usually) mean well, but by the time we hear the same comment or question multiple times and watch the effect they have on our children, our patience runs a bit thin. This is also to explain why the adoption community is enraged at the comments the NBC commentator tweeted about the realness of one of the Olympic gymnast's parents.

Will the real parents please stand up?

Let's start with this idea of real. Whenever someone asks, "Where are her real parents?" or says, like the commentator, "You aren't his real parents," it calls into question the very legitimacy of the parent child relationship. We are not imaginary, so what are we? Fakers with no real claim on our children? Glorified babysitters? Every time our children here this question or comment, it flies in the face of us parents telling our children that we are their parents and will be there for them forever. For some of our children, those who were dealt a bad deal at the beginning of their life, the fact we are saying we'll always be there for them is hard enough to swallow. When you add public questioning it makes it that much harder.

Here's the truth. We are our children's' real parents. Their birth parents (and here's the term everyone is searching for) are also their real parents. We are all real. None of us is imaginary. All of us have played a role in the life of this child and each of us is important. If I truly love this child, I have to acknowledge the role their birth parents play in her life. For some of my children, there are more than two sets of real parents. Some of them have dearly beloved foster parents who are also just as real and just as important and played as big a role as any of us. I know some people are threatened by this multiple-parent-thing, but it is a daily fact of life for every adoptive family. The bottom line is that a child can never have too many real people who love and care for them.

A sideline of the real parents question is, "Are they real siblings?" Once again, the word you are searching for is 'biological', but, and I'm going to be blunt here, the real issue is nosiness. For the 'real' question, see the comments above about parents, but this question goes just a little further. I want you to ask yourself... why on earth does it matter if I know whether two children are biologically related or not. Will you treat the children differently? No, I didn't think so. Are you planning on donating blood to them? No, I didn't think that, either. Does it make them any less a member of my family? No, because heck, they're adopted; we are already not biologically related. How would you react if a complete stranger (and it is often strangers) came up and asked, "Do you and your brother share the same father?" It would be jarring and intrusive and just a little weird. Trust me when I say adoptive parents have the same reaction to the 'real siblings' question.

Blue light special on aisle five.

Now we come to the comedians in the bunch. It is a thing, to be shopping and have someone come up and say something witty, such as, "Where'd you get her? I'll pick one up, too." Oh yes, when I say witty and mean stupidly unthinking. It is always nice to have strangers commodify my child and act as though she is an object to be bought and sold. There are variations on this theme, such as, "How much did you pay for him?" "You must be rich!" and "Do you get a discount when you get two?" [I am not making these comments up, but am combining some of the most egregious that friends and I have heard. So while I do not get every single one of them, others have.]

Yes, adoption costs money and is expensive. Giving birth also costs money and is expensive, but insurance usually covers the bulk of it. If insurance did not do this, they would be pretty equivalent, especially if a C-section was involved. The bottom line is we didn't buy our children and they were not sold to us. That would be child trafficking and highly illegal and unethical. There are plenty of agencies, both governmental and adoption, that have jobs to do and must pay their employees. There is an orphanage donation, but this is not buying the child, but helping to ensure that other children are cared for and helps to prepare the files of children who need families. It costs money for the orphanage to do that. And we are not rich... in money. Everyone chooses how they spend the resources, paying for things you want and going without for things that aren't as important to you. And there are adoption grants, loans, and generous people. If you are interested in adoption, but have heard it is expensive, you could try asking, "Would you mind telling me about adoption expenses and how we might be able to afford it?" I can't think of very many adoptive parents who wouldn't gladly discuss adoption with an interested person.

I'm not a doctor, but am willing to play on in the grocery store.

The last egregious line of commenting I'm going to discuss is the idea of being a cast-off. It is no secret that the majority of children being adopted internationally these days have some sort of special medical need. It they didn't, they would probably still be in their family of origin. The fact that our children's birth families felt as though their only choice was to abandon (in China, it is illegal to relinquish a child and families are left with little choice) or relinquish their child to an orphanage because the culture and society made it difficult to impossible for them to get the child the medical care needed, is never far from our thoughts. We often take for granted our access to medical care, even if we complain about the cost, because for so many people, it is only a dream and they must face unthinkable choices as a result. These circumstances does not change the amount of love that is present. It does not make a child a cast-off. It does not make a child second best.

Many people do not interact with people who have physical and mental challenges on a daily basis. Thus, they imagine that doing so is hard. I will freely admit that I lived in this place for quite some time. My children have taught me otherwise. Their challenges do not define them, but are merely a part of life. It is not hard to love or parent them any more than it is hard to love and parent my typical children. I am not special for doing so. [You can read more on this topic here: Please Stop Telling Me How Wonderful I Am Because I Adopted]

That said, here are my instructions for asking about a child's special need. Don't. Just don't. Like the intrusive nature of the siblings question, chances are you don't need to know. Obviously a lot of people do not like their physical and emotional challenges broadcast to the general public based on the current HIPPA laws. If doctor's offices will allow even checking-in to be done in private, then why on earth would an adoptive parent discuss their child's medical needs with a stranger in the grocery store?

I find I walk a thin line with this, though because many of my children have visible special needs. They are there, we can't pretend otherwise. They are also not something that is bad or that we are embarrassed about or that we don't talk about. I never want to communicate to my child that their challenges are something to be ashamed of. I am willing to educate the public, especially when it comes to how to treat a person with a facial difference. But I always do so with my child in mind. What is going to be kind and compassionate to her? It can be a tricky balance, but I will always err on my child's side.

The short version of this is, before you say something, take a moment and practice it in your head. Pretend you are on the receiving end of it. How does it make you feel? If in doubt, just don't say anything, and certainly refrain from saying anything in front of the child, save it for the parent in private if you must. Of course, without the child watching the parent may feel a little more free in their response. Read that any way you want.

These are our children. OUR children. Real children. Real people. Not a hobby. Not a charity case. Not a second tier in the family line up. Our children as much as our biological children. Nothing more, nothing less.


Carla said…
I would agree that the "blue light special" comment is completely inappropriate when the child is obviously not biological. But I HAVE received those comments from well meaning, usually elderly, people in the grocery store regarding my daughter who looks like an exact replica of myself. I usually laugh and say, "Aisle 21, but beware, they are very, very pricy!" Then I usually follow it up with, "But they are always worth it!"

I can't imagine how horrific it would be to get those comments about my non-biological (especially older) children.

It reminded me of when my brother had a set of twins. "Double trouble" was the overwhelming comment. He always replied cheerily, "Oh no, double blessing!" It made an impact on many people that he chose to only reveal the good side.

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