Adoption Language

Language in adoption is constantly changing. And, it varies greatly. Until recently, we had been using the concept of “positive” adoption language.

Once we started listening closely and more attentively to birth parents and adoptees, we know there is a problem with referring to adoption language as “positive.”

While we and others in the field of adoption may have had good intentions, “positive” adoption language can lead others to believe adoption is just that. All positive. But, adoption is more complex then the historical narrative. Like many others, we want to move away from this concept of “positive” adoption language and more towards adoption language that is honest, accurate and neutral. The thoughts and ideas below are not new. Birth parents and adoptees are speaking out about adoption language and in what direction it should be heading. We want to let you know we are listening and moving in that direction with you. 

To us, HONEST adoption language is very important.

It leaves room for words many are afraid to put next to, heck, anywhere close to, the word adoption. Grief. Loss. Trauma. Complexity. For adoption language to be honest it must encompass more then just the happy, feel good phrases, so often attached to adoption. Adoption is love. Adoption is family. Adoption rocks. Love makes a family. Is adoption about a broader definition of family? Yes. Is there life, love, hope and joy in adoption? Yes, we think there is! We see it. But, right next to it is the grief, loss and trauma. There isn’t one without the other. Honest adoption language creates space for both.

Adoption language needs to be ACCURATE.

Decades ago the phrase, “put her baby up for adoption,” was commonly used. When you really think about that phrase, what does “put up” mean? If you research this term, you’ll likely find more about it’s historical context and where it came from. It’s outdated and inaccurate. In more recent years, and even today, people will use the phrase a woman, “gave her baby up,” for adoption. This can infer that she herself “gave up” or “gave away ” her child. A potentially more accurate term/phrase describing the parenting decision a mother makes is “she placed her child for adoption.” Adoption professionals, adoptive parents and non members of the triad should use “placed” instead of “put up” or “gave up.” It is important to note: if a birth parent or adoptee ever identifies more with the latter, they should be given the room to use the language that most resonates with them and their adoption. 

NEUTRAL adoption language leaves room for birth parents and adoptees to name their own unique experiences and feelings related to their adoption.

Here is one example. Adoption professionals, adoptive parents and non members of the triad often refer to birth mothers as brave and selfless. We’ve used (and use) these words often. And, we believe them. We witness the love birth mothers have for the child(ren) they place. We see the sacrifice they make. The pain they endure. Their strength and courage is incredible. However, some birth mothers do not identify with being brave and/or selfless. They see their decision as selfish, or both in different ways. Do we think an outsider looking in should tell her she is a coward, selfish, only thinking of herself? Absolutely not. It’s unlikely they would know the true depths of her and her story to cast that kind of judgement. At this time, we’re moving towards describing the decision a birth mother makes to place her child as difficult. Because it is an incredibly difficult decision she has likely spent a great deal of time exploring, thinking about and planning for. It is not a decision she has taken lightly. And choosing a different word(s) doesn’t mean she isn’t brave or selfless. It leaves more room for her to decide.

A thought on referring to birth mothers as brave. A question to ask ourselves? If we call a birth mother brave, are we saying she is only so if she places her child for adoption? Is she also brave if she chooses to parent? Words matter. They have meaning. We won’t always get it right. The key is to keep leaning in, listening and learning. And then, having a willingness to change and grow.

Person first language in adoption is something to consider using.

It does just that. Puts the person first. There may be times when an adoptive parent has to distinguish that her child is adopted or between her adopted child(ren) and biological child(ren). This is not always necessary but in the case an identifier is needed, what if you put the person first?! They are first and foremost your child. They are your child through adoption and/or your child through biology. The same could go for identifying as an adoptive parent. “I am a parent through adoption.” First and foremost a parent. Through adoption. Being an adopted person or an adoptive parent is a part of a person’s identity. Not the entire sum of who they are. Person first language recognizes a person is more then just one thing and leaves room for all the parts of our identity.

Adoption language is more complex then could ever fit into one blog. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The key is to leave room for continual learning and growth. Being willing to recognize and admit when certain language is no longer working. And then, change it! Maybe even change it again! We also have to leave room for birth parents and adoptees to choose and use the language they most identify with. Even if it’s not the language adoption professionals, adoptive parents and non triad members are using. We’ve heard birth parents and adoptees use a myriad of terms in adoption: birth mom/dad/siblings, first mom/dad, biological mom/dad/siblings, family of origin, family of experience, adoptive mom/dad/siblings. The list could go on and on. There is room for diverse, inclusive, honest, accurate, person first, neutral adoption language! And, there is room to change it as we go!