Monday, April 2, 2012


In a recent FB post someone asked about October Baby.  There were a few follow-up comments about "adoption language" and how the film had some that was "inappropriate".  Rather than writing a book for a comment, I decided to write a post instead.

The delicacies of "Proper Adoption Language" now amuse me, because despite my care and "sensitivity" - my adopted kids care little for them.  And, somehow I think proper respect requires me to see them as the experts.

In their effort to communicate clearly, the most typical and natural language is what they use. (Usually labeled "negative" or "inappropriate" by those who set themselves up as experts.)  My children never hesitate a moment before saying that they were an "orphan", or designating their birth mom as their "real" mom - the two biggest no-nos.

For a while, I tried to nudge them toward "appropriate" language, but I now believe that in doing so I was being insensitive.  My children have made it clear that they do consider their biological mothers their "real" mothers.... Most of my children remember their mothers.  None of them have one positive memory to relate....but, that doesn't mean they should have to deny reality. They would all say that I am "nicer", "better", "more loving" and the mom they are supposed to be with  - but to be fair, we all would say that our mother is the person who gave birth to us.  Am I supposed to deny my adopted children their reality?  I do that by insisting that the mother they remember wasn't actually "real".   And if I call one of their moms their "birth mom", they give me a bit of a confused occurred to me, they don't remember their birth - so what's that about?  They remember being their mother's child.  They remember calling her mother.  They remember other people referring to her that way - and now I am supposed to tell them that was all wrong?  She was just a "bio-mom"; I'm their "real" mom.  Talk about insensitive!

A couple of years ago I boldly stepped forth and attempted to start an "Orphan Ministry" in our church.  This is not a typical feature in Catholic Churches....though the Church does a lot around the world and locally caring for orphans, the ministry does not usually trickle down in a hands-on way, at least overtly, to the parish level.  I wanted to change that.  To my amazement, of the seven people who came to our first meeting, three of them were there to blast me out of the water for using the word "Orphan".  (All were professional social workers, by the way.)  Let me tell you, in their righteous indignation, they completely took over the meeting.  Despite their expertise, though, none could give me another word to describe a child without parents.  Instead they were trying to push the ministry to care for foster children.....who are "not all orphans" as they pointed out.  No amount of my trying to say that it was actual children without parents I was hoping for the organization to help, made any difference. The first six months was spent "finding a new name" since (obviously) "Orphan Ministry" wouldn't work, scriptural or not.  We finally settled on "Loving Homes for Children" which, while nice and "sweet" - means nothing to people.  We've not gotten one new member under that name, whereas even now occasionally someone will call to say that they remember one time seeing something in the bulletin about our parish having an "Orphan Ministry" - were they dreaming?  What is language for, if not to communicate?  By using the politically correct wording, we can sometimes completely fail to do that.

I notice from an on-line list that we are supposed to say "Court Termination" rather than "taken away".  Oh, how gently put - but when my daughter remembers vividly having the authorities come and physically TAKE HER AWAY - isn't it a bit insensitive to sugar coat what happened?  Children don't care about court.....but being taken away - they understand and remember that.  Every detail is seared on her memory....and I am supposed to refer to a  court order?

How it tore my heart when Ilya said "My mom didn't want me."  Oh!  Ilya - you can't say that!  You should say, "placed for adoption" (according to the inappropriate/appropriate translation list).....only, of course, he wasn't.  He was first unwanted. Not being stupid, he could tell, and he's told me.  Then he was given up (another no-no) to his grandmother (but he considered it a blessed event), then he was taken away from her, and now he says "I'm adopted."   Am I supposed to say, "No, Ilya.  You can't say that; say you 'were adopted'."  I suppose we are supposed to imply by that last nicety that he is now my "real" child.  But, that is too sweet, too simple, with none of the truth in it.  My children feel they belong in our family, but they are not confused about how it came about, and the difference between them and the kids we gave birth to.  I hope (and believe) that they would say we love them just as much (it is so true), but they realize that they are adopted...and in saying so they attest to the truth and complexity of their lives.  I refuse to tell them that is inappropriate.

Who are we supposed to be protecting with this "sensitive language"?  I wonder if it isn't ourselves.....perhaps we don't want to have to consider the pain in adoption.....  By sweetening the language, we sometimes remove the truth, and I just don't think that is doing anyone any favors. 


Essie the Accidental Mommy said...

I may not be the best person to comment here, since I get easily whipped up about these topics. It makes me crazy when my daughters say "stupid is a bad word, you shouldn't say it". THAT of course, I believe is stupid. The word itself is not "bad", it's the tone and intent of the user that puts the communicative concept in a positive or negative light.
By the way, I definitely recall from MY list of "appropriate adoption language" that no child is given up, its that the parent Made an Adoption Plan.
Now, please don't get me this whipped up so early in the morning again Annie.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more!


Mike and Christie said...

Excellent post Annie! Thank you for answering. I did read a good review of the movie which covered what the movie was actually about. It isn't just about adoption, but abortion. The young lady featured in the movie survived abortion.
We are pretty relaxed around here about adoption terminology. The girls use "real mom" and sometimes "bio mom" or "other mom".
They too were unwanted, given away and taken away by police.
"Adoption Plan" seems so silly to me. If everything were that neat and tidy, it seems that the mother would have made a "pregnancy plan"....hmmmm. :)

Life isn't neat and tidy, yet in all the MESS, and Messiness, we find meaning and know we all belong together.

The only time I get irritated with people is when they say something in front of the girls like, "So how many REAL children do you have?"
I simply answer 8. :)

on our way today said...

Interesting. Obviously I don't have any adopted kids but a friend of mine did and we had a discussion once. She was intent on using real mom to refer to her and the bio mom was to be called by her first name. It was an open adoption in America. The bio mom wanted to be at least called by bio mom if not mom. But my friend thought it rude. I agreed with bio mom tho since she did choose to give baby life and not abort. I don't know I guess some people have very emotionally charged responses to this topic. I tend to agree with you tho and you should call it what it is.

Hevel Cohen said...

Wonderful post!

I'd like to say, that I was never an orphan. P was never an orphan. My other adopted kids were orphans. I was always told to refer to my real mom as my birth mother, and my adoptive mother as my real mother. She wasn't, and not only because of her failure as a parent.

With my own kids I go with their terminology: P refers to his biological dad as his real mom's then boyfriend. Bella and Eli refer to their very first dads as their real dads. Bella calls us her parents by love, and the others are picking it up. They are not adopted by us, and most likely never will be, but I think I prefer that title the most. A dad by love.

Hevel Cohen said...

And another thought (Sorry for spamming...) I do have a hard time finding the apropriate word for the woman who raised me. I think calling her any kind of mother is giving her too much credit.

Mike and Christie said...

My girls call me "mother", "mama" and Mom....
Alli has had so MANY moms, she says, "My Russia Mom", and then she calls the other two families by last name.
The V mom, or the H mom.

That way, we don't get mixed up. :)

Yankee Blog Reader said...

Other adoptive parents usually get into panic mode when I mention the word "orphanage" in front of Elena or their children. I agree with all that you wrote, but have to admit I get ticked off when someone asks me if I plan on having "my own" kids. Or if I keep in touch with Elena's "real mom."
Elena has a brother that she has met. I feel silly telling people that we are going to visit with her "bio. brother." NOBODY ever understands. So, lately, I just say half-brother and no one seems to have issues comprehending that term.

Yankee Blog Reader said...

P.S. The above post is from Maria (Elena's Mom :-))

Annie said...

I'd forgotten that term "Russian mom" - that's a convenient one! A little perk for the "internationally adopted" child.

One interesting thing about Russian orphanages is that the children call all the caregivers "mama" and any men about the place "papa" the children naturally call their adoptive parents "mama" and "papa" from the first time they meet them. At first Craig thought that the kids were coached to do this as some sort of strategy to get their host families to feel the part, I guess.

Since then, though, I've thought that perhaps this easy use of the word makes it easier for the cildren to feel cared for and nurtured by many women, but perhaps also to consider the word less "sacred" than we typically do here.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion. A similar discussion is also had with African-Americans and who can use the "N-" word. Does the word still degrade, even when it is reclaimed by the maligned group? There are valid arguments on both sides of the fence.
Besides the consideration of your children feeling validated in claiming the word "Orphan" as their own, you might want to consider their ability to gauge "appropriateness" use of language, in terms of their English proficiency. Are they fluent in English? Do they understand the political charge behind the word? Could that be a factor, as well?
I think "reclaimed" words are "allowed" to be used, as long as the speaker has a deep understanding of the meaning and use, and also has understanding of his/her audience...and whether it's the best choice of words for that particular context and audience.

Annie said...

Hi, Anon! I'm glad you commented, but honestly - in the case of the "n" word there is obviously a "political charge" and a nasty, mean-spirited history.

I'm not really sure what it is in the case of "children without parents" - how is the state of being an orphan politically charged? I think I missed something on that one.... You must be right - that some people see it that way - that was the tenor of the SW's in my group, but none of them could explain to me why "orphan" is a dirty word....any more than "unmarried" would be or "only child" or any other word that describes a family situation.

To be fair, I might muddy the waters a bit by saying that the language used by children who remember their past, might well be different than what would be appropriate for a child who does not remember....strange as that seems. But, it does seem as though if a person is adopted as a baby, the more delicate language does seem better - usually. Sometimes it does just seem silly (to me).

Anonymous said...

I am Russian, though I've lived in the States for the past 15 years. In my understanding, in Russian language there is nothing negative or inappropriate or political in the term "orphan". It is what it is- a child without parents. Those things happen and it's not uncommon and it's nothing to be ashamed of. I am not aware of any sort of connotation. Same with the Russian word for the orphanage.

Perhaps this clouds my judgment in the way I perceive the English version of the word- but I for the life of me cannot see why this would be a word that one would hesitate to use- especially around adopted children who are old enough to remember their past. In fact, if they constantly see adults in their life dance around those words they might think that having lived in an orphanage is something shameful.

I think that Annie is absolutely right in using the language that her kids are comfortable with, and perhaps tempering it a bit if she feels the need- after all, they are not native English speakers and their understanding of some words might also be influenced by their native language, as is mine. But political correctness should have nothing to do with this - an orphan is an orphan, and being taken away from your first mother by the police is what it is, and it's no use calling that an adoption plan- that's just absurd. Children are not stupid, they remember and they understand. I think the important thing is not to make them feel ashamed of it by trying to call it what it's not.

Obviously, this would not apply to the children adopted in the early age, as their parents have an opportunity to fully control and shape their understanding and perception of their past.


Cléo said...

Ah, politically correct wording... making us all SO tired!

Hevel Cohen said...

Cléo, I don't think any of us on this side of the pond can ever really not roll our eyes at over-PC-ing the vocabulary.

Diana said...

Wow. Great post and great discussion. We were in a parenting class yesterday in church. Everyone in that room knows our kids were adopted. Some comment was made that put such a rosy spin on parenting and how all children love their parents. My hubs and I just laughed and were whispering comments to each other. We, of course, were busted and were forced into sharing our thoughts...which we did. We talked about how not all kids have parents and the thousand empty eyes we left behind. That, of course, derailed things even further and started a discussion among those with no adopted children on how once adopted, children are cemented to their parents and have no desire to find their birth parents. This time we kept our giggles and whispers much more quiet. The topic did kind of come up again in a round about way and I said something to the effect that our experience has been much different. Our kids think about their birth mother constantly...and then I moved on before it could derail the conversation even further. But the gasps in the room were audible. We could tell everyone was thinking, but didn't dare say "that wouldn't happen at MY house!" The hubs and I just shared a knowing smile of "Oh yes it would!"

My kids get offended when people ask about their real mom. They know who people are talking about, but they deflect to me. We've gone the first name for BM route and me as the real mom, and that was good for attachment. It's probably time I ask them about how they feel about that now. Thanks for the brain food!

Unknown said...

Hi Annie, I found your blog this morning when I was searching "adoption appropriate" language. My kids ages 13 and 11 are Korean adoptees. Last Sunday, out of the blue, my church announced they were starting a new mission to help promote adoption and support orphans. My Pastor did an entire sermon on how we are called by God to take care of orphans. They played a video about the adoption of a 10 yr old by a family in our church and would like to encourage more of the congregation to adopt or become foster parents. The entire thing made me feel very uncomfortable because I know how loaded and complicated the word "orphan" can be in the adoption community. I also think the issues surrounding adoption can be so complex. Yet, I can see the struggles that you faced with the social workers- I don't want to be that person either. Honestly at this time in my life I don't want to be involved at all! lol Anyway, thanks for the post and for giving me something to think about. It was spot-on to the issue that I've been thinking about! BTW, I agree that your kids can use whatever terms they want. It is their story after all!