– Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily, 1913
Ah, the power of words. In her December 8 post, Lorraine noted, “By the way, I've seen some new list of acceptable language [to adoptive parents, one assumes], and reunion is now verboten.)” And I had commented that I was curious enough to do a little homework. I located the list, a reprint of an OURS Magazine May/June 1992 feature in Adoptive Families magazine, which indicated that “reunion” was negative language, while “making contact with” was considered positive language, and it was one of several spirited threads on this post. Those who commented agreed that reunion accurately described the dynamic, i.e., brought together again. One commenter wondered if “forever family” would be added to the list; I certainly hope not. Five years ago, Building Blocks Adoption Service, Inc. of Medina, Ohio, a Christian agency specializing in international adoption, placed the following ad in my local paper:
Did you know there are thousands of children residing in orphanages and foster homes overseas in need of homes? These children are in need of forever families. You can make a difference in the life of a child. Children from newborn to school age are immediately available for referral. Call and learn how you can make a difference in the life of a child through Adoption.
As soon as I saw “‘forever families” I went ballistic and sent an e-mail to the agency that the term was offensive and disrespectful to me and all biological families. While these children might need safe, stable, permanent homes, they already had families who grieved for their lost children. Surprisingly, I received a response and apology. Several months later this same agency had a new ad announcing an adoption seminar in my area:
Adoption is an Option…Millions of people have completed their families through adoption. The joy found in making a difference in the life of a child is great—and the joy that child will bring you is even greater.
Much better, don’t you think? I don’t know how much influence I had, but I felt as though they heard me, and listened. At the same time they adopted a new slogan as well, “Creating Families Through Adoption, and Making the Impossible Possible.” Wellll, I dunno. Discuss amongst yourselves.
But back to adoption language. Take a look at the list. Why is biological parent more positive than natural parent? What’s the difference? I’m not crazy about birth mother; as I said in one of my first blogs, it makes me feel like a character in a science fiction novel, it’s just so clinical and cold.
During the first days and weeks of our reunion, my daughter and I wrestled with vocabulary. She’d refer to her adoptive mother by name; she was almost uncomfortable saying “my mother,” and I was always Linda. Once when I didn’t recognize her voice on the phone she exclaimed, “It’s your daughter!” followed by a sense of shock that she referred to herself as my daughter. Eventually, quickly, she simply gave up and her mother was “Mom” or “my mother.”
A mother is a woman who conceives, gives birth to, or raises and nurtures a child. I may not be my daughter’s mother, but she was, is, and always will be my daughter. I conceived and gave birth to her; there’s no other euphemism to describe our connection. While being fitted for the dress I wore to my daughter’s wedding almost four years ago, I explained to the Italian dressmaker that I was the mother of the bride but we were separated by adoption, so I wasn’t her “real” mother. One of her immigrant assistants, a seasoned woman, was sitting at her sewing machine, carefully eavesdropping on the conversation. As I was leaving the shop, this woman smiled at me, nodded her head, and in her heavily accented English said firmly, “You’re her mother.” And of course I thanked her and started to cry, just as I’m tearing up right now at the memory of being acknowledged as a mother.
Somewhere along the line I began using the phrase “childless mother," a takeoff of the old spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” I lost my child to adoption; ergo, I’m a mother without a child. Looking over the list, I suspect everyone will have one or two terms that will rub them the wrong way. I think my favorites are substituting “terminate parental rights” for “give up” and “make an adoption plan” for give away. Though I know she feels differently, I didn’t give my daughter away. But hell yes, I gave up! Every time I wrote my list of pros and cons whether to parent my baby as a single 19-year-old without resources or surrender her to a couple who could provide the financial security that I couldn’t at the time, it was clear which side would be the victor, so yes, I gave in, and gave up.
How much of a difference, if any, does positive adoption language make to triad members? Is it kinder and gentler for adoptees to be referred to as “born to unmarried parents” rather than “illegitimate," the term widely used during the dark ages of adoption? Does it relieve single mothers of decades--even a lifetime--of guilt? Who distinguishes between adoptive parent and parent? Oh, wait! I just looked up the definition of parent, “One who begets, gives birth to, or nurtures and raises a child; a father or mother.” Ah, I see.
I wish I had answers; I only have more questions. If it’s any consolation, remember a rose by any other name would still be as sweet.