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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Word Choice and Adoption

After reading Flip the Script: Adult Adoptee Anthology, it got me thinking on how I write and speak about adoption.

Word choice matters.

Over and over, the idea of "chosen" as a way to talk about adoption came up as incredibly harmful.

Now, to be fair to myself, I have hated the word "Chosen" with regards to adoption since I first started looking for stuff on Pinterest and came across this framed print/wall decal/pillow print/whatever that came up over and over and over again, that goes something like this;

I was LOVED
I was WANTED
I was CHOSEN
I was ADOPTED

Why would this make me feel icky on the inside? Because I feel it's not accurate. I do not go to a baby store. I do not choose my baby out of a row of infants or go to an orphanage and line kids up to pick the one I want. That takes the whole birth mother piece out of the equation, sanitizes it, and makes it sound suspiciously like the whole stork thing that removes messy vaginas and labor from the picture for little kids, and for adoption removes that piece of loss of grief wrapped up in the relinquishment that makes placement possible. (Please know that in no way am I suggesting that gory birth pictures should be displayed in nurseries for the sake of honesty and transparency...)

The truth is, WE WILL BE CHOSEN, not the other way around. One day, our future baby's expectant mother will pick us out of a handful of glossy photobooks, "imagine your baby here" life books, and maybe that will be it or maybe there will be in-person meetings or interviews to decide between families. Because it's a BIG DECISION, and it's HER DECISION. We don't choose. She chooses. And while of course our baby will be loved and wanted, I hate the idea of saying "chosen," because that goes along with "special."

What's wrong with telling a child they're special? Nothing, unless it sets them apart because you specially "chose" them and it puts silent expectation on this difference.

A quote from the anthology, by Joe Soll, LCSW's essay/poem titled "Finding Myself" speaks clearly to both these concepts:

"What I knew about being an adoptee growing up was that I was chosen, perhaps from a baby supermarket. 
What I know now about being an adoptee growing up was that my parents chose to adopt me and each time they told me I was chosen, it caused me pain, reminding me that I lost my mother when I was born.

What I knew about being an adoptee growing up was that I was special, but it made me sad to hear it.
What I know now about being an adoptee is that every time I heard the word 'special,' it caused me pain, reminding me that I lost my mother when I was born."

The same goes for "lucky" and "grateful." I hope that no one that I know would ever tell my child how lucky they are or how grateful they should be to be adopted by us. That is unfair. And it creates problems with feeling okay about talking about birth parents, because if you're supposed to be so lucky or grateful, wouldn't it be ungrateful to want to explore your first family, somehow a betrayal to your adoptive parents? This is not how we feel, whatsoever, but it is an unspoken expectation that comes with "Lucky" and "Grateful." That if you are happy where you are, you should forget where you've been, where your origins lie, who your first family is. I am hopeful that we will have an open adoption where there won't be so much mystery, but because we are the ones who are chosen, we may not have that option. So even if physical contact or communication isn't possible due to birth mother choice, I always want my child to be able to talk about and ask questions about his or her first family, without ever feeling like they are looking a gift horse in the mouth because they are not being "grateful." NO NO NO. We are all partners in the adoption constellation, even if not everyone is clearly visible for whatever complicated reasons. It is hard to tell someone that they are lucky or should be grateful because they are not being parented by their biological parents. Wouldn't that sound confusing and upsetting put in that context?

Then there is the whole "Missing piece" thing, which makes me worry about every time I've written about a happy ending or the baby-shaped hole in our lives. The feeling of expectation that this child should fill a space left empty by failed efforts to conceive a baby. That your happiness is dependent on this child and being a perfect happy family now...which simply just doesn't exist. There is no such thing as the perfect happy family in any situation. However, I could understand the pressure felt to make everyone happy as if that's your role. Which it isn't.

I hope that it's clear when I write about our lives that we are very happy just the two of us. I hope that it's clear that we really want to share our love with a child, to become parents and raise an amazing child (no pressure, we just think that we could do a bang-up job of childrearing and every child is amazing).  That a child does not COMPLETE us, a child ADDS TO US.

My least favorite Pinterest nursery decoration is the one that says,

First we had each other,
Then we had you...
Now we have EVERYTHING.

This one's not meant for adoption solely, but makes me cringe every time I see it. Because jeezum, the pressure. You are our everything? I feel like that makes the child seem like the glue to hold the marriage together, the one piece that is responsible for ultimate happiness and fulfilment. And, I mean, it's of course fulfilling and happiness-making to have a child and participate in parenting and all that, but I don't believe that it should be the ultimate thing that defines me. Probably because in a month I turn 40 and I've had a lot of time to live my life without children, and I'm not wallowing in a pit of misery without direction because I'm not a parent. My marriage and my life is beautiful and full and I don't expect a child to complete it, but it sure would be nice to have that element of our lives come to fruition. (Also, because I teach middle school, I can see the follies in children being the complete and total center of their parents' lives... it does not lead to self-sufficient, resilient children, I can tell you from my experience with many children in a different context from parenting.)

Lastly there is a particularly horrific (in my mind at least) nursery decoration that sort of combines these two sentiments... the CHOSEN and the You are EVERYTHING to us:

I was CHOSEN
I was WANTED
I was CHERISHED
I GREW IN THEIR HEARTS
I WAS THE MISSING PIECE
I was LOVED
I was ADOPTED

I find the past tense concerning, too. I WAS loved? Shouldn't this be present tense for some? Even though I find it a bit cheesy, I do love the "I grew in their hearts" part, because of the whole being a mother at heart forever thing and loving this mysterious child that's been hanging out in the ether for nearly 7 years. There's nothing wrong with that. But it does contribute a bit to this whole "adopted babies just materialize... they weren't grown in someone else's body." Our agency reminded us that at certain developmental ages we have to be sure that our kids realize that they were also born and grew in a tummy, because a lot of times toddlers who were adopted think of adoption as this magical storklike thing and don't realize that they, too, were born. And while that's hard to explain since it means also acknowledging that they grew in someone's tummy and were born and then lost that person (even if it's open adoption, because the first mother isn't parenting), and that is heavy stuff for a three year old. But necessary. And there are great picture books to help with that, including the one that made me cry at my adoptive parent education training weekend. They might not work for every circumstance, but there's more and more literature out there to help with these heavy but vital conversations.

It's the MISSING PIECE part that gets me the most. Now, we feel that we are missing a baby, for sure. Otherwise we wouldn't be working so damn hard to become parents, in so many different ways, for so many difficult years. WE REALLY WANT TO BECOME PARENTS AND PROVIDE A WONDERFUL LIFE FOR A CHILD. We have slowly shed connections to genetics over the past several years. But, in no way could we put it on a child that they are this missing piece to us, that they complete us, that they hold the responsibility to our happiness. The more I read the more the sense of feeling this strong responsibility to be happy and to provide happiness and to never be sad came up in the stories adoptees told in the anthology.

Another quote from Joe Soll, LCSW's essay/poem titled "Finding Myself" speaks to this feeling of happiness responsibility:

"What I know about being an adoptee growing up was that I was supposed to make my adoptive parents happy.
What I know know about being an adoptee is that I am not responsible for their happiness."

Powerful words.

I vow to be more conscious of the way that I speak and write about my FutureBaby, about our wishes to have an extended family beyond our happy family of two. I apologize if I have offended you and these signs are sitting in your nursery...but it doesn't change my feelings about the sentiments. To me, signs like those are like the ones people have over their beds in their master bedrooms...

ALWAYS KISS ME GOODNIGHT

Holy hell, if you need a sign to remind you to kiss each other goodnight, I'm not sure it's worth it to slap that vinyl decal up there. The fact that our child is loved and wanted and adored and that we want all the best things for him or her should be apparent in our actions, not in the decor around the crib, in my (strong) opinion. I'll take owls and kissing puffins and fairy tale foxes lazily eating grapes anytime over that.

Word choice, in what we say, how we write, and how we decorate even can go a long way in making sure that we aren't placing undue pressure or stress on a child whose adoption has brought joy, but is also layered with grief. Not something that has to come up daily per se, but that grief is irrevocably intertwined with the complexity of adoption, and it's so important to honor all of these pieces, not just the sanitized version that is so much easier to swallow.

16 comments:

  1. Wow. Your posts are always thought-provoking and I love that you are always striving to be better about using certain words/phrases. It's a learning process for sure.

    I totally get it and understand why phrases like "I was chosen" would be hurtful. I'm also thinking that when Future Baby enters into your life, saying something like "Future Baby is so lucky to have you as parents!" would be hurtful. Before this post I would have said it without thinking about it but now I will have to reassess what I will write when Future Baby comes into your life. :-)

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    1. Thank you, it feels like a minefield sometimes, actually. I feel like I don't want eggshell-walking everywhere either though, and I know I am going to mess up. Plus, when you phrase it that way, "Future Baby is so lucky to have you as parents!" I feel like you would have said that if we'd been able to conceive genetically or donorwise, so that's just a nice compliment to us! I feel like telling our child him or herself "aren't you lucky they adopted you?" is different somehow, but maybe not? Food for thought. I certainly don't want all this awareness making congratulations scary! :) Thank you for your lovely words!

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  2. The problem with a lot of the descriptors here is that they represent exaggerated ideals. (yes, a lot to live up to.) Maybe the pitfalls are more widespread for parents who had to work so hard to become a family, but I think that's problematic (like you mention) for any family. It reminds me of the stories that refer to egg donors as an 'angel.' On the flip side, I read a lot in the adoption community that seems to bathe the story in tragedy to 'acknowledge the deep loss' and such, and I'm not sure that's healthy either. I think plain speech and gentle honesty is probably best in most situations. For example, my therapist (an adoptive father) suggests referring to the egg donor as "a nice lady who helped us make you." I know it's not exactly the same because of the relinquishment component, but...

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    1. It's such a tough balance, right? You also don't want to avoid the word "special" when you might have used it in any case, or like you said, focus too much on grief and loss. It's such an interesting thing to think over and wonder about... how to avoid pitfalls that could be harmful (which definitely applies adoptive or not) and acknowledge the pain inherent in adoption while not squelching the joy, too. I do hate those signs though... :) Thanks for your thoughts and for keeping me thinking!

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  3. I've been thinking a LOT about word choice and emphasis. And your post highlights nicely how detrimental word choice can be, even when well intentioned.

    What is striking to me is how word choice is often used to simplify a complex situation. People want something that doesn't bring up strong emotions when addressing a topic. Yet silencing never works for long (see your last post). Even if it makes one party feel better in the process.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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    1. I think that simplifying and sanitizing go together to some level, a way to try to take discomfort out of what is simply true. I don't think things have to be brutally honest all the time of course. But it's interesting to look at things through the lens of "is this nice because it makes me feel better as an adoptive parent? How would it make my child feel? Would my child feel comfortable telling me if it made him or her feel uncomfortable?" I feel like exploring all these feels is super important, and the thinking (so much thinking) is going to make for better mindfulness now and later. I hope. Thank you for your thoughts!

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  4. I have loved your blog for a while, but this is by far my favorite yet. LOVE LOVE LOVED your thoughts.

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    1. Oh, I'm so glad! I was strangely nervous about this one, but felt it was important to get out and discuss. :) Thank you!

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  5. I totally agree with WannabeHockeyMom (see post above from 4/5/2016).

    In my own opinion: Decorating the house with slogans puts pressure on that household to either live up to the slogans, or (in some of the cases you have listed), live down to the slogans.

    Even aside from printed slogans, word-choice mistakes will happen. What I love is that you are so aware of this issue!

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    1. Thank you! I am not the biggest fan of decor that demands that you think or feel or say something to begin with (see that facebook post with the ladies commenting on all the decals/pillows/prints out there to that end), but these seemed especially not so great. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  6. As an adult adoptee who stumbled across your blog, I find this post really interesting. I don't remember my parents ever telling me I was "chosen," per se, but it was probably something along those lines. And personally, I don't find it as offensive as the person you quoted seems to. My parents were always very up front with me about the process, they had a picture book we read together, but I can't for the life of me remember the name. It's interesting that you mention adopted toddlers not feeling like they were "born," because I always had a sense that I was "birthed," as much as any little kid can have a concept of that. But my parents were so calm when discussing my adoption, they always made me feel like it was a totally normal thing (which it is!) but there was far less visibility back then (the early '80s) and it wasn't until I became school-aged that I realized I wasn't "normal" in the eyes of some. But that's a whole 'nother topic. I am very grateful that I was born in the time before open adoptions. While I "knew" that I had two mothers, in a sense, there was never any confusion about who "my mommy" was. I guess what I'm getting at is that word choice never really bothered me (and still doesn't), with the exception of the rude people who use the phrase "real" mother. My "real" mother is the woman who raised me. I know that there is another woman out there who made a very brave decision, but that's all she is to me - someone who gave me the gift of my parents. I guess my perspective is just to follow the child's lead. I was glad that my parents were so open with me but it wasn't something we needed to talk about every day. And they never pressed me into reaching out to my birth mother, but told me they would support me if I wanted to do so. Again, different era, closed adoption, so it would have been a lot more difficult that it seems it is now. Sorry to leave a novel from a stranger on your blog! I just like to share my take on adoption, because it seems to be a bit different from the adoptee "community," if there is such a thing. You are doing a wonderful thing, and I hope you get to meet your child soon.

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    1. Thank you for stopping in, Tonya! I really appreciate your thoughts and your "novel," don't even worry about comment length. :) It's interesting, I have spoken to a number of friends who were adopted in a more closed era (open in terms of talking about adoption in their family, closed in terms of information on birth parents) and there is a common thread that the idea of open adoption is bizarre. One of my friends said that she couldn't imagine having her birth mother as a presence throughout her childhood, but maybe now that is just a new normal and it would be okay? It seems that everyone's experience is so different, and no one adoptee (or adoptive parent or birth parent) really has the same type of experience. I have a whole post brewing on the "real" issue, because with open adoption it gets stickier. I love your advice to follow the child's lead -- I think all this wondering and extrapolating about parenthood is good for awareness but will change when we have our actual child, and see what he or she needs from us. I guess that's true no matter how you enter into parenting...there's all your thoughts on what a careful, mindful, amazing parent you'll be and then you plop your kid in front of the TV so you can have a shower and a chat with your best friend for sanity and hygiene's sakes. :) I really appreciate your perspective and the time you took to share your thoughts -- please come back and weigh in any time! Thank you for the well wishes as well. Peace to you.

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  7. So I don't have very much experience with adoption personally, other than knowing kids growing up who were adopted. In school I remember kids mentioning they were adopted but it was never made to be a big deal by them so everyone just knew and life went on. A close friend in highschool mentioned she was adopted, but she never mentioned it in terms of an identity crisis, wanting to find her birth mom, or of negative associations and word choice. I think it might tie into what Tonya above commented, about the era of closed adoptions vs now. My only other experience is a friend of mine who has an daughter adopted from China, but that brings on a whole other set of issues with it being a transracial adoption and the fact that she was in an orphanage in China with literally no idea who her biological family was. But I can totally see how word choice is so important.
    As for all those sayings and home decor and Pintrest/fb/social media "posters" with the uplifting messages...UGH. They are all so cliche and annoying and goodness knows the person is so "blessed" because they posted about it...I most definitely don't have any of that crap anywhere in my house.

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    1. Thank you for weighing in! It is interesting to think about and to see everyone's varying perspectives. Something that came across in the book was a sense of putting on a happy face outwardly but feeling these feels inwardly...and I want to be sure that I'm thinking about all the implications even though they may not apply in my particular family's situation. It's all so tricky, and like all family situations, so individual to each circumstance. I am loving the dialogue though! And ha ha to the decor and uplifting messages stuff... you crack me up. :)

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  8. Oh, Jess. You are my favorite. There is so much in this post I never thought about, and so much I think about every time I come across it. My least favorite thing about this gem:

    First we had each other,
    Then we had you...
    Now we have EVERYTHING.

    ....and what if you happen to have a second child later? What on earth does that make them...

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! And for cracking me up... I never even THOUGHT about the implication having another child would have on the "Now we have EVERYTHING" schlock. Maybe you stencil another baby elephant or owl or fox at the bottom? ;-) Too funny.

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