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."
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.