Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Weight of Words

Isn’t amazing the weight that some words carry? I remember participating in a leadership training workshop years ago where the presenter spoke about how words aren’t just words. The carry thoughts, judgments, ideas, prejudices, etc. far deeper than the words themselves. For example, an older single man is referred to as a bachelor whereas an older single woman is referred to as a spinster or an old maid. That’s an obvious example of the archaic ideas and judgments that lie underneath those words. Or “Oh, you’re just a housewife or stay-at-home mom.” The word “just” is a seemingly harmless word, but it can be hurtful and offensive if used in that context because of the idea that it represents. There’s a million examples of such unfortunate uses or misuses of words and phrases. I constantly find myself having to tweak some of my language to represent a healthier, more inclusive, or less judgmental state of mind.

On Tuesday, the State came to do our final home study before the finalization of Gianna’s adoption on the 14th. It was painless and just a formality. Visiting with the Case Worker (also an adoptive parent) I was reminded about how much negative language was present in the world of adoption. Most of it is just “old” phrasing that just hasn’t been updated. But as an adoptive mother, I do see the difference it can make. I’m still learning and training myself to use better, more accurate language, but here are a few things I have learned. I wanted to share a few phrasings that I hear fairly often….and the weight of the words they carry.

“Do you know or know anything about her real mother?”
Well, I am her “real” mother. What most people are referring to is her birthmother, biological mother or natural mother. When I mention that, people often say, “Oh, you know what I mean.” And I do. But eventually my child is going to wonder why people don’t think I’m her real mother. We will always acknowledge G’s birthmother role in our lives whether or not we ever meet her. I’m happy to share the title of mother with the woman who gave Gianna life.

“Why did her birthmother give her up.”
Instead of “giving her up,” we describe it as being “placed for adoption” or “she chose an adoption plan for her child.” Some babies are abandoned. It’s a sad reality. But my child was not abandoned (as is the case for many children in adoptive families). Her mother loved her so much that she wanted a life for her that she was unable to provide. I want G to always know that. I’m sure she’ll question all of the why’s and wherefores in years to come – but I don’t ever want her to question whether or not she was loved. As with many/most birthmothers/birth families, it was a very difficult decision. I guess the best way to think of it is that the CHILD isn’t given up or given away – but the right to parent is.

Along those same lines.
"Why didn’t she want to “keep” the baby?"
Instead of “keep” the more appropriate term would be “choose to parent.”

“Did her birth mother do drugs?”
We have a closed adoption due to the request of the birthmother. We know only a little bit about the birth mother/family. Whatever we know about the birthmother is confidential. We’ll share what we know with Gianna when she’s old enough and interested. I am SO bad about feeling obligated to answer questions that people ask me. I’m trying to give myself permission to not answer certain questions. Adoptive Families Magazine suggests that we do a disservice to our children by answering many of these questions in public and in front of the kids. It’s HER history and HER story and we really don’t have the right to share it all with complete strangers (or friends/family for that matter.) That will be her prerogative as she gets older. I just have to get over myself when I’m feeling rude in telling that to people who ask.

“Was she illegitimate?”
Well, actually she’s very legitimate. If you mean, was she born to parents who were not married to each other? Yes. Illegitimate is a terrible label for any child – adopted or not.

“I don’t know if I could ever love a child that wasn’t my own.”
Well, she is actually is my own, so it’s not an issue from that standpoint. (And if you're a believer, then NONE of our children are really our own.) But I know that what they’re really saying is “How could I love a child that wasn’t born to me or that doesn’t have my DNA?” I guess it’s sort of like the common concern when people are expecting their 2nd child…. “How can I ever love another child as much as I love my first?” You just do. It comes with the child and with the openness of your heart. You can’t always imagine it – but it happens….usually instantly and without explanation.

“Are you going to tell her that she’s adopted?”
She will always know. There’s not going to be a magic age when we sit down with her and have “the talk.” We continue to pray for her birthmother and birth family daily and she’ll be joining in those prayers as she grows up. We’re so proud of our adoption journey and we thank God that He chose to grow our family in that way.

Bear with me on this next statement: We won’t tell her that she IS adopted. We will tell her that she WAS adopted. I know. That may seem too subtle to make any difference. But it does. Let me explain:
Adoption is the way Gianna joined our family. It’s not who she is. We never think of her as our adopted daughter. She’s our daughter. We are an adoptive family. It’s part of our history – not a label. If we keep referring to Gianna as our “adopted child” we basically saying she’s different that if she was born to us naturally. She’s not. She’s just our child. For us, “adopted” is a verb, not a noun.

** I have the best memory of being at my dear friend’s house – peaking into the nursery watching her first baby sweetly sleep. She whispered to me, “I can believe how something that big came out of me.” Not an uncommon statement uttered by new moms….except the fact that she and her husband had adopted this sweet angel baby. I was so surprised by that comment and responded, “Well, Leesa, he didn’t come out of you.” We both just cracked up. She was really serious. I found that so funny that she really could forget she didn’t give birth to him – that is, UNTIL Gianna came along. Now, I totally get it. I constantly catch myself saying, “when she was born” or “when I had her.” I feel like I gave birth to her. Heaven knows I went through labor! J

And I LOVE the fact that other people are now forgetting we adopted her. One of my friends said, “It’s so amazing how blue her eyes are and how dark you and Iain’s are.” I was a little confused until I realized that she completely forgot that she was not our biological child. She was embarrassed. I was elated.

There’s a story of a mother who had five children, three children were born to them and two were adopted. When people would say to her, “Now which ones are the adopted ones?” She just looked down at all her five kids, “You know, I just can’t seem to remember.” It’s so easy to be offended by insensitive or ignorant remarks, but I hope that I will always be kind in my responses – even if I feel the need to educate.

“Where did you get her?”
I am SO tempted to being really sarcastic in answering a lot of these questions. I would just love to tell people we “got” her at Babies R US or that she was the prize with our Happy Meal at McDonalds. I know people are curious if we chose Domestic or International adoption and why. (Domestic adoptions take place within the US and International adoptions outside of the US.) People just want to know if we went through an agency or a private attorney or the State.

This next one has to be one of my favorite:
“How did you get a white one?”
A white one? Like she was a puppy in a litter! We didn't put in an order. We were open to adopting a baby - and that's what we got. The funny thing is, we really expected to adopt bi-racial or multi-racial children. And if given the chance to do so, we’d take it in a heartbeat. It just so happened that Gianna’s birthparents were Caucasian. I just tell people, “We didn’t choose her. God chose us.” I’m sure if I were parenting a bi-racial or black child (gasp) this post would be a lot longer. (Because of people’s preconceived ideas and their inability to censor their thoughts before they speak. :)

“How much did she cost?”
Ya gotta love people, huh? Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t buy our child. Just like any services rendered by agencies, attorneys, doctors, hospitals etc. there are fees associated with them. If you give birth to your baby, from the time you find out you’re expecting, there are expenses associated with each aspect of carrying and delivering your baby – even if there aren’t complications, fertility issues, illnesses, etc. Same is true for adoption. Most people just want to know how it all works, what the expenses are, etc. When I tell people that it can range from very little (adoptions through the State) or very expensive (in excess of $50,000.00) Most are somewhere in between. SOME people will say, “Well, what did YOU pay?” Just like in any other situation, it’s not good etiquette to ask about people’s personal finances. Every adoptive situation will vary, so knowing what we “paid” will not necessarily help you.

So, you get the idea. I’m sure in the near future I’ll think of several more words or phrases that carry such weight. If you've unknowingly used some of this negative terminology, don't worry. I have too. I’m still learning myself. I continue to catch myself using outdated language. I don’t beat myself up – I just correct myself and move on. Poet Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.” Here’s to doing better for our children.

I'll be getting off my soap box now. And since you good people have made it THIS far in the post without falling asleep, I'll throw you a little bone. It has nothing to do with the topic - it just makes me and my daughter laugh every day. I thought my husband would have a fit - but he laughed too. :)

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  1. Geesh, WHO are you hanging out with these days? :) I'm just reeling thinking people really ask you these questions. Gianna's a lucky gal to have the sweetest, most patient momma around!

  2. Thanks for your comment on my blog post. There are certainly many, many emotions wrapped up in adoption, and I love all these statements that you clarified. People ask me that stuff all the time, and we don't even have a baby yet. And when I was researching various adoption agencies, I talked to another friend who adopted and had her walk me through some of the things people say.

    I am always happy to meet other adoptive parents. Please keep in touch!


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