Nearly fourteen years ago, my husband, Gary, celebrated his first Father’s Day with the arrival of our eight-month-old, dark-haired, blue-eyed baby girl. Her adoption is a fact of our lives together that we have, from the beginning, all discussed openly and with enthusiasm.
So I held my breath one afternoon when our daughter arrived home from school and declared that a classmate didn’t “get” adoption. Apparently this student asked with an edge, “Why don’t you go back to your old parents?” Sadly, when our girl tried to explain, she didn’t get far. When I asked how that made her feel, she blew it off cheerfully with an exaggerated drawl: “Aw, she’s just thinkin’ outta the wrong side o’ her head!”
I chuckled, grateful for my daughter’s perspective. And I was also thankful for the wisdom of other adoptive parents who had helped us determine how best to communicate with her about her past. They encouraged us to talk openly and use positive language—vocabulary chosen to assign the maximum dignity to the way our family was built. That language has helped us stop perpetuating the myth that being part of an adoption means that one has somehow missed out on a real family experience. Here’s what it looks like in our lives:
First, we avoid saying “our daughter is adopted.” Phrasing it in the present tense suggests that her adoption is ongoing. When it is appropriate even to refer to the fact of our daughter’s adoption, we say, “She was adopted,” describing the way in which she joined our family.
When people ask if she is our natural child, we affirm that she is—she’s certainly not our unnatural child. As she described it in her younger years, “Mommy’s tummy was broken so I grew in her heart instead.” We refer to her genetic family as her birthparents. Everyone has birthparents, but not everyone lives in the custody of his or her birthparents. She is not our genetic child, but she is naturally ours. And her birthmother and birthfather are not her mother and father. We are.
People often want to know if we have ongoing contact with her birthparents. Indeed, we do have an open adoption. At this point folks often shudder, confusing open adoption with shared parenting. I have never met our daughter’s birthmom, though my husband has. But we know her name and her health history and we exchange letters with her and the birthfather’s family. And we speak respectfully about our daughter’s birthparents as those in a unique group of fewer than one percent of the population who make such a loving choice.
Is our daughter “one of our own”? Certainly. We laugh when she’s funny. We discipline her when she sasses. We drag ourselves out of bed when she’s sick. We help her with her homework. We are her parents, and we love her as much as any parent could love a child. The very institution of marriage demonstrates that one can love as family a person to whom he or she is not genetically related. My sister, who is the biological mother of one daughter and the adoptive mother of another, insists that adoptive ties are no less strong or enduring than genetic ones.
Today’s birthparents do not surrender, release, relinquish or “give up a child” to adoption, except in rare cases of involuntary termination of rights due to abuse or neglect. Instead birthparents “make an adoption plan.” Theirs is an active not a passive choice. These birthparents recognize they are incapable of giving their biological child all that he or she needs for well being, so they proactively choose a better life for that child, which demonstrates selfless love. When our friends talk about this, we prefer for them to emphasize the love part, the plan part, over wording that can suggests to our girl that she was abandoned.
Some prospective parents opt to adopt a child from another country. Formerly this was called foreign adoption, but “foreign” often has negative connotations as in “I got a foreign object in my eye.” So the preferred label is international adoption—just as we refer to students who come to the United States seeking education as “international students,” not “foreign students.”
We do not refer to our friends’ children who joined their families through adoption as their “adopted children.” They are simply their children. The qualifier “adopted” is unnecessary as an on-going label. As author, Patricia Johnston, points out, we would never describe little Jimmy as Tom and Meg’s “birth-control-failure child.”
And we didn’t rescue our daughter, and we are not noble heroes. She is not the only one who benefited from the fact that God joined us together. We all have more love and beauty in our lives as a result.
We prefer that people use this positive adoption language. Yet it doesn’t usually upset us when they don’t. We don’t expect them to know. But we do appreciate it when they listen and learn.
Each year in the United States, more than 120,000 children join their families through adoption, and we are one of those blessed families. When I sing “God bless the broken road that led me straight to you,” I glance in the rearview mirror and smile at the girl who made me a mother and my husband a father. The one who grew in my heart.
She is ours, but she is not ours. She is, as are all children, on loan to us from God.