A Guide for Adoption Language: Its Importance and Power

In recent years, adoption has gained both national attention and momentum. What once was considered a private, and often a taboo topic at times, has now become part of society. While this is something to celebrate, there remain many nuances within adoption that still need to be addressed. We have begun normalizing adoption, and society has begun to open its eyes to the many ways families can be built. Adoption has its own community that strives to educate and advocate for all members of the adoption triad. Perhaps one of the most foundational ways we can positively impact the adoption community is through our language. In addition, adoption language remains something that can be improved throughout society. You have likely heard such phrases as “words have power” in your lifetime. Adoption language is no different. The language we use in and around adoption matters immensely and it holds so much power. This article will discuss why positive adoption language matters. 

Positive and Negative Adoption Language

In an effort to be clear on positive and negative adoption language, let’s take a specific look at the language that might be considered positive and negative within adoption. We will address specific examples later, but it is important to note that positive adoption language enhances an adoption experience, while using language that establishes or reinforces love and affirmation. On the other hand, negative adoption language does not support members of the adoption community, and often creates an “us versus them” dynamic within an adoptee’s story, especially in regard to the birth parent(s). Though this might be self-explanatory, it is necessary to associate adoption language with efforts to either affirm or divide members of the adoption community. Of course, we all want to affirm those individuals, so adoption language becomes a critical concept.  

“Putting a Baby Up for Adoption” versus “Place Your Baby for Adoption”

There is a major difference between the two phrases, “putting up a baby for adoption” and “place your baby for adoption.” The first phrase would be considered negative because it implies that you are giving up your baby, as well as, giving up on loving or knowing your baby in the future. It is critical to note here that any individual who makes an adoption plan for a child is demonstrating the truest definition of love and parenthood. You are ultimately doing what you think is best for your child in light of your circumstances, thus, making you a loving and sacrificial parent. As a potential expectant parent, and as anyone would, you will likely believe what you call yourself. Allowing positive adoption language is and will continue to be powerful for your journey of parenthood and healing. Consistently telling yourself that you “put up your baby” will over time cause you to have negative feelings and condemning self-thoughts about the choice you may or may not make for your child. 

As a potential expectant parent who is considering adoption, you have several things you must begin considering in order to determine if adoption is the best option for you. While this article will not provide a step by step guide for pursuing adoption for your child, you will be able to learn about the positive and negative aspects of adoption language. You may also be a hopeful adoptive parent who is looking for a place to start your journey. You can click here to connect with an adoption professional who can assist you regardless of what part of the adoption triad you find yourself. 

The Language of the Adoption Triad

When someone enters the world of adoption a triad is formed. Though each triad is different, each triad essentially consists of the birth parent(s), the adoptee and the adoptive parent(s). The importance of positive adoption language is important within the adoption triad because it sets the tone for the adoptee’s lifelong experience. Also, and as mentioned previously, the language used to refer to each member of the triad also matters as each unique adoption story transforms.

  1. Expectant Parent versus Birth Parent: This individual(s) begins the triad by deciding that placing the child for adoption is the best choice for him or her. However, there is an important distinction to be made between expectant parents and birth parents. When you are pregnant and considering adoption, you are considered to be an expectant parent. You are quite literally expecting and have not given birth to a child you have placed for adoption. Maintaining the use of an expectant parent shows respect to the choice an individual has, while not assuming you are automatically going to place your child for adoption just because you are pregnant. Women who are pregnant and considering adoption are cherished individuals with stories that matter and demonstrating respect with this awareness of terminology is critical. A birth parent is a parent, both mother and father included, who have made an adoption plan and have actually placed the child for adoption. Once the child has been placed for adoption, the parents can be considered to be birth parents. The term birth parent is not the only term that can be used in this case. For instance, my family refers to my son’s birth family as his, “the first family.” Personally, I tend to like this term better because it shows respect and honor in that we continually recognize these people were a family first. 
  2. The Adoptee: Children who have been adopted can commonly be referred to as an “adoptee.” In my experience, it is less common for people within a family that has an adoptee to address that child as an “adoptee.” Rather, family members simply say, “son, grandson, nephew, etc.” The importance of language for an adoptee is more prominent within the home. As an adoptive parent who is part of an open adoption with our son’s first family, we use adoption language to nurture that relationship. For example, when we have visits with our son’s biological mother and extended family, we often say things like, “first mommy.” We refer to our son as our son, and not our son who was adopted or adopted son. We work diligently to keep our adoption language extremely positive and loving so that our son has a supportive space to understand his story. 
  3. The Adoptive Parent(s): As an adoptive parent who is part of open adoption, our son’s first family refers to my husband and me as our son’s mother and father. We are not called his adoptive mother or adoptive father. Once again, the language used in normal language and does not make adoption terms a requirement. Our son, as you might assume, calls us mom and dad. When parents are exploring adoption or an active adoptive family, these people can commonly be referred to as “hopeful adoptive parents.” This phrase indicates that they are waiting or exploring if adoption is right for that couple.  

While members of the adoption triad vary within each adoption, the importance of adoption language is the same. For healthy and respectful perspectives, positive adoption language should be in place as a springboard for other positive adoption components.

Negative Adoption Language in Conversation

Adoption is a difficult journey for everyone. In a perfect world, there would be no need for adoption, but the world is not perfect, and sometimes, adoptions need to occur. As I mentioned earlier in the article, if you are an expectant parent considering placing your child for adoption, there are many resources and adoption professionals that can help you. There are also resources and adoption professionals for hopeful adoptive parents. Before you potentially begin your adoption journey, start to incorporate the use of positive adoption language with yourself and those around you. Even though the landscape of adoption has changed immensely in recent years, you will unfortunately still discover that there is still some ignorance when it comes to adoption, especially in terms of language. This is, in my opinion, most evident in the birth parent community.

My husband and I experienced six disrupted adoptions before we met our son through infant domestic adoption. Throughout the years, we were able to make relationships with several birth parents, including both expectant mothers and fathers. Within this community and our own community, we would hear the following phrases at an alarming rate:

-How can she/he/they give up the baby?

-Once you adopt this baby, you will still want a baby of your own.

-Do you have any children of your own?

-What do you know about her/his/their real parents?

-Why didn’t you just have a child of your own?

While these phrases create an awkward moment of conversation, these words are evidence of the importance of positive adoption language. It is clear that there still is a need for society to be educated about adoption language and the impact it can have on families that are impacted by adoption. The above phrases relate more to adoptive parents because I am an adoptive parent. However, the first phrase that relates to birth parents is a phrase that I have heard countless times. It is as if people look upon a birth parent with unbelief that he or she would even consider “giving up a child.” When people are told that the better phrase is “place the child for adoption” you either get a puzzled look or a look of, “oh, that makes sense.” My husband and I have had numerous instances when we politely suggested another phrase for someone to use. It is an easy thing to do and one that does not have to cause awkwardness or tension. In our experience, people have been grateful to know more appropriate language to use. As elementary as it sounds, people do not know what he or she does not know. If people have not been directly impacted by adoption, these individuals likely do not know all the nuances that come along with it. 

The Long-Term versus the Short-Term

When approaching the concept of using positive adoption language, it is helpful to remember that with short-term changes, you can achieve long-term gains. With intentionality, you can impact adoption, regardless of what part you play within the adoption community. As this article has stated, the use of positive adoption language can have a profound impact on those involved in adoption, and even those who are mere listeners. The long-term benefits of making short-term changes in the use of language are significant because as expectant parents begin to explore adoption, each feels validated, respected, and nurtured from the beginning. Potential adoptive parents and adoptees can experience a sense of belonging and ownership of that story through the use of positive adoption language. 

Adoption is an extremely difficult journey. There are all sorts of components that compose adoption, and none of those are without challenges. The journey can be so rewarding, and you can experience love and admiration as you have never felt before. In my own experience, though traumatic with six disrupted adoptions, I have gained an entirely new perspective on family and life in general. Although it sounds generic, adoption has literally changed my life, now and forever. I am always looking for ways to help others understand how to maneuver through it. The use of negative adoption language was one of the first things my husband and I encountered on our adoption journey. Oftentimes, the language used did not match the people we had come to know and love. Now that we are raising a toddler, we are working daily to incorporate positive adoption language in our home and throughout our family and extended family. It truly does begin at home. 

If you find yourself contemplating placing your child for adoption or if you are a hopeful adoptive parent or just the general public, please know that there are many adoption myths that can seem scary. There are so many unknowns that I am sure you have even at this moment. However, there is a community that awaits you regardless of what side of adoption you are on. Family is one of life’s greatest blessings. The story of how families came to be are often even more of a blessing. Allow the use of positive adoption language to nurture, and maybe even restore, what adoption has or will gift to you.    

 

Sarah Beth Britton is an adoptive mother through infant domestic adoption. She and her husband experienced six disrupted adoptions before meeting their son. Sarah Beth has experience walking alongside numerous expectant mothers and birth families. As an adoption advocate, she enjoys sharing her experiences in hopes of advocating for both birth and adoptive families and impacting the adoption community. When she is not with her family, she is busy as a middle school Assistant Principal. Sarah Beth enjoys reading, coffee, documentaries, and all things adoption related.