I've been wanting to talk about Positive Adoption Language for quite some time, but could never do it as passionately and as fiercely as Rachel - two words that describe Rachel perfectly, actually. I was absolutely honored when I heard that Rachel chose PAL as the topic of an argumentative essay assignment at Penn State - and am equally honored to share her passion with you today.
I hope you not only enjoy Rachel's essay, but that it helps you to consider a side of adoption that perhaps you hadn't thought of before.
“You know, you could’ve just gotten a Mexican baby off of the street for free!” “How much did he cost?” “Is her real mom still in the picture? …was she a crack baby?” “Oh, you’re adopting? I didn’t know you were having fertility problems.” “Don’t you want your own kids? There’s just such a bond when you have real kids!”
Hundreds of these offensive and naïve comments are aimed at prospective adoptive parents and parents who have already adopted every day, often creating a tense, awkward environment for all parties involved. There is not a graceful way to explain, “I am her “real” mom, this wasn’t a plan B for me, and my child isn’t a pair of shoes you purchase in a catalog.” With over 60% of people reporting in 2002 (Quiroz) that they had been individually affected by adoption in one way or another, anything but the use of Positive Adoption Language (also known as Respectful Adoption Language) is unacceptable and unwarranted. Just as education about inclusive language regarding homophobia, mental illness, equality of the sexes, and other social issues are beginning to pick up steam, PAL should be right along with them. Society’s perception of adoption needs to expand beyond the stereotypical Christian white parents who are infertile; society cannot allow others’ sense of self to take the blows from public ignorance. Positive Adoption Language and adoption familiarity need to be more universally known and accepted in order to positively reinforce adoptees’ and their parents’ bonds and identities.
With over 150 million children internationally living in need of a family (not including those in orphanages) and 2.5% of children in the U.S. alone having been adopted (PBS), almost every person in America is bound to come across adoption personally at some point in their lives. It is common amongst children who have been adopted, especially older kids, to battle with issues of abandonment and trust. Language such as “when did your parents give you up?” or hearing a joke in the lunch line of a peer yelling to another “ha- well, you’re adopted!” only serves to fortify these obstacles, and can leave someone feeling like they have no sense of self or a family. Media and film are major sources that permit and promote negative language. A classic example is that family movie or TV show with the witty big sister that tricks the younger brother into believing he is adopted: “I mean, really Johnny. Just look at yourself- you’re a redhead! Do you see any other redheads in our family?” The younger brother is mortified and runs upstairs to the parents, shouting, “Am I really adopted?!” and the parents chuckle a little with a shocked expression on their face and respond, “Well, of course not little Johnny! Why would you ever say that?” Johnny stops crying, the sister gets in trouble, and the audience is entertained. This directly teaches children that being adopted is something to be ashamed of, and that it is actually funny to ridicule someone’s identity; going as far as using it as an insult. These “jokes” are direct microaggressions against adoptees and need to be eliminated in common conversation to protect others’ deep rooted perceptions of belonging.
A widespread accepted phenomenon among people who have not considered adoption is that adoption is a “plan B,” for everyone, all the time. It is almost expected that parents choosing to adopt will be asked by an outsider about their presumed fertility problems, simply because the idea of choosing adoption over pregnancy is a foreign concept to some. Regardless of the fact that one’s reproductive system is personal and perhaps should not be causally brought into conversation over a Facebook message, nor in line at a grocery store, questioning someone’s health in correlation with someone planning to adopt it is a prominent sign of ignorance and carelessness. When someone directly correlates adoption to infertility, it not only implies that choosing adoption is wrong, but that it is also undesirable. No one wants something “wrong” with them, so when one insinuates this to a prospective adoptive parent, it is disheartening and displays disapproval. Many couples who discover they are infertile do decide to adopt, but even considering infertility as a stepping stone to adoption does not take away from the beauty and magnitude of the journey ahead. Putting aside all reasons why someone decided on adoption, parents choosing adoption still need all support from the people around them; not harrowing questions from their oblivious counterparts.
In 2013 it was reported by Gallup (Benson) that 58% of Americans were against all abortions. However, in that same year, only 249,694 adoptions took place in the U.S. (Intercountry Adoptions). These statistics are startling because if abortion services were wholly eliminated, a percentage of these pregnancies would end in more children being placed in waiting. Yet if we apply those statistics, that is about 3% of Americans adopting (University of Oregon), but 58% demanding the elimination of abortions. With thousands of children aging out of the foster system every day and others bouncing from home to home for years, the low rates of adoption and awareness of it being a primary option for some people is alarming. There are ads on the sides of websites advertising: “Timothy, 14. Has a smile that will melt any parent's heart. Very polite, funny, and slow to open up, but he loves sports! Contact this number if you’re interested in adopting Timothy.” Children are creating short pitches for themselves, not for a job, or for a college admission, but for the prize of parents, endless love, and worth. Society easily takes these serious, heart wrenching issues and slaps a “who’s your real mom?” on the end and walks away. These negative comments suggest a child's parent who adopted them is not their "actual" parent, and prolong the stigmas associated with adoption.
The way society talks about adoption was not even recognized as “negative” until the 1980s, when Positive Adoption Language appeared (Quiroz). Some argue it is being “too politically correct,” overrated, and sensitive. Where is the line of “too politically correct” drawn when it is referring to one’s identity? Language directly shapes personal identities and views of others, which is why society has widely deemed using “nigger” or “retarded” unacceptable in any case (Schlumpf). If a small change from using “natural mother” to “birth mother” or “gave a child up” versus “made an adoption plan for” can help aid a vulnerable child’s idea of self and safety, it would be foolish to argue being politically correct is too much work. Most of society’s use of negative language results purely from ignorance, and although awareness is increasing, it is by no means where it needs to be. For example, November was named National Adoption Month by Bill Clinton in 1995. Although this was a huge win for adoption supporters, it is disconcerting that this issue was given an awareness month nationally less than 20 years ago, when adoption has been around far longer. It is confusing that Columbus Day is ubiquitously known by most Americans (recognition and awareness for a man who is now realized to have done more harm than good), but jokes such as, “you’re adopted!” still float in day-to-day conversation; with hovering oblivion to any harm done. If Positive Adoption Language could be as recognized as “save the tatas,” humanity could be a safer place for so many people who have been adopted. These efforts would also most likely decrease those children waiting for families, and increase America’s 3%. Adoption statistics and realities need to move away from sympathetic looks and empty comments of “what a shame,” to action, difference, and a change in structure on what adoption truly is.
The views and associations of adoption are in desperate need of reform, and the key to fix this issue is increasing public knowledge. Criticisms of being “overly political correct” when referring to language involving adoption need to be erased. Most Americans are given family bonds without effort or even much thought, whereas many children are acutely familiar with how difficult establishing everlasting attachments and securities can be. Even if a person is not interested in adopting for themselves, it is still worth a great deal for society to be mindful of what they say and what their impact can be on someone’s identity. With millions of children sitting in waiting, the least they deserve is a safe environment in the world that they can further grow in and form who they are. Elie Wiesel said “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Contributing to the struggle of negative stigmas that adoption carries is not necessarily openly bashing the idea. It more commonly comes in its smaller forms. It comes in the mall: with cocked heads and squinted stares and, “how is that her real mom if she’s black and her mom’s Asian?” It comes in conversation while clinking glasses: with family around the table and adoption announcements and, “Here’s to Jane and Eric’s adoption...and may they also have their own kids one day!” It comes in family tree presentations in the first grade: with young audiences and bizarre looks and, “Class, Carey’s real mom couldn’t take care of her, so she gave her up, and that’s why her tree is different from everyone else’s!” Positive Adoption Language and adoption efforts are slowly growing, but so are the number of children waiting for families. Society must take it upon themselves to bring change. Indifference can no longer be accepted as normal.
Benson, Guy. “Gallup: 58% of Americans Oppose All or Most Abortions.” Townhall.
May 10, 2013. Web. 23 October 2015.
Intercountry Adoption. “Statistics.” Bureau of Consular Affairs US Department of State.
September 30, 2014. Web. 21 October 2015.
POV. “Facts About Adoption.” Public Broadcasting Service. September 7, 2010. Web.
October 21, 2015.
Quiroz, Pamela Anne. “From race matching to transracial adoption: race and the
changing discourse of US adoption.” Critical Discourse Studies Vol. 5 Issue 3. p.
249-264. July 21, 2008.
Schlumpf, Heidi. “Positive Language Changes Face of Adoption.” National Catholic
Reporter Vol. 50 Issue 11. p. 21. March 14, 2014.
University of Oregon. "Adoption History: Adoption Statistics." Adoption History: Adoption Statistics. 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.