Several days ago I was at a meeting and we were discussing the background of a girl who had been adopted. At one point, the comment was made, "...and then her real mom..." She was of course referring to the biological mother of this girl. The woman who made this comment is the sweetest in the world-- and I knew that she didn't understand how that comment could be hurtful-- so I didn't say anything. But that comment kept going over and over in my mind... "And then her REAL mom..."
Which leads me to writing this post. I know that there are many of you out there that may not be sure what terminology is or isn't appropriate when talking about adoption. And if you have said the wrong thing in the past, be sure to know that most people are very understanding and know your intent. I have had many comments from AMAZING, WONDERFUL people who just didn't know the right thing to say, as I'm sure I have done many times in my life.
So, here are some suggestions:
#1. Never use the term "real" when discussing a birthparent. As Jeremy said it to me well, "If you are not Elli's real mom, then who in the world is?" When referring to a child's birthparents, they should be called just that-- "birthparents." They can also be referred to as biological parents or even first parents. An adoptive parent can be called "adoptive parent," "forever parent," or just "parent!" The term "real" takes away from the very realness of an adoptive family. Now, I can assure you that we hold the birthparents of our adopted children in the absolute highest regard. They are sacred to me, and I will one day fall at their feet for allowing me the joy of raising the children that they weren't able to. I cannot even begin to express my love for them. Yes, they are very "real," but so are the parents who feed and change and love and adore and take care of and cuddle and do everything for these children. Calling one parent "real" makes the other parent "unreal," if that makes sense.
#2. Suggestion #1 also applies when referring to adopted children. It is very uncomfortable when people ask, "Are they your real children?" Well, of course they are! I'm never quite sure how to answer this question without making the asker look or feel stupid. An adoptive child is absolutely just as real as a biological child. To differentiate makes the child seem "less."
#3. Suggestion #1 also applies to siblings. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked, "Are they real sisters?" This is, of course, in reference to Graci and Elli. I am very aware that what the asker is really wanting to know is if they are biological siblings. So I usually answer, "They are not biological sisters, no." I am always tempted to follow up with, "But they are very real sisters, yes!" I have never done this, however, as I hate uncomfortable situations and I wouldn't want to make someone feel bad. Still, a person should realize that asking if siblings are "REAL" especially in the presence of the children, is not the appropriate thing to do. Graci is Elli's real sibling in every sense of the word-- she loves her and takes care of her and teaches her and adores her and will be her sister forever.
#4. Avoid the question, "Do you have any children of your own?" Well, yes! THESE (adopted) children are my own! A better way to ask this is, "Do you have any biological children?" Again, I know that people have no ill intention when saying something like this, but you have to think of how an adopted child would feel when hearing this question.
#5. If you want to know how much adoption costs, by all means ask-- especially if it's because you are interested in adoption. However, try to avoid posing it this way: "How much did she cost?" HELLO! This makes a child feel as if a price tag could be put on them. The first time I was asked this I was completely speechless. I finally came up with the answer, "Well, adopting from China generally costs around $20,000, but she is priceless!"
#6. When asking more in-depth questions about adoption, try not to do it when the children are listening. For example, Graci seems to feel uncomfortable when the question is asked, "Why didn't you adopt from America?" A better way to ask this would be, "What led you to adopt from China?" But even better, ask it when it is an adult conversation. Most of the time, adopted children just want to feel the same as everyone else and not have the conversation focused around their adoption.
#7. Unless you have a good reason to ask, don't question the background of a child before they were adopted. If you do have reason to ask, do it without the child around. I can't count the times that people have said things like, "How could her parents just abandon her?" and "Does she remember her "real" parents?" right in front of Graci! These are very personal issues, and can make a child question things that they shouldn't have to question. We have been very open with Graci about her life prior to adoption, and she has slowly let us in on her memories and her past. However, she has opened up with a great deal of trust in us. We don't share her early history lightly-- in fact, I have only talked about it with VERY close family. Asking questions like, "Where was she living before you adopted her?" is fine. We would tell you that she was abandoned when she was five, put in an orphanage for a brief time, then placed with very wonderful foster parents, who we lovingly refer to as "China Mommy and Daddy." Unless you are a very good friend or close family member or have really sincere questions about adoption, I would not probe further. If you do probe, don't do it with the child around.
Of course, this is a very humble opinion from just ONE adoptive mother. I assure you that I do know that virtually every comment that could be construed negatively was meant with the best of intention. A person does not usually mean to put their foot in their mouth! (: I would much rather have someone ask a question with the wrong words than not dare ask a question at all, and I am very grateful for those who enjoy talking to me about adoption. (:(:
A very real mother to some very real kids of my own!
Oh, and since I'm on a roll, it is more politically correct to refer to Chinese children as "Chinese" or "Asian," not "Oriental." (Though this actually isn't something that bothers me, just thought I'd put it out there).
PS. This is now Jeremy. My favorite way to differentiate the kids is to say I have three homemade and two from China:)