‘The language people use for adoption is often degrading and derogatory. It leads to such pain in adoptees and birth parents’ lives.’: Big sister addresses hurtful adoption language

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“My parents had always planned on adopting. My mom’s parents fostered her when she was growing up, and because of this, she knew she would pursue adoption someday. It was always a ‘someday dream,’ something they talked about occasionally, but never actively pursued. When I was 10 years old, some family friends adopted their daughter from Vietnam, and my mom met them at the airport when they got home. She came home that night knowing adoption was no longer going to be a dream for our family. It was time to start the process.

First, we had to decide how we were going to adopt. Our friends had adopted internationally, but that didn’t feel right for us. Foster care was not an option; selfishly we were just in this to add to our family. We wanted a baby, and we wanted to keep it. So we decided to go forward with a private domestic adoption. The process of adopting a child is long, and includes home studies and social worker visits. We had friends write letters of recommendation for our family, and we wrote a book for expectant moms to read, hoping they would choose our family to raise their child.

Emma and her siblings take a group picture.
Courtesy of Emma

Looking back, everything about domestic infant adoption feels a little icky. With writing a book to convince someone to give their child to us, and praying a woman would choose to not raise her own child. Adoption is so broken and there are no good ways to go about it, but I am sure there are better ways than the options we have now. We had our profile shown to expectant women all around the country.

Every time someone was given our profile to read, my parents had to approve it first. We would get a phone call or email with information about the mother and baby, then choose if they could view our file. And if we approved the mother to see it, then our family would potentially be chosen. I remember so many of those mamas and babies. I remember a little girl who’d already been born and had a name, I remember twin boys in Georgia, and so many more.

The day we got the phone call saying we were chosen was one I’ll never forget. It was a Friday, and normally on Fridays my family was always busy doing different things. But it just so happened, on this day, we were all in a class my mom and her friend were teaching. When the phone rang, my mom got up and left the room. This was strange because she was teaching and usually ignored her phone. As soon as she left, I turned to her friend and said, ‘I think this is the phone call.’

When my mom came back in the room, she was crying. She told us all there was a mama in Texas who had chosen us to be her baby’s family. The next few days were a blur. My dad had to go on a business trip, and he wasn’t going to get back until the night before we needed to leave. We didn’t want to buy anything for the baby yet, because until a mom signs paperwork relinquishing her rights, that baby is hers. So we didn’t build a crib, and we took a car seat still in the box with us so we could return it if we needed to.

My parents met the mama who had chosen us, and she wanted to meet all of us kids. She wanted her baby boy to have lots of siblings, and since there were already four of us, we fit the bill. We all met her the night before she gave birth, and she talked to each of us about how we felt about adding a new baby to our family. Bright and early the next morning, she went to the hospital with my parents, and my baby brother ‘Little Man’ was born.

My mom was in the delivery room when he was born, and while that is very special, it can also be coercive to the birth mom. We didn’t really understand back then the pressure put on moms who are trying to decide if they want to parent or not. There is a lot of pressure on those women to not disappoint the family that could potentially be their child’s family. I don’t think my brother’s mom felt pressured, or that she regrets her decision, but I do wish we had known back then how to do things the ‘right’ way.

We know how important it is for both my brother and his mom to keep in contact, so we have worked to make sure they have open communication whenever they want, and we try to visit her as often as possible. I was 13 when my brother was born, and you cannot imagine the horrifying things people have said to me! I think sometimes people think it is okay to say things to children that they would never say to an adult. My brother is Black, and the number of times people have asked me where he is from is astounding! They ask me how old he was when we ‘got him,’ like he is an object you acquire, and not a person.

When we first adopted him, I didn’t know how harmful that kind of language can be for an adoptee to hear. There is a lot of language people use in reference to adoption that makes it sound like you are talking about an object and not a person. Asking me if he has drug exposures, or if he has any disabilities, is like you are asking what quality of child we got. I’ve even had people ask why his mom ‘gave him away,’ like she just chose on a whim to not parent him. The language people use in regards to adoption is frequently degrading and derogatory in nature. It leads to such pain in adoptees and birth parents’ lives, and I wish people would just think a little longer before they make comments about my siblings and their stories.

Emma's younger, adopted siblings play on the swings.
Courtesy of Emma

As I have grown and learned more from adoptees, I have slowly realized just how harmful words can be. In 2014, we got our foster care license because of a child we knew who might have entered foster care, and we wanted to be prepared just in case. While that child never came to live with us, many others did. For about six months, we did respite, which is anything from babysitting foster kids for one night, to several weeks of them living with you. We knew we were moving soon, so we didn’t want to take any long-term placements and then have to leave them behind.

After we moved, we had to start all over with the licensing process because we were in a new state. None of my parents’ training carried over to our new state, so they had to retake all the classes and do the paperwork all over again. Then, one day, my mom got another phone call that would change our lives. We didn’t even know our license had gone through, and we were already getting phone calls!

There was a newborn baby boy who needed a safe place to stay. My mom picked him up from the hospital and took him home. She walked out of a hospital holding a baby she’d never met and that wasn’t hers. It’s such a heartbreaking thing to be the one to take someone else’s child home from the hospital. That baby boy, we’ll call him Moose, stayed with us for nine months. We still get pictures of him occasionally, and that is a gift I will never take for granted. Through his story, and the stories of our other foster kids, I learned just because someone makes bad choices, they are not a bad person. I learned in that time how to forgive people who had done horrifying things to the children I love. I saw redemption happen before my eyes, and let go of some painful things I’d been holding in my heart.

Days after Moose left, my baby sister, ‘Princess,’ joined our family. The plan was for her to stay a few weeks, but with foster care, you learn plans rarely mean anything. Her family defines what you hear about people who have children in foster care. There is so much love and strength in her family, and just by looking at them you can tell they love their kids. But I had a hard time cheering on my sister’s family because this wasn’t their first time through this. I thought, ‘How could you keep doing this to your kids?’ I know now they do their best. They have so much to overcome every day, and they have always done their best for their kids.

We’ve had lots of kids live with us over the years, and each of them had different boundaries. Some kids jumped right into calling my parents Mom and Dad, and some kids were very clear we were not their family. We’ve only officially fostered younger kids, but we have had kids come stay with us outside of foster care who were babies all the way to pre-teens. Each of those kids have had their own unique feelings about the situation they were in. I’ve learned how
to steer a conversation so I can learn what terms the child uses before I need to use them, so I don’t upset them. Living with someone who is not your family is always going to be strange and hard, and I never want to invalidate those feelings, but I can do my best to make their experience with us as positive as possible.

As we continued fostering, Princess stayed with us. Month after month, she was still here. We had other kids come and go, and yet she stayed. Right after Princess turned two, we adopted her! It had been a long process, which is normal in the foster care world, but we were so excited for her to have permanency! Princess has had a lot of loss in her little life, and it breaks my heart for her.

Emma's family at the court house on adoption day.
Courtesy of Emma

Her adoption is an open one, and she is able to talk to her family whenever she wants, and they know she is just a phone call away if they want to talk to her. It’s not always easy having really open adoptions. Sometimes my siblings’ families will tell them something that is not true and it will upset them, or they promise to do something they just can’t fulfill.

Talking to my siblings about their families is hard too. For a while, I was the one who read my brother his bedtime stories, and as I tucked him in at night he would ask me really hard questions. Questions like, ‘Why didn’t my mom keep me?’ and ‘Why don’t I know my dad?’ I know without an open adoption he would still have those questions, and I’d still have no answers for him. Because we keep close contact with his mama, we can call her and ask her these questions. When Little Man wanted to know if he had cousins, we were able to call his mama and ask her. Princess doesn’t have as many questions yet, but when they come, we know we have the tools we need to answer them.

Overall, I have learned and grown so much over the past 10 years. I went from a girl who was so excited to add a sibling she never thought about the pain that had to come with it, to a young woman who sees the pain and brokenness of adoption and strives to make sure her part in it is positive. I have learned from so many people over the years, and I am so grateful for the adoptees who take time out of their lives to educate others on the complexity of adoption. The language of adoption can be really hard to learn, and different people are comfortable with different things. It took a long time for me to fully understand how important the words I use are and I’m sure I still have more to learn.

I now know using the language that is the most comfortable to the adoptee or foster youth I am talking to is vital to making sure they see me as someone they can talk to. I always strive to make my siblings, and all the adoptees in my life, comfortable when we are talking about their adoptions or their families. I am still learning. I struggle with using language that degrades my siblings’ families. Sometimes I say the wrong thing, and I hurt people I love. As I started listening to adoptee voices, and hearing their stories, I slowly realized how harmful my words can be. Especially as my siblings get older and understand more of what people are saying about them, I want to make sure I am always a safe person for them to talk to about anything.

I don’t always get it right, but I am learning every day from the wisdom of adoptees who chose to share their voices in the hopes of making every adoptee after them have a better experience than the last. I will always be learning more, for my siblings and for all the other adoptees I know who need someone safe to talk to. I know the more I learn the better it is for the people I love, so I will never stop learning, listening, and advocating for them.”

Emma takes a picture with her adopted siblings.
Courtesy of Emma

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emma of Colorado. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories about foster care and adoption:

‘He was named ‘Baby Boy’ since his mother left just hours after birth. Could they have the same mother? Something was different about this one.’: Mom ‘miraculously’ adopts children with same birth mother

‘A baby was born yesterday. He may have been exposed to meth.’ There was no doubt in our minds. We turned around and ran to our baby.’: Couple shares adoption journey, ‘We’re meant to be’

‘I was scared. I certainly didn’t want to steal anyone’s baby.’: Mom’s eyes opened to complications on road to transracial open adoption

‘Get those kids out of here!’ They began chest compressions. The pictures showed a happy family. Would I ever have that?’: Foster youth becomes adoptive mom after ‘aging out’

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