Adoption: Attitudes and Vocabulary

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     In our current society, we have words for unfair attitudes and behavior toward other ethnic groups, sexes, perceived social classes, age groups, or abilities. We call such attitudes and behaviors racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, classist, ageist, prejudiced, biased, ignorant, even hateful. We might say that when people express these attitudes and behaviors, they are being categorically derogatory toward the “others,” toward those who don’t fit their definition of desirable or normal. It is no longer as acceptable to hold or express these views, although the attitudes do still persist. Such attitudes are based on fear and the need to see others as somehow inferior, in order to feel acceptable or superior oneself.
     When it comes to adoption issues, and those involved in adoption, the same type of attitudes exist, but we don’t have a single word, such as racist or sexist, to describe type of categorical derogation toward adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, and even the facts of adoption. The fears and attitudes are reflected in vocabulary, however, as well as behavior. Think for a few minutes about the words and phrases used to describe adoption, relinquishment, adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. We are all too familiar with “given away,” “put up for adoption” (as in “put up for sale”), abandoned, “got rid of,” “left behind,” “surrendered,” “lost,” then “rescued,” “taken in,” “treated as if he/she had been their own,” “treated like a step-child,” “not their own,” “not their real child,” “not his/her real parent,” “stolen,” “bought,” and the inaccuracies of misusing the terms “foster,” “adopt,” “step,” and “half,” as in half-sibling, etc., as if these terms were not important enough to use correctly. We hear of people making remarks such as, “How much did your daughter cost?” or “What happened to his real parents?” or “How wonderful of you to take in somebody else’s child,” or even “Adoption is a dangerous thing; it’s a pig in a poke; you never know how they’ll turn out, no matter how hard you try.” We also hear, said to adoptees, “Aren’t you so lucky to be chosen, and aren’t you grateful to your adoptive parents who took you in?”
     These attitudes, these remarks and vocabulary, may be left over from past times, from other cultures, from old stories, old fears, myths and even laws. They are rarely consciously meant to be hurtful or derogatory, but they are in reality, and they are certainly disrespectful and ignorant. They are not based on real experience, let alone genetics, but on perceived (usually second-hand) experiences, stories, and covert and overt attitudes passed down by one’s family, church, books, and society in general. They are reflected specifically in vocabulary, which, in turn, continues to influence attitudes, behaviors, and even legislation. Attitudes, fears, and vocabulary are a large part of the difficulty in changing laws to grant access to information about one’s birth family or one’s birth offspring. Birth families are feared and adult adoptees are not to be trusted, having come from those birth families. Adoptive families, on the other hand, are to be lauded, but also feared, lest they withdraw approval, love, or support from the adoptee, but also lest they fail to continue to endorse the institutions of closed adoption, closed records, agencies, and even the financial facts of most adoptions. Even when an adoption is opened, or is open from the beginning, most state laws specifically state that the adoptee will inherit from the adoptive parents and not from the birth parents. This is in contrast to laws from former times and other countries, which in some cases did not recognize the legality of adoption and stated that only legally recognized biological offspring could inherit, that not even a son or daughter born to a parent not married to the other parent could inherit. What this means today is that a parent who is reunited with a previously relinquished offspring must state specifically in their written, legal will that they want this son or daughter to inherit from them. Many lawyers will discourage this, in fact, citing the possible resentment from one’s other, non-relinquished offspring, or from the adoptee’s adoptive siblings. “They might resent this one inheriting from two sets of parents.” Others will question if the adoptee should inherit from either set of parents, stated as “He/she is adopted, not their real child, should not be entitled to money or objects from the family,” or, conversely, “She gave him away; who does he think he is to come back and claim anything?” These attitudes are similar to the dilemma of the adoptee/birth parent, adoptive parent in constructing family trees. Who can claim who and who can exclude who? The adoptee often winds up not being claimed by birth family for reasons of shame or legality, and not being claimed by adoptive family for genetic reasons. Exceptions to the two-parent, legally married with biological offspring are not favored because they mess up the symmetry of the family tree!
     Society, it seems, and families and individuals, are resistant to changing attitudes and vocabularies, resistant to new information, new laws, and often to the truth. If one has always believed birth parents to be morally or biologically inferior, uncaring, and undeserving of recognition, then to change these beliefs is difficult and may be threatening to others. If one has believed adoptive parents to be perfect, or to be conniving and motivated by desire to own another human being, those beliefs may be so ingrained one cannot give them up. If one has always viewed adoptees as inferior, or believed they must be grateful and forever obligated to adoptive parents, those beliefs may have been internalized as part of one’s basic value system. Not only do adoptive parents, adoptees, and even birth parents internalize these beliefs, but extended family, peers, and society in general verbalize these attitudes.
     As stated before, these attitudes and vocabulary are hurtful, not based on reality, and are the equivalent of racism, sexism, and classism. They result in unfair treatment of birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents. Laws to permit adult access to information concerning a person and their birth parents and/or adoptive parents are even now geared only to the adult adoptees, not to birth families, reflecting the continued fear of birth parents and resentment toward them in general. Agencies still sometimes fear all parties involved in adoption, as a threat to the power and authority of the adoption agency.
     Further, the burden of gratitude/perpetual obligation on the part of adoptees and birth parents toward adoptive parents and even toward adoption agencies or the foster care system, is just that, a burden. It fosters a need to view birth parents as secondary to adoptive parents, perhaps therefore second class, inferior in some moral, psychological, even genetic way. Adoptees internalize this message. No one can live their lives feeling forever obligated to someone else; obligation is not love nor attachment. The flip side is viewing adoptive parents as genetically inferior due to infertility, or to remaining single, but perhaps superior “morally” because of adoption (”rescuing” the adoptee), and perhaps because sexual activity, especially prior to marriage, is not proven. These are very old-fashioned attitudes, but so ingrained by society and by individuals that one may not even be aware of them, yet they are there.
     Vocabulary, in particular, is such a powerful influence that we need to become aware of the words and phrases we each utter, and that others express. To say that one was “put up for adoption,” for instance, brings to mind a picture of slaves being auctioned off, literally put up on a high platform, sold to be highest bidder. Orphan trains did much the same thing. To be told one was “given away” or “abandoned” or “gotten rid of” makes one question their value as a human being. To say that an adoptee is afraid of “being rejected again” if they search for a birth parent, implies that the birth parent had a choice and rejected the child as defective, when, in fact, the parent had no such choice and made no decision to “reject,” but would have raised the child if it had been possible. To remark to adoptive parents “Too bad you couldn’t have children of your own,” or “How much did this child cost?” is extremely offensive. We all need to be more assertive in replying to such remarks, quicker to speak out when derogatory terms or remarks are heard or read. That is the only way others’ attitudes can even begin to change. Vocabulary counts for more than we might think. It influences others’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We don’t have a word such as “adoptism,” but the results of what we’ve described is the societal equivalent of racism, sexism, and classism. Those with adoption connections can help change this by speaking out.

Excerpted from the July 2012 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2012 Operation Identity