I explained that we have a child of our own. Our son was born of our hearts and he is our child in every way that matters. The journalist thanked me for pointing out the problem with her question and said she’d never thought about it before. That is a typical response when people talk about adoption in unintentionally hurtful ways.
I asked a number of parents who adopted their children how they would prefer people to talk about adoption more sensitively and positively. Many identified seemingly innocent words like “real”, “natural” and “own” as problematic. They recounted being asked unthinking questions such as, “Does your adopted son know his real mother?”, and “How could you adopt? It's not the same as having your own natural child.”
Another loaded word they identified is the apparently innocuous “adopted”. The problem is it is used to label a whole person and set that person apart. As one parent put it, “People often introduce my son and me as ‘This is Anne and her adopted son, Thulani.’ Those same people would never dream of making this kind of introduction with a non-adoptive family. Can you imagine someone saying "This is Linda and her birth-control-failure son, John.” or “This is Sam and her caesarean-section daughter, Amy."? How our families came to be created is mostly irrelevant.
However, it is a mistake to see parents who have adopted as a homogenous group who all think the same. This is clearly illustrated with the terminology used to discuss birthparents. Some people refer to their child’s birthmother as the child’s Tummy Mummy. Some opt for using the birthmother’s first name, while others call her the lady, tannie or nice girl who gave birth to you. It is all a matter of personal preference so the best thing is to ask the parents what they have decided to say. Personally, I am the only Mummy in my son’s life and we refer to the woman who birthed him and gave us the greatest gift of our lives as his birthmother.
I find it easier to deal with people who are openly antagonistic to adoption, especially cross-cultural adoption. The strangers who ask you, most often in supermarket queues, “Waar het jy daai optelkind gevind?” or “Is that your kaffir child?” are easy to dismiss as small-minded dinosaurs. It’s the well-meaning ones who often inflict the most hurt. The ones who say, “He’s so cute. How could his mother not have wanted him?” and the paternalistic “He’s so lucky you adopted him.”
The biggest issue is that most of these ill-advised words are said in front of the children. As parents we need to teach our children how to cope with whatever life throws at them. As one mother of three said about teaching her children to handle comments about adoption, “When kids know what words or answers to use, they are a lot more empowered, so that they can handle things even when I am not there.”
The words we use and the way we talk reflect what we think and value. As parents we need to model for our children how to talk about adoption sensitively and positively. My son is not an “adopted”, “unwanted” or “weggegooi” child – he’s just my child.
Tracy Blues is the proud 40-something-year-old Mummy of a boisterous 4-year-old son. When she's not parenting or being a wife, she is a freelance editor and writer.
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