We say that language doesn't always make a difference; that if we don't find it offensive ourselves, then it must not be that bad. If we use a word that is controversial, we'll usually justify it. Sometimes we'll blame those who say the word is offensive, and roll our eyes at their inability to just "relax". Other times we'll just nod our head, and not really hear why a certain word or phrase really makes an impact on someone. Words are our most powerful emotional weapon. They form our every day lives, our conversations, our relationships. We can communicate our feelings and convey our needs by changing or adding one word to a sentence. Emphasis on a word will draw attention to that point, and could derail the entire sentence. When we speak, are we saying what we mean to say?
The power of words is especially important in the adoption world. There are words that we use that we don't even consider to be offensive, or even that they paint a picture about ourselves. Those of us involved in the adoption constellation seem to be privy to a selection of words that those outside of adoption would not ever really understand. It's a collection of labels, roles, and words that can describe the veracity of the situation that we are in. We can explain who we are with one simple sentence, instead of having to dive into a full conversation about who we are, why we did it, and how we came to that conclusion. These words can be incredible tools for us when we are speaking to the general public, or close loved ones about our adoption journey.
Words can be just words, but sometimes words can become a loaded gun of sorts, and we underestimate the power that they can have. For instance:
"Sally is our birthmom. She gave us the baby at the hospital. It's really sad for her, but we are really happy."
At first, if you are an adoptive parent, or even a bystander to adoption, you may not see any issue with this sentence. However, from a literary stand point, you have just declared that the birthmother is yours- she belongs to you, or she is your property. The same way you would discuss your car, or your house, or any other item that you have in your possession, or share with your family.
Is there possibly another way to word the next sentence in a way that still describes what Sally did, and acknowledge the proceedings? What about the finale sentence? Do we think that there could be a more comfortable way of stating your grief for Sally, without negating it with your own feelings, as though the precedes her very real feelings? It's often said that the word but cancels out any words stated before- in this case, you would be erasing Sally and her grief. Do you wish to do that?
"Sally is our son's birthmother. We met her at the hospital shortly after she gave birth to proceed with the adoption. It was a really bittersweet situation for us."
Now we have acknowledged your role, Sally's role, and what happened. You have still paid tribute to your own feelings about the adoption, but also to Sally's feelings as well. These two sentences are very much saying the exact thing, but when we put thought behind the words, and understand the enormity of them, we are able to better grasp why there is a need to be careful with our language.
In your own relationships, you should be talking to one another about what you want to be called. Does the birthmother want to be called a birthmother? Do you want to be called adoptive parents? Would you write or say something if someone was present, or would you change the wording for comfort or ease of explanation? Sometimes, it might not even be about the ease of conversation or comfort, but rather a sign of respect to each party, and their individuality in the adoption. As the adoptee ages, everyone should be willing to flex and bend to what he or she wants. Ultimately, things might change as time goes on, and there may be no reason to have definitive labels on one another. However, we should be open to the evolution of this dynamic, as it is almost certain that it will change. Most importantly, we should always be aware of the impact those words, even the minute ones can have on perceptions.
Re-framing how you word things takes time and effort; Words are the only thing we have to share consistently with one another. When we try to put ourselves in another’s perspective we are enabling ourselves to become more empathetic. Think about the way you talk about your adoption experience. You may not think that your words have a lot of power, but to the world, it can paint a picture that may not be entirely accurate.
Choose your words wisely.
Credits: Danielle Barnsley-Cervo
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Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of Adoption.com.