Friday, April 1, 2011

PAL, You Can Say That Again

I've written here before and thought a lot about how the words we choose influence our experience of adoption. I believe, as with any topic - and especially those that are emotionally laden - it's tough to find and use words that are neutral, that don't relay certain biases, or just reveal certain cluelessnesses.

Truthfully, when I read or talk with someone about adoption, I quickly surmise a lot by the language they use. My judgement hasn't always been fair or accurate, and I often have to remind myself that I've come a long way in my own views about adoption, and I still slip up and say things clumsily. In fact, I have different feelings now about some of the Positive Adoption Language (PAL) I promoted earlier.

One term that I struggle with from time to time is how to refer to the parents who have placed their children for adoption. This is because some of the people I respect the most in AdoptionLandia, and from whom I've learned the most, use the term first parent (first mother/mom/father/etc.). I recognize the temporal accuracy of this term, and also how "birth mother" can be diminishing.

But I just can't bring myself to call V. Dylan's first mom. And I'll admit it's because of the primacy "first" suggests. If V. expressed a preference for the term, I would certainly use it. (When I asked her about it at our match meeting, she looked at me kinda funny and said she is fine with "birthmother." But I don't think she'd given it a lot of thought herself at that point.) Maybe someday I'll get over this stupid insecurity. But for now, on my blog and when referring to my situation, I will continue to use birth mother (separating the words, so there's an adjective that describes a noun), unless I know of someone's other preference.

I will NOT however, ever again refer to an expectant parent considering adoption as a birthmother or to the material we had to create to market ourselves as a "Dear Birthmother Letter." Frankly, though I didn't even question it during our agency's orientation, I'm now horrified that that supposedly "progressive leader in open adoption" uses those terms. Come on!

As with so many other adoption words, I wish there was a better, more neutral term for birth mom. And truth be told, there is. But using it all the time would probably just raise too many questions and cause too much controversy. What is it? It's simply: MOTHER.

Dylan has two mothers. There's another instance of where my viewpoint has shifted: most proponents of PAL encourage saying "was adopted" rather than "is adopted." They reason that adoption is just a finite, legal process and that individuals' identities should not be defined by it. I get that, and I think it is right in most cases. However, the more I read about and learn from adoptees themselves, the more I see how adoption IS part of who they are. So, this is an example of where I want to listen/read closely to discern where someone is coming from. If an adoptee says "I am adopted," rather than "I was adopted," I can make guesses about how they - at least in that particular circumstance - frame adoption in their own lives.

The last term I'll bring up now is "gave up for adoption." So much of the current philosophy behind open adoption emphasizes the "loving choice" birth parents make in placing their children. It suggests that children who are "given up" may feel abandoned or discarded. And that may well be true. But it is also true that most birth parents do "give up" their children. They experience an incredible loss, and one most would not suffer through if they saw any other viable option. So, if a birth (first?!) parent talks about "giving a child up," I view it quite differently now; I see that it accurately reflects their experience.

I worry that parsing words could discourage people for talking about adoption, and I really don't want to contribute to that. AdoptionLandia (my term for the space on the internets and our collective consciousness devoted to the topic) is crammed full of people relating awful stories of stupid, hurtful things people have said about them or their children. In most instances, though, I can see that there was no ill-intent. Inappropriate curiosity or insensitivity, maybe. Or, most disheartening, unwillingness to learn something new and/or consider another's perspective.

M., Dylan, and I have been pretty fortunate thus far not to have had any really difficult situations related to inappropriate questions or language that we've struggled to handle. Most of the time, I just try to educate by using the terms I prefer and gently correcting when we're with someone who Dylan will have continuing contact with. I hope that revealing my own evolving thoughts and words related to PAL might be helpful to others.

What do you think about PAL? Where do you find yourself struggling to use it? What has trying to use it taught you?


Bobby said...

Kristen, as usual, your post is amazing. I too struggle with some of these terms and think sometimes "political correctness" dampens the true meaning of what a woman has done in placing/giving up her baby. As you point out, there's no real singular term that sums it all up.

harriet glynn said...

Nice to find your blog (found it via @hedra ar open adoptionblogs). So true about language. Reality is a little more complex. I don't judge people for saying gave up or really much of the language if they are regular folks. I often have people ask me about my son's "parents." Are his parents tall (when we're standing rght there ;) I don't really flinch, I generally say, "his birthparents..." We do need words to differentiate between us. It just clarifies the situation. I stick to birthmom - I don't see it as any better or worse that firstmom. And it's really true about adoption that it is a lifelong journey so is adopted does make sense in a lot of ways.