The words and language we use when we speak to someone can affect how that person feels about you and themselves. Using the wrong language when you’re talking about a sensitive subject like adoption can cause unintentional hurt and upset.
There’s two main types of situation where language is important in adoption. Firstly, the language we use in our homes affects how our children feel about adoption. And secondly, the language others use to talk about adoption either to children or parents.
Language used at home
When we started our adoption journey, there wasn’t much literature around about language and it wasn’t something we covered during the assessment. So to a certain extent, we’ve had to learn on the go.
And it’s important to note here that the language we use is particular to our children’s needs and circumstances. Words and phrases that we use, may not be appropriate for other families. But that doesn’t make them wrong for us. And the language we use changes as the children get older.
For example, I know that the terms “tummy mummy” and “forever family” creates a mixed reaction amongst the adoption community. We used both terms to explain adoption to our eldest daughter when she was younger.
Tummy mummy came about because her nursery nurse was pregnant. That sparked conversations when she was three around the fact that her teacher had a baby in her tummy. Naturally that led to her asking about growing in my tummy. I told her that she didn’t, but she grew in my heart and her tummy mummy’s tummy.
At the time, that helped her understand that she had two mummies. And that she grew inside one’s tummy and in the other’s feelings. We knew that the term wasn’t something that we’d always use to refer to birth mum.
There wasn’t a particular moment when we sat her down and said we thought she needed to come up with another name. It’s just something that evolved in our discussions around birth family and her life story. She now calls her birth mum (and dad) just that.
Let your child take the lead
If a child is, for example, six, and has lived with her birth mum, referring to her as their tummy mummy wouldn’t be appropriate. The terminology used to refer to birth family is something that is very personal to your child and their circumstances. So, it’s important to be led by them.
Similarly, when she was younger, we used forever family to explain that she would always be part of our family. She was too young to understand that everyone was her family, but she lived with us and we are legally her parents. Using forever family helped her understand the basics at a young age.
It’s not something we used very often, mainly just when we were looking at her life story book. It’s not something we’ve used for a long time because it doesn’t represent anything to her. She is hopefully growing up knowing that we are all her family. And that we have distinct roles in her care.
We haven’t used either term when talking to our youngest daughter about her life story. She is very different from her big sister and didn’t show much curiosity and is only now at almost five asking questions.
I know from listening to adult adoptees that both of those terms inappropriately can cause a lot of hurt. That’s why any language needs to be used carefully and considerately. As our girls get older, they take the lead in what they want to call their birth family.
Language used by others
“Real parents”, “normal kids”, or “your proper children” are examples of language used by people who have no concept of the issues involved in adoption. I hope those kinds of things are said without intending to cause upset. But the fact is, they can and do cause hurt and upset to an adoptee.
If you’re talking to someone about, say, adoption, or a disability, and you don’t know the correct language to use, ask. It’s impossible for us to know the right thing to say in every situation. So, if in doubt, check.
And take your lead from the person you’re talking to. If you know someone is adopted, don’t ask them about their birth history unless they offer information about it. You wouldn’t ask a birth child what their birth was like. Or whether their mum drank alcohol when she was pregnant. So don’t ask an adoptee or adopter those kinds of questions.
We all have unique stories about how we came into the world. And they’re ours to tell to those we want to.
As a rule of thumb, an adopted child’s first family are referred to as that or their birth family. Or just their family. If it comes up naturally in a conversation, ask them how they’d like you to refer to their family.
Adoption UK have a lot of resources to help with things like using the right words. Leave a comment if you’ve come across any tools or resources that you’ve found helpful so that we can all check it out.
Head over to the adoption section to read more articles and interviews about the process from those with first-hand experience.