It’s amazing how quickly you can become sensitive to the words of others. Before my son, James, came home from Ethiopia, I gave little thought to how I talked about adoption. Now that he’s home, the value of choosing words carefully has revealed itself to me in ways that I can only begin to describe. When people ask us about his ‘real’ parents, or query about whether or not we have children of our ‘own,’ I cringe. I cringe for myself, but mostly I cringe as I wonder how those words will affect his little mind’s understanding of who he is and how he came to be a part of our family.
As I try to explain myself, some people will no doubt think me picky. Others will perceive me as over-sensitive. I just think of myself as mom. And like any mom, I want what is best for my son. That means sharing our experience with others in the hopes that they will also begin to think about the power of words and the impact they have.
Let’s start with the whole “real” parent thing. When you stop and think about this, it’s fairly obvious why this wording makes adoptive parents bristle. What’s the opposite of real? Fake. Pretend. When you refer to my son’s first family as his “real” parents, you are by default resigning us to being his “fake” parents. Although you may not mean to, you suggest that I am simply pretending that I am his mom. But obviously, that’s not true. I’m about as real as they come. Pinch me and I’ll jump (in fact, sometimes I pinch myself in doubt that life can really be so good). I’ve changed my fair share of diapers, been spit up on repeatedly, gotten up ten times in one night, dried tears, been hugged more times than I can count, worried, worried, and worried some more. If that doesn’t make me real, I don’t know what does.
My son does have another set of parents. His first parents created him, carried him, and gave birth to him. We talk about them, honor them, and love them. They are very real. But we are no less so.
Another small difference in wording can be heard when I say that my son was adopted. Not is adopted, but was adopted. That may seem like a minor detail, but small words carry great meaning. Adoption shapes a child and a family, but it does not define them entirely. It is simply a way of forming a family. Just like your child was born in 2005, my son was adopted that year.
So if we want to, we will explain that James was adopted. Like all other families, we love to tell the story of the day that our son joined our family. More often, though, I don’t mention it at all. It is rarely relevant to the conversation at hand. When you introduce your child, you don’t say, “this-is-my-conceived-by-invitro-son” or my “oops-she-was-an-accident daughter.” The method by which you became a family is simply not important in most conversations. The same is true of our family. Yes, James joined our family through adoption. Yes, we are very proud of that detail. But there is rarely a need to distinguish our family from others.
Sometimes people will ask me, “Do you have any children of your own?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. At philosophical level, none of us “owns” our children. As Kahil Gibran wrote, “Our children are not our children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you.” Our children belong to the future, not to us.
And yet, like all other parents, I sometimes find myself referring to James as “my own son.” He lives with us, we provide for him, we love him deeply. We are listed as his parents on his birth certificate. We are there when he’s happy, when he cries, when he’s sick, when he hurts. The fact that I did not carry him in my womb is irrelevant in determining the fact that he is our child.
Still, the “child of your own” phrase is the one I hear the most. Sometimes I think this is because it is hard to understand that you can love a child by adoption as much as a child by birth; that a child by adoption really is just as much “your own.” Before James came home, I don’t know that I truly understood that either. Then came the moment a tiny little boy was placed in my arms and I forgot who I was before he entered my life.
So when I tell you that I am eternally grateful that I did not initially conceive a child, I am not exaggerating. I am horrified at the prospect of not having James in our lives. He is my heart and my soul and the joy of my life.
He is my son.