Rescuing A Pet Or Helping A Family In Need Is Not 'Adoption'

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Rachel Garlinghouse

We’re standing in the checkout line, and I’m frantically trying to keep my toddler from chucking items from the cart to the conveyor belt while also telling my daughters to stay close. The woman behind me decides this is the ideal time to strike up a conversation—because, of course she does. She smiles and tilts her head toward my children. Then she says, “I adopted a cat last year. Isn’t adoption wonderful?”

I give her the oh-hell-no face—because I cannot control my reaction. Did she seriously just compare bringing a feline into her home to my children’s adoptions?

This wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that someone has expressed our adoption similarities—that really aren’t similar at all. Rescuing an abandoned animal by submitting a few forms and paying a vaccine and chip fee isn’t anything like adopting a human child. Not even close. No. Just no.

I absolutely understand that some people choose to add furry friends to their family rather than have children. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I do not judge this choice. But comparing the exhausting, expensive, unpredictable adoption process to choosing which animal gives you the most warm fuzzies is not acceptable.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only astoundingly oblivious thing people say to our family. Because my kids’ adoptions are obvious—we are white and our kids are black—many strangers just cannot hold their tongues. We’ve been approached in airport bathrooms, libraries, restaurants, parks, and stores. Some even make a beeline for us—as if what they have to say is so urgent that they need to part the crowds and get to us before their thoughts explode.

They are dying to know if our kids are “real” siblings, why we didn’t have our own children, how much our kids’ “cost,” if they were in foster care, and all the details about their birth families. I’ve been told multiple times that I’m bound to get pregnant any moment now that we’ve adopted. We’ve heard it all. I have responses to every single comment and question—none of which involves dishing my kids’ private adoption stories. Because, none of your beeswax.

The increasing trend to throw around the word “adoption” irks me every time, especially as we approach the holiday season. Just the other day, a woman posted in a local mommy group that she was so excited to “adopt” elderly people for Christmas. Did anyone else want to join her? Curious, I read her post to learn that what she meant was that she was purchasing socks and lotion for nursing home residents.

Is this a good cause? Yes. I think it’s lovely that we are using our time and money to provide gifts for those who otherwise may not have anything in their stocking on Christmas morning. But my question remains. Why is adoption the word of choice?

Before you clap back at me with the dictionary definition of adoption, I know how to use a dictionary. I get that the word isn’t reserved solely for parents adopting kids. But when we take the sacredness of adoption and throw it around to gain attention and positivity vibes, it’s too far.

With the holiday season in full swing, companies and organizations bank–many even making bank–on using the word “adoption” in their advertising. For example, every year stores put out Elf on the Shelf merchandise islands, some prominently displaying “Adoption Center” signage. You can choose among the boy and girl elves, some with peachy skin and some with brown, to adopt and make your very own. Then you have your Christmas magic.

Courtesy of Rachel Garlinghouse

Last year, I received a flyer in the mail from our zoo, urging us to give the gift of adoption that Christmas. How? We could give the zoo a check for a few hundred bucks, and then we would be proud adoptive parents of a real penguin. Of course, the penguin would remain at the zoo, but in exchange for our generosity, we’d be mailed a stuffed penguin and stickers. Um, okay.

Then there’s the “angel” trees urging us to adopt a family or person in need this season. Grab a name and a wish list. I absolutely love the idea of purchasing desired items for people of all ages—and we participate every year. But how is doing this anything close to adopting a child?

I know. Many people feel that adoption is just a word and I’m arguing semantics. But then again, it’s not. Adoption is a long process. Adoption is a forever commitment. It’s bittersweet and complicated, a promise of permanency.

The journey to get to a child’s finalization day—the day they are legally adopted into a family—is tumultuous. There are hundreds of papers to fill out and file, background checks, fingerprinting, interviews, and inspections. Some families adopt in a matter of a few months, while others wait longer than a decade.

What adoption isn’t? Adoption is not a fleeting feel-good moment that’s Instagram-able for your do-gooder heart, a word to capitalize on or use to promote a project or deed. It is absolutely important that we acknowledge need and step in. Some people have compassion for animals, some for humans, some for projects and causes. These are all fantastic and worthy, without debate. Whatever floats your boat is what you should use your time and money to support. But adoption isn’t the accurate word-of-choice for these.

I wish those who so easily snatch the word adoption would consider what adoption really means, or pour energy and time into supporting families who are adopting a child with special needs or a sibling group. Instead of attaching the word “adoptions” to every worthy cause, consider using a word that accurately describes what you’re doing. You’re rescuing a puppy, assisting an elderly person, or financially supporting an animal or project—not adopting them.

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