Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Language of Respect

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.                          George Orwell, 1984
As a nation, among the many things we are divided on is "politically correct" language. Some feel it is being shoved down their throats and it makes them defensive. We saw this in the Paula Dean bru-ha-ha.  I like to say to those opposed to "political correctness" that PC stands for POLITE and CONCERNED. I think it's all a matter of respect.

When I was told that referring to human beings as "Orientals", as had been accepted in the past, was no longer so...that rugs are oriental but people are Asian... I simply changed my wordage so as not to be offensive, albeit unintentionally. Others balk and act as if the mere suggestion of being respectful of how people wish be defined and addressed is a violation of their free speech.

My Grandma felt she was too young to be a grandmother. We were asked to call her Molly and did. It never confused our relationship with her. If a neighbor's child tells you that it hurts his feelings to be referred to as retarded, would you persist in doing so?  Bigoted slurs in conjunction with a brawl can change the legal dynamic of a simple assault into a federal hate crime.  In the workplace as well discriminatory or sexist language can rise to a legal offense, civilly if not criminally. Obviously the language we use is important and there ARE limIts on our freedom of speech.

Speaking of Adoption

Within the adoption community labels have always been contentious.  A young child, upon learning a playmate is adopted, will nine times out of ten blurt out a very simple and logical follow-up question: "Do you know who your real parents are?" It's as innocent and natural a question as asking a resident new to your community or a new classmate where they moved from. yet for adoptive parents - and adoptees - it raises issues and the hair on the back of their neck.

If you are living with and being raised by people who ADOPTED you, then you were not born to them and obviously have some genetic roots elsewhere. Ten-year-olds know this quite naturally. yet adoptive parents get bent out of shape when adults ask them the same question, even when asked about their very obviously, racially different, child. Many adopters report finding the question invasive and offensive. Mostly it is the use of the "real" - as in "do you know your child's 'real' parents?" that is troublesome for adopters.  They object to biological creation being - rightfully - described as "real" and "natural" thus making adoption unreal and unnatural, which it is is.  Many say they respond to such questions with a quick: "I am his REAL mother!" which of course is legally true and verified by a falsified birth certificate that says so. Step parents, it seems, even those who have raised a child since infancy, are far less defensive in revealing their step-parent relationship.

The problem with this and so much sensitivity in adoption language is taking a real fact of the PROCESS of adoption and making it personal. Adopters take the fact that they are not the real or natural parents of their child as a slight against them, as if it makes them "lesser" instead of just having created their family differently. The roots of this defensiveness lie in unresolved feelings of inadequacy of having not been able to conceive and birth a child of their own...or, in other cases from wanting to paint a "color blind" attitude that portrays just how much they love all of their children - home grown and adopted - equally.
"Adoption is not identical with producing one's own child into one's own family.  Not to recognize this reality is to romanticize adoption, and adoption literature abounds in such pretense." John Triseliotos, author of In Search of Origins.

"The traditional blood-kin family is composed of one mother, one father, and their child or children. The adoptive family is composed of two mothers, two fathers and a child common to them. Although society, and to some extent adoptive parents, would like to pretend that it is exactly like a traditional family, it is the differences that are extremely significant in each member's life." Dr. Herbert Wieder, Pyschiatrist with decades of experience working with adoptive families, testifying for Assembly Bill 2051 (Adoption) in Trenton, NJ, December, 1981.
It is recognizing these differences that are crucial to healthy inter-family relations in adoptive families.  The reality that the world sees is that every child is born to a set of parents with whom he or she shares DNA that makes that connection very real in a way that cannot be denied by thought, wishes or language. The connection is one formed in nature and is thus natural as opposed to legal arrangements made for the care of children subsequently.

The Flip Side

Another aspect of hurtful language is the use of the term "bio."  While I have never objected to being referred to as a birth mother, I find "bio" extremely and intentionally COLD and distancing. Recently I heard a euphemism that was new to me: LIFE GIVER.  It doesn't seem too bad except that it was said repeatedly as LIFE GIVER - in caps - and never "my life giver." And, in context, it was clearly the female form of SPERM DONOR which was used in the same piece, also in caps.

As my Mom used to say: "It's not what you say, but how you say it." You be the judge at this link, to what is for me a clear case of she doth protest too much about not caring. (Note, too that as a child this woman yielded to her a-mother's tears and then in true "good adoptee" behavior she learned as a child, "obeyed" her husband's wishes as well to leave it all alone.)

Some adoptees on Facebook were quick to defend that this is how they feel and thus they should be able to use language that expresses how they feel. Even if it is hurtful or offensive, I ask. Some defended it because they had never met LIFE GIVER.We all have ancestors we've never met.  Some may be perfectly lovely folks and others may be horrid. But we don't disdain them. Others have met and dislike their original parents, for whatever reasons. Is it even then necessary then to use demeaning language to identify their connection to you?

If I decided to refer to my firstborn child as GIVE AWAY, and said and wrote things about having met GIVE AWAY when she was sixteen and that then GIVE AWAY attended Syracuse university.... would adoptees not find that cold and a tad offensive???  What does it say about me? Does it indicate some unresolved issues? What if I called her DISCARD? or, "unwanted"?

For some mothers, the child they lost or who was taken from them for adoption is their "kidnapped" child. Many feel very strongly that their child was abducted, not adopted.  How would referring to their child as ABDUCTEE fly? "ABDUCTEE and I were reunited last year and I got to meet ABDUCTEE'S spouse and children." Does it sound warm and friendly, or as harboring of some UNRESOLVED ISSUES?  If you were left with the task of writing an obit, or purchasing a grave marker for the person from you are adopted-separated, would you want it to read: here lies LIFE GIVER..perhaps next to a stone marked "SPERM DONOR."

How about if mothers, not only spoke about our children this way, but addressed our children with these labels? Is it not depersonalizing and dehumanizing on the level of A Boy Called It?

Adoptive parents, and adoptees, can call us "birth parents" or "biological parents" and we may feel like or be strangers, but we maintain a unique blood and genetic connection to our children that makes us REAL and related in a way that adoption does not replicate. This reality must be recognized and dealt with. 

There is a balance between our individual and personal right to express how we feel toward others in our lives and simple respect. It is also incumbent upon us to recognize and work on the damage and in some cases havoc adoption has created in our lives; the deep irresolvable hurt.

What a nicer world if we each did our work and tried to be respectful.


tchaiki said...

Mirah, you make some great points here. I agree that words are hurtful--and used to hurt--as well as agreeing that people's feelings should be taken into consideration.

The reason I disagree with you here, but still with a great deal of respect for your thoughts, is because this is one person using one term about one person. To illustrate how differently I viewed this article, for example:

I saw "life giver" as an accurate term. The woman who bore the author gave that author life. LIFE. That without which is nothing. Yes, in some interpretations is may come across as wrong, and if someone were to call you that, I'd be the first to support you in saying that you should get to decide what to be called. me "life giver" is an affirming reminder, even if the author didn't intend it that way (we don't know). That is, also, something that adoptive parents never can be. They did not create and birth life.

No, maybe this particular author didn't mean it this way (again, we don't know), but my small two cents is that this term could be used in a positive way.

Mirah Riben said...


Out of context "life giver" sounds lovely. And, as I said, it would also be lovely had she said "my life giver." I would have no objection if any of my children called me his or her life giver.

But IN CONTEXT with SPERM DONOR, and without the word "my"....NOT.

Not to me anyhow.

Mirah Riben said...

So, we agree:

"this term could be used in a positive way"

As I said, it's HOW you say it, not what you say. It didn't feel warm and fuzzy to me.

RussiaToday Apr 29, 2010 on Russian Adoption Freeze

Russi Today: America television Interview 4/16/10 Regarding the Return of Artyem, 7, to Russia alone

RT: Russia-America TV Interview 3/10

Korean Birthmothers Protest to End Adoption

Motherhood, Adoption, Surrender, & Loss

Who Am I?

Bitter Winds

Adoption and Truth Video

Adoption Truth

Birthparents Never Forget