Positive adoption language (or how NOT to refer to your child)

I was huddled against the window in seat 14E, trying hard to concentrate on something other than the stench coming from the nice lady seated in 14D. (She really was nice, but good lord...) I was heading out west for a working weekend in Denver waiting for that seat belt sign to go off so I could make a mad dash to the bathroom at get a 5-minute scent reprieve.

And that's when I heard it. The word "adoption" floated into the air and my ears perked right up. It was the woman seated behind me so I adjusted my position (facing away from 14D) to better eavesdrop on the conversation. (Don't judge me, I was desperate.)

15E went on to talk about her children. 15D had asked if 15E had any children. Yes, she responded. A daughter, now in college. And two children, now twelve, that she adopted. Then, she went on to give the sordid history of the adopted children, their mother's battle with drugs which had led to the mother's incarceration, and how 15E had adopted them and helped heal their wounds.

Blech. Savior complex, anyone?

I'm not a fan for putting your child's history out there for strangers, and definitely not in favor of disparaging their birth mother. I guess I gave her a little break though, knowing that sometimes people need an outlet and they unload things to complete strangers at 36,000-feet that they wouldn't dream of doing with their feet rooted on land.

But then, she said something else that made my skin crawl. And then I got mad.

She said "my daughter" when talking about her bio child, and "my adopted daughter" when she referred to her younger daughter. She didn't just do this once. She did it repeatedly throughout the entire conversation, even when she wasn't discussing adoption-related issues.

I gasped. Audibly (and then remembered I was on a plane so closed my mouth).

It was so natural for her to casually talk about these two girls who are both her daughters, and yet she differentiates between them by always tacking on that "adopted" adjective.

And the big question I have is why?? Why the need to constantly refer to her as adopted? Why not call her the youngest daughter?

Although the mother undoubtedly (I hope) loves both of them there seems to be a distinct difference between how she thinks of these two girls, or she wouldn't point out the difference in how they became her daughters.

Perhaps I'm too sensitive?  Easy to say if you are not adopted. Easy to minimize the sting that being singled out as different might cause. I know if my father or grandparents had ever referred to me as "the adopted daughter/grand-daughter" it would have hurt deeply. You don't feel fully loved and accepted if you are set apart from the natural born children, and adding that adjective is definitely a way to set a child apart.

Now, to give 15E credit, she wasn't saying this in front of her daughter. But still, it's obviously a mindset for her. And I argue that this mindset that allows her to differentiate between her daughters to a stranger is still present when she parents the child. She may not say it aloud, but clearly she still internalizes a difference between her relationship to the two children or she wouldn't constantly refer the youngest in such an alienating way.

I found it interesting also that she talked about how the two girls fought a lot. I know there could be a lot of factors, but I have to wonder if the girls feel this separation between them. Wonder if the youngest is angry that she's held at arm's length. Wonder if she feels like less of a daughter?

I just felt so sad for this family.

(And I have to say here, I have no idea what type of family environment they really have. I'm basing all of this opinion simply on a 35-minute conversation that I overheard.)

My heart ached for those children. And for the mother too, who seemingly can't get past how her children came to her.

I'm not saying we are the model adoptive family at all. Not by a long shot. I've said remarks in public that I've felt bad about later. Struggled with how to discuss adoption with strangers while my child is present. Stumbled for the right words when discussion adoption with Little Man.

No, we are not perfect. And because of our racial differences, it's quite obvious how we came to be a family. We always wear the fact that we are an adoptive family on the outside.

At the end of the flight, I finally stood up and turned around. I didn't say anything to her but I'm sure I was giving her the stink eye.

What's your take on this??


  1. Strange, indeed. I would never personally differentiate my kids that way in casual conversation with someone I just met (and I have one of each), or share family history that way. Was she doing it for effect so stranger #2 knew WHICH daughter she was talking about? I hope her daughter is okay...

    1. Not sure. See the reply I wrote to Heather which addresses the same thing. Hoping for the best for her children!

  2. I have adopted siblings and I've never heard either of my parents refer to any of their kids as the "adopted" one. So yeah, that would probably rub me the wrong way. But could she have been doing it inadvertently as a way to differentiate for the woman she was speaking to? Instead of saying "my older daughter" or "my younger daughter"? I do think adoption language has become much more sensitive over the last decade, so maybe she just isn't as educated? Hopefully her daughters don't feel any differentiated within their family.

    1. Not sure if she was doing that or not. But why wouldn't you say oldest and youngest in that case? There are only 2 daughters and they are 7 years apart. Or even, say adopted and bio, but adopted and "my" are two very different things. I sure hope the kids don't feel it either, but it gave me a pit in my stomach!


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