The Subtle Choice of Words and Their Not So Subtle Messages

by guest contributor Paula O’Loughlin, originally published at Heart, Mind and Seoul

A celebrity prospective adoptive parent was recently quoted as saying, “Of course I want to have kids. I want to have my own kids, but also adopt.”

  • Several weeks ago, I caught the tail end of an episode of “Friends” when Monica and Chandler make the decision to adopt. I can’t remember their conversation verbatim, but basically what Chandler said to Monica was, “Since we can’t have any kids of our own, are you really sure that you’re okay with adopting?”
  • Recently I was asked by a family friend, “So, do you think you’ll have any more kids of your own? You know, like get pregnant?”
  • Just last week I overheard a woman say to a group of friends, “It’s just so amazing how people can adopt other kids and love them as if they were their own.”
  • Walter Scott in his January 2006 Personality Parade column (featured in the Sunday PARADE magazine) wrote briefly about Angelina Jolie’s family, and then went on to add that Jolie and Pitt “are expecting their own child as well”.
  • It is not uncommon for me to read or hear an adoptive parent say something along the lines of, “I just want my child to know that I love him just as much as if he were my very own”, or “I couldn’t love her any more than if she were my own child.”
  • I know a fellow adoptee who has brothers and sisters who were born unto his parents. When he and his siblings are being introduced, the parents will say, “These are our own children, Mike and Mary, and this is our adopted child, Scott.” (Not their real names of course.)

Growing up, whenever it was revealed to people that I was adopted, it was inevitable that questions about my brothers, who are my parent’s biological sons, would arise. People seemed so curious to know what it was like to grow up in a family where my parents had both “children of their own” and an adopted child. Was I treated the same, they wanted to know. Did my parents love me any more, any less or the equivalent to “their own children”? “What a challenge!” many would marvel to me – myself just a child – who really should not have been put in that position to hear them verbalize aloud just how difficult they believed it to be to love a child who wasn’t really “their own.”

Their reactions, their questions, their comments about my status as an adoptee and my brothers’ standings as my parent’s biological sons were not lost on me. Over the years, the messages from others continued to emerge loud and clear: Having a child of “one’s own” was unmistakably the gold standard to which all people aspired. What I learned from others is that there are two camps: The haves, who are their parents “own” children and those like me, the have-nots who cannot claim an identity as their parent’s own children, but just merely the role of an adopted child. The message still rings unambiguously throughout our media and in our society today: Can’t have a child “of your own”? Oh, well. If you don’t mind settling, you can always adopt.

As an adoptive parent, I know I am not alone when I say that others have questioned my ability to love a child that is not “my own”. Even well-intentioned friends and aquaintences have said something along the lines of “Why not just be satisfied with another child ‘of your own’?” A friend of mine once told me how her parents refused to let her brother name his son, who was adopted from Columbia and was the first grandson, after her and her brother’s father (the child’s adoptive grandfather). Both grandma and grandpa said they would rather wait until one of their children had a boy “of their own” (aka a “real” grandson) to carry on the family name.

I know my observations and ruminations about the power behind the messages I believe society sends pertaining to adoption may be criticized by some, but I feel it necessary to evaluate, scrutinize and even challenge the implications behind the language that many are so quick to use – - words that some may argue are just semantics, but words that I believe can unfairly burden adoptees by suggesting that our existence in our families is less desirable, less valuable and therefore “less than” than that of a child who people say is a son or daughter of “their own”. Words that evoke endless comparisons between a child who is born unto his parents and a child who is adopted. Words that send the message, even if unknowingly, that a child “of your own” trumps an adopted child any day of the week in every possible way.

My husband and I have two children. Not one child who is “our own” and not one who is “just adopted”.

Two children who we love beyond measure. Two children who deserve to be recognized, respected and valued by others for the remarkable individuals they are, not for the ways they happened to join our family.

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