You run into some friends you haven’t seen in awhile and in catching up, you discover they are adopting a baby boy. “That’s wonderful,” you say. “Where did you get him? Will you get to meet the mother? Do you know why she gave him away? How long will it be before you get him? Gosh, my friend at work had to wait years for the adoption to go through. And oh, was it expensive. Hey! You know what’s going to happen, right? Now you’ll get pregnant!”
Hopefully none of us have grilled someone about adoption as relentlessly as this, but most of us have to admit that at least one or maybe two of those phrases have come out of our mouths upon hearing about friends’ plans to adopt. There’s a better way to talk to your friends about the adoption process.
PAL, RAL, and HAL
Carefully choosing the words to use when speaking to people who are in the process or who have completed the process of adoption is much more than being “politically correct.” Adoption is emotionally, spiritually, and mentally complex for everyone involved; for those who have not experienced the highs and lows, it’s hard to fully understand how certain words and phrases can be like a slap in the face . . . no matter the well-meaning our intentions.
Positive Adoption Language (PAL), a set of guidelines formed to put a positive light on the adoption process, was introduced in the 1970s. A decade or so later, Respectful Adoption Language (RAL) was embraced by many because it acknowledges everyone involved in the birth and adoption process. More recently, those who want a less “sugar-coated” way to talk about adoption have developed the Honest Adoption Language (HAL), because it acknowledges the less-than-pretty aspects of many adoptions.
Reading a few online adoption forums will quickly show you that none of the guidelines are fully embraced, probably because every adoption situation is extremely unique. While everyone agrees that “real mother” is a negative phrase, there isn’t a consensus on what to say instead. “Birth mother,” “natural mother,” “bio-mother,” “the woman who gave birth” . . . all of these phrases are packed with nuances that make it hard to come up with standard adoption language—and this is just one example.
What Not to Say
It’s hard to know exactly the right thing to say in every adoption situation, but it’s easy to learn what not to ask. Although people differ on which of the language guidelines are best, it’s safe to assume they would agree that the list below includes the best examples of the worst questions anyone could ask an adoptive parent.
- Why was he/she given up for adoption? This is none of your business.
- How much longer is the adoption going to take? A huge amount of anxiety already built into the adoption process. No need to add to it.
- Are you worried he/she will grow up with mental/social problems? Would you ask this to a pregnant friend?
- Are you going to tell him/her about that he/she is adopted? See answer #1.
- Which one of your children is the adopted one? By singling out the adopted child you’re showing that you think the child is somehow not a full family member. And using the present tense—is adopted, instead of was adopted—makes it sound like adoption is a disability that won’t go away.
- What is she/he? This question really means you want to know the baby’s race or find out in which country the baby was born. The adoptive parents will volunteer this information if they want to. And if they don’t, it’s irrelevant anyway.
- How much did the adoption cost? Really? We’re talking about a child here, not a flat-screen TV.
For further information, see Matthew 7:12.
Judy Bumgarner is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee. She also works at Brentwood United Methodist Church in the church’s Caring Ministry.