Adoption has gone through a lot of changes over the years. In the 1960s, there was little to no access to birth control and abortion had not been legalized through Roe v. Wade. There was also still a lot of social stigma toward single mothers. Therefore, adoption numbers were fairly high. Adopted children were often bullied or tortured with taunts of their adoptive status, while the adoptive parents were revered for rescuing the “unwanted” children. Most adoptions were done through adoption agencies rather than private attorneys.
According to an article entitled “What is the History of Adoption?” the number of adoptions was at its highest during the 1970s. There was social pressure on out-of-wedlock pregnancies and often birth mothers were forced to relinquish their rights to their babies. Due to the pressure placed on them, many made this decision hastily and later regretted it. While most infants were placed in safe, loving homes, others were adopted for free labor when they got older. Adoption guidelines were in place but often overlooked to facilitate an adoption. During this time, there were no open adoptions. All adoption records were sealed. Organizations were being formed to protect the rights of both the adoptee and the birth mother, but wouldn’t be legalized for several more years, thus leaving the whereabouts of each unknown to the other.
Adoption numbers began to fall in the 1980s and 1990s as more birth mothers were choosing to raise their babies. By now, there were several birth control options readily available thus reducing the numbers of unwanted or unplanned pregnancies. The stigma associated with being a single mother had started to diminish and it became more acceptable. Many women were making the difficult choice to have an abortion as clinics across the nation were becoming available.
In 1996, a group known as the Bastard Nation was formed. This group promoted the rights of adult adoptees to access their sealed adoption records. Within two years, Oregon passed a law allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates. These two events helped usher in the semi-open and open adoption process so common today. Modern, open adoptions currently account for 95% of all adoptions.
Along with all of these changes, one major difference we see today is what is referred to as “adoption language.” Those in society who have little or nothing to do with adoption have no idea this language exists and even those of us who are part of the adoption triad struggle with using the correct terms. Since it has been nearly 20 years since we adopted our daughter and 30 since we adopted our son, the terms have changed and I find myself having to watch how I speak about adoptions today. In a time where we find ourselves needing to be politically correct in our speech, the language used in adoptions is to promote safety and respect for those involved.
The way we as a society view adoption has changed. If one of your siblings looked different than the rest of the family, we would jokingly say they must have been adopted. When my son, who was adopted, was in the 3rd grade, I received a phone call from the mother of one of his friends. She was concerned because he had been telling the kids at school that he was adopted. We had not kept his adoption a secret but also did not refer to him as our adopted son. We were living in a different town when we adopted him years earlier, so many people did not know our story. She was a little shocked when I told her that he was!
It was nothing for him to be ashamed of and I guess he felt it was time for his friends to know. He was never treated badly or made fun of as children in the past may have been. We adopted our daughter when she was two and a half. Most people in town were aware of her adoption but even in a small community, some did not know. I worked as a substitute teacher at her school and students and staff were often surprised to learn that she was adopted. The word “adoption” was never used negatively in our home. It was a term referred to as meaning loved and wanted. We never differentiated between our biological children and our adopted children. In our family, there was no difference. Maybe that’s why it was often questioned by our peers.
Several terms or phrases have changed in the adoption world. Though not meant to be disrespectful, sometimes word usage can affect how it makes a person feel or react. For example, when referring to a family such as mine, you would say, “they have six children, two of whom were adopted.” You never address us as the family with four children and two adopted children or say we have four “real” or “natural” children. We are the real parents of all of our children. We consider all of them to be our own. Two of them happened to join our family through adoption. It used to be said that the child was “given up,” “put up for adoption,” or adopted out.” In an attempt to show more respect, the verbiage has been changed to “placed for adoption,” “relinquished the rights,” or “made an adoption plan.”
Instead of using the terms “real” or “natural parents,” you now say “birth mother or father, birth parents, first parents or biological parents.” An expectant parent is someone expecting a baby and he or she does not become a birth parent until after the child is born and placement has been completed. The birth parents are called “my child’s birth mom or dad”, not “our birth parents.” After all, they are not my parents in any way. They provided the means by which I was able to raise this child as my own. Another important thing to remember is to use “people first” language. It is not “an adopted child” but a “child who was adopted.” Instead of saying a biological parent “kept the baby,” it is now proper to say that they chose or decided to “parent the baby.”
Children who in the past have been referred to as “handicapped” are now children with “special needs.” These children often have birth defects, learning disabilities, or social or mental disorders. It is more difficult to find a permanent home for these children as most couples are not equipped to care for them or simply do not have the knowledge necessary to provide for their needs. However, some people have a gift for taking care of and loving these children.
Camille Geraldi and her husband, both medical professionals, have adopted 88 special needs infants over the last 40 years. They were raised to be as independent as possible and each had their own chores. Most of them were expected to die, but many have lived. They have watched 32 of them pass away after loving and caring for them. Special needs infants and children have so much to offer and often live long and productive lives. When considering adoption, do not overlook the opportunity a special needs child could bring to you and your family. While extra care and attention are needed, children with special needs are wonderful blessings and you need to remember that the Geraldis are not the benchmark in the adoption world. You need to choose what is best for your family.
In the adoption world, it is not uncommon for a family to adopt from another country or of differing ethnicity. In the past, these families were often called “mixed-race families.” “Transracial/Transcultural” and “Multicultural” are terms used today. One mother I spoke to, who is raising a multicultural family, shared these thoughts with me. “I am not offended by the use of any of these terms. We’re all learning, adoptive families included. Though the term mixed-race has negative connotations from the past, what matters most is the meaning behind the words. People usually do not mean to offend when asking questions about my family, so appropriate modeling can be accomplished without assuming offense. I am most concerned about whether my child feels seen, loved, and safe in a person’s presence.”
Though these are her thoughts, it’s important to note that not all multicultural families may agree with this. Another adoptive mother I spoke with says they consider their family interracial. “We share different backgrounds but celebrate all people in our home because we are all God’s children. We work very hard to teach her about her culture.”
When talking to or about families with children of other races or ethnicity, be sure to be aware of their feelings. Respect is the key in any language. While we all continue to learn, if we in the adoption world use this positive form of speaking about adoption, it will be easier for everyone else to become familiar with it also. As we use positive adoption language, we can stop the spread of misconceptions.
When a couple finds themselves wanting to start a family, it can be heartbreaking to learn that they are infertile or cannot have biological children. It used to be said that they were “barren” or “unable to have children of their own.” Adoption is a way that they can have children of their own. Through the adoption process, a family can be made complete. In my case, infertility came after having two biological children. We knew we wanted more children and adoption made that possible for us. Several years later, after having two more biological children, our lives were again blessed through adoption.
Some couples choose to adopt for other personal reasons. A little girl approached adoptive mom, Natalie Welch, asking, “When will you make your own babies?” Natalie has known since she was 13 years old that she wanted to adopt. She felt it was her calling. “I’ve never been pregnant, but I am a mother. She doesn’t have my skin color, but her little arms reached for me the very first time I called her name. Adoption has always been my Plan A.” Natalie and her sister, Rachel, host a podcast called “instamommasnatandrach” and share their personal experiences with foster care and adoption.
No matter how or why you choose adoption, it is a very personal decision. Adoption has come a long way. The days of mystery surrounding your birth story are a thing of the past. The stigma of being an adopted child is gone. Adoption agencies like Gladney Center for Adoption assist in domestic infant adoption, international adoption, and foster care adoption. Their mission statement is, “Gladney exists to give children loving, caring families here at home and around the world. That’s the heart of our mission.” They offer services for both the expectant parent and adoptive families, along with post-adoptive resources.
As stated in the “Annie E. Casey Foundation 2020 Kids Count Data Book,” “Children who live in nurturing families and supportive communities have stronger personal connections and realize higher academic achievements.” Every child deserves to grow up in a secure home where they are loved and allowed to explore who they want to become. Adoption allows for this to happen. Adoption is an opportunity for both the adoptee and the adoptive child to expand their knowledge of different countries and ethnic cultures. Children adopted from foster care can see another way of living than what they have come from. Adoption gives them new hope for a bright future.
Those involved in the adoption world know what a blessing it can be in their lives. This scripture conveys the inward thoughts and emotion felt when a parent looks at the face or faces of their adopted children as they sleep soundly: ”For this child I have prayed and the Lord has granted the desires of my heart” (1 Samuel 1:27). Adoption can make families whole.