This article addresses concerns with negative adoption phrases (ex. "give up for adoption") and how to address these missteps in public life.

What Does “Give Up for Adoption” Really Mean?

As an adoptee, I’ve grown more aware of people’s perceptions about adoption and the roles that incorrect and insensitive sayings and correct and informed statements have. First and foremost, “Give Up for Adoption.” This phrase carries a negative tone and doesn’t do justice to what the process of placing a child for adoption actually is.

This phrase likely originated when the process of adoption was seen by wide society as shameful. Birth mothers were treated like lepers not that long ago. The term “give up for adoption” is harmful because it sounds like the birth mom had no choice but to place a baby for adoption. In the past couple of decades, big strides have been made to ensure that the decision to place is in the hands of the expectant parents every step of the way. 

But to really understand this phrase, let’s break it down. From Oxford, to “give up” is to “cease making an effort; resign oneself to failure,” or to “allow oneself to be taken over by an emotion or addiction.” The adjectives aren’t much better, but you can look them up if that piques your interest. 

Why is “Give Up for Adoption” the phrase of choice for so many in regards to placement? I thought about this topic for the first time when I was just a freshman in high school. I mentioned that I was adopted and a peer turned to me and expressed, “You must hate your birth mom for giving you up.”

That comment took me back. I didn’t hate my birth mom! On the contrary. I knew why she had chosen placement for me and I was grateful to my birth parents and their decision. I didn’t know how to respond and I can’t remember if I actually said anything in response. This complete misconception stunned me. 

I’ve thought a lot about this idea over the years as I’ve been exposed to comments made intentionally or unintentionally. I’ve found that the majority of off-putting remarks stem from a lack of education or understanding. The adoption-educated people who continue to use negative adoption language have likely had their own experiences that left a bad taste in their mouths, which is an unfortunate reality. 

In my adoption story, as well as the bulk of stories I’ve been exposed to, the birth parents’ decision to place was difficult. A decision where the needs of the child were at the forefront of the choice. It was made out of a desire to have the baby placed in a home that could provide what the birth parents could not in that particular juncture of their lives.

For my birth mother, as she poured over hopeful-adoptive-parent profiles, she looked for qualities she hoped to have as she progressed in life. A recent high school graduate, she knew she was unable to provide all she wanted for her baby (me) at that time. She read my parents’ profile and felt drawn to their characteristics she hoped to develop for herself. They followed Christ, my dad owned a Jeep, and they enjoyed drives in said Jeep on Sundays. My birth mom felt a connection because of her relationship with Christ and her own lifelong infatuation with Jeeps. 

My birth mom didn’t “give me up.” She didn’t “give up” on herself or on me. Both of my birth parents wanted more for me than they could give, so they decided to place me in the arms of parents who could.

In addition to “give up for adoption,” there is also the common “give out” for adoption. Some of these phrases are problematic because they are also used in reference to adopted animals. The phrases that sound like they put children and animals in the same category can be a trigger for birth parents, adoptive parents, and especially adoptees. 

What can be said as an alternative to “give up for adoption?” There are a handful of phrases. The one I’ve mentioned intermittently, “place for adoption.” You may also hear of expectant parents who “choose/make an adoption plan.” 

Unfortunately, “give up for adoption” will likely continue to be used commonly because it has been the standard terminology for so long. It is used on websites, in agencies, and in normal conversations because it’s what people are used to. The best hope for progress towards positive adoption language is for people to use positive adoption language while telling their stories. 

This conversation doesn’t end with just this one phrase. There is a myriad of other sayings in regards to adoption that cause tension in the adoption community. 

Many of the sayings make the baby or child sound more like an object than an actual human baby. For example, a birth mom pointed out that “parenting” instead of “keeping” is better terminology, because it makes the child sound less like an object. 

Before someone has placed a child for adoption, they are an “expectant parent.” The title of “birth mom” or “birth father” can be insensitive prior to placement. It adds pressure to choose placement for individuals already in a stressful situation. 

Another instance of off-putting terminology I’ve experienced personally is the use of “real mom/dad.” I’ve had people ask what I have in common with my “real mom.” Or what my “real dad” does for a living. At Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, my uncle on my mom’s side asked, “so, what’s your real mom like?” I answered, “Well, you would know. You grew up with her” and pointed to my mom across the room. I followed up with, “If you’re asking about my birth mom…” and continued the conversation as such. 

I have also had conversations when I’ve referred to my parents and been interrupted to clarify, “Wait, do you mean your adoptive mom or your real mom?” I’ve had to explain countless times, “My mom, Leanne, is my real mom. My birth mom, Megan is my birth mom. I don’t call her my mom, because my mom is my mom.” 

How others refer to birth parents intrigues me. I have talked with adoptive parents who look at their adoption story with regret and sadness. These parents tend to refer to their children’s birth parents as their “mom” and “dad.” In these situations, it feels like these parents are in an attempt to disassociate with their children and that, among other behaviors, effectively draws a heartbreaking line between the parents and children. 

One saying I hadn’t thought of as a negatively connotated saying until a couple of years ago was “a child of my own.” I was talking to my mom after getting back some unfortunate news from the gynecologist. I said something to the effect of, “I just hope I can have babies of my own.” She furrowed her brows and explained that even though my sister and I don’t share my parents’ blood, we are every bit their child as though we did share bloodlines. She of course honors my sister’s and I’s stories and the birth parents that chose to place us in her arms, but she never felt like she raised someone else’s babies. We were her babies.

A birth mom (and a friend) recently talked with me about referring to unplanned pregnancies as “unwanted pregnancies.” As she was going through placing not just one, but two babies for adoption two years apart, she was exposed to such language. In reflection, she says that the term “unwanted pregnancy” can have a lasting impact on not only the birth parents but on adoptees as well. It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror and feel you were ever unwanted.

This birth mom said, “My pregnancies were absolutely unplanned, but I wanted those babies 100,000%.” She also prefers the phrase “crisis pregnancy” as an alternative to “unwanted pregnancy.” She has a valid worry that adoptees will experience damage if they regard themselves as “unwanted.”

Along similar lines, there is an assumption that the choice to make an adoption plan for your baby ensures that they will have a better life. That assumption can damage birth mothers and birth fathers. That makes it sound like the birth parent would inherently have failed their child as a parent. Just because a birth parent feels that a placement plan would be the best option for their child at the time, doesn’t mean that the child would not have been loved or have had a good life.

It is vital to use positive terminology in regards to adoption. In the world of adoption, there is a fair amount of trauma. There are misconceptions and misjudgments. Intentions are questioned because of our understanding of words that are used in other contexts.

However, as important as it is to work on diminishing negative contexts and replace them with positive terminology, it is also crucial to validate the experiences of adoptees. 

It was recently pointed out to me that if an adoptee uses “give up for adoption,” it may be because that’s how they feel when they take inventory of their lives and reflect on their story. There are situations and adoption stories where the decision to place a child for adoption wasn’t as filled with love as my story. In those cases, the adoptee doesn’t need to be corrected. They must be heard and validated. 

Personally, not much offends me. I thankfully don’t have the energy to hold grudges for long. I can understand, however, the situations that would cause people to be offended. Adoption is something held so close to the heart, so if people refer to it casually or offensively, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that can hurt a lot. 

For me, I have to separate immediate feelings of disconcertment and recognize that there is an opportunity at hand to educate. I could lash out in anger at insensitivity or I could take a moment to explain to someone what could be said instead and why it’s important to use positive adoption language.

For the most part, my experiences with negative adoption language have not been entrenched in spite, malice, or ill-will. It is most commonly just a matter of misinformation or general lack of education. When I take the time to kindly explain the way that things can be said and why it’s important to make the changes, the person responds positively. 

A number of years ago, while I still lived with my parents, we had a neighbor who said something offhand. My sister and I chatted with her and walked away to join our similar-aged neighbor kids. This neighbor came up to my parents, and remarked, “Your girls are not too bad for store-bought kids!” We chuckled about it and weren’t offended, though that comment could absolutely be considered highly, highly offensive. The next day, that same neighbor lady came over, humiliated. She felt terrible and worried that she had crossed a line. We invited her in and talked about adoption, how certain terms can be offensive to individuals. 

Ultimately, there are terms, phrases, and negative ways of saying things that can be triggering or otherwise offensive. Unfortunately, these sayings have been around for so long, it will be a difficult and long process. Those who feel strongly about which words should be said and how things should be said need to maintain a certain level of patience. If people don’t take the time to educate others, there will never be a change made. 

“Give up for adoption” is not the ideal way of saying that a baby was “placed for adoption” or that “an adoption plan was made.” However, the only way to encourage that new connotation and the common use of positive language is for people to take the time to educate themselves and be open about sharing their feelings and experiences.

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Hannah Jennings

Hannah Jennings lives in Idaho with her husband, Nick, and her tabby cat, Charlie. Hannah is a singer/songwriter, and loves to perform. She is also a photographer and enjoys taking family photos. She has been an adoption advocate for more than five years and loves sharing her story as an adoptee.