The language of adoption

I’m working my way through the myriad of questions I asked on this post around adoption and how it feels to be adopted, infertile, and so on, so here’s the latest…

The language of adoption, and what do you call your family members?

One of the things that made me think about this was MPB’s post Mom. There have also been a few questions on here and throughout my life(!) around people questioning how I define myself and other family members, and my answer is pretty simple: The same as any of you do. (As similar as any family, and as different as any family.)

As early as I remember (I was adopted at a few days old and have no memory of being with any other parents than my parents now), I called my parents Mummy and Daddy. This is fairly straightforward and normal in the UK, if not a bit old fashioned. And there comes an age where you start moving to Mum and Dad (unless you’re really posh – posh people always call their parents Mummy and Daddy, or should that be Mummeh and Daddeh). Anyway, we were living overseas for a lot of my childhood and there wasn’t really much difference from our family and any of the other families I saw. In some countries they have different names for Mum and Dad, but generally they’re called something parental.

My siblings were just called brother/sister too. Well – they were called by their names, but referred to as my siblings. Actually – everyone in my family was called by a nickname (or three). We’re a bit weird in my family and we like giving nicknames to everyone. Basically, you’ve made it if you have a nickname. If you don’t, it means you’re not really in the Gang. The kids were called The Gang. The parents were called The Folks. The boys were called The Boys and the girls were called The Girls. My parents had silly nicknames for all of us and we all had silly nicknames for each other. Some of these got phased out over time but some have stuck.

Interestingly, I’m #1 and my family nickname is an affectionate name relating to my original name I had when I was a baby, in another language. I think it makes me sound a bit like a giant panda or something. I don’t overly mind it but it’s only ever been very much in my family, and it’s since been co-opted by my sister-in-law and brother as what my nephew calls me. (He is little.) This is because my very unusual name (I’ve only met a few of me, and mine’s spelled weirdly) is also the name of the sister-in-law’s sister (what are the chances?), so she gets the name of Aunty Mynamespelledwrong and I get the name of Aunty Mychildhoodnickname. Even though I’m older! But never mind.

Honestly, I find it a bit annoying that SIL+Bro took my childhood nickname which was meant to stay within the family (even my ex never called me that, I mean it’s from my foreign name as a baby) and made it into this common thing that the nephew calls me. But… I’m not precious about it. Minorly peeved I guess as I never got a choice about it, and it feels like it’s something that should be a little bit mine rather than someone else’s (my foreign birth-ish name). But I’m not one of those people who can be bothered to hold a grudge. (I’m really lazy and I just don’t have the emotional botheredness to do it.) If you read my last post on the subject, Bro is RFB / the Golden Child so I’ve learned over time that there is really no point in begrudging him doing anything. Also, I’m sure they didn’t plot to do it in a horrible way – they probably thought they were being really nice by referring to me as my childhood nickname.

#2 is known as various fruits and vegetables as #2 is, how can I put it? Loopy. RFB is known as a somewhat hilarious nickname that he really doesn’t like but we all insist on using (which is probably why I get called Aunty Childhoodnickname) which is the result of people mispronouncing his (very traditional, easy, British) name when we lived overseas. And The Baby gets called silly things which are mainly what I made up when we were little. The Baby actually came up with a lot of our family language because of being the youngest and the most imaginative. Our parents were for a long time known as Mama Bear and Papa Bear and The Baby was Baby Bear. We have all sorts of silly family sayings which are mainly related to The Baby and our indulgences of childhood ideas.

What I find funny is, I think looking at our family from the outside it must always have drawn questions. We were used to when we were little a lot of people staring. People would generally compliment my mother on this, so I don’t think she minded – four little kids of varying colours all dressed identically (or at least complementary to each other) and we were all very well behaved. Honestly, when I see children today misbehaving in public I just think they need 5 minutes with my mother.

My mother is white but if you’ve ever read that book about the Tiger Mother – she is it. I mean she’s truly fierce and she would always fight for her cubs. It meant when we were growing up that we were more bothered about her getting cross than my dad (who is a softie and not very demonstratively emotional whereas my mother should be one of those wailing Middle Eastern mothers as well as a Tiger mother). Anyway, she was always very proud of us so we never really got the idea that they were staring in a bad way – and as far as I can remember she never explained to anyone if they were staring. I suppose there are two ways to look at this – #2 and I were always obviously a different colour so they obviously got us from somewhere, but I think she just would introduce her four children and have done with it. If people then asked questions, they asked them of us, and most people wouldn’t bother whilst my mother was about! I think this means we’ve always been very open about it and because #2 and I were there first, we never really felt like we had to apologise for not being bio…

There is an interesting wiki on the language of adoption here. As I mentioned in my previous post, part of my university studies were on language and I am interested in how adoption language defines adoption. Where are you from? Where are you really from? Do you want to meet your real parents? – the usual questions you get used to answering if you’ve been adopted. (For a comical view, see here.) Language is always changing. If you think about how it was okay to refer to people in certain words back when we were kids and it isn’t now. I had a PE teacher at school who used to call us “mongs”, “spastics” and “retards” whereas you wouldn’t be able to say that now – it would be considered politically incorrect. (Do you ever wonder why I hated PE?)

In terms of adoption language I apparently use the old fashioned “adoption positive” language: birth mother, [adoptive] mother – the tide is turning now towards an ongoing acknowledgement of adoption “honest adoption language”. As adopted people we are often conditioned I think to refer to mother, father, brother, sister (adoptive family) and birth mother, birth father, birth family for the first family.

One of the things I’ve noticed online is that the adoptees who are probably more vocal tend to use language that veers more towards “honest adoption language” whereas most people I’ve met who were adopted use “adoption positive”. Maybe that’s just a part of growing up in the era we grew up in. People I know who have adopted more recently still seem to use that sort of adoption positive / neutral language to describe them and their families, ie not using adoption as a qualifier, whereas I suppose if you’re talking online about adoption then it makes sense that you’d use a qualifier to explain where you are in the adoption triad.

One for another post is how language affects this idea of The Grateful Adoptee, adoption as a gift, etc. There’s an interesting anthology I read recently called The Perpetual Child which talks about how the language of adoption makes adoptees always the powerless children. It’s a bit of a deeper subject so I’ll put it on another post!

I guess one of the reasons why I don’t have lots of terms for my birth family is that I haven’t been through reunion. If you read the online stuff, it’s apparently par for the course that all adult adoptees will eventually want to search for their roots. I have to tell you that this hasn’t hit me yet. I don’t know if it ever will. Part of this is pragmatic, because I came from a long way away, and from a different language / culture and I can see there being so many barriers to reunion, and partly because I haven’t felt this overwhelming urge to search. 99.9% of the time I don’t think about being adopted particularly; my family is my family and I don’t think I think about my place in it any more than the average non-adopted person.

Once in a while I wonder, for sure. I thought about it on my wedding day. (I’m now separated, but that’s another sad story.) I thought: I wonder if I have a mother out there who is thinking about me, and I wonder if my first father would have given me away like my dad did. I assume that I will think of them if I ever give birth to a child. I’ll wonder how they could have given me away, perhaps… Although I’m quite a pragmatic person and I assume that comes from somewhere (not my passionate, emotional [adoptive] mother, that’s for sure!). So I think maybe it came from my birth parents being okay with those things, the idea that they were passing me into the care of someone else. My birth mother met my parents. From what my dad says, she was happy(!) to be handing me over. That gives me a sense of peace because I think she felt she was doing the right thing. I guess every person who was adopted has their own mythology and adoption story and mine has always been positive and I never really questioned it.

The worst thing for me would be the idea that there’s some old person(s) out there who think about me and worry about me. I’d like to think they’re sort of pragmatic like I am and they think, I’m sure she has a nice life. I have this mad emotional thing about old people – I always have. I think, you’re so old and I hope that someone’s looking after you. The worst thing for me would be this idea that there’s one or two old people who sit around hoping I’ll turn up and crying about me. But I really don’t think they would be. If I’ve turned out anything like them (and studies have shown that people take a lot of their characteristics from their birth families, regardless of upbringing) I think they’d be sort of philosophical about it. My [adoptive] dad has always said “There’s no point worrying about things you can’t change” and I think he’s correct. I don’t think overly about reunion because I think it isn’t something that’s likely to be successful. The other thing my dad says is “The one certainty in life is that things will change” which I also think is correct… If there’s a time one day when it becomes feasible for me to meet my birth family then I wouldn’t be averse to it; I’m just not pushing and yearning for it.

So I guess what I’m saying in a roundabout way is that I don’t have alternative words for my family (other than nicknames) that distinguish between first/birth family and adoptive family because to me in everyday life I just have one family. I came from a family that I don’t have contact with, and who I tend not to dwell on in an everyday way, so for me the standard family terminology is fine for my “everyday” [adoptive] family. If I ever go through reunion then I guess that there may come a need for alternative terminology to distinguish between the first/birth family and the current(!) family. I’ve never had to deal with that though.

Another point I raised previously was this idea that you should somehow always refer to yourself as being adopted… That adoptive parents should call their children adoptive children rather than their son or daughter. For me that just wouldn’t work. As someone with bio and adopted siblings, to have made that distinction between us would have been very difficult for us adopted ones to deal with, I think. My parents were always very definite in that there was “no difference” between their adopted kids and their bio kids. (Clearly there were differences in gender, colour and personality!) We were all their children and they never used “adopted” as a qualifier. (My aforementioned Tiger Mother would have stared down anyone who tried to do that!) For me anyway, and I suspect for #2, it would have made me feel insecure that we weren’t really a part of the family in the same way – that we didn’t belong.

We are all different but a large part of my sense of security as a child was that I belonged in that family. Personally I wouldn’t want to feel like I could just be reclaimed and sent back to a foreign country at any time. I’m sure when people first find out they’re adopted they ask if they might be sent back. My parents always made it clear that there wouldn’t be a time when we were sent back, but if we wanted to, they’d support us in going back. #2 has actually been back to the country of our birth, with my parents. I have not. I had the choice to go but I didn’t want to. I think I will go one day, but it’s just not top of my list of priorities. (It probably shows how much of a terrible person I am that I chose an alternative present when it was offered as a birthday present.) It really isn’t because I somehow reject the country of my birth or whatever. I think it’s just that – it’s where I was born, but it’s not the entirety of who I am. This idea that you have to somehow be deeply ingrained with your birthplace and culture – it’s not something I relate to. I am who I am for many reasons and over time my experiences since the fact of being adopted have shaped me.

Do I feel guilty referring to my first family as my biological family? Short answer, no. I am of the firm belief that stuff that happens to children that’s outside of their consent, being placed in a new family, as happens with adoption – that isn’t our responsibility to feel bad about. What happened to me when I was a few days old was completely the decision of my parents, my biological parents, my adoptive parents and the agency. I didn’t get to decide about what happened to me so I don’t take that responsibility on myself. If I was a nice person (and maybe I am!) I would perhaps put myself in a position where I could be contacted if they wanted to contact me. But that shouldn’t be an obligation for adopted adults, in my opinion. It’s not for us to take on responsibilities for this big emotional undertaking when we weren’t involved in the decision to begin with.

I realise what I’m saying may be controversial but I don’t relate to the idea of adopted adults having to go and seek reunion as the only way to “resolve” adoption. Adoption is a fact, a thing that happens to us when we are so young that we don’t have any say. We are taken from one family and placed in another, and that family (if they stick to the treaty, the rules of being a family) should love them no differently than they would if they were genetically related. The obligations of being in a family, of being subject to love and subject to frustrations and control are passed to the second [adoptive] family. I always grew up knowing I was adopted and I always grew up knowing that my birth mother at least (and presumably my birth father) had agreed that they were no longer my mother and father. My birth mother passed me to my new [current, adoptive] parents and they’ve been in my life many degrees longer than my birth family have.

Do I feel unresolved anger towards my birth family? I really don’t feel like I do. To me it is just a fact and I’m at the same time disinterested on a daily basis and mildly curious if there were a way to find out more. I think for me it would be interesting but I don’t harbour any ideas that I’d suddenly feel complete or whatever. I can imagine it would be a huge culture shock and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’ve been brought up in a predominantly white western culture and I’m not sure I’d fit in my original culture… I’d forever be a fat western version of the one I was meant to be.

I asked someone I know who has met their birth mother what it felt like. Did it feel different? Did you feel something different to what you feel for your family? Somehow that there was a genetic link, something you’d never seen or felt before? And the answer was no. I wonder if there would be some big understanding or cosmic experience with mine. I think it’s unlikely. If anything we would be interested, I think, but it’s not like my whole life and sense of identity depends on it. For me it’s those people who have that kind of huge cosmic experience and where their identity is changed by meeting their birth family – they end up having different names for family, because they suddenly have a bigger family than they did, and they need more words for it. Maybe if something like that happened to me I would have to change the way I describe my family. But for now… I’m okay with the language I have now.




  1. Pingback: Adoption thoughts 2: questions | From zero to zygote
  2. My Perfect Breakdown

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and your experience. Interestingly, lat night Mr. MPB and I had a conversation about the possibility of having an adopted and a biological child (chances are that will never happen for us, but I’ve learned never to say never). Anyways, you came up in the conversation. We found ourselves chatting about if that actually did happen we would always worry about how the adopted child would feel. I think your mom had it right – her children are her children regardless of genetics. I suspect, in fact I know, we will always be this way. Simply, we already know that no-matter how our child(ren) come into our lives we will love them and care for them with everything we have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      I think that’s true for me and the people I know anyway. The thing I’m conscious of is this adoptee voice and adoption rights movement where I’m aware that many adult adoptees feel differently about how they should be referred to and the perspective on reunion, etc. (That’s one for another post!) I am just trying to share my experience here – there are a lot of people I know who were adopted who are just… fairly normal(!) and wouldn’t refer to themselves differently. My mum is quite adamant we’re all her children, and I don’t think she is meaning to be direspectful to our birth parents – she is just someone who repeats a lot how important we all are to her, and how loved.

      I think if you did end up with an adopted child and a bio child then you have to be conscious that the adopted child would have things to deal with that the bio child doesn’t. They’d have other questions about their identity and they might need more reassurance about their place in the family. But… I don’t think it has to be all doom and gloom. The two of us older kids who were adopted were there before the bio kids so I think it was kind of easier in that way as we were there first. But then for others who adopt later then I think that’s another story where you can say they were specifically wanted, not because they couldn’t have bio children… I think it’s all about how you act within your own family that determines how your child feels about it. You are so thoughtful and you have been through so much and explored a lot of the thoughts and emotions so I’m sure you would be better prepared than most! I think my folks were quite simple about it and they didn’t really have time to think through a lot of it – they told me it all happened really quickly so they didn’t have much chance to prepare!


  3. Arwen

    WordPress ate my comment!
    Basically, love this post and your writing. If we ever adopt for our (2nd…hopefully) child then I feel your perspective is already helping me consider things I haven’t thought about before.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nara

    Aww thanks. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just shouting into the void… (and to Mrs MPB!) but it’s a strange compulsion for me to answer all the questions I asked back in my previous post. I’m not sure if my perspective is very different from others as there seems to be a lot of flipping the script / changing the narrative online, with people who have been really badly affected by adoption. It can make it sound very bleak, which I don’t disagree with at all – there are some terrible things happening re forced adoptions. But certainly in my own life, we “positive adoptees” are the norm rather than the exception. By which I mean we’re not advocates as such, but equally it is not this very terrible thing to think about every day. I still have grief, if you see what I mean, but I don’t feel grief every day. And I like my family so that makes it easier. (They are nutters… but they’re MY nutters!)


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