Vancouver Documentary Photographer - Advocating for Adoption with Positive Language
For those of you who have been introduced to Victoria’s adoption story last year, you will recognize this family. Signe and Cory have been so generous to share their journey of adoption and their commitment to advocating for adoption is apparent. They share triumphs and challenges of their experience, are thoughtful about how to develop their child’s identity moving forward (while maintaining a connection with her cultural roots), and work hard to protect her origin story.
Last Fall, while collaborating on an article about Victoria’s adoption with photojournalist Ryan Christopher Jones for Confluence Magazine, he suggested I think about pursuing a long term project with the Clayton family. I agreed….it will be important to at least circle back to honour the anniversary of her adoption and how their family has grown together.
So this past May, I made it to the east coast for a little reunion Day in the Life at the Claytons’ home. Signe had just come back from Denmark where she grieved and celebrated the life of her grandmother. Jet lagged, exhausted, and feeling the anniversary of Victoria’s adoption, she later shared that she didn’t quite feel herself. She realized how incredibly tired and out of it she was that weekend and felt bad that she wasn’t able to be more mentally present during our time together.
It has been 3 months since then and while I was putting together their session, I didn’t see what Signe felt. Instead, I saw parents with deep love for their children and each other, are firm when needed, and tender all other times. They are a well-oiled team and attend to each child’s needs with acuity. This film is proof.
Gratitude is always present when I reflect on my time with families but with this family, I have a little more to share. I talk about honouring people’s stories, but this week, I failed. In advocating for a woman striving for single parenthood, I inadvertently used hurtful language towards adoptive families by writing "…so many women have struggled to have their own children.” It was Signe who brought it to my attention (remember that part about them being the sort of awesome people who advocate?). We chatted about changing the sentence to “women who have struggled to have children”. Her recommendation still advocates for the choice of single parenthood while not isolating parents who choose adoption. I’m with you Signe - if we know better, we should do better. By bringing attention to this, I hope it will help others be sensitive of their language too.
In an effort to learn positive adoption language, I have asked Signe to add some thoughts to help us.
I’m a firm believer that our words matter immensely and that the words we use as parents help create the narrative our children see themselves in. This is true for all families, but it becomes perhaps even more important for families who have adopted because the narratives that exist in the world about adoption often are much too focused on the comfort of adoptive parents and not focused enough on the pain and loss of the child. I am by no means an expert on this topic and I am continually learning myself but these are some of the phrases I have heard from other people, well-meaning friends and family members as well as complete strangers, and how I try to respond.
”She’s so lucky”. When I hear this I try to respond with a simple ”There is nothing lucky about needing to be adopted” or ”we are the lucky ones”. Framing adoption in terms of the child being fortunate for having been adopted way puts adoptive parents on a pedestal as some kind of heroes and it makes it nearly impossible for the child to feel like they are allowed any negative emotions surrounding the adoption, including grief over the loss of their birth family, their culture, language, and so much more.
”Do you know her real parents?” Yes, I do, because we are Victoria’s real parents. She also has birth parents which is usually what people mean when they ask about this. I try to just correct and say ”I think you mean birth parents or biological parents”. Using the term ”real” to identify a child’s birth family insinuates that there is something not real about her connection to us which is an incredibly damaging message for a child to hear.
”Is that her real birthday?” Here is the thing, for adoptees there if often a lot of information they are missing, which is a really painful reality to have to live with. You questioning something as basic as their birthday is not helpful. If I tell you this date is my child’s birthday, don’t question it. You would never do that with either of my biological children.
”XYZ must be different with her than it was with your own children”. All my children are my own children. We use the term biological when we need to differentiate in some way between the kids, but using the term ”own” makes it seem like Victoria isn’t fully a part of our family, like she doesn’t belong.
I think it is important for Victoria that I respond and not ignore these kinds of statements because she needs to know that I am not buying into the narrative that they are creating. I don’t want her to ever hear someone refer to her birth family as her ”real family” and me not correct that because I don’t want her to question that she belongs in our family. And I definitely don’t want her to feel like she owes us gratitude for adopting her, rather I try to create a narrative about her adoption that leaves room for the pain and the grief.
Finally, I think it is important to honor the child’s birth family and culture by speaking about them in positive ways. In the current political climate in the US there is a lot of negative talk about China and while Victoria is obviously young enough to be blissfully unaware of much of that it is important for us that we try to instill a sense of pride in her about her heritage. We talk openly about how she was born in China and she loves to tell people about that.
And one last note: Most of what I have learned on this topic I have learned from adult adoptees who are graciously and bravely sharing their stories and experiences in Facebook groups, books, and articles. I am so, so grateful for their willingness to share oftentimes painful memories so that we can be better parents to Victoria.
Thank you Signe for taking the time to add to this discussion and most of all to thank you for pointing out how I can do better. You could not have bestowed a greater gift - an opportunity to understand why the words I used have narrowed your identity as a mother, and a chance to change my language to be more inclusive. I love you Claytons, for all that you are and all that you do.