The holidays bring an abundance of family events and casual conversation about our relatives. In the workplace, for example, family details like who is coming to dinner or a certain event are common topics around Thanksgiving and Christmas. We don’t often consider how many people may define family differently than what is socially typical. But words matter more than you might think. For families who have grown through adoption, holiday conversations can prove awkward or hurtful.
“People mean well, but sometimes the language they use about adoption has negative connotations,” says Michelle Hoevker, program director for Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services’ foster care and adoption programs in Houston, Texas. “For years, people have said that unwed mothers ‘give up’ or ‘give away’ their babies, which is insensitive to both the birth mothers and to the children. Another expression, ‘put up for adoption’, dates from the 1800s. Orphan trains brought children to stations and they were literally put up on a platform to be viewed and selected. Now, there is a movement to re-frame a birth mother’s decision as careful and thoughtful. We say she is ‘placing a child in adoption’ or ‘making an adoption plan.’”
Hoevker has a passion for working with birth moms, adoptive parents and adoptees of all ages. Not only is she a social worker, she is an adoptive mother herself. She points out that individuals can make a difference in how they speak with and about their extended family.
If relatives are in the process of adopting, for example, they can be encouraged without implying a second-best family or that they are "special people" to consider it. An adoption should be celebrated just like a birth. Afterward, reason to distinguish family members as “real” or “biological.” They are all family.
Hoevker says individuals can also make a difference by advocating for positive language in public. Recently, when the New York Times ran a headline that began, “Son, Given up for Adoption,” Hoevker posted a polite response on social media. Within minutes, the New York Times changed the wording on its website to “placed for adoption.”