I am really annoying and nit-picky about words. I think maybe I always have been. According to my mom, when I was 2 or 3 years old and she tried to pull off the classic parent trick of skipping words on a page of a book I would have none of it. "You skipped a word Mommy!" My voice is probably slightly less grating now, but I am every bit as militant about words today as I was then.
Every subculture has its own language and adoption is no exception. My word-loving brain has had an absolute field day over the past year learning (and unlearning) all the lingo, and sometimes finding out the hard way which words get which groups of people all worked up. I think adoption language has become particularly important for me because I believe that words have the power to shape our attitudes, our self-concept, and how we see the world, and therefore words about adoption have power to shape my child's attitudes, self-concept, and worldviews. This is critical stuff, deserving of our careful thought and attention.
I don't want this post to turn into a rant about all the adoption wording/language that frustrates or angers me (though that temptation is strong!), but I do want to use one example of how I see language as a powerful tool to set the tone for a child's identity. [Disclaimer: I am not trying to condemn or judge anyone here. I am just sharing my perspective on language in adoption, one that I know some might disagree with and that is OK. Yep, talking to myself here as much as to anyone reading this.]
Gotcha Day. I read this phrase on adoptive parent blogs all over the internet. For the uninitiated, this phrase is used to mean the day that a child joins their adoptive family. I believe this phrase is an example of language having the unintended-but-still-significant power to influence the perspectives, identities, and attitudes of not only a child, but the family and community surrounding the child. What are the implications of the phrase "Gotcha Day"?
1. The child is objectified into something that can be "gotten".
2. The phrase is inherently adoptive-parent-centered, because the adoptive parents are the ones "getting" the child.
3. "Gotcha" is a word used in other contexts to mean that someone has been tricked or that someone else has gotten the better of them. How does it feel for an adopted child the first time they hear the word used that way?
4. Gotcha Day is cute and catchy, making it appealing for parents of young children. But these young children will grow into teenagers and then adults. Does a 15 year old want to celebrate "Gotcha Day"? Does it still feel appropriate at this stage to talk about the parent-child relationship as the parents "getting" the child?
5. The phrase allows friends and family to continue to view the adoption only through the lens of the adoptive parents who "got" a new child.
Let's compare this to another language option for the same event: Family Day.
1. The phrase does not contain implications about transactions, commodities, or other negative aspects of the adoption industry.
2. The phrase is more neutral in terms of perspective - the adoptive family is adding a child and the child is becoming part of a new family. However this phrase might not be a wise option in domestic open adoptions or some foster-to-adopt situations because it implies that this child is only now part of a family because of adoption. If the child was very much part of a family before the adoption then this would be an insensitive choice. On the other hand, for a child who has been without parental or familial care for the majority of their life this phrase might be appropriate.
3. The word "family" has a fairly unambiguous meaning, therefore a child will not hear another opposing meaning that could muddy their understanding of adoption.
4. Family Day is something that does not feel silly or hokey to celebrate with teenagers or adult children.
5. Choosing a phrase like Family Day sends a message to friends and extended family that this adoption was not just about parents getting a child, but about a significant event in the life of the whole family, which in turn affects all its members.
My least favorite thing about language is that it is always imprecise and imperfect in some way. There is no perfect way to talk about adoption. I'm definitely going to mess it up, both in my own home and on this blog. But that is not an excuse to say that language doesn't matter. It does. Again, I'm not judging - I'm simply saying that we need to think it through and we need to do so with a long view of our families and our kids. How will this sound in 5 years? 10 years? 30 years? What will this mean to their friends at school? What message does this send to our community? How will my child reinterpret this when he or she reaches adulthood? We can't do it perfectly, but we can be intentional and thoughtful and, call me an optimist, but I believe that will make a positive difference in both our children and our communities.