Two Sides of the Same Coin: How We Talk About Adoption

by Steve Kalb


“Use your words,” I remember telling my daughter. Only two years old at the time, she was upset and couldn’t articulate her feelings. I needed her to speak to me in a way I could understand so I could address her problem. I now realize how completely unreasonable that expectation was; even as adults, we often have a difficult time “using our words” when we want to talk about tough feelings. Communicating exactly what we mean is a challenging proposition and this rings especially true when it comes to intimate conversations about adoption.

Openness is becoming more prevalent in today’s adoption discourse, but without the right language to express concepts, we’re troubled with how to use our words to make it work. We in the adoption triad have a tough time talking about the complexities of adoption because we haven’t been taught how. Much easier is telling the fun stories and heartwarming narratives about the day we officially became a family because they are familiar, safe, and special. What’s often absent in those stories, however, is the heartbreak of birth family, the grief caused by infertility, the gargantuan losses suffered as the result of the adoption process, and the loneliness that can come with being an adoptee and adoptive family.

To better understand how and why we talk about adoption in this way, try to imagine adoption as a coin. One side of the coin displays common concepts from an adoptive parent perspective that we’re all familiar with:

  • Happiness: Adoption brings with it joy and accompanying love of family.
  • A Dream Come True: Many adoptive families have been dreaming of growing their family for a long time.
  • Celebration: Adoption brings with it a celebration of life, a celebration of family, and desire to share the expansion of your family with others.
  • Community: Adoptive families serve as a support network offering resources, words of wisdom, and shared experiences with each other.
  • Certainty: Of course adoption was the right thing to do.

The flip side of that same coin displays concepts we’re not as used to acknowledging:

  • Sadness: Loss of biological family for the adoptee and birth parents. Loss of the family you envisioned when you began thinking about having children. For some, loss of the ability to have biological children.
  • Nightmare Decision: While adoption may be a dream come true for adoptive parents, it was probably the most difficult decision a birth parent had to make.
  • Mourning: For the adoptee, it’s the grief of losing biological family, for the biological family it’s the grief of losing a child, and for the adoptive parents it’s the grief of not seeing your eyes or smile in your child.
  • Isolation: As great as the adoption community can be, in reality, the adoptee is often alone in navigating the challenges of adoption in everyday life.
  • Doubt: Did you really do what was best? Could you have done more to preserve the biological family? Will birth parents want their child back? Will my adoptive parents leave me like my biological parents left me?

These two sides of the adoption coin have ended up creating two different languages—popular and avoided—with which to speak about adoption. The happy side of the coin has given rise to the popular language that most people use: It’s the common way we as individuals and we as a society speak about adoption. It is the language that nearly everyone knows, even if there’s no one in their lives directly tied to adoption. This popular language has bright tones and is filled with themes of love, family, homecoming, rescue/saving, and providence.

Conversely, the flip side of the coin has given rise to the avoided language. This language is rarely used and because of its absence in the public sphere, it’s rusty, gritty, and awkward to speak. No one in the house is fluent in this language and few outside the house are aware of its existence. This language has themes of grief, loss, mourning, fear, racism, uncertainty and anger. The avoided language with its layers and nuance, is more sophisticated than the popular language, and can properly address many of the challenges inherent in adoption; but it has proven difficult to catch on because of the paucity of those fluent in it.

Meanwhile, throughout history, the popular language appears to have served us well when working with adoption. Sure, it has its limits, but where’s the fire? Why does the public (and private) discourse on adoption need to be changed? What’s the harm in allowing rainbows and butterflies to dominate our discussion on the adoptive family experience?

Through work with adoptees and their families over the years, I’ve found the answer to be abundantly clear: A fuller vision of adoptive families can be realized when the avoided language is learned and used. Intimacy with the ones you love most can be more easily achieved when you can be open and honest about your experiences. The popular language is completely inadequate for parents and adoptees to address the challenges that exist as a result of adoption. Due to the resulting communication chasm, serious and common issues around adoption haven’t been earnestly addressed by the public or the adoption industry itself, because according to the popular language, there’s no fire to extinguish or problem to solve. Without knowing that others struggle from time to time, people affected by adoption all go on assuming the problem is individual as opposed to collective, silencing the challenges adoptive families experience, and preventing interventions and supports from being established.

The good news is that, though they’re often unsure if it’s appropriate and afraid of sounding foolish if they make a mistake, adoptees and their parents are eager to try the avoided language. When given the safety and permission to practice the avoided language, adoptees and parents discover what’s been concealed for years by the popular language. Where once they assumed they were crazed or alone in their struggle, adoptees come to realize a shared experience and connection between each other. When adoptees and their families find programs where they can learn and practice the avoided language together, everyone in the adoption community gains new insights into their experiences.

Adoptive parents are teaching us:

  • Many of their fears about their child’s experience are based on their own issues of loss and grief; something they’ve suffered in their past is being passed on to their children simply by not talking of the challenges they face together.
  • The avoided language is intimidating to them and like the dreaded “birds and bees” conversation, they’re waiting for the right moment. The right moment is now.
  • They feel a lot of pressure to support their adopted child, but are unsure how. They understand adoptees have special needs, but they don’t know where to turn for help, because no one takes seriously their plight due to a preference for the popular language.
  • They don’t want to stir the pot. Many assume if their child isn’t talking about challenges of adoption, then bringing it up will only plant bad ideas. The lack of discussion stems from a lack of language, not the absence of issues.

Adoptees are teaching us:

  • They know they’re different. Their differences are seen and felt racially, culturally, and in how their family was formed. They desperately need others to acknowledge these differences, otherwise they’re left feeling alone and crazy, as if they’re on some hidden-camera show where everyone’s in on the joke except them.
  • In transracial adoptions: Racism runs rampant in their daily lives. A parent’s white privilege extends only to the threshold of their front door.
  • They feel alone in their experience as adoptees. Because of the lack of substantive conversation about their adoptee experience and few adoptee peers, a major piece of their identity withers without nourishment.
  • They have many questions and thoughts about birth family. Whether they are in an open adoption or were abandoned in a foreign country, their biological family crosses their minds regularly and influences how they approach life events, wondering how their birth family would handle it.

All of these lessons revolve around the same central tenet: adoption is inherently challenging. Without judgement or bias, our society has perpetuated one simple and happy version of the adoption story that has obscured these issues.

Only when we’re able to muster the courage to begin communicating about adoption in a way that expresses both sides of the adoption coin will we be able to address the challenges that hold us back as a community. When forgiveness, humility, compassion, and patience become the basis of a healthy language, together we’ll be able to address adoption’s shortcomings. The onus falls on parents and the adoption industry to begin using this new, honest language with their children and their community. If we approach this new language with a timid and fearful demeanor, our children will be scared to use it. However, if we approach it with courage, knowing at times we’ll stumble, at times we’ll be misunderstood, and at times we’ll make mistakes, our kids will be brave, too. Once we learn how to “use our adoption words,” our support of one another will create stronger bonds and healthier relationships with the ones we love most.

Steve Kalb, LMSW, is an adult adoptee who served for many years as the Director of Post Adoption Services at Holt International Children’s Services.


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