Irish Genealogy: The Language of Adoption

It can be hard to discuss adoption; even the language is tricky.

It can be hard to discuss adoption; even the language is tricky.

My mother has been quite irritable about a specific subject recently: The language of adoption. I was profiled in a local newsweekly some months ago, and in it I referred to her as my adoptive mother. This was, of course, simply to distinguish her from my biological mother. It is the right word in the circumstance, and it is the only time I use the word adoptive — to differentiate between the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who adopted me. In all other circumstances, I simply call her my mother.

Nonetheless, she doesn’t even like this one circumstance, and would prefer I refer to my biological mother as my biological mother, and her as my mother, without any word stuck in front to remind her of the fact that I was adopted. I cannot accurately represent her viewpoint, as I am not her; moreover, I don’t understand it and am not especially sympathetic.

I am not exactly like my brothers. I am adopted. There was always a unique circumstance to the way I entered this family. And this uniqueness carries its own language.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to her discomfort about the subject of adoption. That somehow, at least as far as language is concerned, her being my adoptive mother makes her not my “real” mother. She would sometimes show that discomfort in the past, when the subject of my adoption would come up and suddenly she would slip into a little monologue about how I was every bit her son as her two other sons, who were not adopted, and I should not think of myself as any different, because I am loved just the same.

Now, there has never been any question for me about my status as a member of the Sparber family. There has never been any question that I was loved as much as either of my brothers. There was, honestly, never a need for that monologue. But there was something wrong with how she phrased it, and she was always wrong. I am not exactly like my brothers. I am adopted. There was always a unique circumstance to the way I entered this family. And this uniqueness carries its own language.

I think this is an easier subject for me as I have always known I was adopted. It has not been a subject of great concern for me, any more than the fact that I have blue eyes is a subject of great concern. It’s just part of who I am. But it does mean that my entire life, I was aware that I came from a different ethnic background than my parents. It means that I was aware that there were people out there in the world who were biologically related to me — a sort of invisible, unmet second family, a genetic family.

We don’t have very good language for this. “Family” is a word that is freighted with meaning, and it feels strange to use that word to describe people who, until a few months ago, were strangers to me. I have had contact with many of the people in my biological mother’s family, and I like them an awful lot, but I have not experienced a life with them in the way that I have with the Sparbers. On the other hand, there are relatives I have on my adoptive mother and father’s side who I have only met once or twice, and have almost no contact with, and they would be considered family.

So it is a word that encompasses all sorts of relationships. And the same thing is true of the word “mother.” In its most literal sense, it describes the person who gave birth to you. In my sense, it also described the woman who raised me, and, of course, she is the person that I think of as my mother.

Here is where she and I disagree on the subject. I am adopted, and, I have said, there is language that accompanies the experience of adoption. That language includes differentiating between the family that raised you and the family you share DNA with. The latter are called your biological family, while the former are called your adoptive family. These are terms of art to distinguish two different groups that would otherwise just get clumped together under the imprecise word “family.” And so I use them, and will continue to use them, when using them is warranted — primarily, when I must distinguish between the two groups and am worried there might be confusions. Practically, this means when I discuss adoption, which I do with some frequency.

And here is the reason I don’t have much sympathy for my mother’s irritation with this: Because it feels disrespectful of the fact that I was adopted. It takes away useful and sometimes necessary language to describe that experience. I have explained this, albeit sometimes fairly curtly. “It hurts my feelings,” she will say to me, “and if you don’t want to hurt my feelings, you’ll stop saying that.”

“I have another suggestion,” I will answer. “You’ve had almost a half-century to come to terms with the fact that I was adopted, and perhaps that’s something you could do.”

I don’t know that we’re going to come to an agreement on this, because I suspect when my mother hears or reads the word “adoptive mother,” she translates it to “not real mother,” although for me it is a neutral descriptor, like if I called her my pharmacist relative, or my nuclear family the Minnesota Sparbers. In the end, all I could tell her was that I will let her know what articles or news interviews to steer clear of so she doesn’t read or hear me use the term, and that’s the best that I can do.

But I’m going to file this one under: Things only adopted children have to deal with.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.