3 ways to avoid being offensive when talking about adoption

Jun 1, 2016 at 2:03 p.m. ET
Image: Stepan Popov/Getty Images

Both adoptive mothers and birth mothers sometimes have difficulty with the language people use when speaking about families. Traditional motherhood entails a woman getting pregnant, giving birth and raising a child. This process is how many people construct their image of families. When they don't know how to properly talk about families that are created in different ways, they often unknowingly use hurtful or harmful language when talking to adoptive mothers and birth mothers.

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Understanding the roles each mother plays in a child's life can be confusing, but the most important thing to remember is how you use language when trying to understand how adoptive families operate. Here are some thoughtful language habits to adopt.

1. Eliminate the word "real" from your vocabulary

The smallest words can have the biggest impact when you are an adoptive mother or a birth mother. Often, adoptive mothers are asked about the "real" mother of their child. These can be innocent questions because people don't know how to express their curiosity, but it is important to realize the implication of the word "real." When used to ask about the birth mother, it makes the adoptive mom feel slighted. After all, through the adoption process, she has become the legal mother of the child. Implying the birth mother is the only "real" mom can be incredibly hurtful.

Likewise, birth mothers often experience guilt when they are quantified as the "real" mother when they are not raising the child. With open adoptions today, birth mothers are often involved in the life of the child in some way. She has a place as a mother in the child's life, meaning that there is not only one mother or "real" mother. Adoption can create a beautiful and intertwined parental love that should not be reduced by the word "real."

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2. Don't say "put up" for adoption

Asking the adoptive mother or birth mother anything about how the child was "put up" for adoption is the wrong terminology. For legal reasons, the birth mother is often reimbursed for the costs of having a child, and the adoptive parents do pay professionals to help them through the adoption process. But using the term "put up" makes the child seem like a product up for auction. This degrades everyone involved in the adoption process, from the adoptive parents to the birth mother to the adoptee.

Instead of saying "put up," try using the term "placed for." Asking about how the child was placed for adoption to learn about the process is much kinder and expresses curiosity instead of degradation. Birth mothers and adoptive mothers alike are often happy to talk about their journey when using correct terminology, such as "placed for" adoption.

3. Learn how to celebrate Mother's Day

Mother's Day can be a difficult holiday for those who had difficulty conceiving and for those who placed their child for adoption. If you know someone who is an adoptive mother, celebrate her on Mother's Day as you would any other mother! She likely went through a long and arduous process to become a mother, and she works hard every day.

The place that birth mothers have in the life of their child is often forgotten on this holiday, and it can be a painful day to go through. It is appropriate to fully acknowledge a birth mother on Mother's Day just as you would any other mother. However, some birth mothers are not completely comfortable with that and would prefer to celebrate Birth Mother's Day. This holiday is celebrated the Saturday before Mother's Day, and it honors the gift and the love that these women gave to the adoptive families.

Every day, birth mothers think about their child and the family he or she has now with a plethora of mixed emotions. Just as you would celebrate Mother's Day, if a birth mother in your life prefers to be recognized on Birth Mother's Day, then take that opportunity to acknowledge her.

The bottom line is to show respect to all parties in an adoption. Although most people are well-meaning, some words can still hurt. If you're not sure of the right language to use, it's better to do some research before unknowingly saying something hurtful. In the meantime, keep your comments positive and helpful and avoid any language that carries embedded assumptions.

More: 4 tips for celebrating Birth Mother’s Day with gratitude

Nicole Witt is the owner of The Adoption Consultancy, an unbiased resource serving pre-adoptive families by providing them with the education, information and guidance they need to safely adopt a newborn, usually within three to 12 months.