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zoo gorilla with flower

Adoption Language at the Gorilla Exhibit

An adoptive mom had and adoption-related experience at her local zoo this summer, one that bothered her. Lauren C asked in an adoptive parent group if she should say something about hurtful language spoken by a staffer. I invited Lauren to share the situation and her thoughts here.

Gorilla and adoption talk at the zoo

Lauren C: With first grade looming for our daughter, many of our previous struggles are receding in hindsight. The obstacles my husband and I faced in our infertility struggle, and the early years of getting our footing as adoptive parents have faded into distant memories. Now we may face new adversaries such as bullying, standardized testing, and ADHD.

Our family has created a comfortable practice of open communication with our daughter’s birth family. Our daughter’s most complicated adoption-related question this year has been Which costume do you think my birth family will like best for my next performance?

I’m pleased to say that the awkward and inappropriate comments from friends and family have all but ceased after six tireless years of us educating well-meaning people. I finally felt that we had reached our sweet spot in the world as an adoptive family.

Gorilla Mothers

This is why I was not prepared for our most recent trip to the zoo. The Jacksonville (Florida) Zoo & Gardens recently introduced their newest gorilla. Gondai was born to a mother who turned out to be unable to properly care for her infant. Therefore, another female gorilla stepped in and began raising her. The story has made national news, and I was excited to introduce my daughter to this loveable primate and continue to normalize adoption as part of daily conversation.

As we watched the young gorilla play and annoy her napping mother, I was reminded of the many similar naps I have had interrupted by my own playful daughter. While blissfully reminiscing to myself, I made a comment to the zookeeper about how similar the gorilla’s mom-life was to my own.

I was yanked out of my fantasy to be harshly reminded by the zoo employee: this was Gondai’s “surrogate mother,” not her “real mother.”

Words Can Pack a Punch

The words stung me. I thought I had worked through my feelings of guilt and inadequacy years ago. Yet, here I was fighting back tears as I tried to explain to my daughter what the zookeeper meant by “real” and “surrogate.” I worried the words might sting and confuse my daughter, as well. Was my 6 year-old having similar feelings over the dismissive way this adoption story was described to her? How would hearing about the original mother “giving up” her child affect my daughter’s feelings about her own birth mother and herself? Now and in the future?

I tried to stick around to watch the adorable gorilla tumble and play a little longer, only to be driven away by the zookeeper’s constant explanation of the gorilla’s family dynamics to each new observer. Feeling defeated, I left the exhibit.

Being Intentional

Now I am fully aware that animal group relationships are not the same as those of humans. However, we cannot deny that language is powerful. The adoption world has spent decades encouraging adoptee-centered language, even down to the way we abbreviate words, with the purpose of strengthening relationships, empowering all in the adoption triad, and supporting positive views of the adoption experience.

Adoption carries a lot of baggage and careless words are a heavy burden to add on. The world is well aware of all the brokenness at its foundation, which highlights the importance of building an affirmative understanding of the love at its core by being intentional with our words. Being conscious of adoption positive language for public consumption can do nothing but support the adoption triad. As an interactive piece of our culture and society, museums and zoos have a responsibility to their patrons to portray appropriate terminology.

At this point you are probably wondering what positive changes can be made to your vocabulary. Intentional change can reach as far as the entire view of adoption in our culture and as near as the tender heart of an adoptee. Here are 4 tips for explaining a situation like the one I encountered at the zoo.

1. Adoption is an event, not an identity.

A child does not always need to be described as “adopted.” It does not define the entirety of their lives. We do not define other children by how they arrived in their own family. It would be ridiculous to introduce a friend’s child as born via C-section or conceived on a holiday. It is equally inappropriate to refer to someone as an “adopted child.” If it is necessary to explain, some adoptees prefer “(s)he was adopted” to “(s)he is adopted.” That subtle difference changes adoption from being a description of the person to an event that happened in that person’s life.

2. Who is the Real Mom?

Adoptees were born to their “birth parents” or “first parents.” They are parented simply by their “parents.” Desha Wood beautifully explains the adoption triad relationship this way: He is mine in a way that he will never be hers, yet he is hers in a way that he will never be mine, and so together, we are motherhood.

As an adoptive mother, I feel pretty darn real as I’m changing diapers, cleaning messes, and helping with homework. Likewise, every moment of morning sickness, labor, and love felt incredibly real to my daughter’s other mother, too.

3. Birth parents don’t give up.

Children are “placed for adoption.” It is best to avoid words insinuating that what their birth parents chose was anything but strong, courageous, full of love, and intentional. Adoption is a choice made from wanting, not from unwanting.

4. My child is my own.

Infertility is a common factor leading to adoption. However, it is not the only factor. It is never appropriate to use language suggesting that parents could not “have children of their own.” A child added to a family through birth or adoption is equally important and loved by that family. Adoption is never inferior to giving birth. No child is a consolation prize.

Adoption is a lifetime of complexity. Love and kindness can simplify every moment of it. Let’s take the time to exercise intentional kindness in a world that so desperately needs it by utilizing language that builds up members of the adoption triad in the minds of our communities and in their own hearts.

Lauren C recently completed graduated school while navigating military life and parenting three children, by both biology and adoption.  A volunteer with The Carrying on Project, she leverages her status as a military spouse to help build community around military bases and support military families with young children.

My 2 Cents

Lori Holden, adoption author

I’m all for accurate and respectful adoption language. Positive, even, as Lauren says.

However I also acknowledge that a person can go SO FAR POSITIVE so as to become disconnected from the wholeness, from the textured essence of a complex issue. Such as this treatise on how positive adoption is for everyone all the time.

Also, I observe that at least a portion of what “positive” means comes from where a person stands in the adoption constellation. This is what makes adoption such a thorny issue to talk about among ourselves.


What should this zoo know about “real” parents, especially when children affected by adoption are within earshot?

Along these Lines

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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8 Responses

  1. An interesting and thought-provoking post – thanks.

    There really is a language problem. The act of parenting does not make one an ancestor and the fact of being an ancestor does not make one a parent. This is a central fact of adoption but it is very difficult to speak about because, other than in blended families, immediate parents and ancestors are conflated.

    I DO react negatively to the statement that ‘my child is my own’. I’d argue that any child is THEIR own. Developing into an adult is the act of becoming one’s own self. In any event, given split parenting and ancestry, no child is exclusively the parent’s or the ancestor’s (or even one or the other of the individuals in these sets of people). To me the term ‘my own’ is an equally distorted and disturbing reflection of the term ‘real’… it is simply the mirror image.

  2. Personally, I’d prefer adoptive parents focus on learning about how their child may be triggered by adoption feelings at the different cognitive stages, learn how to walk along side their child through them. To also understand the seven known core issues an adoptee can face and how they can pop up at life events and stages throughout life that can bring out normal reactions for adopted people, so, again, you can walk along side with them, rather than being blithely unaware your child is struggling, but doesn’t know if they can trust you to be there for them.

    Then, work on your insecurities that make you obsess over words, that offer yet another learning experience for your child, as in how a word is used in a sentence (context) can dictate what meaning to apply, how a word can have different meanings, use adoption as a subject if you must. Perhaps also explain that in the animal world there is no adoption per se, just a natural instinct to protect the little ones in the herd which includes feeding them and nurturing them by becoming a surrogate for their lost mother. End with isn’t nature amazing?

    Teach your child that when the general population uses the word real in situations like this, they mean biological – problem solved, at least it was for me.

    As to being defined by adoption and being adopted. We were adopted, and will also always be adopted, accept that. It is both an event and for life (unless the parents dissolve the adoption). Adoption is similar to marriage in this regard, it was an event, it is also for life (unless one divorces the other). Figure out why it triggers you, deal with that.

  3. Expanding people’s understanding of complex issues is a worthwhile endeavor. As an adoptive parent, adoption coach, and author who writes about adoption, I spend a lot of time thinking about adoption and how to help people understand what it means to live as an adoptee and an adoptive family.

    It is good to understand that our beliefs may not be universally held. What is true for us may not be accepted as truth by others. When we strive to create awareness and understanding of our beliefs around adoption, the use of appropriate terminology, and a desire to create understanding, it is typically because we want to insulate our children and families from judgment and discomfort. We don’t want our kids to feel inferior; we feel the need to defend the legitimacy of our families, the “realness” of our bonds.

    Adoption emerges from a harsh truth: before a child can join a family via adoption, he must be fractured from his first family. This trauma is genuine and will influence him for a lifetime. As adoptive parents, we must attune to this complexity which shapes our children’s reality. Immerse ourselves in their reality, set aside our wishes for adoption to be all good and recognize that it is far more complex. We must constantly work to create this attunement with our children and not allow ourselves to be blinded by the benefits which accrued to us as adoptive parents and focus instead on what our kids need and feel and how we can support them at every stage of life.

    Adoption is not an event; it is a lifetime journey. Our deepest love cannot erase this truth but our love can galvanize us to become the safe space to which our children can come for understanding, for truthful conversations that embody all of the emotional messiness of adoption— not just the benefits, but also the harsh truths.

    Language embodies both emotion and information. Whether we are adoptive parents, birth parents, or adoptees, adoption creates emotional trigger points. While we want to avoid hurting people, our language must recognize that the bias of our POV may—and usually does—influence how we see and speak about adoption and the fallout it creates. Whenever we strive to convey a positive spin, it is important to recognize both IF and When this point of view is appropriate. For example, if we see adoption as basically beneficial to the child, birth mother and adoptive parents, it will influence the words we use to explain it.

    If we see adoption as complicated, as creating both benefits and significant, life-long loss, our language will incorporate a balance that affirms this complexity. Sometimes, it is appropriate to highlight the grief and genuine loss, the emotional agony of separation. In those times, Positive Adoption Language feels “sanitized”— as if smoke and mirrors can erase the reality of the losses experienced by the child and birth parents whom adoption permanently separate.

    Consider learning more about Adoption Attunement. It will help you to better support your family and to more effectively inform others. Stock your family adoption library with books that align with this point of view.

    • Considers grief and loss issues
    • Uses sound adoption language
    • Understands the attachment process
    • Respects birth parents and first families
    • Models, teaches, and holds healthy boundaries
    • Educates family, friends, teachers, and faith communities on adoption
    • Remembers a child’s story belongs to him
    • Recognizes adoption as a family experience
    • Encourages playfulness and good humor as a family value
    • Integrates a child’s birth heritage
    • Honors a child’s need to know and connect with birth family
    • Nurtures and values a child’s innate talents, encourages her to be herself
    • Parents work through their own grief and loss issues
    • Follows ethical practices
    • Operates with a child-centric focus

  4. Interesting. Is there anything wrong with agreeing that I (the adoptive parent) am not the “real” mother? I am raising my child and acting as their social parent, but (in my view) their real parents are the ones to whom the child has a genetic link. I have a stepmom who raised me, but she is definitely not my “real” mom

  5. Melinda…

    The issue arises when Mother does not include both Parent and Ancestor. In typical usage, Mother is assumed to be Parent+Ancestor. So the only thing that is ‘wrong’ is that such assumptions both confuse and upset some people.

    There exists person(s) who really parented you and person(s) who are really your ancestor(s) in a way that is not debatable and an unemotional statement of fact.

    An issue you did not mention is ‘mine’. Reducing any person to an owned thing is something I find inappropriate. Certainly, my own parents and ancestors did that and it harmed me (and we ended up estranged in their dying years).

    1. Mike Milton,

      You said, “Reducing any person to an owned thing is something I find inappropriate. ” You then state, “Certainly MY OWN (emphasis added) parents and ancestors did that and it harmed me…”. Isn’t “my own” another way of saying -MINE?

      I too was raised by a stepmother. She is not who I define as ‘my’ real mother. My real mother, who died when I was young, is both my parent AND my ancestor. No-one is going to redefine that for me.

      Perhaps you could have stated it as, ‘The parenting parents or the parenting ancestors of myself did that and it harmed me…” (whichever combination is pertinent as per your definition of “unemotional statement of fact”.) That certainly removes all traces of ownership or possession.

      Darn, does that mean I can’t use the words my or mine when talking about a human being I’m close to. Bummer. I guess I have to say, “he is the husband I’m married to” and “she is the parenting parent who raised me” or “he is the parenting ancestor who died” or “she is the did parent, then didn’t parent ancestor who died (too soon)” or “she is a friend who knows me”. No thanks. I prefer ‘my husband’, my stepmom, my dad, my real mom, my friend. Simple and to the point.

      Would you really tell someone, who’s mother or father who died at birth or when they were young, that their mother or father is ONLY their ancestor and not their parent? It’s the place of the individual to say who is what to them isn’t it? What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. So, what works for you is fine. Same for what works for me.

      I do have to thank you. You’ve given me a COOL name for mother! Ancestor mother. I like it! Has more class than (b) mother.

  6. Forget adoption language. There are plenty of words in the English language that describe adoptive relationships. If adoption language actually had new words and new meanings it would be its own language, but it does not, it gives alternate definitions to existing words which is just a clever way of getting other people to lie for you so that you don’t have to take responsibility for being deceptive your own self. She’s trying to train people to use her definition of the word parent so that when she calls herself one they won’t say she’s not telling the truth. But the reality is the rest of the world does not just abandon the actual definition of the word parent just because she wants to be one. People resort to using the term ‘real parents’ only because she is referring to herself as a parent despite not meeting the definition of one according to common understanding. If she instead referred to herself as a guardian or caregiver, and people wanted to refer to the child’s parents they would just say parents instead of having to say real parents.

    She is not telling the truth when she says Adoptees were born to their “birth parents” or “first parents.” They are parented simply by their “parents.”” She’s trying to teach the person she adopted and everyone she encounters to disregard the real definition of the word parent. Is the author saying that adopted people are not people? The rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to adopted people? Because for the rest of the world parent the noun, the one she claims to be, means:

    parent | \ ˈper-ənt \
    Definition of parent
    (Entry 1 of 2)
    1a: one that begets or brings forth offspring
    just became parents of twins
    b: a person who brings up and cares for another
    foster parents
    2a: an animal or plant that is regarded in relation to its offspring
    The parent brings food to the chicks.
    b: the material or source from which something is derived
    Latin is the parent of several languages.
    c: a group from which another arises and to which it usually remains subsidiary
    a parent company”
    Contrary to what the author says, parenting does not mean raising someone else’s offspring, it means to originate or cause offspring to exist. While it is getting popular to use the word parent where the word raise belongs in a sentence, raising children does not turn people who are not parents into parents, not actually anyway. So when those raising other people’s kids callling themselves parents are faced with someone talking about that kid’s real parents, it’s only to differentiate the ones who created the kid from the one raising the kid because, someone is using the wrong word to describe themselves.

    She spells parent correctly and she learned how to do that from the same referenced standard that contains the definitions she abandoned. She does not actually believe that raising a child is what qualifies people who adopt to be called parents if she did she’d be waiting until the kid turned 18 to call herself a mother rather than calling herself one before she ever changed a diaper or kissed a booboo when the ink on the adoption decree was still wet. The real truth of the matter is that it takes no more love or child rearing to become an adoptive parent than it does to become a parent. People who adopt become adoptive parents by the contractual act of adoption without any love or child rearing required same as people become parents by having offspring without any love or child rearing required. That’s reality. It was not love or dedication or sewing prom dresses that got her into the position of having parental rights, it was a court order and a background check and probably a good amount of money. It was not labor pains or morning sickness that makes her adopted child the actual child of her parents, they are her real parents because she is their real offspring. When she refers to them as birth parents saying that birth is what made them parents and parenting is what makes her simply a parent…it’s like really? If she believed that raising their child made her simply a parent and was truly comfortable with the child she’s raising having parents related to her by birth, she would not put her name on that kid’s birth certificate as a parent, she’d leave the kid’s birth certificate alone and allow them to use it for identification purposes, but it’s unlikely she really does not want to present herself to the world as simply the kind of parent she originally wanted to be which is one that has and raises her own offspring.

    She went to that zoo exhibit to see a gorilla who has taken responsibility for raising a baby gorilla abandoned by his mother. That was the whole thing that makes it a cute story – attachment to someone other than his mother as if she were his mother. Of course the zoo keeper had to make it clear that the gorilla he was playing with was not actually his mother, that’s what made the exhibit interesting and why she in fact went to see the exhibit with the child she adopted. She’s all mixed up and its because she is having trouble reconciling the fact that even if she’s not lying she’s frustrated when people don’t lie for her. This is not lost on adopted people and is a big part of the reason they find their adoptive family’s feelings so difficult to manage. They don’t want to take responsibility for telling a lie but they still want the benefit of convincing people of things that are not true. we will be discussing this over on the adoption face book page. I’ll copy my comment in case you don’t print it or print but don’t respond.

  7. Going wholly positive toward adoption from the view of the adoptive parent leaves out 2 parts of the triad. In my view that’s continuing to perpetuate stereotypes of the “lucky child” and “the parent who gave up their child”. It’s not where we should be heading and as adoptive parents, we have the loudest voices. Supporting the other parts of the triad through our everyday interactions could go a long way in continuing to help shift the narrative.

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