What’s in a name? Re-thinking the terms “adoptee” and “adopted”

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I was proactive at a very young age.

Ok, full disclosure: I am wordy-nerdy.

I have been thinking about how we define ourselves as either adopted or as adoptees.

Both of these words feel very much about action that happened TO us. One EFL site referred to adjectives ending in ‘ed’ as words that “show what has happened to a person or thing.” Both adopted and adoptee make me feel like an object who received an action. This may seem somewhat benign and maybe I’m making some mountains here. But given the fact that I’ve seen a number of adoptees struggle with how to be proactive, how to make decisions, how to real take charge of their life and destiny, I wonder if there might be a connection with how we consistently identify ourselves.

These words seem especially out of place when I contextualize it with other ways I identify myself: writer, singer, teacher, friend, partner, dancer, dreamer, actor, lover, listener, wise-cracker, adoptee.

According to dictionary.com, the suffix ee refers to “a person who is the object or beneficiary of the act specified by the verb (addressee; employee; grantee).” But here’s the interesting thing: “recent formations now also mark the performer of an act, with the base being an intransitive verb ( escapee; returnee; standee).” So this seems to be a more proactive usage, but in that case, adoptee would mean adoptER, as the suffix then would connote someone who performs that specific action (adoption).

What words we use to frame ourselves and our experiences are very powerful. I see it often with clients who use words a lot like never and always when describing their behavior and don’t see the connection between this framing and their difficulty changing patterns. Saying things like “I’m such a dick” or “I’m a klutz” seems like a way of warning people about our behavior or a way to stay humble, but really, we are reinforcing ideas about ourselves in a way that shapes our present and future.

I have no alternative word, label, or category that feels more proactive. But I’m wondering if anyone else might have a suggestion. Additionally, perhaps we need to reinforce the idea that this happened TO us, that it was something beyond our control at an age when we were vulnerable and unable to consent? I’ve not reached any conclusions about this yet, but what I do know is that the stories we tell about ourselves and the words we choose to use are incredibly potent and beg some critical reflection.

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23 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Re-thinking the terms “adoptee” and “adopted”

  1. This question seems to be coming up more and more (see previous discussion here: [link]), and I’m glad to see it being posed so often. While for social reasons it is of course easiest to call myself “adopted”, I’ve been slowly moving to terms that link us to other groups who are equally “migrated” for political and economic reasons. In this light, I tend to say “dispossessed, displaced, disinherited”. I used to (kind of) jokingly say “abducted”. I think for me it is important to point up the negative disempowerment of adoption, rather than find a pro-active equivalent….would that maybe make it all more palatable? Does that do us a disfavor in fact? I’m not sure.

    As I research concepts of kinship and “adoption” within Islam, I’m more and more caught up short by the almost universal translation of two Arabic concept-terms as “adopted” in English—adopté(e) and adoptad@ in French and Spanish—all revealing a modern Latin-derived usage. The first term in Arabic means “to acknowledge” or “to incorporate”, like a town “includes” a townsperson. This to me is a positive term of social bonding, which has nothing to do with the current Anglo-Saxon concept of adoption. The second term means “to take in”, usually used in reference to servants. This to me is a negative term, but one which reflects the indentured servitude origins of adoption.

    In circumventions of invocations that forbid adoption, the Arabic term that is used is “kafala“. It roughly would translate as “extending guardianship to”. Sadly, this is exactly the same term used to purchase and employ domestic slave labor in this region. This is so close to the origins of adoption historically speaking that it depresses me no end.

    • Eeeeek so much baggage with all those words. It would be amazing to capture in one word or simple phrase both macro disempowerment and the micro self-empowerment, but I have a feeling this is a tall order.
      I think the issue I take with using a word to highlight the disempowerment is that we are inadvertently keeping ourselves in that space through our own introductory narratives. A lot of people do not like referring to themselves as marginalized or even being referred to as marginalized. Sometimes I see “historically marginalized” or “historically under-represented” which gives it a context, a starting point, and connotes a small sense of possibility and potential for change.

  2. Yes to all of that.
    I have pondered the language issue much in my own head.

    People-first language is one option, People who have been adopted. This, however, seems a linguistically cumbersome solution. And People-first language is deeply connected to the disability rights movement, and is not universally embraced for a variety of reasons, Appropriating language for adoption that is so tied to the disability community might subtly reinforce the idea of adoption as pathology.

    So I end up back at Adoptee. This is absolutely a term that is based on being the recipient of an action. This is the truth. So using a word that emphasizes the idea that something DID happen TO me makes sense. And by using that term as an adult, I am communicating that the act of adoption was not simply a discreet moment but an ongoing part of my identity. I am not sure I want a word that is more proactive because I wasn’t a proactive participant in my adoption.

    Maybe we need to invent an entirely different word; a word that allows differentiation between the act of adoption and the ongoing experience of being an adopted person. I am tired of lay people hearing the word adoption and only registering the idea of a transfer of guardianship and family building. I want a word that says “now that the legal moment of adoption is over, THIS is the experience of living adoption”, a child centered word.

    • “Maybe we need to invent an entirely different word; a word that allows differentiation between the act of adoption and the ongoing experience of being an adopted person. I am tired of lay people hearing the word adoption and only registering the idea of a transfer of guardianship and family building. I want a word that says “now that the legal moment of adoption is over, THIS is the experience of living adoption”, a child centered word.”
      LIKKKKKKKKKKKKEEEEEEEEEEEEE

  3. Bastard Nation struggled with the term “adoptee” and decided to let it be. Our original name was just Bastard Nation, but then we had to use the next sentence explaining what that meant, so we added “:the adoptee rights organization” to it.

    That said, I’m not a fan of “adoptee” myself and sometimes use “adopted person” or something else along those lines, but it often comes out sounding awkward. (Bastard Nation: The adopted persons rights organization sounds pretty dorky.). I also like to use “adopted class” when it fits. I really can’t come up with a better term for general use though, than “adoptee”

    I do use the terms “bastard,” “birther” and “adopter” a lot, which annoys at least 2 out of 3 of those groups at any given time. Of course, some adoptees cry foul. I”m not a bastard. My parents ( of either classification) were married.. Well, so what! You’re bastaradized by the adoption industry and it’s state cronies so you are a bastard. .

    • It’s interesting, and I really appreciate the focus here on language, because as you are pointing out so much of the stigma comes from the “perceived bastardy” of the adopted child. When we say, “he’s a lucky bastard”, what are we saying?

      My worry is that the flip side to this—which we see with the discussions concerning mothers—is all about the sugar needed to make the medicine go down easier. “Birth”, “Original”, “First”, etc. All terms that still leave the adopter “in the driver’s seat”.

      I would hate some PC term be created here. God forbid we end up with horrifying language such as “alternatively enfamilied”, or somesuch. Perhaps this, in and of itself, is a sign of the ultimate disempowerment of the term “adopted”: No one even bothered to come up with a mythological term for it, so much we are the “object” of that sentence….

      It’s really driven home for me because the class differential locally speaking is always apparent. The class of people who understand the word in Arabic used for adopted—a back-formation from the English/French—are basically bourgeois in outlook and worldview. For everyone else I have to say “I was an orphan”, or “I was in an orphanage”. But at least that split is apparent, and the mythology has not reached the “street” as it were.

    • Yes, let’s move away from the child thing. FOREVER. Not sure if there will ever be a perfect word to describe anyone completely. Words fail us at times, especially those created by a hegemonic, classify-happy, society. This is why so many adoptees are expressing themselves through art, voice, movement, and so many other mediums.

  4. My thing has less to do with the terminology and more about the connotation. We use the word ‘adoption’ when we want to get a pet for our homes. At least, it’s big here in Chicago with the animal shelters. I am not an animal/pet, so please don’t compare me to one! Although that’s probably more the fault of the shelters using the word rather than those in the adoption community.

    • It’s really interesting that you bring up pet adoption. In two separate projects, one on Twitter and one on my web site, I started as a kind of joke to collect pet adoption news stories/Tweets. The first based on search words in Google, the second on search words in Twitter. After a while, it became quite disturbing the similarity of language and terms used among them.

      Even more disturbing when you consider that a pedigree dog has more right to know its lineage than we do. I’m curious to know, were we to research whether the language origins here spring from the same place, rather than one coming before the other? I’d venture a guess that this “object view” of what is “adoptable” is the same in both cases.

      • The term “forever family” comes from dog rescue.

        The adopta filll-in-the-blank has never bothered me, but I understand why a lot of people don’t like it. For the longest time on the original BN page when you clicked on my name you got an Adopta-a-donkey page with a nice donkey picture . Some people thought that was quite appropriate.

  5. When I write letters to lawmakers, I refer to myself as a citizen who is subject to an adoption decree (or the object of an adoption decree.) There seems to be a complete disconnect in understanding that adoptees are actual, real people who are no different from others except by the accidental condition into which fortune has placed us. I make an effort to use ordinary words such as person, citizen, or individual then qualify the condition separately. Even some of the most sympathetic legislators revert back to the, “Did you ask your mother?” line of reasoning. ‘Adoptee’ should be neutral enough, but it seems to conjure up an image of someone who is innately different and justifiably separated from normal human endeavors. It would be great to have a word for casual conversation that is more fitting than adoptee, but I’ve yet to hear one.

    • “Citizen” – excellent. One thing to keep in mind is the context we are in when we describe ourselves. In the world of lobbying – citizen “subject to an adoption decree” is interesting and different.

  6. In the spirit of trying to find a word that connotes agency more then being-done-to-ness (an “er” word rather than an “ed” word), the first one that popped to mind: survivor.

  7. I should had waited to hit enter. The second word I think of, though not so agency-centric as survivor (which maybe could be deliberately misspelled “surviver”–viva la vive), would run something like this:

    Oh, you’re adopted?
    No, I’m adapted.

    (I can imagine dialectical areas in the States where this vowel difference wouldn’t register.)

  8. One more, but this time I have to hazard some technically specific language to get to it.

    An “artifact” is what we call an object and interact with accordingly. Moreover, an artifact affords certain uses (e.g., a chair affords sitting and also window-breaking in the event of a fire, etc). When we try to use an artifacts in a way that it does not afford, it objects. (I love that pun, and I’m not even sure it should be considered a pun.)

    Therefore, having been treated as objects, we are objectors.

  9. Ha. Adoptees in Chicago have no idea what you’re on about up there.

    Artifact is also used to describe something “left over”. I want to hear more about objects objecting…

    Elsewhere, in discussing the adoption “triad”, and how inappropriate it is as a term to use in regards to adoption, I discuss “to adopt”:

    “To adopt” implies a non-mutual reduction of distance between subject and object. We should compare and contrast this to the verb “to birth”, also a transitive verb, but one that inherently implies a connection, a “mutual non-distance” if you will, between the transitive and intransitive “actors” involved. The conflation of these terms leads to conceptually obscene metaphors such as “paper pregnancy”, “post-adoption depression”, and other lurid comparisons between adoption and childbirth. This is a deceitful attempt to reduce “distance” between the agentive and the objective. This is an attempt to falsely equalize those involved in the adoption process. Such an attempt is patently offensive.

    To say “I was birthed” or “I was born” is to thus be a semi-active agent of the process described. It is also to define “source” and “arrival” as the same; to be born “of” a woman who is also “of” a greater family, community. To say I was “adopted” is to give up all agency. It is a rupture, as we have all discussed.

    This is where I’m not comfortable giving up the notion of “lost agency”; in mitigating adoption, or finding some kind of empowering term.

    Because there is none, and even if there were, I’d find this as mushy as the terms “triad” or “mosaic” or “big tent” or “constellation”.

    Having said that—and I welcome full-on conflicting opinions because I really like this discussion—I’m wondering if there is not a verb such as “to share” to examine. Share comes from “to cut”, and it implies what has been cut (a share of stock), and also its apportionment. I don’t think I’m going to be saying “I was shared” or “I was enshared” anytime soon. And I fear it simply shifts agency to family as equally disempowered as we. It does get us away a little bit from the “object” aspect we’re discussing.

    Honestly, the language works like its speakers think. And vice versa.

    To throw out there: So much activism is about reclaiming language, and thus “bastard”, “abductee”, “etc.” Is this more valid? Less valid? We haven’t changed any of the actual parameters of the industry by changing the language used, or in finding more palatable terms.

    As an aspect of identity, we are torn between how we see ourselves, and how we are seen; how we wish to be known. After typing all of this out, I go back to Jean S.’s point, in which by focusing on the legal function behind our arrival—in objectifying ourselves, but changing the subject—we remove the personal, the familial. It’s a colder framing, but I’m tending to go with staying an object i this way.

    • Daniel:

      Here’s a heap of exposition (Krippendorff’s and mine based on him) for artifacts and how they object. I think it is clear if rea carefully a couple of times.

      *I say*: An “artifact” (such as a gun, a religion, a religious symbol, a beard) is the set of anticipated uses of something as recognized by a particular individual or community of users. On this view, artifacts for one discourse community may have entirely different, even incommensurable meanings for members of another discourse community. Thus, while different people may interface rather differently with the same artifact … [none] can claim to have privileged access to what the artifact ‘really’ is even when someone may consider one meaning [of an artifact] more important than another, even by settling on a definition for it

      References here are to the section “Second-Order Cybernetics and Human-Centeredness” in Krippendorff, K. (2007). The cybernetics of design and design of cybernetics. Kybernetes, 36(9/10), pp. 1381–92. The entire article may be read here: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1048&context=asc_papers.

      The epistemological background often provides a sticking point, but here it is anyway: *Krippendorff writes*: “From the perspective of second-order cybernetics: worlds arise in sensory-motor coordinations. It suggests that the worlds as we know them cannot exist without human involvement. They are brought forth when re-cognizing stabilities in the circularity of acting and sensing the consequences of one’s actions in return. Stabilities of this kind enable us to draw distinctions among them and to rely on them selectively. This is the conclusion of von Foerster’s (1981) recursive theory of eigenbehaviors. ¶ Consistent with the above, the first axiom of human-centeredness states: in human use, artifacts are manifest in the form of interfaces. ¶ It mentions artifacts, not objects, as they arise in the experiences of sensory-motor coordinations, not separate from them. They are constructed by those involved and account for their experiences under conditions of recursively stable and hence reliable interactions. Thus, what we ordinarily call objects are artifacts indeed, made up, enacted, and afforded. Incidentally, the word “fact” derives from the Latin “factum,” something made. Hence, artifacts are crafted skillfully. Artifacts may come about materially by design, conceptually by re-cognition, and interactively in the form of interfaces, which can be distinguished along the lines of less reliable interactivity” (¶1–3).

      *I write*: In considering how we interact with things in the world, Krippendorff (2007) suggests for the case of human use that “artifacts are manifest in the form of interfaces” (¶3). By interface is meant “sequences of ideally meaningful interactions—actions followed by reactions followed by responses to these reactions and so on—leading to a desirable state” (¶8); by artifact is meant that with which we interface and thus the kinds of interactions for use that any artifact affords. “When an interface [with an artifact] works as expected, one can say … that the artifact in question affords the construction that a user has of it; and when it does not work as expected, one can say that the artifact objects to being treated the way it is, without revealing why this is so (¶3). … [This] conception of affordance is important in that it admits no privileged knowledge of the objects of an external world other than how one conceives of them and interacts with them.” (¶6, my emphasis).

  10. “Adoption” — a process whereby individuals are placed in a state of perpetual liminality

    “Adopter” — an individual who imposes upon one or more others a state of perpetual liminality

    “Adoptee” — an individual placed in a state of perpetual liminality

  11. I enjoy this discussion as well. So much is made of birth as an authentic experience, or as a foundational communal experience, between mother and child, but in my case, had my mother not voluntarily terminated her parental rights, I would have been, 60 years ago, her bastard, marked from conception. What’s interesting to me about bastardy is how the term has become unlinked in the United States, from a state of “illegitimacy”, of being the product of an unlawful relationship, and has evolved into a somewhat free floating term to describe persons with objectionable personality traits, ie self-centeredness, callousness, and so forth. A taint without the original stain. I can’t think of many states that rob one of agency more so than bastardy, it’s not like I can reach back into time and bless my parents’ union retrospectively. When I stumbled across the Bastards, first on the internet, and then in person, I immediately identified with the term Bastard, since it recognized that the state organs of adoption rendered all adoptees as bastards, regardless of the actual married status of their parents, in order to create adoptive families, which then redeemed the newly minted state created bastards from their state created bastard state. It’s a neat bit of three card monte. So much of adoption is misdirection like this, fake crises, faux bastards and phoney orphans, feeding the redemption machine. But Bastard identity seems, as it was rooted in a particular moment in the political history of adoption, a mark or a scar of past radicalism, like being in the Lincoln Brigade or the Wobblies.

    The term “triad” always sounded fishy to me, until I realized that it was trick bag, a way for the industry to categorize and “clientize” it’s inmates, and a way for the industry, through its therapeutic organs, to observe, analyze and control those clients. To me “birthparents”, “adoptees”, and “adoptive parents” are different sociopolitical classes with their own interests, and it’s very difficult to address questions of agency when they’re all glopped together in an artificial therapeutic mambo.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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