The Fictive Language of Adoption

The Fictive Language of AdoptionBy Shannon Quist 

I’m no linguist, but the ongoing transformation of  language has always fascinated me. Unlike the law and even larger cultural norms, language is a social dance that gives and takes, adjusts readily to those who let it grow. Yet, as rapidly as it can change, it can also stagnate, leaving us with words of a time long gone that, culturally, we’re ready to move on from. The language of adoption is particularly tricky, in part because the terms that survive from the Baby Scoop Era and before describe the real separation of families with words that render parts of the experience as fiction. 

Fiction as it relates to reality is closer to my expertise. In studying adoptee-written fictional stories focusing on Ghost Kingdoms, I discovered that fiction and reality can work in tandem. When adoptees have little to no information about their biological history, they turn to internalized fictions to make sense of themselves and their identities which, in the face of preverbal trauma, seems an appropriate way to cope until they might be able to find out more. In contrast, what I want to discuss today are the major fictions that contribute to an adoptee’s need to cope in such a way and do not do adoptees’ realities any favors. 

The first is the legal fiction of birth certificates. As of this writing, only 14 out of 50 states in America allow adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificates, the medical documents of their birth and parentage. At the time of legal adoption, a second birth certificate is issued with the adoptive parents’ names on it, signifying that the child is the adoptive parents’ responsibility as if born to them. This is the moment when a child is also most likely to be renamed by their adoptive parents, leaving them with two names: one rendered “not a legal record,” the other to be used in society. 

I feel strongly, as do others who advocate for the release of original birth certificates, that the entire premise of this system is outdated, unnecessary, and belittling. What began as a way to evolve past the stigmatization of “bastards born out of wedlock,” stamped illegitimate on their records of birth, morphed into a practice of erasing biological connection completely. But now we are in an era when those in adoptive families are recognizing the importance of openness, biological connection, and truth. We have no need for these legal fictions. 

But as I said, language moves quicker than the law, and advocates around the country are urging lawmakers to take the first step in righting this wrong by allowing adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates. The second step, I believe, is to change the legal process of adoption so that birth certificates are never sealed and replaced in the first place. Caring for a child shouldn’t begin with a lie, and there are other ways to legally establish guardianship of a minor in ways that don’t tamper with medical records or erase their biological identities. 

The second fiction is more of a social one: the fiction of parenthood and the way we use language to denote relationships that exist outside of the traditional biological nuclear family. I have yet to meet an adopted person who has never been asked about their “real” parentage. Kept children and adults alike continue to inquire about the reality of motherhood and parenthood in a way that simultaneously brings familial reality into question and, to adoptive parents and their adopted children, jarringly refutes the legal situation with the biological one. Like the fictitious birth certificates, adoptive parents are tempted to follow the state’s example and declare that “the real parent is the one that raises you,” in an attempt to render the biological history fictional. Why? Because we understand fact and fiction as opposites, fiction the lesser of the two, and we want our language to represent our realities. 

Additionally, we still utilize language that serves to other the mothers who give birth to children later relinquished for adoption. We call them birthmothers, first mothers, mothers of origin, any number of names with modifiers that, in any context, contrasts them with the adoptive parents who are often simply referred to as parents without any additional clarification. It’s no wonder that adopted persons, in childhood and adulthood alike, struggle with the concept of their reality in existential terms. Their mothers are real and so are the parents who raise them. In many cases, adoptees merge these two truths, but the familial language available to them continues to draw lines between their fictionally legal families and biological ones, both of which are, in all senses, real. 

I make no claim that I have actionable answers on how to make the language that surrounds adoption more inclusive, but the argument we keep having is one of names and cultural fantasies. The traditional nuclear family fantasy of the 1950s persists in the way adoptive parents insist on being called mother and father, as if a legal guardianship is somehow lesser than, something that breaks the fairytale they’ve built for the family members they wish to acquire. 

Personally, I would love a John and a Jane as legal guardians just the same as I love my adoptive parents as Dad and Mom, perhaps more so in seeing that their love for me might not be dependent on what I call them. And what is a parent supposed to be anyway, if not a biological predecessor? A legal guardian, a protector, a role model, a guide. How many other adults are shaping us in childhood that have different names like teacher, mentor, coach? All of our naming options as of now seem to exist to remind us of the imbalanced power structures in our family makeups. 

The other side of this argument is of context. Adoptive families are, by nature, complex. It is often necessary to use clarifying language to establish the many roles and identities of the family members. I do recognize that, but I think that by removing parts of this fictional fantasy, we can have a greater understanding of the complexity of adoptive families and the persistent love found therein. We shouldn’t be renaming children, scrubbing their biological histories in legal or medical documents, asking them to participate in familial fictions, or making their realities any more difficult than they already are. 

My call, then, is to begin deconstructing and moving away from fictive language in adoption. Fiction is a coping mechanism and will be there for us when we need it, but it has no place in the language we build our reality with. What happens to us is real and the facts are worth documenting. 

About the Author: Shannon Quist is the author of Rose’s Locket and Mirrors Made of Ink. She also volunteers with Adoption Knowledge Affiliates. You can find more of her writing at her website or on her Instagram @shannonrquist

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Read more:

My People: Fostering and Language

Real People With Real Stories: An Interview on the Adoption Experience

It’s All About Respect: An Interview on Open Adoption With Joyce Horn

A Guide on Inclusive Adoption Language