Is PAL Too PC?

One adoptive mother wonders if positive adoption language is too sterile to describe a birth mother's or adoptee's complex experience.

Positive adoption language may border on too politically correct

Three years ago, when my husband and I were waiting to adopt our first child, I was sitting in my living room with a group of friends. As we laughed and enjoyed tea and wine, the subject of having children came up. “When I gave up my baby for adoption…” my friend began, as she launched into her story. I inwardly cringed, mentally correcting her terminology. Placed, I thought. You placed the baby for adoption.

The adoption community is generally familiar with Positive Adoption Language (PAL). We are supposed to say “birth mother” or “biological mother,” not “real mother” or “natural mother.” And she doesn’t “give up” or “put up” a child for adoption, she “places” the child or “makes an adoption plan.”

During that first adoption process, I shared a PAL list from one of my adoption books with my parents and siblings as we sat around the dining room table. My mother asked, “Don’t you think a birth mother feels that she does ‘give up’ her baby?” I brushed off her comment, too engrossed in my adoption education to consider her question. I was preparing for adoption “by the book.”

Three years later, I am beginning to understand my friend’s choice of words and to ponder my mother’s question. As the mother of two girls adopted domestically, and as the close friend of a birth mother, I know that, while PAL’s positive view of adoption benefits some, PAL isn’t always precise.

Some adoptees do feel that they were “put up for adoption” or given away, depending on their relationship (or lack of one) with their birth parents and on the reasons they came to be adopted. “Placed” suggests a gentle movement, a sweet surrender, and “made an adoption plan” implies a purposeful action, free of emotions. “Put up” or “given away” suggests a harsher, but perhaps more realistic, truth — that adoption is complicated, it’s raw, and it’s not always pretty.

Who am I to correct a woman who has surrendered her child and who uses language that makes me shift in my seat? I may not like her terminology, but her words reflect her reality — she lost a baby. She’s allowed to use any words she wants, and no amount of PAL is going to change her feelings about her situation. And what about my own daughters? Should I correct their choice of words when they are old enough to understand what adoption means and have their own feelings about how they came to be part of our family? I think not.

Please don’t misunderstand me. PAL advocates are not self-serving. As an adoptive mother, I know that there are gross misunderstandings about adoption that are still accepted by the general public. Adoptive parents, birth parents, adoption professionals, and adoptees — we all, if we choose, become adoption educators when we share our stories. PAL is just one way we can gently correct some of the myths surrounding adoption. However, PAL can’t reflect all of the feelings individual members of the triad have about adoption.

We should give ourselves permission to use the terminology that we feel best represents our unique relationships with adoption, and we should respect the language used by others, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Ultimately, I believe that the adoption community wants to promote acceptance and openness. We can do that by showing respect for each other’s choice of words.

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