Co-Authored by Kim Paglino (originally published on Donaldson Adoption Institute website)
What makes the news in adoption? Most frequently, it’s the sensational. It is the “Either/Or” theme or “Us vs. Them” mentality that makes the headlines – either extremely good OR terribly bad; either this OR that. Rarely is adoption shown as the many shades of gray that more aptly depict this complex experience.
The most recent of these polarizing narratives surrounds Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, her kinship adoption, and the need society has to publicly and shamelessly call into question the diverse family connections that comprise the adoption experience.
Although NBC announcer Al Trautwig ultimately deleted the tweet in reference to Simone’s parents, in which he insisted “they may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents,” it’s true that nothing ever really disappears in the vast land of social media. Commentary continues in the wake of his ignorant remark, as the public weighs in with their opinions surrounding the authenticity of Simone Biles’ family connections, and how this reflects on their own family experience.
It is incredibly sad that something so personal as an adoption experience is being debated in the public sphere, as though any of us have a right to comment on how Simone chooses to reference her own family connections. Indeed, nothing seems to be sacred when it comes to using adoption as fodder for dramatic headlines, inappropriate punch lines or click bait. As two adoption professionals, we choose to comment on this recent media buzz simply to use what others have made public in the hopes of educating. Within this teachable moment, we wish to share three critical elements:
Adoption is Not Either/Or
The extended family of adoption include biological parents, parents through adoption, the child and the family members connected to each. In many ways, all families contain people who have multiple roles in our lives. An uncle can also be a godfather. Family roles need not be mutually exclusive, nor do they need to be in competition with one another. And while all people have parents we are born to, some people also have parents we know through the experience of adoption. One would think that as adults, who likely have some experience with complex family structures such as blended families and step-parenting, we would easily be able to make sense of these intricacies. Yet the conversation surrounding Simone Biles’ family says otherwise.
It is critical that as adults we learn to make sense of multiple family connections, value them all equally, and recognize that our responsibility is not to make ourselves feel better about these intricacies that sometimes push conventional ideas; rather, it is to ensure that a child can feel proud of whoever is a part of their family and validated in whomever they wish to call mom or dad. A child, young person or adult that has been adopted into a new family structure or system, even one that has biological connections through kinship adoption, need not be forced to choose between the two or have to decide which is better or what is “real.”
It IS What You Say
The overwhelming chatter surrounding Al Trautwig’s tweet focused on an issue that continues to deeply wound people connected to adoption – the language we use when talking about adoption and foster care experiences. It was not the fact that Trautwig insisted on referring to Simone’s parents via their ancestral connection to her; rather, it is what his comment implied about the meaning of parenthood when the role is not defined biologically or traditionally. In the articles and blogs that followed Al’s transgression, you could feel the pain such an implication generates. Adults who had a connection to adoption for many years continue to feel the sting at the idea that they are not “real” parents or that their parents are not “real.” We often completely ignore the biological parent in these conversations – a group that is often marginalized in these discussions.
There are many divergent opinions on language in adoption, with no easy solutions to the challenges we face when trying to figure out the “right” way to discuss adoption. It’s probably because there is no one way to have this conversation, but there should be a healthy way. As adults, we must work to better respond to this issue on behalf of the youngest among us, in a way that speaks to their needs. Too often, children are trying to make sense of their experiences in a world that has stigmatized adoption and painted it as second best. Within this debate about language, we must consider how the competing interests of adults impact the developing needs of children. When considering the wide range of words that can be used to describe the complicated and unique experiences in adoption, it’s important that our vocabulary should not be about what makes adults more comfortable, but rather, what is healthy for children. And it wouldn’t feel good for anyone to think that their parents are not “real.”
We Do Need to Get ‘Real’ About Adoption
There was a particularly insightful piece on Vox which candidly (and fittingly) pointed out that the most sensational aspect of Simone’s experience was the fact that the child welfare system managed to keep a family of color together through the beauty of kinship adoption. We know that children and young people of color are over-represented in foster care, often remain there for far longer than is appropriate, and frequently age out to live a life riddled with hardship.
The realities of the adoption and foster care experiences are far from the images most people have in their minds. While the extremes that headline in the news are the exception, it is a mistake to believe that these experience are without challenge, particularly for children who are waiting in our foster care system for a permanent family connection. Creating resources for these children, including a thorough exploration of existing family connections, should be our top priority. If we want to learn anything from Simone Biles’ experience, let it be that.
The adoption community comes together very quickly when public misperceptions wound the very core of what grounds us – our families. Meaningful change though will only occur when we can organize and align ourselves with one another to educate society in a healthy and realistic way about adoption and foster care. We need to increase these educational efforts across the board as well as access to quality pre- and post-adoption services for families. We owe it to our children to do so.
As two professionals in adoption, we offer this piece because we believe there is a pressing need to encourage a more evolved conversation about adoption and foster care. Within this need, we all must mindfully consider the language we use when discussing these deeply personal experiences and we all must work harder at shifting the focus to the realities of our experiences, not just what makes the headlines.
As two adopted people, we find it incredibly sad that an individual’s very personal situation continues to fuel a public debate that brings us back to the same tired place – whether an adoptive family is as good as a biological one. Nowhere does this debate seem more charged than within our very own adoption community.
We get that the words hurt. Believe us – it’s even harder when you’re a child who has been adopted and at every turn you have to defend how you wound up with a family you weren’t born to. At a very young age, we receive a loud and clear message from society that this is not an optimal situation to be in, and this is a message that continues throughout our lives.
But as adults, if we can’t move ourselves to a place where we all feel secure in our roles, where we own this experience in a way that our validation comes from within, it will be impossible to generate a much needed shift in this conversation with others. And so the cycle will continue, creating more hardship for the youngest among us. And in another 18 years, the next Olympic hopeful who also shares an adoption connection will generate the greatest buzz not about her amazing talent or effervescent spirit, but rather about who makes up her family and what she calls her parents.
We admire you, Simone Biles, for your beauty, and your power, for your breathtaking abilities and your grace. Thank you for representing the United States of America at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.