I’m the mother of two children through adoption. We are a multi-racial family. While many people say “transracial” to describe a family like ours, I dislike the term. We are not becoming another race, we are not above the reality of race, we are embracing the beauty of multiple races in one family unit.
There I go. You see, language matters in adoption. Language influences how we see the nuances of our unique family dynamics—in the little comments, the times I’m asked if we tried to “have our own kids” (my response: “yes, they’re right here”) or when folks ask strange, tone-deaf questions like “where did they come from?” or “what did they cost?”
We don’t say that birth families “give up” their children for adoption, because “giving up” is not at all what happened. What birth families do is make an adoption plan, a sacrificial, powerful, redemptive choice that ripples for generations through both families. This is the furthest thing from giving up, this is the deep, groaning, powerful work of persistence. It’s the tangible work of hope.
What’s in a name?
Part of the language of family are the names we choose. In the Bible, names hold great significance. God changes names—Saul becomes Paul after he meets Jesus on the road, Abram is rechristened Abraham when God gives him a promise for his future, Simon becomes Peter: “On this rock I will build my church.”
When our oldest daughter, Adelay, was born, her birth family held her briefly and then put her in our arms, the ultimate act of sacrificial love. In yet another gesture of generosity, they also chose to let us name her. This had an unintended consequence, however: it meant that her legal name for the first few months of her life was “BG” for Baby Girl. I struggled with this. I didn’t want those around her to see her as abandoned or unwanted, I didn’t want that anonymous signifier to speak something I knew wasn’t true. I knew she was loved immensely by two families, but I feared that this seemingly unclaimed title would declare otherwise.
Although she was not yet our daughter, my husband and I were granted new names through nothing but grace. The NICU nurses called us “mom” and “dad” from the moment we arrived. We were nervous, sleep-deprived, achy, and uncertain; we felt immense love tempered with the fragility of our situation and the painful experience of the birth family. But the nurses had seen their share of unprepared, nervous parents, and treated us with kindness by giving us the names we would grow into, the names that would become our most precious identifiers before we even knew what they truly meant.
After a few days, we were granted temporary custody and asked for her name. “Adelay,” we said, grinning in relief. We wouldn’t be her legal parents for a few months yet, but the first hurdle was cleared; she was safe and well and I whispered her new name to her as she snoozed in my arms. We started to feel like a family, like the nervous mom and dad we were and not a jet-lagged overwhelmed couple caught in an expensive, emotional maze far from home.
It felt shocking to be treated like a parent—after the many tears and the courageous, emotional release from her birth family, suddenly I was, indeed, her mother—worthy of being spoken to by the pediatrician and called “mom” by the nurse and asked if I needed a cup of coffee by the receptionist. Every time someone gave me kindness in this new role I felt grateful but unworthy of the distinction. Their words told me I belonged, the language of family gave me courage.
The day after we were released from the hospital, we went to the pediatrician’s office for a checkup. I carried Adelay’s car seat into the waiting room, placed her, sleeping peacefully, at my husband’s feet and stood at the counter. I missed her in my arms, and stood there awkwardly holding my wallet and insurance card, looking back at my baby as I waited for the receptionist to check us in.
After several minutes in the back, the receptionist came up to the counter. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t find your records.”
My heart sank, “Try BG.”
She went back and emerged cheerfully, holding a thin file, appropriate for a two-day-old person. Sure enough, there was my baby, with two initials at the top, telling the world that she had no legal permanent home (although she was planted in ours) or recognized family (although she had two).
I blinked back tears and the ache to hold her intensified. I felt silly, but when I finished filling out the paperwork, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I pulled her from her carseat. She grunted in that sleepy newborn way, and nuzzled her tiny nose into my chest, never opening her deep brown eyes, staying wrapped in secure dreamland.
“You’re not BG,” I whispered to her, my new-mother voice cracking under the weight of love I was just learning to carry. “You’re my Adelay. This name is my promise to you.”
Two days into my role as an adoptive parent I learned anew (as I have over and over as I parent)—language matters deeply and how the world perceives our family will have much to do with how we talk about it. Our family carries a responsibility for bringing every bit of light and honor we can to the often darkly mysterious and dishonored process of adoption, to offer our empathy and understanding. We can speak life and hope, we can give new names and honor old ones, we can tell the truth and be set free. We can tell the story of how “BG” is not the name of an orphan but the name given with grace to a child loved beyond all reckoning.
Cover image by Gift Habeshaw.