Positive Adoption Language (PAL) is how we get the words and phrases like “birthmother”, “made an adoption plan”, “placed a child”, “birth child”, and referring to adoptive parents just as mother and father.
The reason PAL began was to help destigmatize adoptive families, and for good reason. Nevertheless, in the adoption community today, you’ll find a range of people who vary from very strict adherence to PAL, to those who reject and criticize it as agency propaganda.
Many mothers who were coerced or forced into adoption reject the term “birthmother” in favor of first or original or natural mother -all terms that were used prior to the late 1970s (side note, “birth mother” was coined by an adoptive parent and PAL by social workers- not original mothers).
My critique of PAL is that it tends to tell just a single story. A single, positive, whitewashed story. Some prefer “honest adoption language“, using whatever terms they most relate to: if a woman came to the decision of adoption because she felt like she had no other option, she may feel most comfortable saying she “gave up” her child, a PAL-unfriendly phrase. Some adoptive and birth parents agree to call each other both mothers, and to refer to the child in a shared sense, because that is what their family looks like. To say that some “made an adoption plan” might be an outright lie, depending on circumstances and location.
What I personally have more difficulty with (and I don’t believe I’m in the majority here), is the fluffy language surrounding birthmothers (proud, brave, self-less, loving, etc), and here’s why:
There is no single story in adoption and that applies for adult adoptees as well. I’ve read enough reunion stories, I’ve dealt with my own family, and read the comments of adoptees to know that sometimes there are a lot of negative or indifferent feelings toward the biological family for many reasons. Some never search.
On the other hand, I know of adoptees who have been hurt by the popular sentiment of birth mothers: “I’ve never regretted it.” Some leave their adoptive families when they become adults. Some birth parents shut down reunion attempts. Some adoptees are bothered by their birthmother’s inability to heal. Others are angered by the birthmother’s inability to care. Some adoptees and birthparents click, sometimes adoptees finally feel sane or that they fit in, others can’t reconcile the differences in lifestyle, culture, language, beliefs, personalities, attitudes. Some birth parents are selfish and forceful, others try to keep the adoptee a secret from their family. Some adoptees are manipulative and emotional. Sometimes everyone is manipulative and emotional. Through it all, adoptees must walk on the eggshells of loyalty.
Adoption is so complicated that I have a hard time talking about it in the way most mainstream adoption pages do. I spent several years reiterating all of the PAL and believing that I was selfless (meaning, better than those who would choose differently), that I should be proud and that my son would obviously choose to meet me later, and we would have great relationship and he would admire me and be grateful just like everyone else. Win-win-win. I believed that all the bad adoption stories were caused by the Baby Scoop Era and weren’t relevant today.
Yet once I started listening to those already in reunion, once I learned statistics, and saw some of the worst-case-scenarios, I had to shut my mouth. I had to be honest about myself and my situation, so that I could be prepared to accept whatever my son feels about adoption or me.
And I know plenty of birthmothers who would disagree with me. I don’t mind using PAL when appropriate (people are usually familiar with the term birthmother, and so I choose to use it), but I don’t mind ditching it when appropriate either. What is important, I think, is letting people tell their own stories in their own terms. Listening to the stories of adoptees is important. Adapting to them instead of needing them to adapt to our adoption expectations is important, even and especially when it hurts.