Friday, March 31, 2000

Incensed about the Census

When filling out our Census (yes, that's right, I've filled mine out; have you?) I was a little surprised to see that my children's origins were an issue. Along with all the other relationship options--husband, wife, mother, mother-in-law--were "natural-born child" and "adopted child." Among the parents whose e-mails I read on an on-line support group for those who have adopted from Eastern Europe, those would be considered fighting words. First, to ask in the first place. Then, to ask in a way that implies our children are not natural.

Personally, I've always been very forthcoming about the fact that our children are adopted, and probably introduce that tidbit far too early in any conversation about them. I'm proud of how far they've come from that Russian orphanage, and I want people to understand why the journey has been, and continues to be, so hard for them. I've always felt that it's hard to advocate for adoption if you won't cop to it; people aren't going to ask you for information or be inspired by your example if they don't know you're setting one.

Other parents, though--protective of their children's adoption stories and their own privacy, wary of others' reactions in light of harsh stories about Russian adoptees on TV newsmagazines, resentful of having to be example-setters when all they want to be is parents--control that information tightly, zealously. Woe be unto the grandparent who refers to an adopted grandchild as an adopted grandchild; this is felt by many to indicate an inadequate level of affection and discretion, and to be grounds for banishment. The policy is don't ask, don't tell, and if someone does have the nerve to ask, they will be discussed in the most unflattering terms in a flurry of e-mail. Lists of possible icy comebacks circulate frequently.

For these folks, the requirement to check that "adopted" box on the Census form was a slap in the face. And then, to be asked with such adoption-incorrect terminology! Why "natural-born" as the alternative to adopted? Are adopted children unnatural? They were as natural-born as anyone, just to somebody else. Why is a child conceived in a test-tube natural-born, but a child conceived by a mother who couldn't care for him or her unnatural? The preferred term by the adoption PC police is "biological," but to my ear, that has the same problem--are our adopted children mechanical? Perhaps the bureau should simply phrase it "adopted" and "non-adopted."

In truth, the terminology doesn't particularly bother me. For the Census' purposes, having people understand what they're supposed to check is way more important than individual sensitivities (though tell that to the poor employee who's going to have to read all the complaining letters). "Natural-born" may be insensitive to some, but folks outside the adoption community know what it means; whereas "biological" would surely cause confusion. I once used the shorthand "bio child" to describe a non-adopted child to someone who does not obsessively follow adoption e-mail groups, and she looked at me like I had two heads. Then I had to explain that what I meant was that that child was not adopted, whereas my kids were, and then I sounded adoption-obsessed, and like I was drawing some kind of quality line between the two. Unless you're going to start putting footnotes on Census forms, you might as well go for clarity.

I do wonder, though, to what use the information will be put. My hope is that statistics will be released showing that adoption is commonplace these days, hardly worth getting into a linguistic snit over. Perhaps this could lead to more acceptance, not less, and to funding for services that adoptive families need. In which case, I could have used more adoption-related questions. International or domestic? Healthy or special-needs? Infant, toddler, or older child? Are you getting the proper services from the schools? Are you getting thorough services from physicians? Is your family using words that you have personally approved when referring to your children? As long as the government's asking, they might as well get us to tell all.

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