The first time was at the birthday party of one of my nieces. Friends of our in-laws, the kind of people we see occasionally at birthday parties, were sitting on the grass. This mom and I have always liked visiting, so I sat down with my daughter next to her. They are interested in adopting; we began an earnest conversation about adoption agencies, ethical issues, and the preparation they need to do bring a new child into their family.
Her son ran up, sweaty and sandy from playing on the playground, for a sip from his juice box.
“Do you remember our friends?” She reminded him of my daughter’s name and how his little friend was our cousin. He nodded politely, mouth full of apple juice.
I leaned over my daughter. “Say hi!” My daughter waved shyly.
“Would you like to bring an orphan into our family some day?”
The mom’s voice was sweet, delighted.
I felt sucker punched. I wasn’t sure what to say; in fact, I said nothing at all. A minute later, I gathered my daughter up on some pretext and walked to the other side of the party quickly.
I whispered against her hair as I held her, “You are not an orphan. You have two mothers who loved you. I am your mother. I will never leave you.”
Right now, my daughter doesn’t know what an orphan is. As she grows into the knowledge about her past, someday that term might sting.
I was surprised by how hurt I was.
That was the first time someone called my kid an ‘orphan.’ Since then, I have repeated a variation on that conversation at my older daughter’s soccer practice, in the dance class waiting room, in the foyer at church, at preschool. I’ve developed a better response: “Thank you! Actually, she is my daughter!” which feels like a non-sequitur to the person calling her an orphan. Those people mean she is an orphan and my daughter; I mean that, because she is my daughter, she cannot be an orphan.
I feel like the term ‘orphan’ is becoming more common than it used to be; my friends who are adoption caseworkers confirm that they’ve seen it more and more in their conversations about adoption in the last few years. I think it has to do with the fact that the evangelical church has become increasingly interested in adoption in the last decade. My family is not evangelical, but we move in circles that are. That term has infiltrated our world.
For a few years, on some playgrounds near our house in Austin, it was pretty easy to spot a t-shirt that said “147 Million Orphans,” usually worn by a woman in a long skirt with a paper bead necklaces. (There were matching kid t-shirts: “147 Million Orphans…Minus One,” to be worn by the adopted child.) That figure of 147 million orphans in the world (as far as I can tell, a misreading of a UNICEF report) was intended to refer to children who have one or both parents who are unable to provide for them. By that definition, any child of a single mother or being raised by grandparents is an ‘orphan.’ Though it seems to have faded in the last few years, the evangelical church used that number as a rallying cry to encourage families to adopt.
I once heard one man say we need to “James 1:27” those orphans (a reference to the Bible verse where God says true religion is to care for orphans and widows–also, a very weird verb).
Those t-shirts always bothered me, but it’s only recently I’ve been able to put into words why that term hurts me.
The details about whether or not our daughter was ever an orphan—whether both of her parents died—is not something we will share. The lack of relinquishment laws in China (meaning it’s legal to decide not to parent a child) creates a heart-wrenching situation: the only legal option for a parent who is no longer able to care for a child is to abandon her.
That’s why it’s almost impossible to trace Chinese birth parents like many people have done for other children adopted internationally or domestically; there’s no legal registry of parents who relinquished their children in China.
We guard what information we do have about our daughter’s past. She was very young when she left her first parents’ care (and they are her parents, like we are her parents—there’s room for all of us in this family).
But please don’t think for one second that, because she was too young to remember, the loss of those first parents is something that can be erased or fixed by our love for her.
The absence of the woman whose shushing noises limned my daughter’s body and defined her existence for nine months, of the man who gave her half her features, is the loss of her life.
It is primal.
It is all-consuming.
It will never go away.
To reference that staggering grief casually by dropping the word ‘orphan’ into the conversation is too much.
That grief is raw for us. My daughter and I treat it reverently. It is sacred space we tiptoe through daily. We talk about it, but only when we are safe together, when we can pull it out and look at the jagged edges.
We are aware of that grief at all times in our relationship.
We don’t need any more reminders.
The myth of the plucky orphan, whether Oliver Twist, the Little Orphan Annie, or Harry Potter, is one of the most common character types in children’s literature. (Seriously, most of your favorite children’s books feature an orphan or two.) I understand the romanticism of that term.
I realize that there’s a certain poetry in calling someone an ‘orphan.’ It connotes charming amounts of dirt, like an urchin begging coins from Ebenezer Scrooge, or a degree of spunkiness, like Anne of Green Gables.
And let me be the first to tell you, my daughter is plucky, spunky, and often dirty.
But the loss of my daughter’s first family is a gaping hole, not a romantic past.
To call her an ‘orphan’ idealizes the catastrophic choice her parents were forced to make. Every day parents all over the world are faced with the traumatic options our daughter’s first parents had, whether because of poverty or lack of health care or other cultural factors that are larger than them and that keep them from being able to raise their child. I don’t want to erase the systemic injustice in our daughter’s past with a term that, intentionally or not, casts us as adoptive parents as ‘saviors’ of a plucky ‘orphan.’
And to call her an ‘orphan’ makes her different and others her in ways I don’t like.
Our daughter will always be the Chinese daughter of white parents, which is hard enough. For now, she’s doing just fine—we stand in front of the mirror most mornings while she shouts “I am strong! I am smart! I am Chinese! I am beautiful!” because she saw a video of a girl shouting at the mirror one time and loved it.
But adoption is a long grafting process. We have complicated enough territory to walk together as a family without adding the extra layer of labeling her a term that comes from the intimate, vulnerable absence of her first family.
And the truth is, my daughter is simply not an orphan. I’m her mother. Her first mother is her mother. She has two fathers. She has three years’ worth of ayis who mothered her to the best of their ability.
She went from love to love to love. She was their daughter and now she is ours.
Our shared daughter is not an orphan.