Today is my mom’s birthday.  Even though she passed away 27 years ago, I still miss her. It is a rare day that a memory doesn’t come to me, or I wish that I could ask her about something.

With an election year upon us, I am reminded of her political interests and how passionate she was about fairness, freedom and integrity.  These values were “hard-baked” into our upbringing, and every conversation we overheard about politics or politicians was ultimately about them. Oh to be a kid in our house during Watergate.

Her absence was deeply felt during the recent House impeachment hearings, and as I watched I imagined her sitting with me, taking notes and writing out the questions she would then dash off in a letter to someone on the committee. Mom took participation to its best level!

Of course things have changed, and I wonder if my parents’ generation would recognize the political or social landscape of today. Most of the electoral choices they made were formed without the 24 hour news cycle, “newstainment” and social media and many of the major fault lines that divide the political parties of today, like abortion, had not yet fractured.

Don’t stop reading, because I’m not headed where you think I am.

I’m bringing up the abortion debate and its increasing prevalence in politics today, because it inevitably churns up the subject of adoption.

It seems that everyone knows a story of someone who was “given up” for adoption by their birth parent or parents, or knows of a parent who “gave up” a baby. Giving up is often accompanied by the assumption that the reason was simply because the baby was unwanted. Yeah, people actually say that. Just Google the word adoption and see how often “give up” shows up in the search headlines. And not to put too fine a point on it, more than once, along remote stretches of highway in certain parts of the country, I’ve seen billboards with pictures of babies captioned, “Don’t give in to abortion, give up to adoption.” Give in and give up. Have you ever seen language more clearly define a lose-lose scenario? To be fair, people on both sides of the Roe-v-Wade divide use this language. And both sides should stop.

Adoption is an ultimate expression of love. It is another way to build a family – not the last choice in a no-win scenario. As with our actions, the words we use define what we think and value. When you talk about adoption, you’re talking about a human being; not an object or habit you’re trying to eliminate like vowing to give up carbs or getting rid of clutter.

My own adoption was never a secret. I always knew I was adopted, and the way my mom talked about it, I thought Adopted was a life status – just one small station below Princess. Membership in my family came from the greatest gift that could ever be given and I will be eternally grateful to the mother who gave it, and the mother who received it.

I have never felt like a throw-away, or unwanted, even when people talk about my birth and those of other adopted children, in those terms.

I wouldn’t say that I was insulated from the hurtful assumptions and heartless language that suggested I wasn’t a gift, but a cast-off. In second grade I reached my artistic zenith with a Halloween pumpkin art project that was a masterpiece of macabre. Unlike the other kids’ pumpkin creations, with perfectly curved smiles, even teeth and an overall cheerfulness that looked just like the teacher’s example, my pumpkin was much more “inspired.” Imagine a smashed and lopsided head with a mouthful of rotting, jagged teeth (hey – my dad was a dentist) protruding aggressively from a mouth shaped like a howl. It was genius. It was also not displayed with the rest of the class’s pumpkins during parent-teacher night. When my mom asked why I did not complete a pumpkin, the teacher replied that she had consulted the Principal and was given permission to withhold it from the display. My pumpkin was then retrieved from her big wooden desk and handed to my mother along with the words, “I understand she was adopted.”

My mom saved that pumpkin and we got a lot of laughs about it over the years – probably because I continued to dance to music only I could hear. The pumpkin though, was a pivotal memory, as it prompted one of my first talks with my mom about this sometimes cruel world and how to navigate it.  As an educator now myself, it’s one of my life experiences that I actually hold close, as it is a visceral reminder to constantly examine the limits of my experience and avoid wrongly judging or interpreting a student’s self-expression.

The great pumpkin incident was not the last time I would be confronted with ignorant comments about my birth, and although it was a long time ago, I still frequently hear and see “throw-away” language.

I’m certain that some readers will now assume that I’m going to rail on about politically correct language. Nope. I’m also not trying to make you feel like a villain if you’ve said or thought about adoption in this way.

I do want to pay the tremendous gift that I received forward, and I’m asking for your help.

I recently attended a large holiday cultural event and what a great evening it was. There were guests of all ages, exploring the cultural richness of our community. Students in their teen years are my favorites and I was delighted to see so many of them taking part. One young man was wearing a hoodie that caught my attention and I made my way through the crowd to talk with him about it. It had a Superman logo and the caption: “Strong, Resilient, Adopted.” He said he wore a lot of what he called “message hoodies” but the Superman image was chosen for the evening because it described “where he came from.”

That this young man could so proudly and positively share his adoption story, with a humble hoodie as a conversation starter no less, was a very powerful thing.

I will not minimize the impact of adoption on birth parents, adoptive families and adopted children themselves; a life-changing dichotomy of pain and joy. Yet in the adoption journey, we have an amazing window into the meaning of self-less love, and the best angels of our nature.

While the adoption of infants (birth to age 2) has declined there were still around 18,000 adoptions last year. In addition, a staggering 100,000 children in foster care are awaiting adoption.

Change does not happen by words alone, but using positive adoption language and educating others to do the same is a powerful place to start.

Today is my mom’s birthday. Happy Birthday mom, from the daughter who was not given up, but lifted up.