Because words matter.
Since learning to read, my son has become a backseat sign reader. Every street name, car brand, restaurant, and local business is announced aloud, along with frequent driving tips:
“You shouldn’t be looking at your phone, Mom.”
“Both hands on the wheel, please.”
“Mom, the light is green.”
According to him, green means go, even when there’s a car or seven in front of you. Recently, on our route home from school, he noticed a new sign:
“Adopt A Highway. What does that mean?”
Anyone who knows me knows I loathe when the word “adoption” is assigned to anything other than a human adopting another human, but what I loathe even more is when parents brainwash their children with their own opinions. And so, other than anti-racism, religious tolerance, and sport team loyalties, I do my best to keep allow my children to discover their own feelings and opinions.
“Sometimes, one word can mean two different things,” I explained. “Adopt can mean a mommy adopting a baby, like I adopted you, or it can mean to just take care of something. When people adopt a highway, it means they take care of it. They clean up any trash that’s on it, they pay for repairs—”
“But that doesn’t make sense, Mom. Even if you clean it, the wind can just make it dirty again. The road can crack again.”
It doesn’t take a psychology degree to read his subtext: Adoption is supposed to be permanent. If adoption can be applied to temporary situations like cleaning a highway, what does that mean about my adoption?
“How does it make you feel that some people use the word “adopt” for other things,” I asked?
“It just doesn’t make sense. Because it’s not the same.”
As a writer, I’m familiar with the concept of a word having multiple meanings, but I think it’s time we acknowledge that using the term “adopt” in reference to caring for highways is equivalent to saying that contractors “birth” houses. I don’t think women who’ve pushed babies out of their vaginas would like that very much, and I don’t think adoptees who are permanent parts of their families like to be equated with road work.
If you feel I’m being too sensitive toward semantics, then I’m sure you’ll have no issue if we stepmoms drop the “step” and just start referring to ourselves as Mom. After all, a word can have more than one meaning, right?
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.