A Study In Semantics:
What Is A “Unicorn” In Adoption?
Adoption is an industry that has a sordid past and you can’t talk about adoption present without reference to adoption past.
One of the areas of the past that has deep roots is adoption language. Language sets the tone for how people are treated and what is generally accepted within a community. Our word choice reflects deeply held beliefs and influences our behavior. So in essence, it is not just semantics.
So let’s dive into some industry jargon: Unicorn! The use of this word was referenced on a recent podcast episode in which our guest, Kristin, recounted being called a “Unicorn” when placing her child for adoption privately through an agency.
As an adoption professional, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this term used in practice. While adoptive parents or birth parents may not be hearing it as much, it is “industry jargon” that is exchanged among professionals. It needs some air time here so we can address it’s implications and collectively decide to remove it from our repertoire.
So, what is a “unicorn”:
In addition to being one of the most used images in pop cultures, a unicorn is by definition a mythological creature, special and rare.
The term is used in adoption as both “unicorn baby” and “unicorn birth mom”.
A “unicorn birth mom” refers to a mother who is the ideal vessel to grow a child. A “unicorn birth mom” is healthy, free from drugs or a high risk lifestyle, has a spotless medical history, may be well educated and/or gainfully employed, and has family or birth father involvement in the process. A “unicorn baby” is therefore healthy, had consistent prenatal care, is free from substance exposures in utero and has a potentially gleaming genetic history.
If you haven’t jaw dropped or dramatically gasped yet at the use of the words “ ideal vessel”, take a moment and do so.
Sorry to do that to you, but I wanted you to feel what it means to be perceived as simply an incubator; A means to an end, rather than an actual, real live human being.
That feeling of disgust is what using the term “unicorn” in the adoption community should bring up for you.
Where did this term come from? Brace yourself because this is going to feel terrible to read.
Believe it or not, in our not so distant past, there were highly unregulated adoption networks often led by predatory unlicensed baby brokers. They perpetuated great offenses against mothers and babies and drove the commodification of children.
At that time in our history, adoption was a service most accessible to white married couples with considerable financial means. In wanting to have a child, they sought the most valuable product: blonde haired, blue eyed babies of European descent. These “unicorn babies” were in high demand, and thus demanded higher fees over other babies of darker complexions or with dark features.
Not surprising to learn given our country was long buried under post-desegregation racism, social work as a profession was just beginning to be a thing, and the regulations of adoption practice were in their infancy.
So knowing this is where the term unicorn comes from demonstrates that the use of the word serves to assign a monetary value system to women and babies. And of course, by assigning the title of “unicorn” to one, we inadvertently devalue the rest, effectively separating “good” moms from the others, i.e. the “bad”.
How can we use that term without also influencing our held beliefs about birth moms and adoption, and then ultimately influencing our behavior towards birth moms and adoption?
Short answer, we can’t.
A unicorn is a mythological creature, meaning that is is “lacking factual basis”.
So allow me to dispel the myths, there is no such thing as a “unicorn.”