What does “real” mean: adoption talk with my daughter

We were thrilled last summer to hear that my son’s birth mom had put us on her itinerary during her visit to Colorado.  Reed hadn’t had contact with her in nearly 4 years, and for the first time he would meet his half-siblings, ages 3 and 1.

Reed showed no signs of either distress or euphoria in the weeks leading up to Michele’s visit or during her dinner with us. Nor did he after she left. For him, and for her, Even Keel seems to be the name of the game.

The surprise was in a conversation with Reed’s sister, Tessa.

“You know, Mom,” she said as I peeled carrots for that night’s dinner, “Reed’s not my REAL brother. He’s just a step.”

My heart stopped and then broke into pieces. Since the first day of Adoption School nearly 10 years ago, I had been prepared to be discounted as a real mom, but it never occurred to me that my children might discount each other. I was saddened and knocked off balance, not knowing what to say.

So I resorted to my habits when I get adoption stress: Breathe. Be aware of my breathing. Silently ask for wisdom and guidance.

“What does it mean, Tessa, to be a real brother or sister?” I asked, mindful of the peeler and the tender web of skin between my forefinger and thumb.

“It means you have the same parents. Reed and I don’t have the same parents, so we’re just steps.”

“You mean because your birth parents are Joe and Crystal, and Reed’s are Michele and AJ?”

“Yeah. We come from different parents. So we’re just steps,” she repeated the phrase that she was stuck on, that we were now both stuck on.

Tessa had been trying to figure out “steps” since reuniting with Joe two years ago. Joe and his wife have a daughter (Tessa’s younger half-sister) and the wife has a son from a previous marriage, Joe’s stepson. Who was, in explicit terms, her birth-step-brother (or step-birth-brother?).

Likewise, Crystal has a son (Tessa’s older half-brother) and Crystal’s boyfriend also has a son, who is not technically Crystal’s stepson but is considered a full-fledged son. This boy was, explicitly, Tessa’s practically-birth-step-brother.

Got all that? It’s a lot for anyone, especially for the 9 year-old in the center of it. If only “step” were as straightforward as the stool Tessa was perched on.

“Well, Sweetie,” I began, moving on to chopping celery, “Could it be that you and Reed actually have TWO sets of REAL parents?” I emphasize the words that encompass and validate.

“No, Mommm,” she said, exasperated with me, feeling prickly. “Real means the people who are really your parents, the ones who made you.”

So I pulled out my stock answer, which I thought would be used only on curious strangers who weren’t acquainted with so-called Positive Adoption Language. And I spontaneously added some levity.

“Well, you know what THAT means, don’t you?” I said with a twinkle in my eye as I dried my hands on a dish cloth.

“What?” Tessa said uneasily, until she realized that I was about to get her.

“That means…” I picked her up (I can still do that, though not for much longer) and carried her into the adjacent family room where we have room to play.  “That means that Fake Mom changed 5000 of your diapers!” I tickled her sides.

“And Fake Mom sang you all those lullabies!” I tickled her underpits (as Reed calls them).  I got nose to nose with her, giggled hysterically with her, locked eyes with her.

She joined the game. “Fake mom makes me do my homework! Fake Mom tickles me! Fake Mom takes me for pedicures!”

Soon we were out of breath from laughing so hard.

I propped myself up on my elbow and brought the level down a bit. “Sweetie, both Crystal and I are real. Both Joe and Daddy are real. And Reed is real, too. Who fights with you over popsicle flavors? Not Fake Brother. Who annoys you when you have a friend over? Who plays School with you and always lets you be the teacher? No Fake People live in this house.”

“I know what you mean, Mama.” I know when she uses this term when she has softened.

Michele, who had been playing with Reed and her children in the backyard, entered the kitchen to retrieve a diaper bag. Tessa and I pulled ourselves up from the family room floor and joined her in the kitchen. The conversation was over. This time.

I realize that there was no final resolution, no definitive happy ending to this very complex issue. This was merely a pause in what will be a very long story arc. But there was progress in our process. Tessa and I worked through something, we connected, we allowed each other the space to explore and talk.

We stayed real.

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This post has been added to Open Adoption Roundtable #26. Check out what other open adoption bloggers have to say on the topic of siblings.

61 thoughts on “What does “real” mean: adoption talk with my daughter”

  1. Nicely done. I admire your ability to take something that could be very emotionally charged and turn it into a fun teaching moment. You’ve got some skills!

  2. wow. just wow. I think my heart stopped for a second in the middle of this story. But by the end I was just amazed. What a beautiful, playful, heartful, honest way to look your daughter in the eye and help her to find the deeper answer to the question she is asking. awesome.

  3. Good for you!

    One of my favorite adoption books for children is “You’re Not My REAL Mother” by Molly Friedrich, which handles the “fake mom” concept in a similar fashion. Sounds like it would be a great addition to your bookshelf.

    Remembering to breathe is so important – I’m impressed (but not surprised, you amazing talented woman, you!) that you were able to meet Tessa where she was instead of letting your own feelings about her comment disable your parenting skills.

  4. Could you be a mentor to all parents? Adoptive or otherwise? :) You are amazing!! Once again you handle these situations with grace and calm and stay strong and positive. You are an inspiration to us all!

  5. Very well done. I read all of these things that I usually haven’t even thought about as potential conversations and think I have no idea how I would deal with that. You always seem to manage wonderfully even when you admit you don’t know what to say.

  6. Wow. I feel like this is something that’s been at the center of my own life (though from a slightly different angle).

    I grew up with one “real” brother (we have the same bio parents), two stepbrothers from my stepmother’s first marriage, two more stepbrothers from my stepfather’s first marriage, one half-sister (the daughter of my bio-father and my stepmother) and another half-sister (the daughter of my bio-mother and her third husband). In addition, my stepbrothers had numerous step and half siblings from their bio- parents’ subsequent marriages.

    Who counted as my “real” family was something I thought about a lot.

    And I’m sure my kids will have similar issues.

  7. I’m sitting here with tears streaming down my face. I’ve had this same conversation with my daughter who, about a year ago (age 9), said, “I hope some day I can meet my REAL Mom.”

    Inside I was screaming, “I AM the real Mom!” but, like you, I knew how important it was to honor the amazing woman who created my beautiful child and nurtured her with her body until birth.

    The conversation still comes up, at times. And, for me, that initial stab to the heart and kick in the gut doesn’t go away. But now, thanks to you, I have another way to express my emotional attachment to this question with love & humor.

    Who knows….maybe I’ll get myself a t-shirt that says, “I’m the FAKE Mama!” LOL!

  8. This piece brought me to tears…SO beautifully written. I’m with the other commenters—major KUDOS to you for keeping your cool and making a teachable moment at a time you easily could have lost your cool. How lucky Tessa is to have a “fake” Mom like you!

  9. Seriously, Lori, you ROCK! You need to write a parenting book. Many of these conversations resonate with me as a mom via donor conception. I love so much how you quickly get through the heart wrenching moment to give your children what they need. Which brings them right back to you and picks up the pieces of your heart and puts it back in your chest. Beautiful.

  10. I need to memorize this post. BB has been talking a lot about siblings and who is related and how and the like and one day I know we’re going to get into a real/fake/etc convo. Having read this, I hope I can refrain from panicking when it comes up!

  11. I wouldn’t have dared say anything in my family wasn’t “real,” although I had two so-called adoptive fathers and was raised with two brothers, one golden bio child to my adoptive mother and one that was also adopted. I can still remember whispering at a slumber party with two friends that my dad wasn’t my “real” father, because my adoptive mother had divorced my other father over his alcoholism. We didn’t even talk about other secret that I was adopted at birth.

    I was so afraid that they would tell someone that I then avoided the girls throughout the rest of middle-school. What I appreciate about you Lori is that you put your heart out there and admit that you don’t have all the answers. I believe your children are lucky to have you as their mother, nothing fake about you :). I needed my adoptive mother to be “real” and sometimes I still grieve over the loss of two mothers.

  12. Lori, this was a gorgeous article and definitely brought more than a few tears to my eyes! I imagine I will have a similar conversation with my children one day. Thank you for showing me a beautiful way of handling it!

  13. Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone, yet still miraculously my own. Never forget for a single minute you didn’t grow under my heart but in it!

  14. Lori. What an amazing blog entry. For both of us, it will be a lifetime of hoping and wishing that the bonds of love between everyone in the triad, keep things on a semi-even keel. Hugs to you…

  15. wow Lori, sure do wish this had been done when I was adopted..would have made so many things way easier and left less scars…

  16. What a wonderful way to handle this very tough question. Figuring out all those relationships is hard for little ones — but it sounds like you’ve certainly helped her along.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  17. Just Wow. I so look up to you and your approach to raising your children. I hope that at some point in the future I remember to Breathe before I respond.

  18. I didn’t realize until I got to the end of this post that I was holding my breath! In my eyes, you are completely REAL and WISE.

  19. What I admire the most is your ability to be emotionally present for your children without taking these conversations too personally. I do the breathing trick too, giving me a few moments to consider how to handle certain situations. However, I wasn’t prepared for how my children could hurt me with a careless comment or a rejection of my loving comfort when they are distraught. It showed me how much (as if I didn’t already know) I love them, but also how they need to figure things out for themselves, independently of me. It reminded me of my relationship with my own mother. You are a wonderful teacher and your blog is your classroom.

    Lisa (ICLW – Your Great Life)

  20. Man, I must be one of the one of millions of adoptees (as a child) who never used the phrase “You’re not my REAL mom!” to my adoptive mother.

    No one ever believes me, but I swear to god, I never once used that phrase. If anything, I was convinced that my adoptive mother was the real (note: ONLY) mother and my “birth” mother was fake.

    Of course, when I set out to search and my perspective radically shifted regarding the term “real”, I had plenty of people to remind me that “real” parents are the (ONLY) ones doing the parenting.

    It’s odd, how many people can accept that biologically, my kept siblings are my siblings, but that they feel the need to “remind” me that REAL parents are the (note: ONLY) ones who raise you. Socially, it is not “acceptable” to have two sets of real parents.

    1. Socially, it is not “acceptable” to have two sets of real parents.

      There is a group of bloggers who are out to change this mindset one reader at a time. To move from either/or to and.

      The split created by adoption does not HAVE to cause the child to split his/her loyalties and love and identity. In fact, I would say it’s the job of the parent to help INTEGRATE those things, as much as possible.

  21. I am so excited to have found your blog! We are in the midst of adoption but I know that right now it’s all sunshine and lollipops but when our babies turn into kids with questions I am coming here for resources!
    -iclw #91

  22. Actually I wrote a post addressing the things you’ve talked about. Will be publishing it soon because it gave me food for thought and a way to explain what I mean.

  23. Thanks for sharing this. I will tuck it away for future use. I can just see myself react to this. I would supress my feelings and wait until later to cry about it. I see that it should be faced head on and I shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions of my child to try and understand where they are coming from. Adoptive children and parents are allowed to share feelings of confusion, sadness, and of course joy.

  24. I’m amazed at how well you handle these difficult conversations with your daughter and how you stay grounded and don’t allow emotion to play into your responses. I’m truly in awe of how well you responded to her in such an authentic real way, while maintaining a positive dialog and allowing her a safe place to openly voice her feelings. You rock! Thank you for sharing, I hope that I can be as wise and supportive of a mother some day!

    1. Oh, emotion DOES play a part in my responses. I was sad for my son, concerned for the outcome of this conversation, and sad that my daughter was feeling disconnected.

      But what I did well here, I think, was not to wish my daughter didn’t have her feelings. I wasn’t triggered about not being the “real” mom because I am secure in my role. It’s important that people who come to parenting via adoption or donor gametes resolve their own issues so their children are free to work out their issues as they come up.

      The good news? It’s so very doable.

  25. Hey there! I just started down the adoption road, and was directed to your website by a fellow blogger. You handled that situation very well! Nicely done!

  26. Wow – amazing post. As a mom to two girls, one biological and one adopted, I get comments from strangers (and friends and family who we may just consider strange) about the differences, but know one day I will have to deal with those types of comments or questions from inside our home. You handled it extremely well and I hope that when the day comes, I can muster up a positive way to handle it (with some humor thrown in).

  27. Thanks for sharing your responses to the difficult situations. Now if I can only remember how to respond in 10 or so years…. :)

  28. Well played, Mama.

    I grew up with no “half’s” or “steps” and only one adopted cousin who we didn’t see much.

    Now that I have DE kids, I think about what it all means and find myself in mental loops similar to Tessa’s. I have decided that it is how we decide to see it, not the genetics at all; but sometimes that logic isn’t quite enough.

  29. Great REAL story! I loved it and could imagine watching it unfold.

    The key, I believe, is to breathe so that you respond instead of react. Those few seconds of pause allowed you to reach deeper into yourself for wisdom and guidance.

    REALly quite beautiful!

  30. She’s a clever one, isn’t she? I think you handled it BEAUTIFULLY.

    Growing up, I thought being a “Step” just meant “mean” (thanks to Cinderella). I remember when I was camping one time, I met a little girl who talked about her stepmom. I then went OFF about my evil stepbrothers. :)

  31. What I love most about you and the way you interact with your children is that, in moments when lesser people would lose their temper because they feel their position is threatened, you remain dedicated to your kids and remember that it’s not so much about you, but it’s about reassuring them that they matter. It’s showing them how much they mean to you and how much – no matter what their beginning – they are home and are where they were meant to be.

  32. Thanks so much for your comment on my blog. I’m new to your blog, and I started perusing and stumbled across this post. It struck me as I’m an adoptee and I’ve always argued with people about my “real” parents. I hate it when people try to distinguish between my “real” parents and my adoptive parents. I know it can get confusing, of course it is – I have 7 parents! Divorce etc. will do that… But I would have thought by now that the term real would be reserved for my real parents – you know, the ones that raised me… I admire how you spoke to your daughter. And for what you do for adoption.

  33. I love this story! As someone who came from a family with biological and adopted children, it has always seemed so normal to me, especially as my adopted sister is the eldest. I don’t remember any talks or questions about our true relations when I was growing up, but I always wonder. I think you handled this wonderfully! If I am lucky enough to adopt someday, I hope to handle the tough questions with such ease and grace!

  34. Amazing story. I am many times in wonder and awe with how children try so hard to put familiar labels onto situations that aren’t so familiar to them. It sounds like your daughter was trying to associate real with ‘she who gave birth’. But as she grows, I know that ‘real’ will come to mean so much more to her. You had a very wonderful conversation and interaction with her when this was brought up. It reminds me of a story my mother-in-law tells. Her three children, one of those obviously is my husband, are all adopted. My MIL was speaking at a conference/event for adoption and her daughter (my SIL) was there with her. This was hears ago and SIL was 16. During the Q and A session an audience member asked SIL “Don’t you ever wonder about your real parents?” SIL, without a pause, answered “this is my real mother. If you mean my birth parents, yeah sure I wonder sometimes.” It bring tears to my eyes. Your daughter knows that you are her mother, her real mother.

  35. I’m very impressed with the way you dealt with this. I am adopted myself and I went through the very same thing when I was adopted. I have an older brother who is now 29, but was 17 when I first joined the family. It was very hard for me to understand that he was infact my brother, regardless whether we were not from the same birth mother.

    I am so glad you handled the situation so beautifully just like my mother.

  36. This conversation sounds very much like those you encounter as a step-mom of 6 kids.. two sets of them 1 from each of my marriages. It’s all very hard to get around… yesterday we (my new husband and I) helped with a golf tournament that my first step daughter was running and along with her dad (my first husband) were her two sisters.. (my “REAL” girls) her brother.. my first step son.. her “STEP” father and step cousins.. you get the picture… what matters was her two dads, her step mom (me) her Birth Dads fiance’, fiance’s son & granddaughter, My step daughter’s brother, her cousins, steps, halfs etc. etc. were all there to support her and her charity benefit golf tournament. So all that to say that although this stuff seems really tough when you the kids are younger…. it really all can work out if everyone decides to play nice.

    When “my” two girls were younger they decided that they were also related to their half sister and brother’s new baby brother…aka .. their half siblings sibling with no blood ties to them… but for a kid.. their brother’s brother MUST be their brother too.. right? It’s easier now that we’ve come up with language like blended family to describe what most of us end up with but aren’t sure how to label.

    Thanks for your post it was really well written!

  37. I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time here in your archives, soaking it in. And, breathing. You write so honestly about open adoption. My son came to us through open adoption -an amazing gift and yet complicated…as life is.

  38. Hi Lori, I came across your blog through the labyrinth of blogland and I am so enjoying it. I have you on my favorites and I read your posts from time to time, especially to treat myself on a Friday, from work :) I have recently started a blog too which you are welcome to check out when you get the chance. I can’t remember which post it was, but I really loved the one where you talked about your daughter “going to the well”, hanging out with her birth mother for the afternoon. How natural and profoundly wonderful to hear that. Katie

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