Category Archives: Adoption language

Do Over: “I’m a Bastard, Right, Mom?”

As you may recall from my last post, Tessa and I began a conversation about the meaning of the words bitch and bastard. We covered the terms and I was feeling confident.

Until she said the words expressed in the title of this post. That means I’m a bastard, right?

bastard in adoption

Though it was clear there was no negative meaning granted by her (it was said matter-of-factly, as she was just trying to put pieces together the way kids do) I, myself, felt a shock at the declaration and was unprepared both by my reaction and how to proceed in the discussion.

So instead of showing my discomfort or handling it inadequately, I pointed under a chair and said, “Oh, look! Is that bit of tinsel left over from Christmas?”

OK, I made up the tinsel part. But I did use the Shiny Things tactic because is tends to be as effective as it is sneaky.

As my readers pointed out, the conversation did need to be gotten back to. So during a relaxed time together yesterday, I broached it anew.

But this time, I was guided by the collective wisdom of those of you who kindly stopped to leave your insights.


Tessa is breathless, taking a break after dancing for the umpteenth time to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in our living room. I’ve been masquerading as the entire audience at Radio City Music Hall.

“Tessa, do you remember the other day when you asked about the word bastard?”


“I’m wondering how you heard it used.”

“A 6th grade boy yelled it at a guy who stole a basketball from him.”

“Oh. So what do you think he meant by that?”

“That he was being mean.”

“Yeah, that he was being a jerk, right? That’s usually what people mean when they use that word. It’s kind of like the male version of bitch. And you know that both words are meant to hurt and are very disrespectful and very inappropriate.”

[And that mommy only uses them when stupid people in stupid BMWs cut in front of her when their lane ends, even though they had plenty of chance to merge sanely way back there and not come thisclose to hitting mommy’s car in a stupid game of chicken. But I digress.]

Dramatic: “I know that, Mommmmmm.”

“And you also know that bastard can mean someone who was born to parents who weren’t married, right?”

“Yeah, like Crystal and Joe weren’t married when I was born.”

“That’s true. You know, I always thought it was crazy to have that word be about a kid — even a baby — when the baby really didn’t do anything except be born.”

“Mom. It’s not like they’re saying the baby is a jerk.”

“Of course not. No baby is a jerk. But in the olden days when unmarried people were not allowed to live together, it was a rude word that described a child born to them.”

“That’s so not fair to the baby!”

“Exactly. Sometimes a word says more about the person who uses it than about the person it’s about.”

“I know, Mom. You’re telling me not to call people names, right?”

[Unless they are really, really stupid drivers.]

“You’re so smart. Hey, another thing. The other day you wondered if you were a bastard. What do you think?”

“Wellll…I kinda am because of Crystal and Joe. But I’m kinda not because of you and Dad.” (pause) “But I definitely am not a jerk.”

“Most of the time (smiling).”

“Mo-o-o-om (smiling back).”

“These days, we don’t talk bad about children for anything that’s really about their parents. So no, I cannot think of any way that anyone would consider you a bastard.”

“OK. Mom. Wanna watch me dance again?”

Adoption: A Tough Question from my Daughter

I’m interested in what parents and non-parents have to say and particularly what helpful advice adoptees may have to offer.

What would/did you do?

Our conversation started when Tessa, 9, asked me what bitch means and if it’s a bad word. We’ve had this talk before. I told her  that the dictionary meaning is a female dog but that some people have also made it into a hurtful word meant to show extreme disrespect. If the word is used as a weapon, then yes, it is a bad word.

I was ready for all that. But not for the next part.

“Mommy, what does bastard mean? Is it a bad word?”

Bitch was easy. Except for, perhaps, people with extreme allergies or hatred of dogs, its denotation is uncharged. But bastard is different. Its dictionary meaning is, itself, a highly charged slur against adopted people.

How would/did you respond? Given the luxury of contemplation and preparation, what is your best response?

I distracted with something shiny. So I’ll be taking your advice into consideration when the conversation comes up again.

Which it inevitably will.

What Does “Real” Mean: Adoption Talk with My Daughter

We were thrilled 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.”

real vs fake in adoption

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.


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