Category Archives: Adoption language

My Son Speaks Adoption Language at School

“Your mom doesn’t look like you at ALL,” said the second-grader to my son.

From my perch on a chair much too small for my bottom, I looked at the girl’s desk to find out her name, written in teacher-tidy print. Joy.

“That’s ’cause she aDOPTED me,” Reed told his classmate across the table.

And that’s how Take-Your-Parent-to-School day began.

son speaks adoption language

Now I knew in the abstract, that school presents new challenges for adoptees to navigate. I just didn’t know, really know, that such challenges would be presented to my children.

It was over before I even saw it coming. I was secretly pleased at my son’s choice of words. Did you notice he didn’t say, “That’s ’cause I’m adopted”? He said, “That’s ’cause she adopted me.”

It’s a subtle difference. I have always hoped that my children would see adoption as a word to describe what their parents DID rather than who they WERE. Verb versus adjective. Not self-definition.

But is that a distinction that we adoptive parents cling to, shoe-horning space between the two phrases just to make us feel like we’re doing something right by using sensitive and sensible language?

Or, as some adoptees say, does it matter not a whit? Tomayto/tomahto, is adopted/was adopted?


“Why do you think Joy said that?” I whispered to Reed later as the class walked single-file to Library.

“I dunno,” he shrugged. “Maybe because your hair is darker than mine.”

“What do you think of that?” I probed.

“I think people have different hair.”

We arrived at the library and that was that.

Precision with words

Tessa and Reed are on the road to becoming literate. I try to make sure that the reading material that comes within range of their eyeballs is suitable, but I can’t control all the words in the world.

You would think street signs would be innocuous, but think again.

Here are just a few of the signs we see as I drive them between home and school:

I have written about this before. But it comes up again this time of year when churches and schools and TV news programs ask us to “adopt” a family during the holidays, which typically means to give them gloves and coats and toys and maybe even some meals.

Shouldn’t we say what we mean, write what we mean?

Adoption is forever. It’s permanent. If we’re talking about taking care of a family’s needs for a month or even a year, or of picking up litter on a street for a year or two, why can’t we more appropriately use the word, “sponsor”?

“Sponsor-A-Street” and “Sponsor-A-Trail” and “Sponsor-A-Family” are more accurate phrases.

And they don’t diminish the experience of forever families.

What do you think?

Prefixing Mothers

There is no consensus about ethnic titles. Is “African-American” an inclusive term, with the emphasis on “American”? Does “Mexican-American” create a divide just by using the “Mexican” prefix?

There is no consensus about adoption titles, either. Is the woman who gives birth but doesn’t parent a “birth mother”? A biological mother? Just a mother? Or is there some better term?

There is no definitive answer that ruffles no feathers. But let’s explore some commonly used titles.

  • Birth Parents: Not accurate for a father — he doesn’t give birth. Too limited for many mothers — they contribute much more than labor and delivery. There’s prenatal care, and a loving, painful decision to place a child. Still, it is an understood and widely used term, not heinous to most first parents I hear from, and I occasionally use it to be understood.
  • Biological Mother: limits my children’s first parents’ role to that of DNA providers. In fact, Crystal and Michele have much more significance than that to us. They made decisions during and after their pregnancies that show they are much more than egg donors. Just too clinical.
  • Natural Parents: could imply that adoptive mothers are the opposite — unnatural mothers. Possibly an emotionally charged term, and could make it difficult for the child who wants to claim both his mothers.
  • Real Mom: so who changed all those diapers and woke up in the middle of all those nights to sooth — Fake Mom?

I like first parent. It is clear. It honors the people who gave my children life. It does nothing to diminish my role in their lives — I’m their Mom. And I don’t believe it implies that I am second. Rather, it denotes that I am last. Roger may not have been my first love, but he was my last. Last is good.

No matter what your intentions, never abbreviate BM for birth mother. No one likes to be equated with excrement, no matter how innocent the intentions. Instead, if you are limited on keystrokes: bmom or bdad, fmom or fdad.

Please note that these terms are accurate only when referring to parents who have relinquished. Prior to relinquishment, a pregnant woman is simply an expectant mother (no matter what your agency tells you). Use of the term birth mother — even when prefixed with the word prospective — to describe a pregnant woman who might choose adoption is considered coercive. It’ s not until she legally surrenders her role as parent that she should have any prefixes attached to her title at all.

Excerpted from The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption.


Lori Holden's book coverLori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.