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Birth Mom Wants to Be Called Mommy & That’s Not OK with Me.

I'm Uncomfortable with Birth Mom's Request

Question: I am Mom to a toddler in an open adoption. The birth mom is in and out. I’m fine with her being here because our son needs to know his story.

The problem is what to call birth mom. Kayla wants to be called Mommy, but worry this will confuse my son. I’ve asked her not to refer to herself that way, but she still calls herself Mommy.

I’m annoyed that she keeps going against my wishes and frustrated that she’s trying to be the mom when she’s not even reliably showing up as a birth mom.

I’m conflicted. How can let Kayla know this isn’t okay with me?



Such a situation comes up time and again wherever adoptive parents gather, in person or online, as I witnessed recently. The “what to call birth mom” conundrum reveals at least three challenges.

  • There is a power dynamic. On one side are adoptive parents as gatekeepers. On the other side are birth parents who have much at stake but little real power (more on this).
  • An Either/Or mindset can impact an adoptive parent’s comfort level. Many fear it is a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. The more esteem a birth parent  is afforded, the less the adoptive parent gets (more on this). 
  • That same binary thinking leads parent to believe there are only two options: open or closed.  When faced with discomfort, the most appealing option is to constrict or completely close down (more on this).

Conventional Wisdom

Danielle sought advice from other adoptive moms. They told her:

  • that Kayla needs to be respectful of your wishes.
  • to have good boundaries. 
  • to let Kayla know you are the mom. If she doesn’t comply and back down, that’s on her.
  • to stress that Kayla’s request will confuse her son.
  • to teach your son to call Kayla what you want him to call her.
  • to stop sending pictures until Kayla follows your rules.
  • to cut off all contact. Good riddance if Kayla can’t follow the rules.
  • to get some therapy.

Adoptees with Insights for Adoptive Parents

Before I offer counter advice, I want to mention several of those who have influenced my own understanding adoptee perspectives. Here are 8 adoptees who coach and counsel adoptive parents. Consider learning from them as I have.

Echo Chambers

Often, when a group of like-minded people aim to support each other, those represented end up feeling more and more righteous, while those who are absent can become more and more denigrated. Danielle’s question had no checks and balances from adoptees or from birth/first parents to push back on the advice given.

If Danielle had asked me, which she didn’t, I would have offered what I’ve learned from listening to the adoptees listed above—and countless others—as well as from researching and co-authoring Adoption Unfiltered with Sara Easterly, (adoptee) and Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard (birth/first mom). The issue of what to call a birth mom is a super common one for adoptive moms, so let me offer ideas that are less about what to do/say, and more about how to approach the issue.

Counter View

1. "I'm fine with her being here."

Are you really? Is Kayla merely a means to an end for you—to one day deliver to your son his story? Get curious about what might take to see and value her as a whole person, as Kelsey shares in Adoption Unfiltered.

Consider what it would require of you to actually value her, knowing that (a) your son is likely to perceive your true feelings about her anyway, whatever those may be; and (b) that seeing and valuing her would help your son see and value himself?

2. "Mommy" will confuse my son.

Let’s give kids a little more credit. They can easily understand having two grandmothers or grandfathers. Why? Because we explain it to them over and over again as they are able to understand. And we are usually able to do so with very little emotional baggage.

But with adoption, parents may have some unresolved issues like grief, envy, or insecurity. The claim of title-confusion for the child often masks an underlying wound of the parent, of not being the only one to hold a cherished title.

The solution, then, lies not in the symptom of what to call birth mom, but in the underlying issue of finding secure footing in the role of adoptive mom.

3. She doesn't even show up reliably.

Adoptive parents can have so much judgment about things birth parents say and do (or don’t do). Kelsey helps us understand in her section called Birth Parents Unfiltered that there is always context. Visits are hard. Watching someone else raise your child is hard. While the hellos of a visit might be wonderful, the leavings of each one are hard.

People (including adoptive parents) don’t always make sensible decisions when battling so many hard things. The more adoptive parents can resolve and own our deepest and hardest feelings, the less judgmental and more compassionate we can be about birth parents. And, as Sara shares in our section on Healing and Hope, this is what our adoptees need from us.

Perhaps Kayla has spent her life being judged harshly by others. Do you want to feel like yet another person who sees her not measuring up? Or would you like to feel safe to her? As  you work through your own stuff, you are able to show up with less judgment, to feel safe to her, and to ally with her in easing each others’ hardness around it all.

Believe me, your son watching you do this for Kayla will signal that you will do the same for him when he’s a tween/teen who needs grace over judgment.

4. I am annoyed, frustrated, and conflicted.

Much of the advice other moms gave was for how to change someone else so that you can be okay. (Parenting with this thinking adds to our child’s burden, causing them to conclude that if we are not OK, they are responsible—more on this. Adoptees are especially susceptible to this misguided parenting strategy, as Sara illuminates in Adoption Unfiltered).

And consider this, Danielle. Even if you are successful in getting everyone to use the words that make you comfortable, you will still not feel comfortable…

…until you also deal with what lies underneath. Acknowledging your discomfort is a good first step that leads to more inner work (not just outer work of making others conform to our discomfort).

As your son grows in autonomy, your resistance to his word choice will be a signal about your own comfort with him having another mom integral to his existence. Your discomfort will eventually inform how comfortable he feels in sharing his innermost thoughts with you. You’re going to want to keep those channels as open as you can for the middle and high school years to increase the chances that your son will invite you in at the same time he’s individuating from you. Now is when you want to lay that groundwork by becoming and remaining approachable about things that cause you discomfort.

Much of the discomfort, especially for adoptive moms, is rooted in insecurity. People around us are always bringing up the “real” mom. But just because you’re not the only mom doesn’t mean you’re not real. You absolutely are (as is Kayla), and you are doing all the real things, day in and day out, that real moms do. But until you actually know deep down inside that you are real enough, you will continue to feel annoyed, frustrated, and conflicted.

Healing that is an inside job.

5. Find an adoption-nuanced therapist.

One piece of advice given was to get therapy, and I concur. “You need therapy” can feel like a weapon, but if you continue to find yourself in conflict about the adoption layer of parenting, a good therapist can help you find and tend to the unhealed parts within you that cause annoyance, frustration, and conflict.

Consider exploring with your therapist: What would it be like to hear your son call his other mom “Mommy” and have no conflicting feelings about it? How expansive and secure can you feel in your role as his mom? How much bandwidth can you cultivate within yourself to welcome Kayla as a respected member of your extended family—with healthy boundaries, just like with others?

(Note: Dr Chaitra offers this list of adoptees/therapists in most US states. See also the list of 8 therapists/coaches above.)

* 6. Is it possible to talk with each other?

Dr Joyce Maguire Pavao (listed above), who counsels adoptive moms and birth moms together and separately, offered this observation on my Facebook post:

Often the birth and adoptive moms have a talk about this. It is therapeutic to work out how each mom is thinking — that will be the undercurrent picked up by the child. This can be done with an adoption competent therapist, or on your own. My rule has always been that children can use whatever title is in their heart.
Again – being transparent is always enlightening.

Deeper Wisdom for Adoption's Power Holders

We adoptive parents must always wield the power we hold wisely and with intention and compassion. There is no easy and fast answer to resolving the emotions that made Danielle express herself in this question about who gets to be called Mommy.

As with all parenting, the more solid we can be within ourselves, the clearer our way to those answers. Using raw power to control others, including our children, leaves us—and them!—annoyed, frustrated, and conflicted.

But self-inquiry and a humble attempt to tend to our own wounds can lead to self-empowerment. When we have that, we often let go the need for power.

That’s the counterintuitive, deeper wisdom I’ve learned from listening to adoptees and birth/first parents over the years. I wish I’d known much of this sooner. I could have shown up more resolved with my own needs and better able to make space for my daughter’s and son’s.

Your Turn

Adoptees and birth/first parents, what advice or insight do you have for Danielle? Adoptive parents, what do you have to say about finding your way through similar issues?

Along these lines

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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4 Responses

  1. “Using raw power to control others, including our children, leaves us—and them!—annoyed, frustrated, and conflicted.” I know plenty of parents (not adoptive) who could use this advice, along with the nuances of everything else you’ve said here. You’re so wise. I learn so much from you!

  2. It has taken me so much time to come into my soft power and to trust it over my hard power. This is one of the many advantages of age, isn’t it? And of hanging out with aging/wising women like you 🙂

  3. Great advice, Lori. It is clear that it feels like a power struggle – letting go of the competition aspect can only help everyone involved. But it is very hard for anyone to do that.

    1. Exactly, A. I have come to understand that once you’re in a power struggle, you’ve already lost it. Prevention of getting into one seems like the place to focus our efforts.

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