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How to Talk About Birth Parents

Mother and son snuggle close and look at a digital camera.There comes a time in every adopted child’s life when they want to know more about where they came from – specifically about their biological or birth parents. “It is natural that they should want to know about them, who they are, where they are, why they surrendered them,” writes Ann Brenoff, The Huffington Post. How adoptive families handle these questions is very important.

“For many adoptive parents, it is easy to talk about their first meeting with their child, the first day they brought her home,” says Nicole M. Callahan, National Council for Adoption. “But the questions that adopted children have do not end—and may not necessarily even begin—with the day their adoptive parents brought them home. Some children may have endless questions about their birth parents and birth families.” 

Talking to Your Child About Their Birth Parents

It’s only natural for adopted children to wonder about their birth families.  “Parents have to think about how they communicate and what kind of environment they are establishing,” says Callahan.

Be Reassuring & Open

It is also important to “reassure your child that her adoption was because of a decision that had nothing to do with her as a person, and everything to do with her birth parents’ lives, concerns, abilities, etc.,” says Dr. Kathleen L. Whitten, Ph.D., author, developmental psychologist, and lecturer at Georgia State University.

It is also important to establish an open and honest dialogue around adoption. “Adopted children will ask the questions about adoption that they feel they have permission to ask,” says Jayne Schooler, author and adoption advocate. “Parents have to think about how they communicate and what kind of environment they are establishing.” It is important to make your child feel comfortable opening up and asking lots of questions about adoption, or anything for that matter.

Start the Conversation Early

“Parents have to be proactive, intentional truth tellers,” says Schooler. Start the conversation early and allow it to grow with the child. This will make things significantly less stressful for you, and will help normalize adoption for your child. 

“It’s important to keep in mind that adoption is not abnormal, nor should discussions about it be stressful for adoptive parents,” says Dr. Whitten.

Filling in the Blanks

As adoptive parents, you might not know all the facts, especially in a closed adoption. “As there are many different levels of openness in adoption, there is also great variety in the amount of information that may be known about the birth parents,” writes Callahan. So, how do you fill in the blanks for your child when you don’t have all the information?

“If less is known about the birth parents or how the adoption came about, parents can explain some of the reasons why birth parents place their children for adoption,” says Dr. Betsy Vonk, Ph.D., an adoptive mother and a professor of social work and director of the MSW program at the University of Georgia. “They can tell their children that it is usually a very hard decision to make, but that they don’t know exactly why their birth parents made that decision.”

How You Refer to Biological Parents

How you speak is just as important as what you say. This is perhaps never more true than when speaking with a child about adoption. This is why Positive Adoption Language, first created in 1979, is the preferred language used by Adoption Makes Family. Positive Adoption Language encourages respect for the emotions of all parties during the adoption process.

“Positive adoption vocabulary helps to ensure that adoption is viewed as a wonderful way to build families,” says Angela Tucker, The Adopted Life. However, “adoption terminology can be tricky – many terms evoke strong emotions, are used incorrectly and aren’t always completely thought through.”

  • Birth Mother: In Positive Adoption Language, the prefered term for the biological mother is the “birth mother.” This indicates the role of the birth mother as the individual who gave birth, which is an integral part of the adoption process. Terms like “first mother” and “natural mother” insinuated that the adoptive mother is “second” or “unnatural.”
  • First Mother: “First mother is diction commonly preferred by women who object to birth mother,” says Gretchen Sisson, All-Options. Beth Hall, the founder of PACT, says “the use of the term first-mom implies that the biological mother is more than simply a genetic connection to the adoptee.” 
  • Natural Mother: Natural mother is the preferred term according to “Honest Adoption Language” (HAL), which was developed in 1993 by researcher Susan Wells. This was done in response to “Positive Adoption Language” to better reflect the experiences of women who surrender their children for adoption.
  • Tummy Mother: “Tummy Mom” is a popular term to describe adoptive parents, especially when small children are involved. This term tends to be replaced with one of the above three options as children grow and gain a better understanding of adoption and the world around them. 

At the end of the day, the term you use is entirely up to you, and heavily dependent on your unique situation. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong answer. You should choose a term you are comfortable with and, if you have an open adoption and a good relationship with the biological parents, it can be nice to get their input as well.

If you have an open adoption, just sit down and have an honest conversation with your child’s biological parents and discuss terminology – what they prefer, what you prefer, etc. In the end, you should be able to compromise. 

Need Someone to Talk to? 

Adoption Makes Family is here to help! We are a non-profit (501-C3) licensed adoption agency based in Maryland. Our adoption counselors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your convenience. Adoption Makes Family was founded to meet the needs of birth parents and adoptive parents in a manner that is sensitive, compassionate, and personal. If you would like our advice or just need to talk, please give us a call at any time.

24-Hour Hotline 410-683-2100

If you have any questions, you can contact us by phone at 410-683-2100, by e-mail at dr.kirschner@adoptionmakesfamily.org or use our online contact form.

Sources

  1. Brenoff, Ann. “8 Things Adoptive Parents Should Never, Ever Do.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 3 Nov. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/ann-brenoff/7-things-adoptive-parents-should-never-ever-do_b_6043650.html.
  2. Callahan, Nicole M. “Adoption Advocate.” Dec. 2011.
  3. Davenport, Dawn. “What Does Your Child Call Her Birth Mother?” Creating a Family, 1 Nov. 2014, creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/child-call-birth-mother/.
  4. Davenport, Dawn. “What’s in a Name? Birth Mother? First Mother? Real Mother?” Creating a Family, 26 Apr. 2015, creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/whats-birth-mother-mother/.
  5. Princeton, Jessie. When You Find Out My Son Is Adopted, Please Dont Refer To His Birth Parent As His “Real Mom”. Thought Catalog, 15 Feb. 2015, thoughtcatalog.com/jessie-princeton/2015/02/when-you-find-out-my-son-is-adopted-please-dont-refer-to-his-birth-parent-as-his-real-mom/.
  6. Sisson, Gretchen. “What do we mean when we say “birth mother”?” All-Options, 28 Nov. 2012, www.all-options.org/what-do-we-mean-when-we-say-birth-mother/.
  7. “Talking to Your Child About His or Her Birth Parents.” American Adoptions, www.americanadoptions.com/adopt/talking_about_your_childs_birth_parents.
  8. http://www.theadoptedlife.com/angelablog/2017/4/19/birth-mother-vs-first-mother-the-shift-in-adoption-terminology
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