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 and their biological parents.
“Parents have to think about how they communicate and what kind of environment they are establishing,” says Nicole M. Callahan, National Council for Adoption. Finding the right terminology can be tricky, adds Angela Tucker, The Adopted Life. “Many terms evoke strong emotions, are used incorrectly and aren’t always completely thought through.”
How You Refer to Biological Parents May Depend on Your Circumstances
The terminology you choose often depends on whether or not you have contact with the biological mother – open adoption vs. closed adoption.
With an open adoption, you and your child are in contact with the biological parent(s) from the very beginning. In this situation, it is important to establish guidelines or boundaries. It is important to sit down and have an honest conversation with your child’s biological mother and discuss terminology – what they prefer, what you prefer, etc. In the end, you should be able to compromise.
It is also important to realize that the situation will grow and develop along with the child. What may be an age-appropriate way to refer to the biological mother when the child is two, is going to be a bit different from how you refer to the biological mother when the child is a bit older.
Even if you do not have contact with the biological parents, there comes a time in every adopted child’s life when they want to know more about where they come from. It’s only natural for adopted children to wonder about their birth families. “It’s a dark hole in every adopted kid’s heart that needs to be filled with some sunshine,” writes Ann Brenoff, The Huffington Post. How adoptive parents handle these conversations is incredibly important.
One way to help normalize adoption and make the conversation less daunting, is to start these discussions early, when the child is still pretty young. “Parents have to be proactive, intentional truth tellers,” says Jayne Schooler, author and adoption advocate. “Parents have to think about how they communicate and what kind of environment they are establishing.”
Common Names for Biological Parents
When referring to the child’s biological parents, we suggest using Positive Adoption Language (also referred to as “Respectful Adoption Language”), the preferred language that is used by Adoption Makes Family. This type of language is gentle and values all parties in the adoption process equally. “Positive adoption vocabulary helps to ensure that adoption is viewed as a wonderful way to build families,” says Tucker.
In positive adoption language, the preferred terminology is Birth Parents, Birth Mother or Birth Father. “The word birth-parent is so inculcated within the adoption field, and thus my vernacular,” says Tucker. The term was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s with the help of adoptive mother and author Pearl S. Buck and researcher Marietta Spencer.
Other common terms for biological parents include:
- First Mom: “First mother is diction commonly preferred by women who object to birth mother,” says Gretchen Sisson, All-Options. Beth Hall, the founder of PACT, adds “the use of the term first-mom implies that the biological mother is more than simply a genetic connection to the adoptee.”
- Natural Mom: 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 Mom: “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.
In the end, there is no one right answer. It is important to find what works best for YOU and YOUR unique situation.
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. If you would like our advice or just need to talk, please give us a call at any time. Adoption Makes Family was founded to meet the needs of birth parents and adoptive parents in a manner that is sensitive, compassionate, and personal.
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- 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.
- Callahan, Nicole M. “Adoption Advocate.” Dec. 2011.
- Davenport, Dawn. “What Does Your Child Call Her Birth Mother?” Creating a Family, 1 Nov. 2014, creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/child-call-birth-mother/.
- 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/.
- 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/.
- 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/.
- “Talking to Your Child About His or Her Birth Parents.” American Adoptions, www.americanadoptions.com/adopt/talking_about_your_childs_birth_parents.