more on the “real” word, talking about adoption


I recently had a reminder of how powerful societal messages are in shaping our children’s perceptions when my 4-year-old daughter (through birth) asked where her 15-year-old brother’s “real mom” is.   As you might imagine, I was floored.   Here I am, an adoption educator and my own child asks this question about my other own child!!!!

Of course, I explained that his real mom is me!  That I’m right here and am his mama just like I am her mama.  He just came into our family in a different way.  I told her the story that I’ve told him for years and years…. I explained that a man and woman made him, that he grew in another woman’s uterus and that the man and woman weren’t able to take care of any babies.   But, God had a plan.  He knew that this little baby boy needed a family of his own and he knew that our family needed a little baby boy and so God helped us all come together and be a family.  Her question was answered and off she went!

In the future, I expect we’ll have other talks, just as her brother and I have had over the years and continue to have.  We talk about what it means to be a mom, a sister, a son, a father, a daughter, etc… and in 4-year-old language I explained that we define the words “parent”, “mom”, “dad”, “sister”, “brother” and “family” as verbs.   We describe “love” as actions, not just feelings and we describe “family” as actions and not just biological or legal relationships.

What struck me about all this is that Olivia has been getting strong messages at home that say all these things and yet she still equates “real mom” as the woman who gives birth.  Granted, births are easier to see.  Our neighbor recently had a baby.  Olivia is just fascinated with anatomy in general and has asked lots of questions about pregnancy, birth and the like.  And, granted, at this same age, my son had the misconception that all babies come from airplanes and that their moms and dads get on the airplanes and fly to the “baby store” named Russia if they want to have a baby.  (Don’t we wish it were that easy!!!)  When he was her age we were very involved in an adoption support group and he witnessed many new families be “born” in that way.

I believe that the “real family” title must be earned.  I also believe that a person can have more than one “real family”.  The word “real” should not be limited to birth parents, adoptive parents or even to those people currently parenting a child.

What is your definition of a “real family”?

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7 Responses to “more on the “real” word, talking about adoption”

  1. Andrea Says:

    Hi katie! You’re right – it’s most important how kids feel. My kids occasionally use the word real though, even though we never have (and they homeschool so they aren’t getting it from the outside often). They are not saying that our family isn’t real or is less-than. But they are noting the very real fact that they would, under normal circumstances, be raised by the person who gave birth to them. I guess I don’t find it a problem that they are aware that adoption isn’t the usual way a family is formed. The word doesn’t bother them – it’s more matter if fact, revering to the obvious.

    All this said, I don’t use the word real; both families are real. I do think that kids understand things way more than we give them credit for. Adoption is what is hard – being separated from your family. Stating that our adoptive family is real doesn’t change that.

    I don’t have both children born to me and adopted children though.

  2. Andrea Says:

    When people use the word real, I think they are trying to ask who was supposed to be raising that child. The “usual” mom, if there hadn’t been something that made the child separate from her. It doesn’t bother me.

    Here are 2 good blog posts about adoption questions and language.

    • Katie Prigel Sharp Says:

      Hi Andrea, thanks for the comment!

      To me, it’s not about whether it bothers me as the grown up, but instead, what message does it send our children. To me, it is the same as if they called my daughter who was born to our family our “real child” and our son our “adopted child”. They are both real and they both need me to be “real” to them, IMO. Hope what I’m trying to say is coming through–it’s been a long day! 🙂

  3. kelly starner Says:

    katie, I have just discovered this blog and I cannot wait to take some time to review these questions. I have often contemplated what a the word ‘real’ really means when we all know that ‘real’ in the realm of adoption and parenting can not be defined as genuine at all. The word real in societies view is often times a perception. When my daughters friends ask her ‘why did her real mother give her up’ I often struggle with the correct response to a question like that. She just replys, ‘some questions we don’t have an answer to.’

    • Katie Prigel Sharp Says:

      Hi Kelly, I’m glad you found us!

      The question, “Why did your real mother give you up?” is probably the most common question asked of adoptees and boy, isn’t it a loaded question????

      As my original post and Liv pointed out, some people have two “real” mothers. Some have just one–some may have even more than two! And sadly, some never have a “real” mother at all. This question really puts the adoptee in a position of having to clarify, define and distinguish “real mother”. For kids who are less thoughtful and whose parents may not be clear themselves or who aren’t talking about this, I think that the question itself has the potential to define “real mother” for them.

      And then there’s the whole “give you up”… along with the general intrusiveness of the question. I won’t even go there now!

      Kelly, I think your daughter’s response “some questions we don’t have an answer to” is a great one.

  4. Liv Says:

    So does this mean that you believe that a birthmom and birthdad and a child’s birthfamily are not “real”? This is what you seem to be saying, and I find this disturbing, especially on a site that is about adoption education!

    As an adoptee I believe that both my families are real. I think we need to stop limiting the concept of what is real and making adoptees feel that they must choose one family over another in their hearts. Both families can have a place in our hearts.

    I’d suggest listening to this talk on open adoption. Whether or not one is in an open adoption, I think it addresses the concept of “real” family in a very real way. 🙂

    • Katie Prigel Sharp Says:

      Hi Liv,

      I’m glad you asked for clarification. I am NOT saying that birth families cannot be “real”. Birthfamilies can most definitely be “real” just as adoptive families can be real. “Real families” are created in many ways–even by choice. Some of my nearest and dearest are not related to me by birth, marriage or adoption, but only because we’ve claimed each other as “family” and treat each other as family.

      My point is that “realness” is not about biology or a legal adoption. It’s about relationship, give and take and the verbs of “mothering”, “fathering” or “being a sister/brother/daughter/son”. Similarly, we all know of families via birth, adoption, marriage or whatever that have families members who aren’t fulfilling the title of “mom”, “dad” or other family member.

      Thanks for commenting! Hope I’ve made more sense this time around! 🙂



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