What’s in a Name?

2 Aug

The more I learn about adoption, the more I’ve realized how important word selection is. Preferred terms can vary from one person to the next, but I thought it might be helpful to talk about the lingo in some detail.


Image found at friendsadoption.org

I remember overhearing a conversation a few years ago that really stayed with me (back when we were in the midst of IVF and trying to figure out what our next steps would be if that didn’t work out). A woman was telling a story about something that was going on with her family and she kept mentioning one of her grandchildren – or should I say, her adopted grandchild. Every time this particular grandchild was mentioned, it also came with the qualifier ‘adopted.’ I did not know this woman or the family, but it really bothered me how she referred to that grandchild since it did not seem relevant to the story. Adoption is an event that occurs at one point in time, but it isn’t something that goes away after that. The fact that our child joined this family through adoption will not be ignored or forgotten. However, once it is finalized, it is simply son, daughter, grandchild, family. There is really no need to place “adopted” before describing a child. Just like there is really no need to place “biological” beforehand either. (Note: if a distinction does need to made for any reason, those are the appropriate terms – adopted and bilogical. Biological should never be replaced with “own,” “real,” or “natural.”) This does not mean our child will not know their story of adoption, it just means that will not be the only thing that defines who they are.

There has been a lot of controversy over the preferred terminology for biological parents. There are many terms that have been used: biomom/dad/parent, birth mom/dad/parent, first mom/dad/parent, natural mom/dad/parent, real mom/dad/parent.  What is generally perceived as the most PC term is birth mom/dad/parent. There are some flaws with this term – technically, only the mom can give birth so where does that leave dad? It also implies that their only role in the child’s life is with the pregnancy/birth process, but with open (0r even semi-open) adoption the hope is that the relationship does not end there. Often this term is used even before the child is born. This does not sit comfortably with me. It suggests that this woman/man is committed to keeping the adoption plan for the child, that they cannot or should not change their mind. My preferred terminology here is expectant mom, but that title can’t really carry forward once the child is born. While using the term first mom is not inappropriate, it makes me second mom. That itself is not really my concern, but it can lead one to wonder will there be a third mom, or a fourth mom just like there is a first day of school, second day of school, etc. This would most likely be a bigger issue with a small child but I hope to use terms that make sense from the get go. Natural and real mom are probably the most uncomfortable descriptors for me. If one person is natural or real, does that make the other unnatural or unreal or fake? I feel bio mom describes the relationship without putting a limit on what that relationship can be and without antagonizing the adoptive parents relationship with the child. However, I think any term minimizes the biological parents involvement, at least in an open adoption, to some extent. I’d really like to think of her/him/them, as my child’s other mom/dad/parent. Not in a way that we share the same responsibilities but that we share the same love, the love for this child and the love for each other. In essence, they will be an extended part of our family, too! In the end, my plan is to ask the biological mom/dad what they want to be called. Just like my mom made it pretty clear she’s going to be Oma, not Grandma, the other mom of our future baby may have the perfect name already picked out!

You can find many lists of “positive adoption language” by googling that phrase so I’ll stop here for now. Adoption terminology is a difficult arena to navigate. Now that we’ve been in this world for awhile, we’re able to use these terms pretty easily, but we don’t expect everyone to know the right words to use all of the time. If you’re really interested in learning more, we have a few copies of the book Adoption is a Family Affair: What Relatives and Friends Must Know by Patricia Irwin Johnston and we will absolutely share. We’re always happy to answer questions, too! 🙂


One Response to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Paula Storck August 2, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

    Thank you! Please be sure to guide us as we journey with you!! Love, Paula/Mom

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