I remember being about 14 years old, in the eighth grade, and staying the first night at a friend’s dad’s house. I point out that it was her dad’s home because her dad had remarried when she was very young. We were home alone with her stepmother when the following exchange occurred. We had been staying up pretty late and it was about time for bed. I’d say it was probably well past time for bed, around 11 p.m. I remember my friend’s stepmother coming down the stairs and my friend sighing an immediately annoyed sigh. Her stepmother very timidly came down and said, “Hey ladies, I think it’s time to wind down a little bit.” Without hesitation, my friend yelled at her and said, “You are not my real mom!” Her stepmother looked down in a defeated manner and bounded back up the steps. I sat in shock at the awkwardness of the situation but also at the rudeness of my friend. I was incredibly uncomfortable but knew exactly why my friend chose this phrase at that moment. It was not about this poor woman, but about my friend’s quest to get what she wanted and she did.
If I ever talked like that to my mother, my mom would have grounded me for my entire life. In general, if I were to ever talk like that to anyone, my mom would definitely not be happy. I sat for a long time trying to sort out the situation because my parents were together, and this situation made me uncomfortable. I didn’t really know the complexity of having someone being a parental role who wasn’t necessarily your biological parent but in a position of parental status. Now, being both a stepmother and an adoptive parent, these roles and this exact situation are much clearer and much more apparent as an issue of control rather than one of a child’s lack of love for their parent. While I have luckily not yet had to experience this, I know how to react with grace and empathy in this situation as it has very little to do with my role as a mother.
I have heard countless adoptive parents talk about the possibility of this situation happening; even before they have adopted or when their child is just an infant. For some reason, the idea of a child yelling, “You’re not my real parent!” is such an ingrained fear in many adoptive parents. It might be because we have seen that on TV or in movies. It might just be because it’s something that’s talked about so often. For whatever reason, the pain that we are anticipating from this is just so great. In reality, it is not said as often as we have built it up in our minds. Furthermore, when it is said, it is not said because a child is trying to state that they do not love us. It is most often said when a child knows that it is something they can say to push our buttons.
I remember when I was around 7 years old, my mom had grounded me for something. I don’t remember what it was, but it was probably something simple like not doing a chore. I was very rude to her when she did this, and she sent me to my room. I remember stewing in my room for a while and then coming back down the stairs. I, then, dramatically opened the door to the stairs and saw my mom sitting on the couch. As I opened the door, I thought of the first thing I could say that would get a reaction out of her. I yelled at her, “I thought you said you loved me but apparently you don’t!” and then I very dramatically slammed the door. Now, did I really think my mother didn’t love me in the situation because she punished me for not doing the chore? No. I knew that she loved me. However, my little 7-year-old self knew that the idea or the topic of “love” would be something that would cause a reaction. It would be something that would give me attention. I so desperately wanted to hurt her in the way that she hurt me. It wasn’t because I did not love her, and it was not because I did not think she loved me. It was because I was mad and did something in anger.
Children recognize and experience anger at a very real early age. Anger is not an emotion, but a reaction to emotions. When they are hurt or sad, they may lash out. When it comes to children who have been adopted, this may even come from a place of trauma or just a general idea of not feeling secure in their identity. It can also simply come from a place of just being a child and adoption not even being a factor in this. All of this comes down to the fact that they are using something that is a hot-button issue for you to gain a reaction and to hurt you in a way that they have felt you have hurt them. If it is a way that will get the results that they want or even if it’s not going to get the results but they think it might stir the pot a little bit, that’s what they will do. It is not about you, it is completely about them and their emotions.
Whether you are in a situation where you are an adoptive or a foster parent, the situation is never a fun one to broach. However, if you are in the situation of being the foster parent, this situation might be a little bit more serious than a general domestic adoption situation. This may come from a place of a child being upset that they have been removed from their home. What child would not be? I have seen cases where children come from homes of neglect or abuse, and they are still incredibly upset. It is not just about being removed from their parent but being removed from everything. They’re removed from the only environment that they’ve known. They are removed from their friends, their other family, and many times, even their school. Everything that they knew before is gone within minutes. It is taken from them by no fault of their own.
Missing their parents is also completely normal and to be expected. Even in neglect situations, these children will still likely have a connection with their parents. We should not discourage that but rather understand the trauma and the pain that they are likely experiencing and how real it is for them. When a child yells, “You are not my real mom!” at you, it is coming from a place of anger and fear. Out of all of this, we have to recognize that this is coming from a place of emotion. It is not about you. I don’t say that to be mean or to diminish the pain that this phrase gives you, but to have you take a step back and set your feelings aside so that you can address the feelings that your child is having at that moment. That is going to be the first step to tackling what is happening in the situation. When we recognize that this is not about us but about something that our child is going through, we will know better how to react in the situation and how to better help with compassion and love.
When tackling how to respond to “You’re not my real mom!” we simply have to take ourselves out of the equation. It’s not about you, it is about emotion. Taking ourselves out of the equation will help us to address that emotion. After a child has said this to you, take a step back and make sure that your reaction is not a grand one. I was recently watching a TV show and one of the mothers on the show handled a similar situation with her young son with complete grace. After a hard day with her son, he yelled at her and said, “I wish dad was here and not you!” He knew this was a hot button issue as his mom was in the process of divorcing his dad. The statement stung me as a viewer, and I waited with an open jaw, expecting her to blow up. She instead took a breath and calmly said to him something to the effect of, “I understand that today was a hard day for the both of us, and I understand that you miss your dad. However, I will not allow you to speak to me that way. It is okay to be upset and it is okay to show emotion, however, it is not okay to take it out on me. Go upstairs, brush your teeth, and get in bed, please. I love you.” I sat back amazed at her grace and her ability to diffuse this situation while still allowing her son to feel what he needed to at that moment.
This is exactly how we should handle situations where our child has said something to gain a reaction and to gain attention. When we handle these situations with grace, they will diffuse the pain of all involved much quicker. If you experience this situation, you can say something to your child like, “It is okay that you’re upset right now, but I need you to go take a breath and calm down so we can talk about this. I love you.” Doing this allows your child to have some time to calm down and think about what is really going on. It also allows you to recover from any pain that phrase might have caused and remove yourself from that situation. Make sure to tell yourself that it is not about you, and your role as a mother. It is about your child at that moment and how best to help them. Once you have had a chance to calm down, you can then address your child and try to figure out what the source of this anger is and how you can work on it together. You should also address that saying this is not okay, but that expressing their feelings calmly is always welcome.
Circling back to the idea of the dreaded phrase, “You’re not my real mom!” being a great fear of all non-biological parental mothers, we have the opportunity to make this issue not so much of a hot button for us. If our children see that it is not a phrase that will hurt us or cause a reaction, they will be much less likely to use it against us. It is vital to remember that the label of “mom” is just that. A label. The real difference will be made in the relationship you have with your child. I don’t care if my children refer to every woman in their life as Mom. At the end of the day, I am who they turn to when they are sick. I am who they turn to for comfort. I am who they turn to for the everyday “mom” responsibilities.
“You’re not my real mom!” is a phrase that would shock me but not one that would hurt as I nurtured the reality that it is not in fact about me. This situation would become about helping my child overcome the emotions that caused them to lash out in the first place. I want to help my children in any way that I can to understand their emotions and to engage them appropriately. If they have some sort of issue with me, I want them to be able to learn to express that without trying to hurt me or anyone else with whom they have an issue. It is your best tactic to simply be there for your child as their mom, just as any “real mom” would do.
Lita Jordan is a master of all things “home.” A work-from-home, stay-at-home, homeschooling mother of five. She has a BA in Youth Ministry from Spring Arbor University. She is married to the “other Michael Jordan” and lives on coffee and its unrealistic promises of productivity. Lita enjoys playing guitar and long trips to Target. Follow her on www.facebook.com/halfemptymom/.