I remember the first time I was asked “Who is the real mom” at a party. My newly placed, pre-adopted children were looking up at me with their big brown eyes. A partygoer I didn’t know asked this heart-stopping question. I felt my palms begin to sweat as I knew answering this would impact my children. My children needed me, their mother, to show my attachment and love. I wish I had known how much this question would impact our lives over the years. I simply responded, “I am their mother!” I saw my daughter smile and my son shrug his shoulders. The partygoer then replied, “you know what I mean” and whispered, “their birth mother, their real mother.” I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have some dark thoughts of what I wanted to say to this stranger but I remember my littles were watching me. I looked at her and responded, “I’m their mother.” I then took my children’s hands and walked away. 

Later that evening, long after they were tucked into their beds. I pondered this question. I felt like their mother but I couldn’t ignore that they had a birth mother and foster mothers. These women had impacted my children in positive and negative ways. There was not just a simple answer to the question as I could see it. Everyone has a role to play in a child’s development. That said, I am the parent, I’m the mother that promised to raise them and love them. I had so many questions floating in my mind as to how my children felt when this stranger asked me, “Who is the real mom?”. I tried to bring it up but they were not ready. I wasn’t sure I was ready for their answer either as I was just becoming used to being a mom. 

Throughout their younger years when the question came from strangers, we would use humor to address it. Sometimes we would simply ignore them. There was one incident when an older woman was very pushy about my daughter’s appearance. My daughter is of mixed race. Her birth father is caucasian and her birth mother is black. She has beautiful brown skin, dark brown eyes, and black curly hair. I, on the other hand, have pale or as my daughter often jokes transparent skin, blondish hair, and green eyes. This person insisted that we give an answer to where my daughter got her beautiful features and insisted it must be from her father. My daughter proudly responded, “It’s from my mother” and the woman then asked, “Oh, I thought she was your mother” pointing at me. My daughter added, she is, and then we walked away. We both broke out into laughter as the woman was left looking very confused. I asked her later that day why she had said what she had said and she responded, “Mom, that woman was rude and out of place” and I couldn’t agree more. 

How Can These Questions Impact Your Children?

It wasn’t until my daughter became a teenager that she was able to communicate how this statement impacted her. We were driving in the car and she asked me if I felt like her mother. I answered quickly and lovingly saying, “of course, I love you, and I am your mother.” I then looked in the rearview mirror and saw the tears in her eyes. I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I know you feel like it but why do people ask us if you are my mother, it makes me feel different.” I felt that I needed to apologize for all the ignorance in the world. I validated her statement and she said she felt better. As I saw the pain on her face, my heart broke for her. All I wanted was to make her feel safe and loved. 

Every child handles questions like this differently. My oldest child explained to me that he has not questioned me being his mother. He added that he remembers his biological parents and loves them. He expressed that he loves me the most as I have shown up for him throughout his life. He added that he never felt less for being adopted. When I asked him about statements like, “Who is the real mother” he laughed and said, “people just don’t get it.” I agree, most people experience their own family and they only see family as what is in front of them. It is hard for people to see the complexity adoption brings while building a family. There is a strength that can be shared from mother to her children around the trials and tribulations of attachment. 

Friends, Relatives, and Uncomfortable Questions 

Strangers are one thing but I found it harder to deal with friends and relatives. It can sometimes seem that because you have a more intimate relationship they feel there are no boundaries. I was asked all the time about my children’s adoption story when my children were present. They asked me all types of uncomfortable questions even if I explained that I was their mother. I would even joke that a court of law agreed that I was their mother when they would press for more information. I found that I had to set boundaries around my children and their story. This didn’t always sit well with some. I knew the ultimate job as a mom was to put my children first. So if that meant toxic people needed to go well then, goodbye. This also made me passionate about teaching others in the community about positive adoption language.

People are usually very interested in the sense of reality experienced within the adoption community. So many want to know the stories of our children. Many want there to be a tragedy to triumph story that allows them to see adoption as a separate, noble entity. There were so many times people would say, “I couldn’t do what you do”. This would tug at all the insecurities throughout the years. My reality was and is that I’m just being the best mom to my children. My children wanted and needed a family. They needed unconditional love and consistency. I had all of this to give them and more.

I found that at times I had to be blunt and ask the person how they would feel if they were questioned about being their children’s mother. Some would apologize others would claim no one would because they birthed them. I would challenge them and add, “Why should my children not be allowed to feel as secure as your children just because they were adopted? My children did not ask to experience adoption.” I would explain how hurtful and ignorant their statements of reality were and how it impacts my attachment to my children. I would insist that when talking to me or my children that there would be no uncomfortable questions related to adoption. 

Acknowledging Relationships and Answering Questions

My children and I have an open adoption and we see the biological family monthly. This has taught us to be careful about how we define roles. My children need me to understand that there is a unique attachment they have with their birth parents and I cannot simply interject my personal beliefs into that relationship. I know I’m their mother but watching them with their biological family brings my insecurities to the forefront. I would say it lessens with each passing year but it’s still present. Something that works for me is acknowledging and allowing myself to feel what I need to feel. It took me multiple years and many hours of therapy to understand that regardless of what I’m experiencing with my children I am their mother. 

Over the years my children themselves have questioned who their real mom is. There were many questions about their adoption and why I chose adoption. Naturally, this has been hard but I felt it was important to be honest with them. This was my story about them and I had to remind myself frequently they had their own stories and experiences. I made sure to actively listen to their questions, fears, and feelings. At times this was hard because sometimes it meant that I was hearing their insecurities around our attachment. Their grief for their biological parents was ever-present and needed to be acknowledged. Also, the trauma they had experienced related to moving around in the foster care system and losing connections was prominent. It is important to recognize when things may be bigger than what you perceive or can handle on your own as a family. We have had to have mental health therapists assist in some of these larger conversations.

My heart still skips a beat when I hear one of my children call out “mom”. I remember my mother saying, “If I hear mom one more time I’m changing my name.” Well, I never get sick of it. Even now when my children are in their teenage years and “mom” comes with eye rolls and requests I can’t help but think all that has gone into developing this mother/child relationship. I’m their mother, I’m in the trenches. I get to experience all the highs and lows of parenting. I celebrate their wins and pick up the pieces of their hardships. I take care of their physical needs

and mental health concerns. I provide them with life experiences and making memories. I also have to tell them when their choices don’t align with rules or expectations. I care for them when they are sick, fix their injuries, and kiss their pain away when I can. I allow them the room to define themself and assist them in finding their future. I help them navigate this crazy world but also allow them to take risks. I am the definition of their mother and no one can take that from me. 

Final Tips

There will be many times when questions such as, “Who is the real mom?” will come to play in your journey. My advice is to take the higher road. There were so many times I wanted to take the bait and yell, “I’m their mother”, but what would that do. Most only learn from their own experience. I try to educate as many people as possible on how to properly talk to my family and others in the adoption community.

The first thing I do when I get such a statement is remain calm. In my experience, it happened so many times in front of my children. This world can be cruel at times and showing our children how to respectfully disagree with someone will go further than anger.

The second thing to do is to make sure I’m being direct without being hurtful. It doesn’t help to go to war for your belief, as it often shuts down open communication. You can simply say, “ I am their mother”, without having to defend yourself. I fell into the trap so many times when I was new to the adoption journey. It takes two or more to argue and if one simply stops there is nothing to continue.

The third suggestion is to set boundaries. So many people in your life will feel that they are helping without realizing they are hurting your family. If the person doesn’t get it and continues to ask these types of questions it’s okay to limit your contact. This may be with people you are very intimate with but your children come first. It is crucial for your children (especially during attachment) to see that they don’t have to be anything other than who they are and what they are experiencing. This may be one of the hardest things to do but in the end, it will teach your children self-worth. When there is someone who you feel needs to stay in your life it is okay to mirror stricter boundaries as this will help your children handle different or difficult relationships in their future.

My last suggestion is to allow an open conversation with your children as they will help you set the pace. You are their mother, they also have had experiences with their biological parents and others in a mothering role. Whatever feels right in your relationship with your child will lead to the best attachment.

Heather Pietras-Gladu has over 20 years in the human services and social worker community. The need for education around adoption and trauma was evident when she worked as a social worker for the Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts. She would use this passion in a most intimate way when she adopted her 3 children from foster care. As long as there is a continued need for education with humor and truth she will continue to be one of the biggest advocates within the adoption community.