I stood in the coffee shop at the checkout, stunned. My three little girls were standing beside me. A seemingly kind woman had just complimented my middle daughter on her enviable strawberry blonde, corkscrew curl hair. My daughters are beautiful; I know this. People tell us all the time. I was unprepared for the next part of the conversation. “Where did you get that hair from? Not your Mama,” the lady inquired of my 6-year-old. “I don’t know,” my confused daughter looked to me for help. “She’s adopted. We don’t know who she got her looks from.”

Hoping this diffused the situation, I paid the cashier for the drinks and looked around for a table. “Who’s her real mom then?” I turned, looked the stranger in the eye, and said, “I am,” then hurried to find a table. Usually, people don’t persist after that; however, this woman kept going. “No, her real mom. You know, the one who gave birth to her.”  I gritted my teeth. My kids didn’t really understand enough of what was going on to be hurt at this point, so I tried to keep it under control. “Oh, you mean her birth mother. We don’t know. We’re having a girls’ day out, and—oh look, there are our drinks. Thank you. Have a nice day.” And I proceeded to ignore her. 

I get it. My kids are gorgeous. I’m not. I understand the confusion. Furthermore, I understand why the woman asked the question the way she did. Before I had kids, I had asked a friend who had adopted from foster care something about her kids “real mom,” and she gently informed me the term was “biological parent” and that she is the real mom because she is the mom who takes care of them and provides for their needs and wants. I did mean biological mom. I hadn’t meant it as a slight; I just didn’t know better at the time. You know the saying: Know better, do better.  I know better now, so I’ll help you understand. 

Insulting to Adoptive Parents

Why is “Real Mom” Not okay to say? There are several reasons. The first is that it is insulting to the very real people pouring out their lives for a child. I’m not an imaginary person. I am just as real as my kids’ biological mother is. Poke me, and I’ll bleed, pinch me, I’ll squeal and all that. So every mom, in that sense, is a real mom. 

It’s also not okay because it makes one or the other more than or less than. If she’s the “real mom,” what am I? The fake mom? “Just” the adopted mom? Nothing? I don’t know in this scenario. 

Also, as an aside, it is completely inappropriate to approach a stranger, tell her that her kid is cute, and proceed to ask intrusive questions. It isn’t okay. It is embarrassing to the kids, it is embarrassing to the mom, and it is just bad interpersonal skills. I wouldn’t dream of walking up to a stranger and telling them I like their hair then asking about their parentage. Why do people feel like that sort of thing is okay to do to children? I digress. 

I can feel your eye roll from here. This isn’t another one of those “cancel culture” things. This isn’t an “It hurts my feelings, so I need a safe space” thing (though we could have a whole conversation about why you’re part of the problem if you take issue with being kind to other people and their needs/beliefs/identities. I don’t intend to go there today, but I could.). This has nothing to do with me being the “real mom” versus the “adoptive mom.”  To my kids, I’m just Mom. Or, if I’ve closed my bedroom door, so they don’t interrupt my shower, I’m “Maaammaaaaaaaa! Mama! Mooooooommmmmy!” 

Confusing to Adoptive Children

At any rate, it doesn’t matter to me if you want to be ignorant of what pain your words might cause me. However, I do have a huge issue with someone making my babies feel less than. Why is “real mom” not okay to say? The kids. You are putting confusion about my role and my love for them into their minds when it wasn’t there before. You’re causing my anxiety-ridden, attachment-difficulty prone daughter to think maybe what we have isn’t real.  Because many children see things in black and white/right and wrong, it can be confusing to hear another adult—an authority figure who knows stuff—talking about their “real mom” being someone else. It calls their reality into question, and that is not okay.  

So yes, I know what you mean when you say “real mom.” As I said before, I’ve made that mistake, and I am so thankful my friend had the grace with me to accept my apology and teach me differently. I understand that you’re curious why my adorable daughter has amazing hair and pale white skin dotted with freckles. I understand it even further when you see us standing together as a family unit, all sorts of mismatched. I know you think I must have a lot of baby daddies if these kids are biologically mine. My husband has black hair, tan skin, and hazel eyes. I have brown hair, peach skin, and green eyes. While our facial expressions are often similar (learned behavior vs. genetic behavior), our sense of humor is wholesale potty-humor driven and totally alike, and our brains are all wired slightly askew, with ADHD being a primary diagnosis for most of us, we are not biologically the same. Add in the fact that there are seven of us total; we tend to cause a scene when we are out together. I’m aware of why you look at us wide-eyed and a little scared. I wake up that way, so I get it. However, I need you to stop. I don’t want my kids to grow up confused about how much I love them.

Better Phrases to Say In Place of “Real Mom” 

The expression “You didn’t grow under my heart but in it” is so cliché now in the adoption world that I hesitate to use it, but it is true. These kids couldn’t be more mine if I birthed them. They are with me because other parents, biological parents, didn’t care for them the way they needed. That is their story to tell if they want to someday but today is not that day. Tomorrow isn’t looking great either. 

So, what can you say when you’re talking with a mom whose kids don’t look like her? What might be a good substitute for “real mom”?  Here are a few to choose from:

  • None
  • Of
  • Your
  • Business 

Oh, I can hear the metaphorical pearl-clutching from here. I’m so rude. I mean, yeah. Kinda. But here is the thing. Don’t ask strangers or near-strangers about their children’s biological heritage. It is barely something I am comfortable sharing with very close friends. Honestly, I don’t know much about two of my girls’ biological parents because they came to us from other foster placements, not biological parents. And while I had the “pleasure” of meeting my other kids’ biological parents, I doubt you know them, and if you do, I probably don’t want you around my kids to start with.

If you are a medical professional and need to ask intimate questions, please try and correct yourself. Here are some alternatives to who is their “real mom.” 

  • Biological mom
  • Bio mom
  • Birth mom
  • Birth mother
  • Birth parent
  • Bios 

If you are asking a mother if the children with her are biologically hers and she says they are adopted, you can feel free to refer to her as “mom” with the kids in the room and “adoptive mom” when the kids aren’t. If you need to ask questions about the medical history of biological parents, say so. Don’t say, “I need to know who the real parents are.” Instead, say, “I need some information on her biological parents so we can determine if what is going on is genetic.” Or something like that. 

If you are one of the lucky unicorn families where the birth family and the adoptive family hang out, and the kids are blessed enough to have both biological mom and adoptive mom in their lives actively, follow their lead with naming if it is appropriate. Some people go with “Mama Julie” and “Mommy” or “Mommy Kate” and “Mama Kim.” If they have already worked something out that is inoffensive, you don’t need to worry about it. Kids are pretty good at sorting this sort of thing out. 

On the subject of kids, it is important to share with adopted children that they are adopted, what that means, and what a biological parent is, so they can correct or at least not feel bad when a peer asks about who their “real mom” is. 

Language is tricky and ever-evolving. Words you say may carry one meaning for you and an entirely different meaning for someone else. In the adoption world, there used to be a lot of secrecy. It used to be that one didn’t tell their child they were adopted. It used to be that birth mothers were sent away to give birth and returned home saying they “went away because they were ill.”  It is much less so now, but some people hang onto old ideas because grasping new ones is scary or too different. Don’t let this be one of those situations, or you risk alienating people and hurting children. 

Why is “real mom” not okay to say?  Honestly, because every parent in the adoptee’s life is their real parent. My kids’ biological parents are no less real or valid than I am. They gave birth to my kids, and even despite their grievous treatment of them, I can’t be wholly angry because, without them, my kids wouldn’t exist. Do I wish that? No, but if I could save my kids the grief they’ve suffered, I would. 

I am their real mom. I tuck them in at night, read bedtime stories, take them shopping for clothes, fix their meals every night. I sign report cards, take them to and from school, take them to the doctor when they are sick, celebrate their birthdays, and keep track of their ever-changing list of favorites. I’m flesh and blood, heart and soul. I am real, and I have the privilege to be here for these loves. I am as much their real mom as the women who birthed them. We both have important roles to play in their lives. We wept and laughed with these children. We’ve celebrated their accomplishments and had broken hearts when they failed. 

Why is “real mom” not okay to say? Would you like it if you went out with your kid and some stranger asked if your child was your “real child”? Would it make you feel strange to have to explain that the child you love, that you bore from your body but might not match you exactly, is, in fact, your biological child and not adopted?  Would you feel comforted if someone then told you, “It’s okay. He just doesn’t look very much like you, is all.” I can’t figure that would feel very nice. I can’t imagine that awkward feeling would go away until you sat with it for a while and felt hurt. There is a saying, “If you wouldn’t say it to a stranger, don’t say it to an adoptive parent.” Having had difficult conversations with absolute strangers about my kids, I can say with assurance that the rule should be “If you don’t want the question asked to you in the same way, don’t ask it.” As the kids on the playground used to say, “Mind your own beeswax.” 

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.