Who do Adoptees Consider their “Real” Family

Dawn Davenport


Who do Adoptees Consider to be their Real Family

Adoptive parents must listen to the voices of adult adoptees.

We recently had an interesting discussion on the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group on the offensiveness of using the word “real” in reference to adoption, as in:

  • “Is she your real daughter”
  • “Do you know anything about his real family”?

Mostly it was adoptive parents in the discussion and most were highly offended by the use of the term “real”. One adoptee in our group wanted to know what more adopted people thought, so she asked the following question to a group of adoptees.

Did it bother you when “real” was used instead of “biological” when people asked adoption questions when you were growing up and now as an adult.

I was thankful she asked the question. Adoptive parents and professionals must hear the voices of adoptees if we want to do right by our children. All decision in adoption should be made on what is in the best interest of the children, so it stands to reason that everyone in the adoption community benefits from listening to the voices and wisdom of adopted people. As always, adult adoptees do not speak with one voice. With her permission I will share the results (paraphrased for length and privacy):

  • My Aparents always used “real” when I was young in reference to my birth parents because it was an easier word for a child to understand than biological. I think the term birth parent is more popular now.
  • I hated the word “real” when growing up, especially kids my own age asking. My mom used the term birthmother whenever referring to my biological mother. Now that I’m grown up it’s less irritating, but still bugs me a bit.
  • The term “real” was used by my peers growing up, and it never bothered me. I understood what they meant.. They were doing the best they could. I would have hardly expected fellow students to know what were the PC terms to use.
  • The term “real” never made me feel “less than” or made me feel that Mom and Dad were any different than other moms and dads. I think that the honest and matter of fact way that adoption was explained to me helped.
  • I consider myself to have two “real” mothers. The dictionary has different definitions for “mother” which including giving birth to a child and also raising a child. One mother gave birth to me, the other mother raised me.
  • I have been told that I shouldn’t consider my birthmother to be one of my mothers and that I only have one mother. I personally believe it is my right to decide who my mothers/fathers are. No, my bmother didn’t raise me, but I also don’t think she went through life totally unaffected by the experience of having a child and never seeing her again.
  • I was bothered by biological more than anything. Man, I didn’t like that word then, and I don’t like it now.
  • Now I just use Mom and Mother and Dad and Father and people correct me to use “birth” and “biological”, and I ignore them. I’m 36, pretty sure I’m not confused about who is who these days.
  • I also consider myself to have 2 mothers. My b-mom is actually the person who told me that she isn’t my mother. According to her, the only mother I have is my adoptive mother. No one, not even my b-mom, has the right to tell me who I should or should not regard as my mother. If she doesn’t want to see me as her daughter, that’s her right. But, I have the right to label her in whatever way is best for me….
  • People don’t know what to say. I don’t care if someone wants to use the term “real” when referring to either my adoptive or b-families. And, besides, it’s difficult. Some adoptees believe that their adoptive parents are their real parents, and that’s the term they use. Other adoptees believe that their biological parents are their real parents, and that’s the term the use. I believe all of them are my real parents, but I don’t use that term.
  • Personally, I prefer biological parents. That’s what I’ve always used to be able to differentiate between the two sets. I cannot stand the phrase birth parents. But, I accept others’ word choices.
  • The term “real” didn’t bother me. Real parents is used when you’re a child, once you are older the word Bio parents is used. I feel its just child and adult terminology.
  • I don’t like being told by anyone else who’s my “real” family and who isn’t. It’s my family… it’s up to me to decide. And from where I’m sitting, my birth mother wasn’t a figment of my imagination. I didn’t imagine my adoptive mom, either. Both are real. Both are, by one definition or another, my mothers.
  • As for being bothered by the word “real” when I was a kid? Nah, I didn’t like the word, but I simply substituted “birth” or “adoptive” in its place and moved along. As an adult? I like it less… mostly because I tend to hear it used by people who are trying to define my family for me. But I mostly chalk it up to ignorance instead of malice, and try to explain how both sides of my family are equally real…
  • Yes, I was bothered if anyone said my a-parents weren’t my “real” parents, or my a-sister wasn’t my “real” sister. I’m bothered if anyone says members of my natural families aren’t “real” family, too. I chalk these kinds of mistakes up to ignorance.
  • There is genuine disagreement over the use of other terms. There are different people who are offended by the use of all the following: birth mother, bio-mother, natural mother, first mother. I’ve seen some insist that the only adequate term is just plain “mother.” That’s an understandable argument, but can be confusing in a discussion that involves both mothers. The disagreements are understandable but leave one in a bind as to what to say. I almost wish for the development of completely different terms for all involved.

One of my pet peeves is the assumption that all adopted people will think alike about any topic. Of course they don`t. This diversity means we need to listen to as many adoptees as possible.

Adoptees and adoptive parents: should we be offended by people using the term “real” to refer to kids born to a family vs. adopted into a family, or to refer to the biological family vs. the adopted family? Or is this discussion making a mountain out of a molehill?


Image credit: Sunciti _ Sundaram’s Images + Messages

28/05/2014 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 10 Comments

10 Responses to Who do Adoptees Consider their “Real” Family

  1. Avatar kym says:

    I agree, hearing from more adopted people regarding adoption issues would help everyone. Too often, however, adopted adults have been excluded from discussions or not invited as panel speakers. These have been policy makers, researchers, and other professionals in the child/family welfare arena who are also adopted. Many are recognized and well-known in their fields, they care deeply about these issues, and they have a wealth of experience. They are apt at communicating their knowledge and experience. Their exclusion is a disservice to many families, communities, and child advocates. Please help to explicitly denounce those who actively exclude or dismiss them.

    For example, the absolutely horribly proposed bill, CHIFF, adoption agencies and professionals were consulted, but organizations lead by adult adoptees were excluded. That is why there are so many gaping holes (moral, economic, and cultural) in their “expertise”. They could have conserved everyone’s efforts by including those most experienced before submitting this horrendous (and misleading) bill.

    And, perhaps you could ask your AP network, how do they feel about unsealing adopted adults’ OBC’s? How much do they support and fund efforts to unseal them across the nation? I understand the concern of many adoptive parents to seek reassurance of their existence as parents. But many adopted adults seek validation/ reassurance of THEIR existence as well, as human beings who were born! Adoptive parents chose to become parents. Adopted people didn’t choose to become adopted and to be denied their OBC’s.

    Interesting factoids:
    1) Adoptions don’t require sealing of OBC’s – Kansas and Alaska NEVER sealed their OBC’s for adopted people.
    2) Foster children who age out and don’t get adopted, never have their OBC sealed or altered. Only if someone adopts them is their OBC permanently sealed from them (in most states).

    Adoptive parents who either 1) wish to keep OBC’s sealed, 2) believe that unsealing them is the adopted person’s issue to deal with, or 3) do nothing to restore the legal rights of all adopted people to obtain their unaltered, OBC’s in their state or nationwide, (IMHO) they aren’t fulfilling their duties as a parent. If supporting the equal rights of adopted people is too conflicting for them, then their maturity regarding parenthood is questionable (IMO).

    Everyone can start here and spread the word:



    Thank you!!

  2. Avatar Greg says:

    From the stories I’ve read it varies by each person based on their experience. Some feel as Von does and others feel as Debbie does. Each of them deserves to have their view expected. Like Von I tend to think the term “real” is offensive and it’s intention is to lower the value of others in their lives. I don’t think anyone should tell another person who their “real” family is.

    In general, I think as people we define who are family and who are not. Even if we call certain individual family because we are obligated out of blood connections we might not necesarily feel that you have a close bond with them. For me though I’m not adopted have biological relatives I’m not close to at all while I have non biological relatives that I am. I think a lot of people have similar experiences.

  3. Avatar marilynn says:

    What do you think about correcting the ammended ones rather than unsealing the originals. Just put the amended certificate back to its original state because it was never necessary to give the adoptive parent authority over the adopted minor, they have the adoption papers and the name change papers. When a birth record is required show the original or the corrected amended one with the parents names on it. When proof of authority is required or proof of adoption is required show the adoption decree. No mess. I’d like to see adoptive parents fight for that way more than unsealing the original. Who wants an original if its not the one on file that bio relatives can locate to know they have a sibling or whatever. Just leave the original untouched and make it accessible the same way the rest of us have. Just equal like everyone else, it’d be easier to treat you equal than to let you have two certificates. Why two? Nobody else has two. It’s not even and equal.

  4. Avatar marilynn says:

    People mean no offense when they say “real parent” they don’t mean real in the way of really raising the kid or care giver sense they mean real as in really related. There is an obligation that comes with having reproduced – the duty to raise the kid. We have adoption because we want to hold people accountable for their kids and make sure if someone else is raising them that they have permission to do so from a judge rather than a back street deal or whatever. People are naturally curious or nosey about why someone would not be taking care of their own offspring – they want to know if they had a good reason and if they are in contact with their kid. I said it’s nosey because it is sure – but it is not to discredit the hard work and heavy lifting of child care. Clearly if someone is an adoptive parent they are really doing the hard work of raising a child while the absent parents are not doing that hard work. Hopefully for their child’s sake they are doing as much as they can for their kid when they can. Childhood is only a small part of a person’s life and parents who did not raise their children have much to offer that only they can offer so hopefully they’ll begin contributing to their child’s life in meaningful ways at some point. Real just means related when it comes to someone’s child. Their child is like their arm or their nose their child is part of them. I agree with Debbie that a real mother is not necessarily one that raises her kid or if she does raise her kid she need not do a stellar job to qualify as real. She’s just really the one whose responsibility it was to take care of the kid cause she really put them on earth in a position to need to be raised in the first place. That kind of real will apply to her even if she runs. Not something a person can get away from once they have offspring. They are a real parent with a real obligation. There are also real adoptive parents with real adoptive obligations. They just get their obligations through different means.

  5. Avatar marilynn says:

    debbie –
    But you can know that your mother is your mother and your adoptive mother is your adoptive mother and it does not take away all your childhood memories of them raising you they don’t have to have the title to have done the job and even done it well. Is that correct?

    I had a great weekend with my best friend she turned 30 and we had a bbq on the beach with her mother who I found for her after a five year search. It was so fantastic to see them spitting image of each other physically, mentally, humor all of it, amazing. So nice to hear her say “mom pass the ketchup” or her kid say “gramma come look at what I made.” Very surreal experience just got home from it. My friend does not yet feel like her daughter cause they are just getting to know each other but she says she knows she’s her daughter and she’s having fun just seeing how its not her fault that her teeth suck, that sort of thing.

    Not everyone can or should raise their kid. But it is their job to make sure that their kid is properly taken care of in their absense and its their job to do whatever they can for their kid as soon as they can and for as long as they can. If they can’t start until the kid is 25 or 65 just start in. They are the real deal they made them and only they owe it to the kid to care and be responsible for them, nobody else had that special duty. Others can step in and help take over and thank goodness if its needed but they are there because the people that owe it are not taking care of it, not because it was their job in the first place. That original duty from causing the kid is the real genuine indebtedness part you can’t get away from. That’s my take from helping people search and listening anyway.

  6. Avatar marilynn says:

    Quick comment to say it’s cool that you wrote the phrase adopted people rather than children. I know language police gets tedious but the phrase applies to the adult and minor equally and interchangeably and makes it easy to see a whole person over a life time. Very forward thinking and respectful

  7. Avatar debbie says:

    my bio parents are my real parents…they made me exist. the meaning of the word real is genuine etc.. so the adopters are the fake parents.. because they are not my real parents.. why the government thinks its ok to issue us with fake birth certificates ill never know.. so if people ask I say im visiting my real mother and when I visit my adoptive mother I say im visting my adoptive mother… im mean god im the spitting image of my real mother and look nothing alike the adopter..every adoptee knows that the adopting parents are not there real parents..real has nothing to do with who looked after you as a kid.. I restrain myself from calling the adopters the kidnappers… ( in which is the correct term.. out of respect that they didn’t realize at the time buying a baby is not the thing to do with out consequences)

  8. Avatar Von says:

    As an adoptee for 70 years I find the use of the term ‘real’ quite offensive. When I write I call my mother ‘mother’ and my adoptive mother my amother and refer to my aparents. It is simple and works for me.

  9. Avatar Jen says:

    Thank you. We are just reaching the age to begin the discussion of what adopted means with our son. IHe knows he is adopted and was in an orphanage but does not yet have a concept of why or he got there. We struggle with trying to determine the best terminology to use. We have been very diligent and intentional in our quest to give him sufficient language skills to explain and understand and inquire about his world. Most of what I read is birth vs. bio. I like the fact that many said just two mothers and fathers but different capacities. I also like the statement that ultimately it is the adoptee’s decision how to define parental and familial roles.

  10. Avatar Maura says:

    This is what makes PC terminology so difficult; everyone has their own opinion. Even if you are trying to be sensitive you may very well get it wrong. I think my take away from this is that if you don’t know someone well then you have no business asking them such personal questions. If it is someone you are close enough to to discuss personal matters then you should just ask them what term they prefer.

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