What Makes a Mom “Real”?

Image Source: Leah Campbell
Image Source: Leah Campbell

A few weeks ago, I was watching a friend’s kiddos while she and her husband went out for a date night. As they walked out the door, she shouted, “Hey, just so you know … there have been a lot of questions about adoption around here lately. You might get bombarded!”

In our circle of friends, my daughter is the only child of adoption. We’ve got a diverse mix of parenting origin stories, with infertility and IVF being represented almost as equally as natural conception. But my daughter is the only child among our group who actually grew in someone else’s tummy; she’s the only one who doesn’t look anything at all like her mom.

Our adoption is very open, and most of the kids in our group of friends have even met my daughter’s biological mother at least once or twice. But up to this point, there haven’t really been many questions. Those who have noticed something is a bit different about our family seem more concerned about the fact that my little girl doesn’t have a daddy than about the fact that she has two mommies.

Still, I’ve done enough research on open adoption to know that eventually, the questions will come. And I’ve even been grateful that my kid’s friends are all a year or two older than my daughter; I figure they might give me a bit of a jumpstart on what to expect in terms of questions from my little girl.

Because so far, even though adoption is an ongoing conversation we have, and even though she has visits with her other mama and we have pictures of her whole other family displayed throughout her room; she seems pretty oblivious to what it means to be adopted.

She’s only 3, though. I know the day will come when she too has questions.

So, I was excited to find out what my friend’s little boy (who just recently turned 5) was wondering about our situation. But if this was a trial run to the future conversations I may have with my daughter, I think I failed pretty epically.

As promised, he started asking questions just before bedtime. He wanted to know whose tummy my daughter had grown in. So I showed him pictures of her other mama, and reminded him that he has met her before.

Then, things took a turn.

First he asked, “Yeah, but … where is she? Where is her real mom?”

I reminded him that she lived in another town, but then honed in on the use of the word “real.” When he explained she was the real mom because she was the one who carried our daughter in her tummy, I asked, “What makes your mom your mom?”

He thought for a minute, and then responded with some typical answers. “She feeds me. And she gives me baths. And she reads me stories.”

“That’s right!” I said. “Did you know that I do all that too? I feed her, and I give her baths, and I read her stories before bed every night. And look, you can even pinch me!” I reached my arm out, and let him pinch me … much to his delight. “If you can pinch me, I’m obviously not make-believe! So what do you think that makes me?”

He thought for a minute more, and then said, “Ummm … Her stepmom?”

I guess I should have seen that one coming. He has a friend whose parents are divorced, so stepparents are something he understands.

I tried to explain the difference there, focusing on what sets adoption apart. “When one mommy decides she can’t take care of her baby, sometimes she’ll ask another mommy to take care of that baby for her,” I said. “That’s what happened with us. That’s adoption.”

I was feeling pretty good about myself with that one. But do you want to know what his main takeaway was? That mommies can give away their kids. He spent the next 15 minutes focused in on that one aspect, asking a million questions about how bad he would have to be before his mommy would give him away.

Yeah, that wasn’t the direction I saw that going in. And I totally apologized to his parents that night, because I’m pretty sure all I accomplished was instilling the fear of abandonment in him.

‘You understand I’m her real mommy, right?’ I said. He thought for a second more before saying, ‘I guess. But her tummy mommy has been her real mommy longer.’
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That’s not all, though. When our conversation was finally wrapping up, I wanted to return one last time to the topic of “real.” I just had this image in my head of him inadvertently telling my daughter I wasn’t her real mommy, and I wanted to make sure one last time that I had made my realness clear. So I paused and I said, “You understand I’m her real mommy, right?”

He thought for a second more before saying, “I guess. But her tummy mommy has been her real mommy longer.”


With that, the conversation was over. As 5-year-olds tend to do, he had already moved on before I even had the chance to gather my thoughts.

Technically, of course, he was right. My daughter’s tummy mommy has been her mommy longer — a full 9 months longer, to be precise. Obviously, I’m the mommy who puts the work in now; the mommy who has been putting the work in ever since the day my daughter was born. But how do you explain that to a kid without sounding like you’re disparaging the role that other mommy plays?

Or played.

I’m her real mommy. I may not be her biological mommy, but surely I’ve earned my title by this point, right?
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This is where open adoption gets complicated. I’ve done all the reading and research, and I know that keeping these ties open and keeping my language positive when it comes to her other mother is one of the single-most important things I can do for my little girl as she works to process her role as a child of adoption. And honestly, doing that isn’t usually difficult for me. I have nothing but love for her other mother, to the extent that I even loathe the term “biological mother,” as I feel like that diminishes the role she plays. I don’t want to call her the “biological mother” any more than I want to be called the “adoptive mother.” We’re both just … mothers. And we both love this little girl deeply.

But … I’m her real mommy. I may not be her biological mommy, but surely I’ve earned my title by this point, right?

I’ve been ruminating on that conversation ever since it happened. Not because my feelings were hurt by a 5 year old (he’s 5, and I love him, and I totally get how confusing this whole thing can be!), but because I have been left wondering how much my daughter might struggle with the same complexities one day herself. I still think we are at least a year or two away from her recognizing and questioning what it is about our family that makes us different. But when she does, is she too going to question who her “real” mommy is?

I’m still not sure how to word my response in a way that respects the importance of her relationship with her other mama, while still highlighting the fact that I’m the one whose here day in and day out.

I’m the mommy who is real all the time.

The whole thing is complicated. And I get it. It’s confusing for adults to understand, so of course it’s even more so for kids.

My daughter has two mommies. One who carried her in her tummy, and then made the agonizing decision to place her for adoption. And one who stepped into her shoes, taking over where she feared she could not.

We’re both real. And I hope to honor that always.

But if I’m being completely honest, and dropping all PC adoption language … I tend to think of myself as “more real.”

And I hope and pray my daughter will too.

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