Open Adoption Family Narrivative
I hate disclaimers, but I think today’s post requires one. Once again, I’m trying to work through some thoughts, and I know there are some people who may not appreciate/approve of the terminology I am using, so please know upfront that I am not saying anything to be disrespectful. And, as per normal, I adore comments from readers, but I will only approve those that are constructive and encourage a positive dialogue.
We use the term birthmother/ birthmom to refer to Baby MPB’s birth mother. I often say Baby MPB’s birth mother and sometimes I say our birth mom. This weekend on another blog (which I will not link to as I’m not referencing it to be negative or to start a heated debated, rather I’m referencing it as it got me thinking), someone commented on how using the term “our birthmom” implied slavery and ownership over her and her reproductive rights. First, I must unequivocally state that last thing I’d ever, even for a second, intend is to claim is ownership over our son’s birth mom (and/or her reproductive capabilities). When I use the term “our”, I use it just as I do when I say “our” family, or “our” friends, or “our” parents, or “my” dad, or “my” husband – not to claim any sort of ownership over these people but rather to claim her as part of our family. Someone we love and someone we care for. Second, this isn’t the first time someone in the blogging world has said to me they don’t like the term birth mom, some people in the adoption world prefer first mom or first family. Others, I’m sure, have their own terminology preference. For us, we simply see us all as one family, neither first or second. So, that just didn’t feel right for our family. And, so birthmom just seems to be what we use. And, as I blogging anonymously I have the technical challenge of needing a word to describe her (and others in my life like friends, parents, etc.) that does not use a first name and is also a word that long time readers know and first time readers can understand. This makes it hard to just use a fake first name or some sort of acronym for anyone I discuss on my blog, not just my son’s birth mother.
To add to this, but in real life, we use Baby MPB’s birthmother’s real name at home as a family of 3. We talk about her just like we talk about all of our family members and friends. And with our extended family and friends we’ve chosen not to share her first name. Everyone in our family knows part of Baby MPB’s name is part of her name, that’s no secrete because it’s something we choose to honour. But we initially chose to keep his birth mom’s first name confidential because sharing it would allow our extended family to search her out in our modern technological world. We really wanted to protect her right to privacy and Baby MPB’s right to share his own story when and if he ever wants to. Upon further reflection now we are both wondering if this decision was made because on some level this also has to do with a subconscious desire to control our family narrative? And, now we are wondering if this even the right decision?
And, as for Baby MPB’s genetic sibling, we simply refer to him as Baby MPB’s sibling on my blog. We don’t add terms like “half”, “adopted”, “birth” or “genetic”. (Just like I don’t call my step-sister my “step”-sister, she’s just my sister. The same with my step-grand-parents, they are just my grandparents. In the MPB house we simply believe that family is family, genetic or not and we have never made a habit of distinguishing genetics, even prior to Baby MPB). At home, we use his sibling’s real name when we discuss him and Baby MPB will always know about his sibling. But, our extended family and friends have no idea about his existence. Yup, you read that right, we told no-one. We made this decision because we know some of our family members will very likely place very harsh criticism on Baby MPB’s birthmom for having another child. We didn’t want to expose her to that. But mostly we didn’t want to constantly have to explain to everyone that it’s her life, her choices, her rights and she can do whatever she wants. I know I get defensive over her, and I do suspect that sharing this news would have resulted in some pretty heated discussions with some of our family members who don’t have the same respect for open adoption that we do. I honestly just didn’t feel like getting into it with them, so it seemed easier to avoid it. Yet, long term, I don’t think this is a secrete we can keep, nor a secrete we should keep because the fact is Baby MPB’s birthfamily is part of who he is and therefore are part of our extended family. And furthermore, we want to encourage him to be comfortable with his big giant family.
And, as for his birthfather, we simply don’t discuss him. We have not and will not share details with anyone in our real lives and I really haven’t even discussed him on my blog. In our opinion this just isn’t something anyone needs to know about, not now and maybe not ever. But again, we have intended to let Baby MPB make that decision when and if he wanted to.
So, while we’ve chosen to use certain terms, we’ve also made choices to conceal identities and even hide the fact that a sibling exists. These decisions are creating a narrative for our son’s life. And how we handle the questions and the conversations today will likely impact how he handles them in the future. Mr. MPB and I are both pretty private people (says the women who shares intimate details of her life in a public blog), so we’ve always placed privacy for Baby MPB at the top of our priority list. Yet, we are realizing that these decisions are creating our son’s version of the world, and I am wondering if what we are doing is right? Will hiding his birth mother’s name from our extended family one day make him feel shame or embarrassment? And hiding his siblings’ existence, will that do the same?
I know Mr. MPB and I are trying our best to get things right, to honour Baby MPB’s whole identity, but sometimes I wonder, are we getting it right? One thing I know for sure is that we are not making these decisions to create shame/embarrassment, rather right now a large part of our decisions have been about protecting his right to privacy and mostly protecting our son’s story for him to share when and if he wants to. But, is that fair to our son in the long run? Are our choices now impacting his ability to share his story one day? How do we balance what we should share with what we shouldn’t share? Really, what is it the right approach? We’ve always placed Baby MPB’s right to share above basically anything else, but should we consider sharing a few more things now (i.e. his birth mother’s real name and the existence of a sibling) to help him be more secure in his identity in the long run?
While Baby MPB is so young, the decisions about what to share and what terminology to use, are solely our decisions to make, but soon enough it won’t be. In all likelihood he will ask questions about his adoption, about his birth family – his birth mom, his birth father, his birth siblings. Right now we can control the narrative, but I know one day we won’t be able to. So, are the decisions we making right now the best decisions for him long term? I honestly have no idea. Navigating these waters isn’t always easy, and knowing the long term implications for decisions we make today seems slightly impossible.
No matter how we look at it, adoption is complicated. And open-adoption, while fully embraced by Mr. MPB and I, just isn’t understood by everyone in today’s world. We’ve tried to educate our family and friends. Heck at one point we sent all our immediate family members a basic book on open adoption and half them only acknowledged reading it when we directly asked them if they got it and we don’t think anyone even bothered to read it. And, part of what makes educating people about open adoption so hard is that every single open-adoption is different. Just like every single family is different. In so many ways our little family is so different then every other family and yet, in so many other ways we are the exact same.
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First of all, I have learned so much about open adoption from your blog. Not being around many who have gone through this I really appreciate your words you have shared. I would have never thought the term birth mom to be a negative term. Wow. The few people that I do know that have gone through adoption (open or closed) or have been adopted have always used the term birth mom. I thought it was normal?
Secondly, there is no easy answer to the rest of this. You can only do what you feel is best for your son and family. Just my thought, if you are open about discussing the birth mom you should be open about discussing his sibling. I completely get your feelings for not wanting to discuss it right now but three year olds (I know he isn’t that old but one day soon) have big mouths and when he gets to that point he will tell people about his sibling. Which is awesome but may come as a shock to some if you hold it in:)
I have always been open about Rebecca’s story because I never wanted her to feel like she had to hide it. No matter how we spoke about it, explained it, defended it, worded it, there was always someone offended or someone who had no problem offending us.
Years of doing this I will just say, I eventually learned to not care (to an extent.) Right now, I’m obviously not doing the best with it. I couldn’t create a perfect bubble for her to be in and for her story. Just do what you feel is best today. It might change tomorrow but that is because tomorrow is different.
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This is the big idea I am taking away from your post: trying to control a child’s family narrative is both crucial and futile. A conundrum! There may be no “right” answer, but the careful thought you put into these decisions will certainly pay off in the long run. We can’t expect to know right off the bat what to share/withhold because there aren’t well known social norms for non-traditional families that guide us. But the thoughtfulness and consideration will lead to stumbling upon what is “right” for your family and for Baby MPB in particular.
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Being a mom is so hard without the added layer of an adoption story. Our son’s birth parents live close by and we have regular contact and visits with them. Many of our family/friends have met them, so they will often ask about how they are doing. If they lived further away I’m not sure how the relationship would work.
If you always put Baby MPB at the center of your decisions then they’ll be the right ones. Trust yourself and don’t keep secrets from him and it’ll all work out.
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I use the term bio-mom or bio-family to differentiate between my children’s adoptive family and biological family. I have heard this term is also not appreciated by some and yet I find first and second family offensive, like we’re in some competition and have our “places.” Still, if that was the word choice someone else was comfortable with, I wouldn’t pitch a fit about it. The only term I will get worked up about is REAL because we are all real, flesh and bone human beings.
As far as what to tell who, ugh! I’m probably an over-sharer so not as private as you are. My situation is different because my children came to me through the foster care system. My oldest (he’s 17) is one of 6 children (this is on his mom’s side – his father has something like 14 kids?) and two of his siblings have spent considerable time with our family, including holiday’s with extended relatives. The younger two (my daughter is 6 and my son is 2 1/2) are two of nine and I think most of my family knows there are older siblings (my daughter talks about her older siblings, especially the older sister we have contact with), but I don’t know that they know how many siblings. Since my daughter is a chatterbox and talks about various members of her family (even her father, who I’m not so sure she really knows or remembers), the only control I have is to keep the specifics of her placement to myself. I guess I don’t really have a lot of advice to offer, since my little guy, who doesn’t know as many bio family members as his sister, won’t ever have his own narrative because his sister will have given most of it away. I don’t think my family knows the names of my children’s mothers, but they know other family members. But, my family is less-inclined to use social media to search for their moms so it’s not something I worry about. I do think it would be a good idea to open up about the sibling because it could cause a lot of confusion and maybe even hard feelings if your son starts talking about his brother/sister and your family mistakenly thinks you’re adopting again only to learn it’s a bio sibling they knew nothing about for the past 2-3 years (or whenever it comes out). Anyway, I’ve written too much now, so I shall finish by agreeing that it is so hard to know what to do in an open adoption but as long as you keep your sons needs as the central focus you will figure it out as you go along.
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As an adopted child and also having a family member who was adopted through open adoption, I think every situation is different and there are no rules or guidelines about what is right or wrong. Sadly, no matter what choices you make, somebody will criticize you, and no matter what choices you make as a parent, you will always question if you did the right thing. I would say that as he grows you will want to keep very open dialogue with baby MBP, and let him set the pace for what to share or not to share. I was never allowed to speak about my biological parents, and I will say that is VERY hurtful for the adopted child. My adopted family member’s entire biological family was welcomed into our entire family with open arms, and treated as extended family, but even that had it’s own set of problems, so you really need to go with your gut, like with most parenting decisions.
If/when you decide to share his birth mother’s story, name, etc, before doing so, I would recommending sitting with adult family members that you feel may be inclined to say hurtful tings to baby MBP, and setting the tone for how you expect them to interact with him regarding that information. People can be so hurtful with what they say, and most of the time I have found that it is not deliberate, but rather just the inability to really see the world through another person’s eyes. So by setting the tone for how you want them to utilize that information, at minimum, you will make them more aware of how he may perceive various comments or interactions.
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While I understand a desire for privacy, I can’t help but believe that regardless of your motive, secrecy and “otherness” almost always leads to shame. You talk openly about family members having new babies, so it seems unusual to hide baby MPBs first mother’s new child from the narrative. He will pick up on the nuances of that much earlier than you expect.
With respect to your expectation that there will be harsh judgment and criticism, I think you should do two things: 1. Accept that you cannot control anyone else’s opinion, as unreasonable as it may be, but, more importantly 2. Set clear expectations to your family that you will not tolerate any judgmental discussions in your or baby MPBs presence, because talking judmentally about people isn’t something you wish to teach your son in general…and most especially when he will eventually be sensitive to the fact that they would be talking about a person who shares half of his genes, and by extension, talking about him. If it were me, I might send an email so I had control over the narrative as well as my expectations. This is the news. You may have strong feelings about it, but we do not wish to hear it. Though you may not know her personally, she is family to our son and therefore to us, and speaking badly about family members is not something we will tolerate or allow our son to be exposed to.
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So our situation is slightly different from yours: our sons are not adopted but were conceived by the use of donated ova. I think, for me, one thought I have come back to again and again is that certain information about our sons’ conception is private. Not secret, which could donate something shameful and that we would want to keep hidden, but not to be shared with all and sundry. Because this information is private, we share it sparingly with those we trust and as needed with those who may need it (like doctors, for example).
I think you are handling the information about your son’s biological mother sensibly and reasonably. Oh, and I had never heard that controversy over the term “birth mother,” which I thought was common parlance in adoption situations.
UGH! I wrote “donate” above where I meant “denote,” in other words, it should say “Not secret, which could DENOTE something shameful. . . ” etc.
I’m curious, do people who don’t like you saying “our birth mother” feel differently about saying “Baby MPB’s birth mother”? That is, do they object to you and Mr. MPB claiming her as somehow yours, or do they object to the term “birth mother” on its own? I understand that some people prefer the term “first mother,” but in our family my cousin’s birth mother was always referred to as “E’s birth mother.” That always made sense to me — she was E’s birth mother, not E’s mother’s birth mother, so I think it would have sounded odd to me if my aunt had referred to E’s birth mother as “our birth mother.” But I’m sure I would have gotten used to it, and I’m sure Baby MPB will just think that whatever you do is normal! What you’re doing doesn’t strike me as wrong, but I’m really interested to hear the perspective of people who have been more directly involved in adoption narratives.
I don’t know how else to call someone who gave birth, she is the birth mom after all.. I must admit, when I read she was expecting again so soon, I was tad disappointed for Baby MPB and did feel a bit negative towards her. My feelings come more from the thought that tomorrow baby MPB when he is a teenager might think why he was “given up” while the other baby wasn’t and I didn’t want baby MPB to feel those emotions , as I know you will be hurt seeing him hurt (I hope I make sense).
Well, as long as everyone puts baby MPB first, and you both are honest about it to him, all will be fine. It wont be roses all the way, but baby MPB has the both of you and he will know that no matter what, you will always be supportive of his every choice in this matter.
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I felt the same as you when MPB first told us about Baby’s sibling. I have a friend who was the second baby (and kept) right after the first was placed for adoption and it was very hard for him as well as his sister who was placed. Her cousin (the child placed for adoption) asked me once, “do you know why they gave her up but kept him a year later?” It broke my heart. My friend, who was kept, still struggles today with it, and he’s 42. He grew up an only child knowing the entire time that he had a sister only a year older than him. It’s so hard…
I don’t have much to add but I just wanted to say that I think you and Mr. MPB are doing a wonderful job at considering all involved members feelings. And at the end of the day you guys are deciding what’s best for your family. That is respectable parenting!
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Baby MPB’s birthmom is the norm, it’s the ‘your’ instead of his that raises the hackles and makes sense especially when there’s a power-imbalance included in the mix – hopefully that makes sense. It’s also a fairly common topic of discussion in the adoption community because it’s something many do initially, then once it’s talked about, the nuances show and it makes more sense.
The other point – you could start referring to Baby MPB’s birthmom by the first letter of her name, either birthmom L or just L (whatever her first initial is) …it’s a middle ground in the balancing act many use.
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First of all,i agree on all terminology you have secises to usr because i see a proper way of thinking behind each one of those terms.
Second of all (should have been the first perhaps), how you name someone is none of anyone’s business.
I just feel i need to add this: the fact that you use “our” birthmother sounds very warm and close to me. Everyone else who thinks or finds a negative context in it is abnormal to me!
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Sorry for mobile spelling
“All the terminology you have decided to use…”*
Those who find it negative are those who are first moms, first dads, and many adoptees. Those are the people whose opinions probably matter most because they’re most directly affected by the terminology. Just because it’s abnormal to some doesn’t make it abnormal. A simple fix is, instead of saying “our birthmom,” saying, “his birthmom.”. It’s one word, our versus his. If I was a birthmom who had placed a child, I would not want the parents referring to me as their birthmom. That groups them with her placed child, like he’s not hers without them, and that would hurt me a great deal. I’m not saying this to be combative, just trying to explain where this contention comes from. It is a very valid grievance for first/birth families.
I understand your point and it is really a matter of perception, i would say. I can see why this lady chose to use “our”. To be honest, yerminology is the least problem. I am more concerned how this little boy is going to react once he grows up, knowing he was adopted and his brother was kept…
I think you guys a fair and considered and do a great job of navigating this. I am sorry if you sometimes get comments from people who don’t see that as it is so clear to me when reading any of your posts. Unfortunately it is all trial and error and you may get to 10 years down the track and think you wish you’d done one or two things differently but it won’t be everything and you couldn’t have possibly known and been able to foresee everything as like you say, every situation is unique. I think you do a fabulous job and Baby MPB will be so grateful for that when he is older. 🙂
I think you are doing a fabulous job and I also love your point “it’s baby MPB’s story to tell.” I so completely agree and everything you have stated above is something he will understand and respect you for some day.
We are slightly different where we used an egg donor. Our donor gave us a kind note as well as a stuffed animal on the day of my embryo transfer! The stuffed animal sits on a shelf in my daughter’s room. I’m scared yet excited to share how she “became” some day and I too always feel this is her story to share if and when she desires.
Oh boy…. As I read this, I agreed with every point, and many of them contradicted each other! This is really, really hard.
First, “birth mother.”. You know that I don’t like it and don’t use it, but the thing with “first mother” is that no one outside of the adoption world knows what it means. If you used, “first mom” in conversation, you’d be derailed explaining what it means to probably 80% of those you talk to. Everyone knows what “birth mom” means. Even not liking that term, I’d probably use it in conversation with people who I know don’t understand open adoption. What’s important is that you used the term that works for you and doesn’t turn you into an educator every time adoption comes up.
My family would judge the sibling situation too, but you’re right, is it setting Baby up for feeling shame? God, I don’t know. My head says yes, but it’s not their business. I’m at a loss.
You are doing so right but your son it’s incredible. The family you’re allowing him to embrace and love is a true gift. I know you don’t really think it’s an option, you just do it. But not everyone would do it. Even some people who promise they’ll do it then don’t do it. You’re an amazing example of adoptive parents doing it right. I think so, anyway. 😁
I think saying “Birth Mom” is just fine. That’s what we use for A’s. I also understand why and see you using “our birth mom” as endearing. I don’t think I’ve said it that way in regards to A’s BM, but it doesn’t make you using it wrong. You know why you say that and the tones associated with it and that’s all that should really matter. I suppose you could ask her if she minds being referred to that way. As far what you say and what you reveal, you just have to use your gut instinct and do your best by Baby MPB and that’s what you’re doing. As far as siblings, even though both my Sisters are half-sisters, they are also just my sisters, but with A, we do say that she has a full blood sister and a half brother. Not sure why. Maybe because we haven’t met brother yet.
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I’m appalled that someone would tell you that “birth mom” refers to her as if she were your slave. These words only describe her role.
I adopted my husband’s child at age three when we were married. I refer to the woman who gave birth to him (which he still sees every once in a great while) as his biological mother or Lisa. If someone suggested that she should be called his first mother, I would have a coronary. I also suppress the need to vomit when someone asks me about his”real mother.” But when it comes down to it, these are just words.
I can feel the love through your post and know you’re doing a great job. We will never be able to see into the future and predict whether or not he’ll agree with what you are doing now. All you can do is the best you can. Keep at it!
As a woman who has done IVF and adoption everything you say is true. There are somethings that will offend some and other things that will offend others. I think as adoptive parents we try very hard to be respectful in our terminology and that is all we can do.
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I placed my son almost 3 years ago and have an open adoption. I am referred to as his birth mom and I always use birth mom or birth mother. I was thrilled reading your blog post on the terminology. Thank you
I’m an adoptee and when I talk about my “adoptive” family, I said my family, when I’m talking about the past, the before my family I use the woman who gave birth to me.. I don’t use birth mother because I don’t consider her as a mother… I like your article though. It’s nice to see other views.
I’m a birth mom and I know quite a few birth moms — none of us have ever objected to the term birth mother — I think it’s the simplest way to separate the two. I think you’re doing great!