Thursday, January 14, 2010


Names/Labels - everyone has an opinion about them!

Because I read a lot of blogs about foster care and adoption, I have come upon this discussion in a number of places. For example, just within that last week or so:

Issycat wrote that she hates when people use the term "our birthmother".

Dawn just wrote a post entitled, "What's in a name?" about the subject

I found this heartfelt essay recently by someone who believes that "Lifemother" is the term that best describes her role in her child's life.

The Family Preservation Advocate wrote about it recently as well.

And last week I got this comment on my blog,
why do u call the parents bio parents or birth parents? this terminology is negative and implies these parents are merely breeders.just call them what they are, for better or worse, parents! they may not be great parents, they may even be flawed and deficient parents, but they are forever connected to their children and their children to them. this type of language serves to distance children from their natural families. get educated and stop using these terms. they're damaging to both parents and child.ask any child when something hurtful is said about their family,they will tell you it hurts them too.children don't see their family as birth parents. they see them as mom and dad. some parents raise their children, others require support and still others are abusive. but none of them are BIRTH PARENTS. they are not incubators. they are families.
I've thought a lot about these names - which are really more like "labels" - and why we use them. Some people use them to distinguish themselves or someone else - the term "mother" seems to be so coveted that it is almost sacred in some circles. In movies, you often see a man's mother wince when she hears him call his new mother-in-law "Mom". In the adoption world, you see everyone fighting over who a child's "REAL" parent is and what makes them worthy of the title. And once we've decided who the "real" parent is, we have to decide what to call everyone else - adoptive mom, first mom, foster mom, birth parent, foster caregiver, forever parent...

I've given it quite a bit of thought and here is where I currently stand. Consider it my response to the comment above - and my current policy regarding names and labels here on my blog:

I use the terms "foster parent", "birth parents", "first parents"and "biological parents" when I deem it necessary in order to clarify when writing. It is easy for things to become confusing for the reader when there are many different "parents" and caregivers in a child's life - as is the case with foster and adopted children. I use the terms "biological parent/family", "first mom" and "birth mom" most often. I use them somewhat randomly and interchangeably depending on what type of relationship I am writing about. I'm more likely to use 'biological mom" and "foster mom" in a post about a foster child. I use "first mom" or "birth mom" more in reference to infant adoption - usually depending on how that family refers to the parents. I use the terms "mom", "dad" and "parent" for ALL parents regardless of blood or legal ties if the post won't be confusing without the identifier in front.

As you will notice in my post, I call the biological parent, "parent" for the rest of the post because I clarified it in the first paragraph. I think I made it obvious from the topic, which revolves around how to help a child have a healthy transition back to their biological family, that I have respect for all parents and believe that biological family is hugely important. However, in writing about children in foster care it is necessary at times I find it necessary to use qualifying terms in order for the reader to understand.

In general the topic is tricky and its easy to offend someone - which is something I try to avoid here if at all possible. But in truth, I also feel that this issue is sometimes just semantics that get in the way of us discussing the real issues in foster care and adoption. But I've long since learned that it is exactly these seemingly minor issues that can make the difference between being able to have an open, honest conversation with someone and having them completely shut down. So, I will endeavor to be sensitive to other people's feelings and open to suggestions about how I can write clearly without stepping on toes.

Anything that keeps the conversation flowing!


  1. This topic is frustrating. I try not to offend anyone when it is possible but sometimes you have to label who is who. The only thing that is important to me about this is what I call their parents to my children. I call them their mother and father, period. They refer to them as their mother and father. It is never confusing or complicated to them. We are who we are and all deserve our titles.

  2. I struggle with labels too. Wanting to be kind, thoughtful and politically correct but sometimes it's just factual. Adoption and foster care have lots of shades of gray doesn't it?

  3. Labels are interesting. We like to give them to other people and ourselves but we hate receiving them

  4. Personally, I think all this is pretty silly. What is wrong with "bio mom" or "first mom"? There is nothing negative about either. But..if people are going to get worked up about it just give them a real name like "Betty Moore" for bio mom or "Bill Deal" for bio dad. Foster mom could be "Fran Moss" and adoptive mom could be "Alice Mills".Then they have the same initials as their "titles" and everyone can follow along. :)

  5. When I talk to the kids I just refer to "your mom" or "your dad"....once Nastya asked, "My Russian dad? Or dad?" I think the person who quibbles and doesn't want to hear "birth parent" or "bio parent" is over-reacting to some extent because you are right in that most of the time we're simply trying to tell a story or communicate in the most straightforward way without someone having to ask exactly who we mean - and the more complicated a child's story the more important it is to "label".

    A funny story about NOT clarifying.

    Sergei was walking with a neighbor when he found a dollar on the sidewalk. This reminded him of the other time he'd found money and he said, "The last time I found some money my mom stole it from me to buy vodka." The neighbor did not know that Sergei was adopted. Fortunately, he told his wife about it and she ended up on the floor laughing.

  6. my friends make me use locations when i refer to any of my parents (because i have six).

    like there are my north carolina parents (adoptive mom and stepdad), florida parents (adoptive dad and stepmom), and then my texas parents (natural mom and dad). i've decided that none of them are allowed to move out of their respective states because it will upset my system and i'll confuse my friends even more than they already are about my family.

  7. "I use biological parent and foster mom when writing about a foster child." why? there is no need to clarify this. foster parents are Foster Mom & Foster Dad. it is obvious from their title. Why call the mother biological? Child welfare agencies have no right to call parents this. of course we're biological, thats science. they are the natural parents. the language you use is powerful. think about it. child doesnt say Hi biological mom and hello foster mom. it's Mom and whoever the foster parents name is. i get that you have to clarify in your posts. but that one is just more proof child welfare hasnt any interest in family preservation. as soon as they come into care their parents are suddenly sperm donors and incubators.

  8. I usually try to just say parent or natural parent when I'm differentiating between the natural parents and the foster/adoptive parents. It really is a fine line to walk, but if we don't use identifiers when we discuss or document, the confusion is overwhelming :(

  9. I use the term "bio parent" "real parent" or "birth parent" because way too many foster care providers (note I did NOT say foster "parents" are under the impression that they're these children's NEW parents when, in fact, they're only supposed to be interim care placements. Reunification should always be the goal but it's not. I resent having to use these terms but if we don't differentiate them then a lot of people get confused about who exactly I'm referring to when I use the word "parent."

    The only way I see to actually be able to NOT use these terms is for the foster carers to actually admit they're not the children's parent at all. They never were and in many cases, never will be. It's not OUR fault that foster care providers assume this role in the child's life. They do far more harm to the children by doing this than they realize.

    I agree, it's negative but what else can we do? Not everyone understands the difference so we have to make it clear. I don't mean it at all derogatory to the birth parents at all, it's more against the foster carer who makes too big of an assumption about our children and their roles in their lives.

  10. When Lil' man came to us nine months ago he called his BM by her fist name. I really dont think he knew who she was. His previous foster parents were Mom, and Dad. We have since explained to him that A is his birth mom, she gave birth to him, but was unable to care for him because of XYZ. He knows that mama X and Daddy X are his previous foster parents.

    When he fist met us, we introduced ourselves by our first names. He chose to call us mom, and dad. If I am speaking to lil' man about my husband i use his fist name, not Daddy.

  11. As a former foster child, I think it's just as cruel to insist a foster child not call his/her foster parents mom and dad especially when the foster parents have biological children in the home who do. Children who are over three know the difference believe me and all they want to do is be accepted, a part of and to fit in. Just my two cents.


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