Most adoptive parents dread the thought of being seen as “not real parents” to their adoptive children. The pendulum seems to swing in the opposite directions out of adoptive parents’ fears, minimizing the role of the birth parents with the use of the qualifier (“birth” or “biological”, etc.), while at the same time taking offense at similar qualifiers with their own title (“adoptive” parent instead of just “parent”). Is there a better way?
If we stop thinking of the title “parents” as being strictly limited to a certain definition, we are able to accurately represent all parties. In my own life (I was not adopted), I have several people in my life with the title “parent”. My mom and dad, of course, but also my godparents, my grandparents, my parents-in-law… Anyone who has experienced study abroad also has had host parents. There’s foster parents, and even people who are “like second parents”.
The bottom line is that who we consider a parent is something only we can establish for ourselves. Think about siblings. Many women I have friends who are very close to them, even closer than the siblings they grew up with. My own best friend always called me her “sister”. Who has a right to argue with that label? It’s a term of endearment that only the people in the given relationship can attest to.
But until children are old enough to reflect on the people in their lives and assign them titles based on the roles they play, we have to have a way to refer to people accurately and respectfully.
Furthermore, there are social situations that require a more clear-cut definition of immediate family. I knew a guy once who kept talking about his brother, until finally it was revealed that he thought of his best buddy like a brother, but in fact they were not brothers. This could become quite confusing.
If we can have more than one sister, brother, cousin, aunt, uncle, or grandparent, why can’t we have more than one mother or father? Inevitably, our relationships will vary in intensity; we may have a favorite auntie, or we may be living with only one of our grandparents. Yet we don’t usually get up in arms about being referred to by the same title as those less-than-favorite relatives who share our generic title.
Perhaps parenting is different. Parenting is meant to be shared between mother and father, but that’s where the line is drawn. In our society, we don’t take well to extended families. Parents like to maintain a certain level of control over how they raise their children. I believe this is where the possessiveness over the title “parent” comes in.
If we acknowledge the genetic parents as such, we risk having to share our rights and responsibilities with them, even if only symbolically. Yet to ignore their existence is to take away from the rich heritage of our children.
I liken the interaction an adoptive family would have with their child’s birth family to the interaction a spouse might have with their in-laws. You may not like sharing your spouse with them, but they’re a package deal. You take priority; they are married to you now. But they still maintain important links to their family of origin, which you must respect. Some in-laws are easier to get along with than others. Likewise, some birth families will be easier to get along with than others. But we have to stop pretending that we as adoptive parents are the only parents our children have ever had. We have to be secure enough to know our place and embrace it whole-heartedly, without trying to take anything away from our children’s identity. Easier said than done, but important to reflect on nonetheless.