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Hot Topic: Adoption Terminology

Join the debate! Here are a few AF resources to help you explore the range of adoption language used to describe our families. Then, take part in our interactive community by sharing your thoughts via the comment box below!

As always, you can share your thoughts privately with the editors of Adoptive Families by writing to us at

A Mother by Any Other Name
by Denise Roessle

Is the term 'birthmother' an example of appropriate, positive language—or an offensive and demeaning label?

I don't recall being referred to as anything—birth-, natural, or biological mother—when I relinquished my son for adoption in 1970. If I had shared my secret afterward, I might well have been called something: a slut, a bad mother, or, worse (at least to me), a saint.

Better, I decided, to be nobody.

By the time my son and I reunited, 26 years later, his adoptive mother had died, so he had no mother except me. He called me Mom from the start. I was thrilled, despite my doubt that I deserved the title. The first time I heard the term "birthmother" was in a search/reunion support group. I took no offense. Birthmother seemed appropriate: I had given birth to, but had not raised, my son.

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The Right Words
by Beth Roth

One night my third-grader, Emilio, made a comment about his "real mother." We had never

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When we use positive adoption language, we say that adoption is a way to build a family just as birth is. Here's a helpful list of terms to use, instead of the negative talk that perpetuates myths.
used this term in our home, so I was curious about its sudden emergence in his vocabulary. I asked, "When you say ‘real mother,' do you mean me or your birthmother?" "My birthmother," he answered. When I learned that he had heard the term at school, I knew it was time to present appropriate adoption language in Emilio's class.

His teacher was receptive, and I presented "Adoption Terminology" the following week. Since then, I have given this 30-minute talk several times in grades three through six.

I begin by asking the students to define "adoption." Then I draw a large triangle on the blackboard and say that there are at least three people, referred to as the "Adoption Triad," involved in an adoption. Chalk in hand, I point to the top of the triangle and ask, "Who gets adopted?" When they answer—without fail—"A baby," I expand this to include a toddler or an older child and write at the top of the triangle, "Baby or Child."

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More Resources
Here's expert advice on navigating terminology when talking with kids, from AF's open adoption expert, Kathleen Silber.
  • Explaining Family Roles  "Your daughter’s awareness of the roles of both sets of parents will prepare her to explain open adoption to her friends."
  • Two Moms, Two Roles  "Kids figure out that they have another 'mom.' They aren't confused by this reality."  

Want more? To get the most comprehensive advice and news on all things adoption, subscribe now to Adoptive Families, and get an instant bonus gift.

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