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Katherine Malmo

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Too Many Real Moms

Posted: 11/15/11 11:47 AM ET

A few months ago I heard an interview on NPR with Nancy L Segal, the author of Someone Else's Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth. The book told the tale of three babies and what happened when one singleton newborn was accidently switched with an identical twin. The "twins" were raised as fraternal and no one knew about the mix-up until they were adults.

It's a complicated story and in the interview there was a lot of discussion of the various parents of these three girls and how they felt. The interviewer, I presume in an effort to simplify things, used the term "real" mother or "real" parents on several occasions to indicate the biological parent of the child.

If the biological parent is the "real" parent then what is the term for the parent who raised the child? The parent-in-practice? Parent-in-life? Bed-sheet-changer? At some point, it seems like 18+ years of lunch-packing should earn a parent the title of "real," no?

Then, a few weeks ago, I was listening to another NPR interview, this time with Walter Isaacson, the author of Steve Jobs. For the most part, Isaacson covered Jobs' adoption with carefully chosen, specific language but at one point he referred to Jobs' adoptive parents as his "real" parents. As in, he always considered his adoptive parents his "real" parents. Then what does that make his biological parents? Fake? Should there be no acknowledgement of genetics, gestation and delivery?

In both these cases, I see why they chose to use the word "real." In complex situations, our vocabulary doesn't easily offer the right words. Real becomes the fallback, the catchall, the closest word you can grab when you're trying to get your point across, but it's outdated, misleading, a luddite of family-related terminology, and, a word we avoid in the adoption world.

As an adoptive mom, it might seem easy for me to gloss over the importance of birth parents and the nine months preceding birth because I haven't gestated or delivered. We were not present for the birth of either of our children and they both have a host of other relatives scattered around the US. Our daughter has a birth mother, birth father and at least two birth half-siblings. Our son has a birth mother, a foster mother, two birth half-siblings, one biological father and two legal fathers. How does someone end up with two legal fathers? One legal father was married to the birth mother during conception; the other was married to the birth mother at the time she chose to relinquish her rights. Neither of these men are the biological father, and in the state of Texas, all three of these men have rights.

When we were in the heat of being matched with our son, our four-year-old daughter heard a lot of discussion about his birth mother, foster mother, birth dad and legal dad. She was confused about all his mommies and daddies and where they are now. We did our best to answer her questions and to let her know that we are her brother's forever family. But none of this makes the other parents go away. It also doesn't make any of us less real. Or maybe I should say it makes all of us real.

The other morning my daughter greeted me at 7:00 am with "OK Mama, you be the grandma pirate!" Stalling so I could make myself a cup of tea, I asked why I couldn't be the mama pirate. She told me that she was the mama pirate and there was a baby pirate, her brother. I said, you know, a baby can have two mamas, look at your friend, C, he has two mamas. Fortunately, she had to think about this long enough for me to boil water.

Families are complicated and growing ever more so with same-sex parents and amicable divorces. The possibilities for nuclear families are tremendous. A kid can have a mama, a mommy and a birth mom or a carrier, an egg donor and a mother. I know families who go on vacations with their ex-husbands, their new wives, and kids, all as one big happy family. My point is this: it's complicated. And there's no need to over-simplify.

I appreciate the complexity. I love that there are so many people out there, seen and unseen, rooting for my children and loving them from afar. Neither of our children's birth mothers chose open adoptions. We respect their decisions and send a letter and photos once a year. I hope our kids contact them when they are older because I know that my babies, and they will always be my babies, can never have too many moms or too many people loving them.

Maybe because November is National Adoption Month, this is the time to talk about the changing nature of family. Maybe we can make a vow to be more sensitive with our word choices in the coming year. Maybe we'd all feel better, or at least I would, if we let go of "real" as a parent descriptor along with the idea that there is one mother and one father for every child. When there's a need for distinction we can use specific descriptors like -- biological, adoptive, foster, step, or chief grill-cheese-maker. All I know for sure is that playing the grandma pirate searching for lost treasure at 7:00 am better earn me the title of "damn good" mother.