05/23/2012 04:53 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Who Are The 'Real' Parents? An Adoptive Dad's Answer

When our daughter told my husband that he was the best Lego castle-builder, he replied, not very seriously, "Is that what you tell your friends -- that I'm better at Legos and Papa's better at playing Monster High?"

She gave him a perplexed look. "No one asks about my dads," she said, which makes sense since the kids all know us. "They only ask about my mom."

There have more of those moments lately, and how she navigates them is complicated by the fact that we have an open adoption which went half-closed, though not by our choice. Think of it as sight versus half sight. Go ahead, close one eye and then try looking over your shoulder on that side: strain all you want, but the view is limited. As much as we search the Internet for evidence of her mother's life online -- which is, honestly, how adoptive families roll these days -- we can only ever see so much.

If we wanted to, we could actually figure out how to reach the mother without going through our agency, but we don't. We're trying to allow her to live the life she wishes, to keep the distance she chooses from a decision she made in a different time. Perhaps it feels to her like something from another life, or perhaps it is still incredibly painful. "Perhaps" is a big word: it says volumes about all we don't know.

The word "mother" is one letter shorter and even more potent. I could say "birth mother" instead and I know that's an important distinction for many adoptive parents, and for good reason. But I don't always use that language because my daughter has two dads at home, so there is no competing figure for that specific title. And she's pretty bright: she hardly needs us to delineate the differences between being the parent of her birth and the parents who make her brush her teeth twice a day.

We've always shown her pictures of her mother and pictures of all of us together, so she's grown up knowing whose belly carried her and who chose her dads. When she speaks of that person, she alternates between "mom" and "mother" and "birth mom," and I truly doubt that any framework we tried to put around the language would have much effect. I speak from experience; though not adopted, I have a birth dad and a legal dad, both of whom I refer to as my father depending on the context (and, not as you might expect, because of meaningful emotional connections). So I know my daughter's heart will set her own terms -- and change them up from time to time -- over the years to come.

For the moment, she's at the age where other kids more often ask the question that pierces the hearts of adoptive parents and birth parents alike: Who are her "real" parents? Over the past seven years, I have practiced answers for her in my head, usually defaulting to the most common reply: Your "real" parents are the ones who raise you and take care of you. There's definitely truth to that, but let's face it: I like that answer because it favors me.

Recently, while attending the Rainbow Families DC conference, I heard a better answer, one that is more challenging, but also rewrites the script in a way that moved me. Cynthia Cubbage, a social worker at the Center for Adoption Support and Education -- herself an adoptive mom -- faced a teary moment in which her daughter wanted to know which of her parents qualified as "real." Instead of repeating the answer so many of us give, Cubbage found herself landing on something fresh: "We're all real."

This reply knocked my socks off. Cubbage (who confessed that she herself had a good cry after her daughter was out of sight) showed amazing grace in that moment, not splitting her child's parents by biology and practice or making her daughter do the emotional math of "less than" or "greater than." Her answer let the birth parents -- whose lives brought them to a particular place so many years ago -- be people, too, with needs and cares and complexity, instead of mere reproductive roles. For so many birth parents, participating in the process of adoption is the highest act of parenting that they can perform under the real circumstances of their lives at that moment. Their diminished or inactive roles in the years to follow can't mitigate the fact that the journey of a child's life began with them.

Whatever it is that keeps our daughter's mother at a distance, she made our family. And that's the one thing my child and all her parents know for sure.