As a freelance writer, words mean a great deal to me. In fact, I spend my days putting together just the right combination of words to form personal essays and blog posts, which are published regularly at magazines and websites, including psychcentral.com. I also teach the art of writing essays at Kent State University and at Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
This is why my heart broke when Tommy, my teenage adopted son (who happens to be on the spectrum), used a terrible combination of words at his aunt and uncle’s Christmas party this year. He said, “My real mother gave me away because she was too poor to take care of me.” My problem was with his use of the word “real.”
How this even came up was that Tommy’s aunt and uncle had just adopted a new puppy, and he was comparing himself to the puppy that was given away. The issue was magnified by the fact that my husband’s whole family was there at the Christmas party, and I was embarrassed that I was relegated to “unreal” mother status.
At the time Tommy used the word, I did not correct him. I was too upset to do so. It wasn’t until we got home and I had a good night’s sleep that I ventured into the world of educating him about the political correctness of the use of the words “birth mother.”
The minute I said something, he understood that he, with the use of “real mother,” had hurt my feelings. Tommy said that he didn’t know what to say, but from then on, he would say “birth mother.”
My husband chimed in and said, “Mom feels as though when you say you had a ‘real’ mother that she must be some kind of a ‘fake’ mother.” At this, we mustered a communal laugh; it was funny, in a way.
We, as mother, father and son, had to negotiate how to use the English language so that it made sense and didn’t hurt anyone involved in the communication process. From now on, I will be called simply Tommy’s “adoptive mother” or “mother,” and the woman who carried him for nine months will be called his “birth mother.”
Moms who write have jobs to do, but they also have to raise their children, and this includes teaching the kids the subtleties of language. Both activities are privileges and are important. Both take time and effort. Both can make or break a family.
My son had heard the words “birth mother” many times before, but he hadn’t been in the process of thinking through his family of origin and how we, his adoptive family, fit into the picture. The month prior to the Christmas party at his aunt and uncle’s house, Tommy had mentioned his biological mother many times, and I could see that he was trying to reconcile his adopted state.
Accepting the fact that he was adopted will be a life-long process. I don’t want to get in the way of this journey.
When Tommy was very young, we read him Over the Moon: An Adoption Tale. This story laid the foundation for his understanding of his special circumstances. (I would recommend this book to anyone who has been through an international adoption.) About a year ago, I revealed his name given at birth and the name of his birth mother. These two “secrets” gave him perspective on his identity. I’m fairly certain he’ll return to his country of origin when he’s an adult.
I have to be a big enough person to allow Tommy to explore his past, possibly meet and get acquainted with his birth mother and maybe even decide to reside in his native country. Anything could happen.
When our son was born, someone gave us an adoption photo frame that said, “You didn’t grow under my heart, but in it.” This statement is true. I did not carry my adopted child in my womb, but I carried and continue to carry him in my heart.
My son is a wondrous person. I can’t wait to see where life takes him and where he chooses to go.
Adopted children are blessings and, as a writer, I feel my son is my inspiration for carrying on and for using the written word to try to interpret our existence.