Friday, January 27, 2012

Names and Nuances

Perhaps the terms most commonly applied to adopted children's biological parents are:  birth parent; birth father; birth mother; biological parent; etc.  In years past I, too, have thought of these individuals as our future children's birth parents.  But since our younger kids have come home, I have only used these terms outside the home, when strangers ask their insatiable questions about our children's real parents (which makes Geoff and me, I guess, their fake parents).

Inside our home, Geoff and I generally use the first name of our kids' birth father when talking to each other about him; this is how we were introduced to him and how we addressed him when we spent time with him over two days.   When we're talking to our kids about their biological parents, we address them as Seth and Lizzie do:  Gashi (which means daddy in their language of birth; translated, the term means something like my shield/my protector); and ETA/Ee-tee-ay (which is a mommy term in their language of birth; translated, this term refers to something like my lady).

Since shortly after our kids arrived home, I've been thinking about the terms we apply to those who gave life to our children.  In fact, I first started writing this post last July, about five weeks after we brought the kids home.  Clearly I'm still chewing on it.

Although birth parent may be the perfect term to apply in other adoption situations, I have to admit that something about those words bothers me as it applies to our situation; they don't feel quite right being formed on my tongue, and I find myself stumbling over them at times.  I think my hesitation relates to our having adopted older children, and these particular older children were not only birthed by their biological parents, but they were raised by them for the first three and five years of their lives.  We spent many hours with our kids' Gashi, over two days, and we know him to be so much more than a birth parent.  He and our children's ETA are/were people who, yes, gave life to our children - and in that sense, they are rightly called birth parents.  But they were also the people who loved and nurtured our children in the years they had with them, and provided for them as well as they were able.  Just like Matthew, our two younger children were wanted, breastfed, cuddled, held, taught values, given responsibilities, sung to, played with, sheltered, comforted, taken to church, prayed for, dreamed and worried over, and imbedded with memories and a culture that they can be proud of.  All of these things contribute to far more than giving them life; they provide a heritage that will remain part of our children for as long as they live.  Ultimately, too, their Gashi loved them enough to trust God to find another family that would welcome his children into its home and heart.  The more I come to understand Seth and Lizzie, the more I know them to be children who have been loved well - this is huge when it comes to their being able to attach us.  Despite everything our kids have gone through, before and after being relinquished, they were loved by parents before us.

Surely, surely that parental love and care qualifies them to be more than what the term 'birth parent' infers.  I'm not entirely what term is appropriate, but I tend, now, to think of them more as our children's first parents/first family.  They are people, parents, whom I will forever honour and treasure and love in my heart of hearts.  They were the first who did for Seth and Lizzie those things that Geoff and I now do; the first to love our children as we now love theirs.  Lord willing, Geoff and I will raise Seth and Lizzie to adulthood and help them to understand, remember and value the heritage that was theirs first.  I hope I do justice to the first family our kids had, to the hopes first dreamed by their first father and first mother.  I hope that eventually our kids will know that having had two mothers and two fathers meant that they were all the more loved; because it's the four of us together who will impact and shape our children's lives.

So even though you'll likely hear me using the term birth parent or bio parent with you, know that in my heart I am thinking Alemayehufirst parent, Gashi, ETA.  The nuance may not mean that much to anyone else, but it's an important one for me, and for our kids.


  1. I love that Ruth. Thanks for sharing it. Katie

  2. Hi Ruth,

    Great post! I feel the same way having adopted an older child too! We simply call her parents mommy and daddy, and when we want to clarify which one we are talking about if its unclear, we add their names to it...i.e. daddy XXXX. We consider our daughter`s family in Ethiopia our family too and so to say the word `birth parent`just seems to add distance when there is already too much distance already!

  3. I never really arrived at a formal decision, but even before our kids came home (they were 1, 2, and 3, but were placed in foster care at birth), referred to their biological mother as their "first mom/mother" when speaking with others. We don't know a ton about her, but do know she loves her kids and played a role, however small in quantity, in their lives. Ok, and it also seemed like a newer and generally accepted term to use, and seemed fairly sensitive to M's life story as well. Nothing seems quite perfect, and I have read a bit about various terms to see different perspectives, but for now, "first mother" is likely what I will continue with...and I use her first name with the kids, and also continue to link for them that she was/is their first mom. When I use "first mother" around other folks, everyone seems to know who I mean, and no one has commented on my use of the term (even though I imagine many have not heard it often).

    (As an aside, I have actually had a harder time helping the boys understand the role of foster parents, who were in nearly every way, their parents - for the sake of helping them really solidify that Geoff and I are the lifetime parents, and won't be letting them go anywhere else, we try to differentiate the roles of foster parents for them, but that will be a journey for them in their understanding).

  4. Beautiful, and well put. Really, these kids have 2 sets of parents that love(d) them equally. I can understand how the names just don't seem to fit.

    I like your choice of calling them Mommy and Daddy in their birth language.

    Perhaps when talking to others... first parents or Ethiopian parents may fit better?

  5. We also only use the terms first parent/family when speaking of the family who is exactly that. I don't feel comfortable with the term "birth parent/family" and if anyone else uses it, I will continue the conversation using first parent/family.

  6. Ruth, great topic.
    I agree with you completely, I couldn't fathom referring to Wubalem's family as, "birth family," or "birth mother, birth siblings," and such.
    If not for the dire circumstances that her mom found herself in, she would be parenting Wubalem today...certainly, after meeting her, I have no doubt (nor should there ever be), to the depth of love that she feels for her daughter.
    Wubalem has clear memories of her family, and loves them deeply. We choose to refer to her mother as just that, her mom. If we need to clarify, it's her Ethiopian Mom, and I am her Canadian Mom. I firmly believe that just because she is not actively mothering her now, does not mean she is no longer Wubalem's mom. I certainly don't want Wubalem to think that she is no longer her mom. She has two moms.
    I hope that it will allow her to go through life not having to have more conflicting feelings about her families than need be.
    Again, really good's a bit of a hot issue, I think.

  7. Beautiful post, I like First Family, or I have also heard my friend's children, who were older when adopted, use the terms, Ethiopian Mommy / Ethiopian Daddy. I actually liked those terms because "first" seems like something in the past, whereas "Ethiopian" still feels present and current. Not sure I am making sense, but hopefully you know what I mean. :)

  8. Great topic! We played around with terminology, too, and eventually just started calling our kids' mom any of the following: Mom, (first name), Eetiay or Enat. We refer to her, when speaking to others outside the family, as their "Ethiopian mom." It works.

    It's amazing how much the kids' mom has influenced me and my parenting. Having met her, seen her home, held her hand, seen her kiss the pictures of her children... these things have affected me profoundly. The thought of her incredible love for these kids kept me going through the tough times in the beginning. I'm so grateful that we had the chance to meet her.... I can't wait for the chance to bring the kids back to Ethiopia to see her again.

  9. ah, these are such good points.

  10. Love love love LOVE this....and so timely for me fresh after meeting our babies first hard and beautiful...

  11. What a beautiful post. I don't know the details of my niece and nephew's "first family" situation, but I found your story broke open new possibilities in my mind and will help me in speaking to my kids about adoption in the context of their friends and family who have this inheritance.