You’re Not A Real Mother

Featured recently on the NYT Motherlode blog, Tina Traster discusses an interaction with her adopted daughter where she reacts quite poorly to her daughter verbally lashing out and saying, “You’re not my real Mother”. The piece has garnered the attention of many in the adoption community, some of it being negative, due to the shocking way she responded to her daughter.

As a mom, I know all too well the moments where you say something that immediately you know you should have not said. Unlike Traster (who only apologized after her daughter had) and my also unapologetic parents, I do everything in my power to make sure my kids know that I owe them contrition and apologies when I hurt their feelings.  I also know the impact of devastating statements like the one mentioned in this article. My own mother once told me, in her own anger at me over my refusal to participate in their religion, that she wished I was never born. Even now, no apology would be able to undo the astronomical impact that moment had one me. I can remember the hatred in her voice, the anger laced through it, and the way she looked me like I was a heathen creature only worthy of death. Words can have an impossible to remove impact, and even when apologies are said, and hugs are given, there are some things you can’t ever, ever take back. Don’t mistake me for believing I’m perfect; I’ve spit out my share of hurtful statements to my husband, and I know I’ve reacted poorly toward my kids. But, when it comes to matters that I know are difficult for them, or when I know they are trying to voice their feelings (like when my parented son told me he hated me this weekend and that I was the worst mother ever), that they aren’t doing it to hurt me intentionally. They are voicing their frustration, and their hurt, and it’s my job to make sure that I, as the adult, bite my tongue and give them the time they need to calm down.

Like everyone else, I did raise an eyebrow and cringe at the interaction between Traster and her daughter. However, I actually found this statement in her piece far more alarming. She writes,


“Yes, the words “you are not my mother” are just words, but they are true in one sense, and they are words a birth mother is not likely to hear. They hurt.”


Yes, those words do hurt. I know that personally. Not because I’m adoptive mother, but because I am a birth mother. During my pregnancy, and after relinquishment, I have been subjected to the “you aren’t a real mother” rhetoric. It comes from strangers on the internet who comment on my blog, or post a takedown of my words. It comes from family, and friends. Media dances around this subject constantly, making sure that birth mothers understand that they are mysterious beings who are never fully depicted, or are dressed up in stereotypes that are generally untrue. We hear it when we’re relegated to celebrate our motherhood the day before Mother’s Day during Birthmother’s Day, the underlying message that we aren’t real mothers. We hear it when champions of adoptions tell us that our stories don’t matter, and our focus should be solely on the adoptive family.

From the moment I became pregnant, I was told, repeatedly, that I was not a real mother, despite the fact that I was indeed about to become a mother. The Mormon Bishop who my parents called when news of my pregnancy broke, blessed me to “know” that I was only a vessel for this child to come into the world and find his “real family”. LDSFS found ways, subtle and sometimes not so subtle to tell me that I was not a real mother, just a birthmother, and that my unborn son would be happier without me. When my son’s adoptive parents closed the adoption, the message was loud and clear: my voice or opinion regarding our so-called openness meant nothing to them, because they were his real parents.

Assuming, due to the nature of her own adoption, it sounds like Traster has not had much experience with mothers who have relinquished in one form or another. It’s alarmingly apparent that she likely hasn’t explored the internet to gather birthmother experiences, or if she has, she hasn’t really stepped outside of her role as an adoptive mother and saw the way society has downgraded us to the role of “not a real mother”.

The reality is, we hear it all the time, even when it’s not as brash as, “You’re not my real Mother!” We hear it when we are unwittingly given the title of birthmother, a secondary role. We hear it when we post our grief, and we’re told that we shouldn’t be caught up in our own loss, and told to stop being so negative. What about the adult adoptees who claim that their birth family is not their real family? Or what about the birthmother who actually believes that she isn’t a real mother because of the adoption – where did she learn that from? Find any adoption related article, and take a quick scan of the comments. You will find all of these examples, and even more.

We hear these words, every single time adoption is mentioned, I can assure you.

The first time I realized that I was being told I wasn’t a real mother was at a Birth Mother Celebration. It was put on by the local LDSFS branch, and during the service we were lectured, by a man who had only indirectly experienced adoption through his adopted brother, that adoptees didn’t and shouldn’t need to search out their birth families, because they already had their real families. We were, essentially, of no more use. We’d done our job of carrying the child to term, delivering it, and then signing our rights away so our child could go to his rightful family. A girl who had relinquished only several days prior broke down, her body shaking as she was helped from the room by two other mom’s in attendance.

Because it does hurt profoundly to be told you aren’t a real mother.

Perhaps Traster wasn’t able to see past her hurt to understand that a statement like this is not only blindly ignorant, but it serves to showcase how little she knows about the experience of her daughter’s mother. In my opinion, adoptive parents have a responsibility to attempt to understand all sides of the adoption constellation, even if the birth family is not present. When you fail to see perspectives from all sides, or believe that you simply don’t need to know, you set yourself in a tunnel where you are surely going to make grandiose, seemingly arrogant statements that lack empathy, and have no real traction.

I may not have heard those words flow from the mouth of my son, but I live in a constant state of fear knowing that one day, he may actually say these words to me. The culture he is growing up in doesn’t foster openness that allows for him to have two mothers, and two fathers who love him, who have always loved him, and want to know him. He’s being raised in an environment where the same rhetoric that man spewed at a supposed celebration of birth mothers, is likely to be commonplace for him. Even the fact that his adoptive parents have little to no respect for his point of origin is essentially another way of telling him that his biology doesn’t matter. Meaning, I don’t matter, and I’m not really someone that he should want to have in his life, because, again, I’m just the womb that he came from. Throughout his life, he’s  hearing the same message that I’m not his real mother. Will he be able to see through this proverbial haze of bullshit,  and know that if he wishes to know his biological family, that he has no reason to be ashamed for that? Will he understand that there is no “real mother” in these situations and doesn’t have to choose between either?

Despite her false assumption Traster made regarding birth mothers never hearing that ugly statement about not being a real mother, I can agree with her on one thing:


It does hurt to be told you aren’t a real mother.


Image Credit: Paul Stocker


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9 thoughts on “You’re Not A Real Mother

  1. My daughter’s amom told me when my daughter was about 9 or 10 (after we had “reunited” with her…semi-open before then) that she was questioning which one of us was the REAL mom. Amom told her that SHE was…since she did the day-to-day care-taking, etc. I guess she was trying to remind me of my place, idk.

    About 11 yrs. ago, when my daughter was 18 and the adoption couldn’t be closed, I told amom in a letter how much that had hurt me. I told her that the true definition of a mother is one who puts the needs of their child above their own, and would die for them if necessary. I informed her that by giving my daughter up for adoption, I did JUST that. If that doesn’t make me “real” then I don’t know what would. I did what I was told was best for my daughter, that adoption is what I’d choose if I *really* loved her, and part of me died 29 yrs. ago when I let her go.

    I guess it stems from their insecurity. It only helps them if they diminish and belittle who we are. Amom and I have no relationship today.

    1. That makes me so incredibly sad. I’m so sorry you were diminished like that. In so many adoptions, I see adoptive parents, particularly the mothers it seems, wanting to erase the importance and role of the original mother. We’re both mothers, just in a different realm, and it’s okay for your child to accept you both as a mother. It doesn’t hurt or harm anyone to lay claim to the role together. When someone tries to diminish the other, it absolutely harms, and hurts so many. It’s incredibly disrespectful.

      1. Great post and I am sorry for all that you experienced. I remember when my minor relinquished daughter contacted me and after much begging I convinced her to allow us to inform and include her adoptive parents in the reunion. For clarification they closed the open adoption. Sure enough I got a call from the adoptive mother who screamed at me that I was not the real mother. Later texts from adad telling me to go away and leave “his” daughter alone.Then it got worse…..

        But in reality I feel that I am not her mother. Not anymore. It was not the adoptive parents or even the industry who made me feel this way. It was my relinquished daughter. I don’t blame her. She had divided loyalties and she had her own life. She grew up to be like her adoptive parents which adoption was designed to accomplish.

        I went home to my my own life like she did hers. I went back to being great mom to my kids instead of birthmom, exiled mom, hated non-mother. I am glad she got to know us for awhile and had her questions answered because I have been led to believe that this is helpful to adopted people and she deserved answers and the chance to know her biological family. But for me it was and is a haunting experience that has traumatized me and the family. I will never be ready to be treated again (forgive me for being crude) as the bad smell in the room by her or her adoptive family. My greatest fear is not that they will deny me as “mother” but that I will have contact with any of them again and it keeps me awake some nights.

      2. Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate the perspective of those who have gone through reunion because it’s such an unknown for me. I hope one day you can find some peace.

  2. Thank you for your response Danielle. I am at peace for the most part and enjoy my life. That is what I suspect drives the fear I posted about. I have a good life and do not ever want to be dehumanized again. Time is helping to heal the trauma, but it takes a long time. My brother has a good relationship with his (biological) mother and family so not all reunions end badly. I find sometimes we need to clarify which mother he is talking about because he calls both his mothers “mom”.

  3. Danielle, I think if you re-read that article carefully you’ll see that she was using the phrase “birth mother” differently than we usually think of that term. She seemed to be using the term birth mother to refer to a biological parent.

    That said, I completely agree with the basic points you made in your post.

    I think Adoptionlies raises an interesting point through her story. She wanted to do “the right thing.” Big mistake. Adoptive parents who have closed an open adoption are not people who are going to do the right thing. And their contempt for the natural mother of their child is telling–and sickening. AL made a mistake by insisting they be told. She should have kept it a secret (yeah…I said it). If she had then they would probably have a relationship to this day. That decision set history on a very different path.

    If you’re ever in the same city as your son (and his adopters) for the day, I think you should send an email telling them that you’re in town and would like to see him. They’ll probably say no, but at least you’ll have them on record. Then do it again a year later. And the year after that. In other words….establish a paper trail. You’ll need it in order to compete with the many lies that they are almost certainly planning to tell him.

    1. Maybe she did mean it in that context; I assumed based on the subject content that she meant her daughter’s mother.

      I took your advice to heart, and spoke to some of my close loved ones about the idea you suggested- I’ll be writing about it later.

  4. I enjoyed your post “NOT A REAL MOTHER.” I am a mother who relinquished twice and now my career is working with those of us attempting to survive the impact of adoption. I get a smile on my face when an adoptive mom tells me she fears the moment when her child might scream in anger: “you’re not my real mom.” My response is “pull up your big girl panties and get ready.” When the son I raised was about 11 or 12 he yelled “I wish you’d given ‘me’ up for adoption.” Kids know where your buttons are and they are designed to push them. As adults, we may feel the sting, but we ought to have the capacity to take it for the passing anger that it is.

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