‘Does She Call You Mom?’ What Adoptive Parents Are Sick of Hearing

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profile picture of Carly Burson
By Carly Burson, Carly Burson
Updated March 2, 2017

If I’m honest, the idea of having biological children never made sense to me. I have no idea what a biological clock is and why it might be ticking. I’ve never come down with a case of baby fever or felt an obligation to pass on my genes. I can’t recall sitting and wondering if my husband and I would make cute kids. I never doodled favorite baby names down on scrap pieces of paper or contemplated how I’d handle pregnancy. These things were just never on my radar. But, motherhood was. And I am a mom—a very real one.

“Are they yours?”
“Where did you get them from?”
“How much did it cost?”
“Why didn’t you adopt a white baby?”
“Were you not able to get pregnant?”
“Don’t you want to have one of your own one day?”
“These kids are so lucky that you saved them.” (My personal favorite.)
“Aren’t most adopted kids messed up?”
“I just couldn’t risk taking on someone else’s genetic crapshoot.” (that one came from my ex-gynecologist).
“Does she call you mom?” (I was asked this one today at the airport.)

When my husband and I chose to grow our family through adoption and foster care we prepared for a lot, but we never anticipated having to validate and defend the realness of our family. Adoption is not for the weak of heart. It’s hard, complicated, expensive, unpredictable and intrusive. And it breaks you down to a shell of yourself before anyone has ever even called you mommy.

You spend years fighting for a child that you’ve never met. You drain your bank account, take an unpaid leave from work, test your marriage, purchase one-way tickets to other countries, shed tears, celebrate milestones and spend days in bed when faced with more disappointment. But in the end, you make it through and title yourself a warrior. There’s no hospital room or family members waiting to find out if it’s a boy or girl, but a judge looks you in the eye after three years and tells you “from this day forward she is yours.” You weep and celebrate and start to imagine the type of mother you’ll be. And after all that, you come home and the world asks, “Does she call you mommy?”

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As a society, we’re constantly shaming mothers. Some mothers decide to stay at home to raise their children and we tell them that working mothers raise healthier kids. Some mothers choose high-powered careers and we tell them they’re missing out on too much. Other women decide not to have children and we assume that they’re lacking a greater purpose in life. Adoptive mothers face that scrutiny and more. We join other moms in the tough decisions. And like all moms, we allow the pressures of society to imprison us in self-doubt and fear that we’re just not good enough. At the end of the day we’re still asked, “Are those children yours?” It’s as though we didn’t earn the title.

My children did not come from me, but they are the very best part of me. They fill our home with laughter and light and noise and bring me so much pride. The love I feel for them supersedes the rude stares, intrusive questions and silent judgment. My love goes beyond the in-law that doesn’t get it and the looming reminder that in some people’s eyes, these kids will never be completely mine. But in my heart I know that I chose them.

A friend once innocently (but insensitively) said, “You just can’t imagine what it’s like to have your own child.” I smiled and nodded like I usually do, but I wish I had responded with, “No. You just can’t imagine what it’s like for a child who came from another woman to call you mommy.”

Adoption is both a privilege and a tragedy and full of so much emotion—every emotion, really. The emotion is what’s real, just like my family.

Carly Burson is the founder of Tribe Alive, an e-commerce marketplace that sells jewelry and accessories made by female artisans in impoverished areas around the world, providing these women with fair wages and safe, sustainable employment. She adopted her daughter, Elie, from Ethiopia in 2013, and has recently opened her home to foster children.

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