But, Where is His Real Mom?

It happened again last week.

We were next in line for face painting at a local pumpkin patch. One painter’s chair opened up, and I ushered my four-year-old over to her. My older two children were being tended to by the the other painters, and I stood by my youngest son, casually making conversation with the artist as she painted a butterfly on his forearm.

“So, you’ve got three, huh?” she asked carefully.

“I do,” I replied, sensing a shift in the conversation. By now, I can almost always see it coming. Adoptive moms seem to develop a sixth sense about these things.

“Those two are clearly yours,” she said, motioning toward my older two (biological) children. “What about this one? You say he’s yours? Where is his real mom?”

My youngest son looked up at me, his gorgeous Chinese eyes full of confusion. I opened my mouth to reply, but another painter spoke first.

“She IS his real mom. They’re all hers, Carol. Geez.”

I was grateful for the other face painter’s correction. I was even more grateful that we were able to wrap that up and move on soon after the awkwardness. But, it got me thinking that maybe people don’t really know the right words to say around an adoptive family.

What this face painter was actually asking is what happened to my son’s biological mother. What she meant when said my older two “were mine” is that they are clearly biologically mine.

Let me assure you—all three of my children are 100% equally mine. Whether or not we share DNA has nothing to do with that.

But, what is a “real” mom anyway?

In case there is still confusion, here’s my definition of a “real” mom.

A real mom comforts and soothes her terrified preschooler at 3am because the sound of the air conditioning turning on was confused for thunder.

A real mom spoon feeds Pedialyte to her toddler on day 14 of Rotavirus because it’s the only thing keeping that baby hydrated and out of the hospital.

A real mom watches Moana for the 872nd time in the summer. She sings along to every song and shows all the excitement once again because it’s this week’s favorite. (And sometimes, she even pretends to be scared of the Lava Monster, too.)

A real mom scrolls through her child’s pictures when he’s gone, arrives 10 minutes early to pick him up, and cannot wait for that running bear hug she gets at the end of a school day.

A real mom fills a spray bottle with water and Lavender oil and sprays every tiny crevice of her child’s closet with that “Ghost Spray” to be sure those pesky ghosts are really, truly gone for the night.

A real mom drives back up to the preschool at 8pm, praying a custodian is still there because his beloved blanket was accidentally left in his cubby.

A real mom sneaks in long after that baby has fallen asleep for just one more check before turning in herself for the night.

A real mom is willing to dig into the hard and the awkward and educate those who don’t understand that their words have power. Even though he’s only four, he understands what you’re saying when you ask where his “real mom” is.

I’m right here, Carol. I’m the one holding his hand and tucking him in and pretending your butterfly painting on his arm is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t his first mother, but I’m as real a mom as he’s ever going to know.

And I’m not going anywhere.

Allison and her husband, Blake, grew up in Dallas and made the move to the 'burbs in 2010 when she began teaching middle school in Frisco. After attending Texas A&M for her undergrad, Allison came back to Dallas to pursue her Master’s in Education from SMU. She has a huge love of writing and taught everything from preschool to eighth grade before obtaining her certification as a Pediatric Sleep Consultant. Today, McKinney is home for her circus which includes three children (four if you count her husband) and a troublemaking lab. Allison and her husband are both passionate about orphan care and adoption, a calling that led them to their adopted son from China and to pursue their foster care licensing during the pandemic. Keep up with all her shenanigans on Instagram!


  1. I am a grandma at this time in life. I don’t have adopted children. I read this and it made me angry at first, then your words took a turn to compassion for the ignorance of Carol, so my heart did too and it was then I wondered, have I ever said anything like that? I have a friend who has a down syndrome daughter and she gets things said all the time. Maybe these people don’t intentionally say things to wound, but the words aren’t said to soothe or support or encourage either. That’s where things are all messed up. I loved this post.
    My sister is a red haired freckled face blue eyed beauty. She married a man who’s mom is from Japan and his dad was white. My niece is a beautiful girl who looks Asian and she’s my sister’s biological child, so things are never for sure “obvious”. Thank you for sharing and I for one will intentionally try to choose words that encourage and support. Have a Great Day with your beautiful family!

  2. As a single mom by choice of 2 daughters adopted from china I love this. My girls are now 12&15. They came home at 10&12 months. It has been the most beautiful journey. Not once has anyone asked if I am really their mom. The years have just flown by. I am now in the stage of life thinking about what I am going to do when they are gone.

  3. I agree that this lady’s comment was incredibly rude, and out of place with your son present.
    However, you are in turn implying that your son’s Birth mother is fake. It is very likely that she would love Nothing more than picking him up at school and Watch Moana with him and, if she is Lucky enough to have a picture of him, that it’s her most cherished item. Her social and Financial conditions made it impossible for her. Show some grace, if not for her sake, at least for the sake of the son you share.

    • Hi! First of all, please understand this article was not written at ALL to lessen the importance of my son’s birthmother. The truth is that I will never know the reason my son’s first mother chose not to parent him. I love and respect her whole-heartedly, and despite the fact the I’ll most likely never know her name or circumstances, I will always raise my son to understand this she loved him first and made an incredibly selfless choice. (And truthfully, even if I knew her full story, I certainly wouldn’t share it on the internet. It’s not my story to share.)

      This article was written because I want us to understand the significance of our words, especially in front of children. My hope in sharing this story was that people would better understand the correct terminology to use with an adopted family out of respect for everyone involved. There are a lot of people out there who truly don’t understand why this comment was hurtful. This was written from my perspective as an adoptive mom, and I have heard from both other adoptive moms and adoptees that it resonated with them deeply. I am sorry if you read it any differently.

  4. My heart aches for you in those moments. I’ve been there too, just enjoying an outing with my daughter when I get blindsided by a question from a stranger like “is she your adopted or biological child?” or “where is she from?” My daughter is my biological child but she has darker skin than me. I believe these individuals do not realize how deeply personal and also hurtful these questions are. I hope to come up with a response that both protects the dignity of my family and also helps that person learn not to ask those types of questions in the future. Still working on that!

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