When the Name "Mother" Has Multiple Meanings

When the Name "Mother" Has Multiple Meanings

In honor of November being National Adoption Month, Portrait of an Adoption is running a special series called 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by adoptees, birthparents, adoptive parents, waiting adoptive parents, and foster parents-turned-adoptive parents.  Painful and beautiful, these stories will bring you a deeper understanding of what adoption looks like, allowing you to appreciate the many brushstrokes that comprise a family portrait.

When the Name “Mother Has Multiple Meanings

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

A few weeks ago, my daughter Saskia was in the mood to chat on the phone. She said, “I want to talk to Caroline.”  So, I dialed.  Caroline, often called “Auntie Cece” per her request, is Saskia’s mother.

She’s her first or birth mother or just mother.  Or she’s Caroline.  Or she’s “Auntie Cece,” which indeed is how Saskia addressed her during that phone call, which lasted about one minute. Saskia’s three-and-a-half and she doesn’t tend to say a whole lot beyond hello—and then a quick, random report about something that’s on her mind. That day, she told Caroline, “We went to the co-op,” and, “I can do a somersault.  Bye.”

Ever since Saskia’s birth –and our open adoption– I’ve wondered a lot about names.  The more I read, especially in the blogosphere where so many of the critical conversations about open adoption are taking place, in real time, the more I believe language falls short. Take, for example, mother — a title Caroline earned because she’s the person who carried Saskia into the world, and who gave her life and who then gave her the exact life she has with us.

Birth mother, first mother, tummy mommy; all these terms fall the tiniest bit shy. Who she is to Saskia does not require quantifying with birth or first or tummy.  Except the story is more complicated — the mothering of Saskia doesn’t stop at Caroline’s motherhood.

The truth is that I’m Saskia’s mother, as in the person notified by school if she’s sick and the person Saskia calls mother—well, mama or mommy.  I’m not babysitting on a long-term basis or holding the mother place for Caroline to take it back up later.  I’m Saskia’s mother.  I am also, both technically and truly, her adoptive mother.

Again, here is a place that feels tricky to describe, how adoption matters so much and not at all, all at once.

The keystone to our relationships with Saskia –mine, her papa’s, her three older brothers, our extended families’– is that she’s adopted, in that without adoption, she would not be our daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin or niece.

Caroline, when she decided to have a baby and not raise that baby and allow us to raise that baby, entrusted us with the most incredible gift imaginable.  I am not exaggerating when I say that every single day I am awed by the gift and grateful for Caroline’s trust.  So, I do think about adoption every day.

I don’t think about adoption, though, when I am hugging Saskia good morning or helping her put on her shirt or letting her have some chewing gum (with the gum, I think, Wow, your brothers would never ever have gotten to chew gum at age three, what’s happened to me?).  The mundane moments, those just happen and we are family going through the motions of being family, the treats doled out, the apples shared, the whining endured.  In the moment-to-moment, I do not draw distinctions between the children I gave birth to and the one we adopted.


To a huge extent, it’s the daily that makes us who we are.  Who we are is more than our accrued experiences, though; who we are has to do with what we bring with us into the world.  Saskia notes her skin is “brownish.”  That’s because her father—the birth or first father, whose DNA she carries—is Jamaican.

She has never met him; we have never met him; so we have no idea what preferences or motions or expressions of hers come from him.  We know only that there must be some, as there are with Caroline.  We also know certain preferences and motions and expressions are ones she shares with the rest of her family here, in her home.

So often people see her as “ours” and note all sorts of similarities.  They assume I gave birth to her.  Here again, is where adoption comes in: I can, in response, talk about adoption or I can nod.  Whether to “pass” comes up routinely.  Generally, it’s not a big deal.  Last night, for example when someone remarked upon her resemblance to me, I just let it go, not for a big emotional reason, but because we were attending a rather loud party and I couldn’t have a real conversation; the music was too loud for that. I didn’t want to yell: “She’s adopted!”

November is National Adoption Month. During November, we can educate and celebrate and hold a huge range of feelings in our hearts about adoption.  We can wrestle with the contradictions.  We can commit to helping more compassionate and intricate discussions about adoption exist.  We can ensure our children have a chance to find their truths about adoption and connection and identity.  I believe grappling with all of this is of my necessary “tasks” as an adoptive mother.

Here’s one thought for this name conundrum that I’m going to continue to mull during National Adoption Month (thereafter, too): maybe Caroline and I, we are both, both kinds of mothers: mothers without qualifiers and with them.

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser



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  • Lovely article. We could use fewer "qualifiers" in all kinds of ways. You've set me to thinking on that concept.
    Thank you!

  • A mother by any other name.....very thought-provoking post. In the end, it is the intangible emotion that defines the relationship, I think.

    When my foster daughter, Nina, was reunified with her birth mother Rayna, Rayna graciously allowed me to maintain contact with their family - on one condition. I could no longer allow Nina to call me "Mama, Mommy, Mom," any such name. It was very, very hard for me to get used to, at first. This daughter of my heart, who now refers to me by my first name. But when she jumps into my arms, wraps her arms and legs around me in an embrace so tight no one can get between us, looks deep into my eyes and says, "I love you SO much, Jiyer," my husband says, "I see a mother and daughter." There is an intimacy and a familiarity there that defines a mother-daughter bond, regardless of my title.

    I must add, however, that when I see Nina and Rayna together, and observe first hand the effects of Rayna's love and day-to-day nurturing, I see a "primary" mother, Rayna, who undoubtedly deserves the title "Mommy."

  • Such a complicated triangle, and yet it simplifies down to one common factor: love. Because you and Rayna both love Nina-- and she loves both of you-- somehow it will all work out. Some families are far more complex than one mother, one father, per one child. Yours is a web, and it is difficult to trace which strands are the beginning and which are the end.

  • In reply to Carrie Goldman:

    Tell me about it, Carrie! It is a challenge to assure Nina that nobody's feelings toward her has changed through all of this - most importantly, that we did not 'give her up" and still love her like parents, even though she is not calling us "Mama" and "Dada" anymore. I agree with you that it will all work out in the end, as long as the three main adult players in the story: my husband, myself and Rayna, keep Nina's best interests at heart.

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    It's so complicated--I hope the word mother is less important than the deed mothering. It seems your daughter feels that regardless. My eldest son has started calling me by my first name. I call my mother by hers (started in my 20's; he's 16); frankly, it's both sweet, fine, my name & jarring all at once. Makes me have to remember that no matter what he calls me, what we do with each other--the kind of caring--really doesn't change.

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