When with my mother, people will sometimes gawk or question the genuineness of our relationship. Many have pondered, “Is she your real mother?” My response to prodding noses when I was younger was, “Of course, she’s real. It’s not like she’s my permanent babysitter.” To define my first mother as my “real” mother and my adoptive mother as a “non-real” mother is completely dismissive the energy she’s put into advocating the best educational and learning experiences for me, the caring, giving, and holistic values she’s tried to instill in me, and all of the hours she’s spent talking with and consoling me about school, life, and relationships. I remember when she wouldn’t let me sleep with plush unicorns because she worried the horns would stab me in the eye or when she would come in my room to pull the covers down from over my head and unplug my string lights in case they started a fire. I remember when she would sit with me as I slowly and painstakingly wrote essays that always required her edits. And I remember how frustrated she would be when I procrastinated on assignments or when she thought some boy wasn’t treating me well. If that’s not a mother, I don’t know what is.
Paying tribute to the importance of adoptive mothers, other people sometimes say, “Real mothers are the ones who raise, teach, and watch their children grow up.” This view prioritizes adoptive parents and is insensitive to the fact that many birthmothers have few options and may have wanted to be able to “raise, teach and watch” their children. In my opinion, this sentiment ignores the significance of first mothers. The fact that I exist is proof enough that my first mother is real. Though I don’t know the sound of her voice, the texture of her skin, or the sight of her smile, she was my giver of life. She welcomed me into this world and, for two years, washed my body, dried my tears, and taught me Mandarin. When I came to the Nanjing Social Welfare Institute, I was a walking, talking, babbling toddler with much love in my heart. I attribute my ability to connect deeply with my nanny to a significant connection before – one whose foundation was a mother’s love.
Representing more than just nature and nurture, both of my mothers have greatly impacted me and shaped the person I am becoming. To identify one mother as “real” degrades the other to a fake status. In my experience, I have only had real mothers. I think we need to eliminate the word “real” from our rhetoric on families and legitimatize the roles of people in differently structured families. Doing so would take the concept of family out of the currently, rigidly sculpted box, and allow both transracial adoptive families and adoptees’ first families to be recognized – not with qualifying, evaluative terms, but just as family. That is important and enough.