My son told me I’m his “second mom”

Guest post by Tanya Valentine

Tanya and son, photo by Rose Riot Photography.
“You’re my second mom.”

I swerved the car just a bit as my five-year-old’s words came from the backseat. In the rearview mirror, I tried to catch a glimpse. Was he scowling? Smirking? Sad? Oh, please don’t look sad. Nothing. He just looked right back at me.

We had waited until our son Ben turned four to talk about adoption. We wanted him to be old enough to begin to “get it,” knowing we’d build on it more and more as he was able to understand everything it meant. And like the “Where do babies come from?” conversation with our oldest son, the “What does adoption mean?” conversation was brief and age-appropriate, with most of the grownup details left out.

Although he’s asked why his afro can’t grow bangs (there’s an image!) or why his skin is brown and mine is white, he’s always quick to move on to other questions like:

Who is cooler: Superman or Batman? (Superman, obviously.)

“Um… what?”

But back to the car conversation: six years earlier, we put our 16-month-old foster son in the backseat of a stranger’s car. We’d fallen in love with him during his 14-month stay but the grandparents he’d never met were adopting him. He was so tiny in that big car, screaming and crying. We could do nothing but stand on the sidewalk, blowing him kisses and trying not to cry until the case worker’s car was out of sight. That’s when I knew I was not strong enough to be a foster mom and it was time to adopt.

“You’re my second mom.”

He repeated. I suppose I should have been happy this conversation took place in the car and not in the middle of the grocery store or a parent-teacher conference.

After four months of paperwork, background checks, and a home study, the state rubber-stamped us. We were qualified to adopt. Our agent called about babies who weren’t even born yet. No newborns, I’d told her. Newborns were outside of our budget and we were too old for 3am feedings. Toddlers or preschoolers only.

But we soon learned that those kids are rarely in the foster care system — extended family usually takes them in. So, we set our sights on a country in Africa, filed the international paperwork, and paid the additional fees. A nanosecond later, our agent called about another baby. I reminded her we absolutely, positively did not want a newborn. We’d applied to our chosen country and that was that.

She kept talking: The attorney’s fees were in our budget. The baby was due in two weeks. He was only an hour’s drive away. No one had applied for him. NO ONE HAD APPLIED FOR HIM. He was black. He was a boy. If adoption were kickball, he’d have been the last pick for the team. He was coming into this world with no one. How in the world would we let that happen?

“What do you mean?”

I’d guess parents worry, on average, a million times a day about exactly how they are screwing up their kids. I had no idea that raising an adopted child raises the worry-per-day numbers astronomically. The biggest worry of all is that Ben will wish he’d had a different mom. That someday he’ll wish for a first mom.

Who is cooler: first mom or second mom? (Oh, God.)

“I had a mom before you. But she couldn’t take care of me so she gave me to you. But that was years ago and now I’m yours. YOU are my second mom. Can I have a snack?”

As the garage door closed behind us and Ben scrambled out of the car and into the house, I took a moment to breathe. First mom. Second mom. Both of us wanted the best for Ben. Both of us were important, necessary, and irreplaceable in his life. Maybe someday he’ll think we’re (almost) as cool as Superman. Maybe.

Comments on My son told me I’m his “second mom”

  1. I’ve been behind wheel, driving, hearing these spoken thoughts too. Figuratively and literally. Difficult to get from passing lane, to off ramp, when this happens. The word ‘real’ and ‘bio’, ‘second’ mom/dad is so tough to swallow. All I can say is that because they are little kids, they don’t mean what we think they mean. When he hugs you and kisses you, let that be the best sign you can read, non-verbally. Love is love. Family is family.

    • Exactly–they don’t mean what we think they mean. It must have been hard to hear “second mom” when, for adults, “second” implies “inferior”, but for him, it had only the temporal meaning. No undertones. Talking to kids is rough sometimes.

  2. Man, I must be coming down with something…suddenly have this big lump in my throat…

    This is a lovely essay. We are also looking into foster adoption and I know I want to adopt for sure. I was surprised to hear that there weren’t many toddlers/preschoolers in the system…I’ve always hear that babies are the rarity and the older kids are harder to place. This story is so great…thank you so much for posting!

    • It is difficult to adopt toddlers/preschoolers from foster care without having fostered those children first. If a baby enters the system and becomes legally free for adoption, if no bio family is interested in adopting or qualified to do so, then it’s quite likely that the foster parents will adopt this child. That is why there are few children this age who are legally free for adoption (save for toddlers/preschoolers with significant medical needs who are currently living in out-of-home placements or with foster parents not wanting to take on the challenge adopting children with this high a level of need).

      Hope this answers your question/explains this.

  3. We are going for the second part of our home study (individual interviews) tomorrow. Eek! I’m glad that more and more families that have adopted are sharing about their experiences. Now … if we could only get more families of color talking about adoption … hmmm …

  4. I’m now an adult that was in the foster care system since the age of 8 and lived with a family that treated me as their own (still does), I can say honestly you will never be his “Real Mom.” However, even he/she can’t express their real feelings (due to whatever happened to them) those daily little actions of “tough love” will count, and as time passes he/she will come to “think” of you as “Mom” eventhough they know you are not their “real” Mom. That’s how it was for me. I never once told my foster mom that I loved her, not even on her death bed, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t, I just couldn’t/never learned express my feelings verbally due to what happened to me. Don’t hold it against them, their actions will let you know. It’ might not be how you would express yourself, but keep an open mind.

    • It sounds like this is a different situation than yours, as she adopted him when he was a baby, which is not the same as fostering an eight year old. I’m uncomfortable with your saying that she will never be his “real” mom. I realize this was your experience, but no one person gets to speak for all adopted/foster children.

      • I also hesitate to speak for an adopted child, since I am not one, but having two adopted siblings (both adopted at infants, under 6 months), I am not sure it is fair to say “You will never be his “real” mom.” While I don’t deny that family is very personal, and different people have different feelings which are perfectly valid — that seems to be a very sweeping statement about adopted children.

        My own 2 siblings, for example, seem to feel differently even though their experiences are very similar. One of them has always struggled with identity and issues over being adopted, while the other does not so much — he is interested in his country of origin, proud of his own ethnicity, but very deeply attached to his adopted family. My parents have always been very open about adoption and what it means, and he knows about birth/biological parents. But I don’t think that necessarily brings a struggle about what “real” family is.

        I don’t mean to gloss over the difficulties that adoption entails, I really don’t. But just like I wouldn’t presume to say that all adopted kids consider their adoptive parents their ‘real’ parents, I am not comfortable with the statement you will never be the ‘real’ mom. And of course, there are children born into families who don’t feel that their parents are ‘real’ parents because they don’t take care of them properly, too! Terms like “real” aren’t actually very helpful in adoption.

        • I agree with “Terms like “real” aren’t actually very helpful in adoption. ”

          Also, “second mom” and “real mom” aren’t mutually exclusive. A person could feel that both their first mom and second mom (or aunt or grandma or someone else) are their “real moms”.

          • I grew up with both my mother and grandmother and they live together to this day. They are both my ‘real’ mothers since they both raised me and were there for me. We are in the process to adoption and we would hope our child feels the same way about their birth parents and us.

        • since I am not one, but having two adopted siblings (both adopted at infants, under 6 months)

          Anoymous: I curious what your parents told “people” (neighbors, classmates, etc) about your siblings when they asked if they were theirs (I’m assuming they don’t look like you and they can tell they weren’t their birth kids). How did they describe you vs them? Did they say this is my son/daughter and these are my adopted son/daughter or did they not acknowledge the question?

          • Amanda — my parents never distinguish between the adopted and biological children. In fact, there is a significant age gap between us (3 within 4 years, then a 7 yr gap and 4 yrs btwn the youngest two who were adopted), so we older ones were very aware of the whole process. The youngest two do look different — one is biracial (Euro/African-American) and one is Hispanic, from Latin America. They have always known from when they were babies what their background was; we celebrate “Adoption Day” with presents and cake, in addition to birthdays (conveniently, at the same time bc both were adopted in the same month).

            People have assumed all kinds of crazy things, and my parents just roll with it and answer questions honestly without sharing too much personal information: “Yes, that’s my son. Well, he doesn’t look like me because he was born in another country before he came to our family” to a curious kid on a baseball team. “He was adopted from [Latin American country],” to an adult, maybe. If an adult asked more questions, they were always upbeat and positive about how wonderful adoption has been for our family, but gently steered them away from anything that might be hurtful to the children. On the other hand, it’s surprising how when you act totally normal, lots of people don’t even seem to notice that the youngest two look too different.

            Oddly, it hasn’t been that much of an issue. My mom is dark (part Middle Eastern), so if she is out with the Hispanic child, people assume they match. My biracial brother has reddish hair and a fair complexion, like my dad. My dad has been mostly upset by people assuming he is the grandfather of the youngest because of the age difference 🙂 It has also helped explain it to the kids that my parents are different ethnicities, which is true in many families, so if you think about, *everyone* in the family isn’t Czech or British or whatever, because mom and dad are different. People have asked really weird questions (how will you talk to your baby when he learns to talk, since you don’t know Spanish?) and more than one person assumed that I and my oldest brother were the ones that were adopted (we have Russian names and they assumed we were adopted from Russia 🙂 but as long as they are not intentionally rude, my parents are really good at deflecting and sharing good experiences.

            They have always made it clear that the birth mothers were brave, heroic women who made a very difficult choice because they loved their babies so much and honestly felt this was the best situation for them. They don’t really have that much information, and it could be difficult in a more emotionally-charged situation, but as far as we know, they simply couldn’t emotionally and financially care for a child and wanted them to have safe, loving homes. It is very clear to both of the kids that my parents did NOT adopt them to ‘save’ them — they adopted them because they WANTED more kids, and that they (my parents, our family) are the ones who are blessed to have the adopted kids, not the other way around, like the kids should be grateful for being saved.

            Sorry, this is more than required to answer your question! I feel so strongly about this topic, because my brothers are awesome, and 0ur family has been so blessed by adoption. Although, on a day to day basis, we don’t really think about it anymore: they fight, play, celebrate, and destroy the house just like the rest of my siblings.

      • Unless you are adopted or a foster child you can’t really have an opinion. There is no way you can even understand it. I had the option to be adopted at the age of 12 and I deceided against it for the simple reason childlike “I didn’t want to change my last name” how silly is that???, so yes it is the same in my mind. I am their daughter, I just feel like I never will be a “part” of “their” family because she/him never was my birth mom. I imagined all the time at family gatherings “what if I wasn’t here”, would they even miss me? And to all the parents who are out there thinking of adopting or fostering the one thing that pushes the child away is introducing them as my “adopted daughter/son or my foster daughter/son” Eventhough they didn’t mean to make me feel seperate from them that is the one thing that put a wall up. The only time in the 20+ years I have been a part of their family that I was introduced as “this is my daughter” was on my “moms” obituary…it said I have 5 kids (included me and my sister).

        • Hey Amanda,

          I really value everyone’s contributions to this discussion, but I need to echo what Anna said: “I realize this was your experience, but no one person gets to speak for all adopted/foster children.” Just as Anna may not be able to understand your experience as a foster child, you aren’t able to understand the experience of the child in this post, or of any other fostered/adopted child. There’s no way for you to know if this child or any other child feels the same as you (in fact, we have a post written by a woman who was adopted, and she’s saying the opposite of what you’re saying). Please keep in mind that you’re wading into murky territory by speaking for every child who has been fostered/adopted.

          As far as this: “And to all the parents who are out there thinking of adopting or fostering the one thing that pushes the child away is introducing them as my “adopted daughter/son or my foster daughter/son” — I can’t speak for every parent who has adopted or fostered, but our archives are filled with stories from adoptive parents who clearly consider their children THEIR children, not their foster kids or adopted kids. All I’m trying to say with that is that you’re preaching to the choir: I think you’ll find that many of our readers agree with you.

          Again: thank you. Thank you for bringing up these points and balancing the discussion, because I don’t think many of us hear the perspective of an adopted and/or fostered child often enough. In return, please keep in mind that your experience isn’t a universal one.


          • That’s fine Stephanie. I just don’t think Anne understand by the comment “she adopted him when he was a baby, which is not the same as fostering an eight year old” implies that my fostering/daily adoption situation didn’t count because I wasn’t a baby or didn’t have a piece of paper….my “parents” were there every day, every softball game, everything…they were great, However I still thought those thoughts, just like the little boy did… isn’t he the one that said “you are my second mom”? So he is thinking/feeling it also… whatever “it” might be for him… noted every situation is different, didn’t mean to imply it’s the same, just some people don’t tell you what they really think because they don’t want to hurt your feelings…. when they are older you should ask them, find out for yourself, instead of assuming. Have a great day!

      • Think about it as if your Mom/Dad died or something, then you had to live with your aunt/uncle….eventhough your Aunt/Uncle loved you with all of their hearts…. they still wouldn’t replace your mom/dad…. that’s about as simple as I can help you understand. Hope this helps.

        • I was certainly never trying to imply that your adoption was not real because you were eight at the time. By different situation I simply meant that you had many years of memories and experiences before being fostered, where as someone adopted as a baby has to be told they are adopted as they probably don’t remember life before their adopted families.

          I was never trying to discount your experience or your reality. And I appreciate that you are sharing your story here. I just feel it would be more helpful, and in the spirit of this community, to phrase everything as “this was my experience,” rather than, “this will be your son’s experience.” He gets to figure out what his experience and feelings are, and it sounds like he’s doing a great job of that.

          For the record, Second doesn’t sound like “not real” to me, just second chronologically. But I also realize that’s just my interpretation.

  5. i love how kids can be so blunt, and just lay things out in a manner without much emotion, and with the literal meaning of words behind them. to me it just seems so simple, so logical. there is no hidden agenda, no ulterior motives. its really refreshing, in a way.

  6. Thank you for such a sweet, heart-warming story about your son. When I was a junior in high school, my family adopted an almost-5 year old boy from Haiti (my family being white, him not). As the big sister, I’ve struggled with not being a ‘another mom’ as well as the fact that his big brother (18 months older than me) was WAY cooler to hang out with than his sister. Not to mention, the struggles my younger (by 5 years) sister had with no longer being the baby of the family. He is now 15 and grown from the height of my belly button to a towering 8 inches over my head and still growing. He is completing his freshman year of high and visits my older brother an I (who live near each other but cross-country from the rest of the family) on his own at least once a year. I sure love that little boy and his big grin and laugh always makes me smile and sometimes even get a little misty-eyed when I think about how lucky I am that my parents added one more sibling to my family to love.

  7. Wow! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to read such kind words about my post in particular and adoption in general. I greatly appreciate all of you for taking the time to read my story and comment and share your thoughts. 🙂

  8. Awesome post. I’ve adopted two children who are of a different race from me–got them both at birth and told them always that God had made them for our family, even though I didn’t give birth to them. They seem to be fine, well-adjusted children, despite my lame job of mothering them.

    Adoption is a great way to have kids, I think. Sure if you adopt at birth you still have the 3AM feedings but you don’t have go through that whole bothersome nine months full of throwing up and then swollen ankles or that painful and labor and delivery thingy. 🙂

    • Just be prepared for questions in the future! My parents told me something similar, but as I grew up I started to think “um, if God is all powerful, then why did he put me in the ‘wrong’ family to begin with?” Caused quite a head trip for awhile there! Maybe your children won’t be in that place, but just know they might wonder!

      • Interesting! I’d never thought of that. I don’t think we ever approached it as if God every put them in the wrong family before they came into ours…we couldn’t have children because my husband was a quadriplegic, so I think we all believed that ours was the right family for them and they just needed to be conceived somewhere else so they could come into our family.

        But thanks for your take on the issue. That’s something I’ll talk to my kids about. They are grown already, but this will still be an interesting thing to discuss with them.

  9. I want to point out how cool kiddos with lots of parents can be-

    Awesome things kids brains do:
    My boys are dealing with the fact their bio’rents have recently split up. Foregoing imaginary friends, our three year old has developed two more imaginary mums. They are named Mama Jamie and Mama Jessie. Our first introduction to them was one evening when he announced “I have two more mamas. They used to live together, but now they will live in different houses. Mama Jessie is going to live with the cat.” For the past week or so, my wife and I have been learning all about these “new moms” and their lives.

  10. What a beautiful story. Your son sounds lucky to have a mom who is as aware and concerned in his experience. Everyone has a different experience in out of home placements, but for me biology had nothing to do with family. I was placed with a guardian when I was 15, and old enough to have some very strong feelings about first and second dad. My “second dad” was the man who gave me a home, cared for me, loved me, raised me, and put me through school. Biology had nothing to do with it. I tell him all the time that he’s the best parent I’ve ever had. That’s not to say that I never got the sads wondering why I had to have a second dad at all, but I wouldn’t be the woman I am today if it hadn’t been for him.

    These are complicated issues that evolve even more as children get older. But from my point of view, “second parents” are way better than Superman.

  11. For about a year when I was a teen, I referred to my adoptive father as Uncle. Due to a past history of abuse, I couldn’t deal with recognizing such a close male relationship and needed some distance. He was wonderful and didn’t take it personally in any way. I worked through the challenge, and over time was able to let the walls down. We have a very easy relationship now.

    I would say that Second Mum is a pretty accurate and honorable title. Not second as in lesser, but just in terms of first it was this person, and now it’s this person. At least you’re still ‘Mum’…that’s awesome!

    Best wishes to your little family!

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