Laura Dennis, adoption, bipolar, memoir
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This glossary is by no means comprehensive, it’s barely in alphabetical order! Instead, I’ve grouped terms in ways that make sense only to me logical ways.

If you have an apt post of your own, or the link to one you really love, let me know in the comments section below. I will read and add as appropriate. Then, I will rinse and repeat … until I have some type of complete Adoption Glossary.

General Adoption Terminology


Hi. My name is Laura. I’m an adult adoptee. I’m also the author of this super-special Adoption Glossary. Welcome!

adoption - Includes a variety of family situations. Infant adoption, domestic adoption, international adoption, foster care adoption, step-parent adoption.* (This list is not exhaustive.)

Also: A legal construct to create a family, to transfer legal guardianship and parental rights to people other than those the child was born to.

Further reading:

(Some might say that adoption is a legal way of buying a child. <<Whistles and walks away>> …)

closed adoption – All records are sealed when the baby transfer takes place. New, amended, birth certificates are issued. No further contact with the first family. Records may become unsealed when adoptee turns 18, facilitating a reunion.

Most international adoptions tend to be closed, due, in addition to the legalities, to language barriers and distance. Sometimes adoptive parents seek out international adoption with the express purpose of avoiding the adoption from ever opening.

family tree – Tracing one’s ancestry. In adoption … Um, complicated much? Read more from my Lost Daughters post, My Adoptee Family Tree is Actually an Orchard.

foster care -

foster parent -

foster to adopt -

forever family – A phrase used in the foster care system. The family a foster care child will go home to for permanent placement. Was also used in international adoptions from Korea and elsewhere (thanks, Daniel for pointing this out), often by Christian and LDS missionaries, as well as Jewish Family Services, as far back as the earliy 1960s.

Some first mothers bristle, as they are also your “forever family.” First families exist; they are simply not currently raising the adoptee. Further, they are forever, even if the legal papers say otherwise.

family preservation – helping familys stay together, not be separated by adoption, foster care. Involves education, support (financial

OBR (Original Birth Record) or OBC (Original Birth Certificate) – The document that may state the legal name of the person who gave birth to the adoptee. In closed adoptions, sealed away, and an amended birth certificate is issued which state the legal names of the adoptee and the adoptive parents.

open adoption - A trend in domestic adoptions, both infant and foster care. Levels of “openness” vary, and are not (yet) legally enforceable.

The adoption arrangement can include beyond mere letters, photos and occasional phone calls. Open adoption relationships can also include visits on a regular basis with the adoptee and his or her first family. Opens up a whole new set of potential issues for the child, ones may be more easily addressed  “in real time,” as opposed to the secrecy involved in closed adoptions. As the adoptees in open adoption come of age, we will hear their experiences and learn. More studies are needed on this.

Further reading and a truly amazing resource: Lori Holden’s blog on Open Adoption.

post-adoption issues - General term referring to any psychological, emotional and yes, sometimes physical issue that may arise as a result of the trauma of losing one’s birth family, specifically the first mother.

reunion - Adoptee reunites with first family. With specifically the first mother, it’s not the adoptee “meeting her birth mother for the first time,” it’s actually reuniting with her, because they’ve already met.

hot potato – as in “dropped like a hot potato,” shortly after reuniting. (Thanks, Von!)

secondary rejection — if the first rejection was when the child was given away, than in reunion, secondary rejection happens when the first family refuses contact, or a relationship. The fear of secondary rejection is one of the main reasons why adoptees refuse to search, even if they are curious.

Read more from Rebecca Hawkes, Secondary Rejection: Painful by Any Name.

international adoption -

transcultural adoption -

transracial adoption -

kinship adoption – natural extended family members adopt the child, as opposed to “strangers.” Read more here from Kellie on  Kinship Adoption.

non-identifying information (NII) – is a written document, or information provided orally to the adoptive parents, which ostensibly states some of the biological information about the adoptee. Usually basic details such as height, weight, eye color, hair color and ethnic origin of the birth parents and members of the birth parents’ extended family. May include level of education reached, occupation and hobbies or interests of various family members.

May also be completely false. Read more about it here — Dear Adopted Girl–I already have my non-identifying info, Why Reunite?

People Involved

adoptee – Duh. Well, the word is not recognized by my dictionary, so here goes.

A person* who was adopted at some point in time. If we can recognize that adoption, in today’s language (I am not a lawyer!) is generally a legal construct meant to grant legal custody of a person, then it is not a “one-time-thing.” One is not adopted and then it’s over. Like signing a marriage certificate, once you finalize the marriage, you are married. Once the transaction takes place, a person is adopted, and always will be.

Quick note: *Someone who is adopted is not necessarily a child, so please be careful not to refer to an adult as an “adopted child.” Yep, I’m not kidding; I’ve seen it happen.

adoption constellation - see adoption triad, below. Adoption constellation is now often used as an expanded definition, to include not just first mother, adoptee and adoptive mom but … first father, all members of the original extended family. Also, the adoptee, adoptive parents and adoptive extended family. This term is more inclusive, and can also help one visualize that not all stars in the constellation are equally close to one another.

Note from Lori Holden — “adoption constellation” today also includes adoption professionals, which I love. We definitely need more trained professionals involved in helping manage, develop and maintain adoption reunions and open adoptions.

adoption triad – generally refers to first mother, adoptee, adoptive mom.

Further reading on this phrase, from international adoptee, Daniel Ibn Zayd On the False Equality of the Adoption Triad

adoptive mother**The woman who is the legal guardian of the adopted person, until he or she is 18. The woman who raises the adoptee, also a mom.

birth mother** – this is the widely used, most generally accepted term outside the world of adoption. If you’re talking to the general population, using the term “birth mother” will have certain implications, a woman who relinquished a child, likely at the child’s birth. The assumption will be that that woman then “moved on with her life.”

However, many first mothers take great offense at the use of “birth mother,” feeling it reduces their contribution to a womb; a baby-making factory and nothing more. NOTE (thanks, Darlene): The term “birth mother” is frequently used incorrectly for a pregnant woman who is considering adoption. A woman is not a birth mother until she signs the adoption papers.

Today, more and more adult adoptees who grew up with the term “birth mother” are now beginning to find other ways to characterize the woman who relinquished them, who is also a mom.

BM - abbreviation for “birth mother,” the same abbreviation for “bowel movement.” Please … Do not refer to birth mothers by the same abbreviation used for defecation. Even if offense is not intended, there is the not-so-subtle judgment which underlies using this particular short-hand. Please simply take the time and finger-typing-”effort” to write out “birth mother.” (Thanks to Kellie for pointing this out.)

biological mother – often used interchangeably with birth mother.

birth father - Oh yeah, him, too. Often forgotten in this whole pregnancy, relinquishment, adoption, reunion mess. For insight into the perils of birth fathers losing rights to their children, read Julie’s post on Lost Daughters, Father Finally Receives Justice after Illegal Adoption

first mother  - An increasingly widely used term that recognizes the contribution of the relinquishing woman.

natural mother and original mother – alternates to first mother, depends upon personal preference. Sometimes adoptive parents get upset because the term “natural mom” means that the adoptive family is what, then un-natural? Again, it’s important not to look in dualistic, either/or, good/bad paradigms. Just because the woman whose biology an adoptee has is called “natural mom,” doesn’t make the relationship the adoptee has with her adoptive family in any way un-natural. It’s complicated, as are most things when it comes to adoption!

real mother - A real tricky subject! Who is the “real” mom? It’s an intense debate. Some say blood is thickest, others say the one who wiped your butt is your mom. But again, in this new age of understanding, it may be healing and helpful to try to move away from dualistic definitions of one parent as real, the other not.

Both are people; both are real. It’s a both/and situation (as opposed to either/or), and that’s okay.

second mother – refers to the adoptive mother. Most adoptees who use the first mother phrase, see it as a chronological distinction, rather than a ranking.

** Substitute “mother” for “father,” “parents,” “family,” “brother,” “sister,” “aunt” … You get the picture.

Then there are some of the more, how shall I put it, “risque phrases” that have arisen out of the Adoption War and Mommy War cultural conversation. They are pretty self-explanatory, and sometimes hurtful, but here they are:

Tummy Mom vs. Diaper Mom (thank you Rosie O’Donnell). Instead of Diaper Mom, we also have Flu MomUm, right now. No words, except to say that these phrases carry with them so many assumptions and judgements, they are seriously fraught.


(Sometimes Stereotypical) Phrases

adoption kool aid – The magical drink offered by (most) adoption agencies for both first mothers and prospective adoptive parents that prescribes: everything about adoption is beautiful and what is best for the baby. Read more on adoption kool aid

adoption fog - To blatantly mix metaphors, as one recovers from drinking adoption kool aid, one may find oneself coming out of an adoption fog, that hazy, confused state in which one is redefining one’s outlook on adoption. May include questioning long-held assurances, seeing the adoption experience in a new light, now without rose-colored glasses. Oh, it’s a veritable metaphor soup.

Further reading: Emerging from the fog, a Lost Daughters Roundtable

adopto-raptor - A derogatory phrase used by some in the adoption world to indicate that adoptive parents are stealing babies, thereby behaving unethically. The phrase relates to the dinosaur, velociraptor, who is believed to have stolen eggs from other dinosaur nests.

angry adoptee - A phrase used to characterize adoptees who seem to go against the generally accepted idea that adoption is an ideal solution. Adoptees are supposed to be grateful, to be ecstatic that they found their families, to not express any post-adoption issues. Further reading:

  • Deanna Doss Shrodes takes on the angry adoptee stereotype, and owns it at Adoptee Restoration.
  • Amanda Woolston discusses the Angry Ingrate stereotype at Lost Daughters. The post is called, “Not Raising Angry Ingrates: a Tall Order for Adoptive Parents.”
  • There is also a social justice side of adoption advocacy, which Amanda Woolston outlines.

The Adoption Paradox – Fitting in and yet, not fitting in. Having several different families, some we know, some we don’t, some who refuse to know each other.

buying a baby – Comparing the adoption transaction to that of purchasing a person, like a slave.

Hmmmm, I could argue this one either way. I never was made to feel like a commodity by my adoptive parents; I received unconditional love. However. When I was ten, we were learning about slavery in our state, Maryland. Well, I put 2 and 2 together and interrogated my adoptive parents as to how much they’d paid for me. While they insisted they only paid for the medical expenses for my birth, it still didn’t sit right with me. Today, prospective adoptive parents pay the “fee,” but it goes to a lot more than medical expenses. Often, adoption agencies are the ones making the money in this exchange. Further regulation is needed.

chosen or wanted child – a term that can be a part of the adoptive parents’ so-called “adoption narrative” for their child. As in, “We chose you. You’re special,” or “You are God’s gift to us.”

fundraising (spaghetti dinners, garage sales and other) - Let’s do a fun word-association for: Fundraising to Adopt … distasteful. [See, buying a child, above.]

You’re not buying a baby, but you have to raise money to get one that you couldn’t otherwise afford? I get it, couples want babies, and they want to raise children. But. Having a garage sale, and ten years later, the neighbor says to your child, “Oh we got this lamp, it was a bargain at $5, it was part of your parents’ fundraiser to get you! I helped pay for you!” A.w.k.w.a.r.d.

Further reading

adult adoptee: Those “children” who were adopted, and then they grew up. An important distinction–at times those who would otherwise like to discount the experience of adopted persons often refer to adults as “adopted children,” when in fact they are people who are now thinking adults.

Prospective Adoptive Parent: (also, PAP) a male or female who has not yet completed the adoption of a child.

ghost child – transversely ghost kingdom

Further reading — Amanda at The Declassified Adoptee

Gotcha! Day – Also, an incredibly distasteful phrase, borderline demeaning, even. The phrase buys into the stereotypical notion that there is only celebration when it comes to adoption, that no loss was involved. Tends to ignore the child’s first family background.

Further readingLaura’s post on Gotcha Day

grateful adoptee - “Oh, but aren’t you sooo grateful to you adoptive parents for taking you in?!” Nuf said.

Further reading from Deanna Doss Shrodes.

honeymoon period – The time frame directly after reunion when everyone is super happy and joyful. Doesn’t always happen in reunion–in rare cases, people don’t want to be found. However, once reunited, first families and adoptees often relish in the “getting to know you period.” But after a short time period, the arduous task of creating a blended family becomes apparent, and it’s not so easy to maintain the reunion.

trump card – My Adoptee New Year’s Resolution is to Be the Trump Card.

genetic sexual attraction – I know, ick right? It exists, it’s when two people who are biologically related are attracted to one another. More on this later …

Going beyond “traditional” perceptions of what adoption means

sperm donor -

egg donor -

embryo donor -

surrogate -

*  *  *  *  *

Does all of this “talking about definitions” get you riled up? Do you have something to day about adoption culture, terminology, and reuniting? Then, comment here, or consider contributing to the upcoming anthology Adoption Reunion Conclusions (or better, yet, do both!). Anyhoo, please, get involved!

If you choose to be a part of Adoption Reunion Conclusions, there will be a ton of promoting going on, and you’ll get access to free copies, blog tours, book tours, and lots of other promotions. The deadline for contributions is Feb. 28, 2013!

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  1. Darlene Gerow permalink

    Under "birth mother" please clarify that the term is frequently incorrectly used in reference to a pregnant woman who might be considering the possibility of relinquishing. A mother does not become a "birth mother" until she actually relinquishes.

    • Laura permalink

      Ah ha, good call, thanks–you are totally right! –Laura

  2. Daniel Hu-Yeong Kim permalink

    "Forever family" is not a new term. It comes out of the missionary adoption movement, and was used in 1961 when I was adopted (via Holt) from Korea. It certainly has become more popular since the late 1970s, however; up until then I think it was used only in the Christian missionary movement. I've heard LDS missionaries who participated in placements (mostly to middle class families elsewhere in Southeast Asia) from the Thai refugee camps use it as well.

    I believe it's also been used by some other denominations; Jewish Family Services, for example, back when they had a more robust adoption program. And yes, as you note, it is most popular in public foster care/foster adopt programs throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Australia, where I live.

    • Laura permalink

      Awesome, thank you. I'll get this updated, as well. As a product of the U.S. domestic closed adoption system, I still have a lot to learn about international adoptions. Thanks!

  3. I have one other term that really gets me. I cannot stand when others shorten the term "birth mother" to BM. Having worked in the medical field and raised three children using this term to refer to defecation, I find it horribly offensive to call a person by this term.

    I'm not a first mother, but my daughter is. She prefers to be called natural mother.

    Good post. I hope everyone reads and pays attention.

    • Laura permalink

      Yes, so true–I'll add this caveat. It may be "difficult" to actually write-out-the-term :) … I'm joking. Of course, and it does send a message, definitely not a pleasant one!

  4. Paul Hedg-peth permalink

    A glossary is generally looked at as a tool to help one understand the common meanings of words. This isn't a glossary, it is a political manifesto. I don't think it does good for anyone involved with adoption and certainly not for those whose personal history includes more than one family. Laura frequently editorializes on her blog, and I have no issue with her expressing her opinions. I agree with some and disagree with others, but that is the nature of opinions. However, a glossary is not the place for opinions, cheeky comments, and innuendo.

    • Barbara Thavis permalink

      It's her glossary, Paul. I bet the adoption agencies have glossaries and they are't listing "adoption kool aid" or "adoption fog". Nuf said.

      Great job, Laura!

      • Laura permalink

        Thanks, Barbara–I was just starting to doubt myself. :)
        It's a glossary written from an adoptee perspective. Also, I did include "adopto-raptor" to try to state that it's not nice. So, there is *some* balance.
        Anyway, thanks and great to "meet" you!

      • Laura permalink

        Thanks for your support, I truly, truly appreciate it! … Not to be snarky *again*, but why would the agencies put adoption koolaid or adoption fog in their materials?! Adoption is beautiful–there are no post-adoption issues, either! (As if.)
        Anyway, thanks again for writing.

    • glos·sa·ry [glos-uh-ree, glaw-suh-] Show IPA

      noun, plural glos·sa·ries.


      a list of terms in a special subject, field, or area of usage, with accompanying definitions.


      such a list at the back of a book, explaining or defining difficult or unusual words and expressions used in the text.

      I believe what Laura has done falls within the definition of "glossary" as defines the term. Adoption is most definitely a special subject. The terms might not be palatable, but adoption itself is not palatable for those of us who have suffered for it.

      • Laura permalink


        Thanks for this, I was thinking the same thing, and I agree–I mean, any Adoption Glossary is going to have subjective, divisive terms. At least by listing them, demystifying or clarifying, people who want to try to be more sensitive than others can learn to adapt their language.

        Thanks for commenting here, I appreciate your support!

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks for posting. I really appreciate that you keep reading, even when you disagree with my viewpoints. I guess my thing about the glossary would be that so many of these terms can trigger strong emotions–from all aspects of the adoption constellation. I mean, take the term, adopto-raptor … It's not very nice, no matter what one's view of adoption is. But, the term exists, and I think it's offensive. It's name-calling, it's not an "approved alternative." It's a phrase used on blogs and in comments sections, and it triggers people. So, I think it has a place in the glossary. There is little written that is completely objective. In fact, I would argue the moment someone says it's objective, that's a red flag that it's probably not.

      This is a glossary written by an adoptee; the one central person in the adoption constellation, and the one who has historically not had a voice. So, by appropriating an Adoption Glossary, written from an adoptee perspective, it's a proactive way of rewriting history. But you're right, I should put a better disclaimer on the glossary–stating my viewpoint, especially for new readers who are not aware of my point-of-view. So, I thank you for that.

      And again, I appreciate your viewpoint, so I hope you'll keep on reading and commenting!

  5. Laura, this is such a great resource. Keep it up!!!

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks Addison for all of your continued support, I really do appreciate it, and I haven't forgotten about the "adoption movie" blog idea — I just have to find the right movie to write about … Laura

  6. Hey Laura – LOVE LOVE (did I say LOVE?) you and Deanna and the Lost Daughters <3 Y'all are helping me escape the fog – I am finally in the meadow and I see my clear skies ahead…I am SO very grateful for you both!!

    I read on one of your other posts one of the comments brought up a term that I didn't see in your glossary that I thought was wonderful…"Family of Intention" – what are your thoughts?

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks so much for your support. I know–we DO need help (and support) to escape the fog. I'll have to think more about this notion of family of intention–the family that we create that may not be related by blood or adoption papers. It's an interesting and important topic!

  7. Lesley Earl permalink

    this is the making of a great resource…thank you all.wonderful;-)

  8. Shannen permalink

    Thank you for having embryo donor on the list. Also referred to as "Donor Mom/Donor Dad" or "Genetic Mom/Genetic Dad" Wish there was a better terms for what I now am… Also wish there was more information out there to help navigate through this in the best interest of the child/children and "first family"

  9. Just re-read this whole thing again and it's AMAZING. Fantastic resource.

  10. Nice Deanna Shrodes

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  23. Cannon Law permalink

    Great insight, really. I've always thought I will adopt a child once. Now it turns out that I know just nothing about adoptions.

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