Adoption Foster Care Kids

Foster Kids Don’t Have Birthparents

Written by Maralee Bradley

Yesterday I was driving my six kids to a foster parent training class when one of my children said, “I want to see that Kung Fu Panda movie. The one where he finds his REAL dad.” I felt my stomach tighten and I locked eyes with my oldest child in the rearview mirror and I heard him mumble, “Oh boy” because he knew exactly what speech was coming and what questions the child who said “real dad” would have to answer. I know it’s just a movie and these are just pretend panda relationships, but in our family we have had to intentionally address these language issues. Because we are a family formed by biology, foster care and adoption.

It’s important to me to be specific and intentional with my language when it comes to the relationships involved in foster care and adoption. In adoption we get to use words like adoptive parents, biological parents, birth parents and first parents to help someone understand our relationships. It can be hurtful and offensive when people ask about my child’s REAL mom. Both adoptive parents and biological parents are equally “real” so that word doesn’t do much to accurately express our role in this child’s life. And when people ask, “What do you know about his Dad?” I want to play dumb and say, “My husband?” when I know they’re looking for information on my child’s biological family.

But in foster care things are a little bit different.

My foster kids didn’t have birthparents, they had parents. They didn’t have a “biological mother,” they just had a mother. When I talked about her to the foster child, I said, “Your mom loves you so much.” If someone asked me where my foster child was I would say, “She’s on a visit with her mom.” Mother was her legal role and she needed no qualifiers to define her identity in her child’s life.


But I did. I wasn’t that child’s mom. I couldn’t sign forms for her or make educational decisions or even do something as simple as cut her hair without permission from her parents. As much as I loved my foster children as though they were my own, I wasn’t their mom. They had a mom. I was their Foster Mom. As much as I sometimes hated all the assumptions that went with that label, I was the one who needed my relationship to be defined with an extra word.

Being a foster parent is a humbling job. Some people think you’re a saint and some people think you’re in it for “the money” (which is laughable if you know how much foster parents are actually compensated for being the 24/7 caregiver) or you’re overwhelmed and stressed or you’re trying to steal someone’s child when they’re at their most vulnerable. Some days it would be nice to dump the “foster parent” label, but it serves a purpose. It reminds us that we are likely temporary in this child’s life and our job is to help foster a relationship during the time we have them and then prepare them to return home.

I know for me, the times I was most likely to resist identifying my foster child’s parents as Mom and Dad were when I was insecure in my own role in this child’s life. I wanted to assert my role as Mother because I was scared or angry about how disconnected or unimportant or insulted I felt by interactions with the child or their parents. I wanted to reduce these parents to their genetic contribution or create a level of linguistic distance between the child and their family. When I felt confident in my role as foster mom and was able to have empathy towards this child’s parents, it was easier for me to call them Mom and Dad. I have learned I don’t have to be the only Mom in a child’s life in order to have meaning. I don’t have to be called “Mommy” before I can love a child or put their needs above my own. I’m not going to jockey for position in a way that demeans someone who already struggles with feelings of inadequacy and shame about their choices. I can work to give the words “Foster Mom” the unique beauty and sweetness they deserve. As a foster mom, my role isn’t one of ownership of this child, but of service to this family.

Having multiple people that are functioning in a parenting role doesn’t have to be confusing. Being loved in unique ways by people who care so deeply about you (parents and foster parents) is an important part of the healing process for these children. They are capable of receiving affection from Mom and Foster Mom without having to put labels on each kind of love. And there are moments where no matter what label you try to teach, the children will make their own decision. I have been called “Mama” by a foster child just learning his first word and I didn’t bother to engage in a losing battle to make him add the “foster” to the front. He knew who I was in his life and he knew when he called me, I came. But I knew the bittersweet feelings I felt at hearing the name that belonged to another directed at me. I knew what she was missing out on by not getting to be around for those precious first moments. My heart broke for his mama.

Foster kids don’t have birthparents. They have parents and they have foster parents. The more we can be affirming of that reality in their lives both in our language and in how we treat the families involved, the more we will build trust and relationships– relationships that allow us the opportunity to love these kids long after our days as their foster families have ended.

If you think you’re up for taking on the challenging work of foster care, please contact Christian Heritage.

All photos by Rebecca Tredway Photography

About the author

Maralee Bradley

Maralee is a mom of six pretty incredible kids ages 8 and under. Four were adopted (one internationally from Liberia, three through foster care in Nebraska) and two were biological surprises. Prior to becoming parents, Maralee and her husband were houseparents at a children’s home and had the privilege of helping to raise 17 boys during their five year tenure.
Maralee is passionate about caring for kids, foster parenting and adoption, making her family a fairly decent dinner every night, staying on top of the laundry, watching ridiculous documentaries and doing it all for God’s glory.
Maralee can be heard on My Bridge Radio talking about motherhood on “A Mother’s Heart for God” and what won’t fit in a 90 second radio segment ends up at


  • Thank you for reminding us how important our word choices and our attitudes are when fostering. When people ask about our foster kids and “where they came from”, I always try to remind them that they have 2 families that love them: our foster family, and their biological, or “real” family.

    It can be so hard to love a child as your own, not knowing how long they’ll be with you, not knowing when they’ll leave or what kinds of situations they’ll face when they go back. We just have to continue to trust in God’s plan for their lives, because it is ultimately better than our own.

  • I grew up bouncing around foster care. My parental relationships (or lack there of) fluctuated wildly.

    I had bio parents and a step parent
    I had foster parents, plus bio parents, plus step parent
    I had no legal parents or foster parents
    I had adoptive parents
    I had former adoptive parents, bio parents, and foster parents, and group home staff.

    While I agree with most of your post (especially realizing that the foster parent isn’t entitled to keep and does not “own” their foster child), it speaks in absolutes as if all foster children have the same experience and are in the same situation. In an ideal foster care system, ALL foster children would just have parents and foster parents, but that’s not reality. I was often very hurt when my foster parents used quantifiers and introduced me as the foster kid or themselves as my foster parents. It’s painful to always be reminded that you don’t belong.

    • Campbell, I really appreciate your perspective and what you’ve added here. You’re right that one post can’t possibly address all the issues and intricacies involved in foster care. During our work with older kids, we referred to their parents as Mom and Dad, but we were also very conscious of not wanting to stigmatize those kids by announcing that they weren’t our kids or weren’t living with their parents to people who didn’t need to know. When at all possible, I want to differ to the kids involved and what they want to call us and realize that that may change depending on the circumstances (maybe they want to call us by our names at home, but Mom and Dad in public or vice versa). My hope in this post was to deal with the attitudes foster parents sometimes struggle with, but how it practically works out between foster parents and their foster children should have a lot to do with what the kids involved want. Thanks for that reminder!