When Tracy and Scott Hill adopted two older children, realizing that it’s not always easy for kids to make the adjustment to a new family, they decided to let the girls take the lead in what they should call their new parents. It took a while, but eventually those magical words “Mom” and “Dad”—that so many parents take for granted—started to come naturally. Here’s their story.
I first met the two sisters that we eventually adopted while working at their school. Because of this they first came to know me as Mrs. Hill, which added an extra step of adjustment for the girls once they joined our family: Mrs Hill was now Mom!
Despite being told by the social workers that "Tracy and Scott are your new forever Mom and Dad," when the girls came home they called us by our first names. This continued for several months, and I began to worry that they would never call us Mom and Dad. My husband and I talked about whether we should refer to each other as Mom and Dad by using statements like, "Go ask Mom," or, "Dad’s home." In the end, we decided that we would let the girls take the lead in what they would call us. We made this decision understanding that the girls had been through many changes in their young lives and that they had always referred to their birth parents as Mom and Dad and that perhaps calling us by the same names would, in some ways, mean that they had let go of them. We agreed that we didn’t want to add extra stress on the girls and that we would let them attach on their own terms.
I am able to recount many events in the first few years of our family because I have kept an adoption diary. I highly recommend that adoptive parents do this. It helps to process all the events that take place and, some day, I will pass it back to the girls so they have a record of all their "firsts."
After about four months, our oldest daughter asked me if she and her sister should call us Mom and Dad. I was so excited. Holding back though, I told her that we would love them to call us Mom and Dad, but they could call us anything they were comfortable with (except late for dinner! Humor helps) when she gave me a hug and said, "Thanks Tracy," I knew that my response had been the right one.
Approximately a month after that incident, as I was kissing the girls goodnight, they looked at each other and said together, "One, two, three—good night, Mommy!" I told them they had made me feel happy and gave them big hugs. I was so excited, thinking they had just made the shift to being truly attached; I phoned my husband at work to tell him the exciting news. The next morning, I waited to hear the word "Mom," again, but my bubble was burst after they said the usual, "Thanks for breakfast, Tracy." Over the next couple of months they would occasionally, as if trying it on for size, call me Mom. They continued to call my husband Scott, only using Dad once or twice which, as he struggled to understand the complexities of attachment, I’m sure, was hurtful to him. However, it wasn’t long before the girls began using Mom or Dad more frequently and referred to us as Mom and Dad with their friends and teachers. After six months we became Mom and Dad, with the occasional slip to Tracy or Scott. Looking back on it, six months doesn’t seem like a long time, but that period was confusing not just for the children but also for us as new parents. Now I can’t imagine not being called Mom many times a day!
In the end, I was very happy with our choice to let the children decide what to call us on their own—it was genuine when it happened and I believe that it gave my girls, who had experienced the ultimate disempowerment throughout their early years, back some of their power. I also believe that attachment is a process and that the decision to call us Mom and Dad when they were ready relieved some of their stress and allowed them to let go of their past and accept their future. Although every adoption is unique, I strongly advise new parents to let their children lead the way when it comes to naming. I also caution that the child or children may attach to one parent first and that this is just part of their own unique process and does not mean that they choose one parent over another, or that they will have a stronger bond to the parent they bond to first.