Discovered this article of mine, written in 2007 and published in the PACER newsletter. Was surprised to find that I'd never shared it here. See what you think...
A MOTHER BY ANY OTHER NAME
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet)
When I relinquished my son for adoption in 1970, my claim to motherhood was gone, erased, a secret from almost everyone in my life. I don’t remember being referred to as anything — “birthmother,” “natural” or “biological” — during the adoption process. If I had shared my secret afterward, I might indeed have been called something: slut, bad mother, or worse (in my opinion) a saint for giving a child to a deserving, infertile couple. Better, I decided, to be nobody.
By the time we reunited twenty-six years later, my son had no other mother except me. He called me “Mom” from the start. I was thrilled, even in my doubt that I deserved the title. The first time I heard the term “birthmother” was when I contacted PACER for support after a year of struggling alone in reunion. I took no offense. Used widely in the adoption/reunion books that I read and by other post-adoption organizations, the word seemed to me an apt descriptor for my circumstances: that I gave birth to, but did not raise, my son.
Only in my recent Internet travels did I discover that a great many birthmothers and adoptees take issue with “b-language” (i.e., birth and biological in reference to the mother, father, and family of origin). Some consider it blatantly disrespectful and dismissive. On “Adoptese,” the message board and chat forum at the Adoption Crossroads Web site (adoptioncrossroads.com), these terms are prohibited. “Natural,” “first,” or simply “mother” are the acceptable labels for women who have “lost children to adoption.”
“When there is a divorce, the adjectives are used for new relationships, not original ones,” said Joe Soll, therapist, author, and founder of Adoption Crossroads. “Why should it be different in adoption? There is no such thing as an ex-mom, ex-dad, ex-sibling, ex-child.”
Wow, I thought to myself, he’s right. If your mother dies, she is still your mother. Any subsequent mother becomes your stepmother. Even if you call a new parent Mom or Dad, you will likely use “step” to clarify the relationship to others.
I began to wonder: Had I been in some sort of weakened and confused state when I so easily accepted the b-mother title? Had all of these authors and organizations fallen prey to adoption industry doctrine? Or were those who objected being overly sensitive? Was this another case of much ado about nothing? I decided an objective look was in order.
A Brief History
“History is hard to know… but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”
Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
As I began my research, I heard/read a lot of rumors about the origins of “birthmother.” The information that follows has been confirmed through multiple sources.
Nobel Prize-winning author, Pearl S. Buck, was the first to use the phrase: “…persons are eager to adopt children, though born out of wedlock, yet society as a whole condemns the unwed mother. If it is better for the child born out of wedlock to stay with his birth mother, what can be done to change social attitudes toward her and her child?” (Excerpt from an article, “We Can Free the Children,” published in Women’s Home Companion, June 1956) An adoption advocate and adoptive parent of multiple children, Buck continued to use the term in subsequent writings on the topic.
Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) founder Lee Campbell is credited with coining the term, as the first to combine the adjective “birth” with mother, father, and parent in 1976. In Rickie Solinger’s book, “Beggars and Choosers,” Campbell is quoted as saying that CUB agreed on “birthparent” because they didn’t want to upset adoptive parents with “natural” and they felt “biological” sounded mechanical. Birth was the key, and as one word, birthparent became like other progenitors, such as grandparent. (Some, however, still insist that “B” by itself simply made for a better acronym.)
By the mid-seventies, social workers were replacing the term “natural” (historically used in adoption documents) with “birth,” citing it as more “adoption-friendly.” Positive Adoption Language (outlined in 1979 by Minnesota social worker, Marietta Spencer), which has since evolved into Respectful Adoption Language (further developed by infertility and adoption educator, Patricia Irwin Johnston), have made birthmother, birthfather, and birthparent the standard descriptors for these roles in the adoption industry. But more about that later…
And The Survey Says…
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
My query and the responses don’t by any means comprise a scientific study. I sent an email to my own contacts in the adoption community and posted my “survey” on post-adoption Web sites. A relatively small sample, evenly distributed between adoptees and relinquishing mothers (and one father), plus two adoptive mothers, produced mixed results. Half spoke out against the b-terms, about a third found them appropriate, and the rest were neutral. Of those in reunion, the majority call or are called Mom or Dad, rather than by their first names. Most introduce each other as mother/father, son/daughter, without a qualifier.
A small sampling of responses from all points of view:
From Mothers and Fathers:
I think too much emphasis is placed on the label. In reality, I am my son’s mother and always will be. His adoptive mother is also his mother. But to use labels such as biological mother or adoptive mother, I feel is demeaning.
To me, “birthmother” sounds forced and superficial. My son has called me Mom since the first contact. I feel that the b-parent term contains the assertion that it was only a biological, pregnancy, delivery, passing on of genes sort of experience. For me, it was an emotional disaster, and I was in denial about the effects. If I limited myself to being only a birthmother, wouldn’t I still be in some sort of denial?
(My son) called me Mom from the first moment. I do confess to it feeling kind of weird each time I hear it, like it’s a stage name. I think “natural mother has its downside; does that make his adoptive mother “unnatural?” And would “first mother” make his adoptive mother his “second mother?” In my opinion, “birthmother” describes who I am: I gave birth to him, but I did not “mother” him.
My daughter calls me by my first name. Previously she used the b-term. I asked her not to, but instead to refer to me as her first mother or other mother. She refuses to do this. I feel rejected as her mother. When she calls me the b-word I feel as if my sexual history is being unfairly broadcast.
(Being called Mom) is sometimes awkward for me. I still haven’t accepted the legitimacy of the title.
I have always felt that my rights as the birthfather were limited and entirely secondary to the rights of the child and of those who raised her as their own. The bonds between the child and the genetic parents and the de facto parents are obvious. What one is called doesn’t change history. Once my daughter introduced me to a friend as “my father.” Then she caught herself and explained that I am her biological father, not the father who adopted and raised her. It was still wonderful. She is lucky. She has two fathers.
“Birthmother” is just a term like any other. I don’t think it’s worth being insulted over the genesis of the label. It’s simply shorthand for our circumstance. What about the evolving Black/African-American nomenclature? Changing terminology neither changes the person nor alters the essential experience represented or the pain involved.
I’m not sure that mothers who gave birth to a child who was adopted need to be upset by the term. It does not make them any less of a mother. The adopted person is free to call both mothers “mom,” as my daughter does. All adoptees have two sets of parents. It is more in the attitude that the importance lies, not with some term made up to distinguish about whom one is talking when speaking about adoption.
I feel funny calling her mother, not out of loyalty to my adoptive parents, but because it feels too intimate. She actually advocates the term (birthmother). I don’t like it personally. It demeans me as well, like I’m just part of the adoption commodity. No term resonates with me. Mom is strange, first name is strange, and b-mom is strange. It just doesn’t fit, nothing really fits, and that’s the tragedy.
If any relationship deserves a prefix, it’s the adoptee’s relationship to the adoptive parents. If my mother is only my b-mother, by the same logic wouldn’t that mean I’m only her b-child?
(My birthmother) has not introduced me to her family or invited me to her home. She doesn’t feel like my mother! I think terminology should match the relationship, and for others to insist that I refer to her as my mother is dictatorial and would be inaccurate. Calling a stranger, someone who has not even accepted me as part of their family, “mother” or “father” would be absurd as well as insulting to what parenthood is: raising a child and everything that entails.
I feel self-conscious (calling her mom) because I still have a reasonable relationship with my adoptive parents and they have always been Mom and Dad. It feels funny to be calling my mother “mom”… I’m not looking to replace my adoptive mom, just build a separate relationship with my mother after all the years of separation.
I have a mother and father, just like most everyone else. Those terms are used exclusively for the a-parents who raised me. It is how I knew them growing up. It defines our relationship. For me, it is a personal decision, within individual families, what to call one another.
I do not like the terms “first” or “natural” mother. I have always used “birthmother.” My mom is the person who raised me. I love both my mothers in different ways, but I only have one mom and that is who raised me.
When speaking to my birthmother, I always refer to her as mom. I do this out of respect for her and her feelings. Those with no personal experience in the adoption process tend to minimize the importance of the relinquishing parent’s feelings. I’ve learned that my mom suffered in more tangible ways than I have as a result of giving me up for adoption. On the other hand, when I am speaking about her outside of her presence, I usually refer to her as my birthmother. While I do consider her my mother, there are times that I want to reserve that title for the mom who raised me.
When introducing (my natural mother) to friends, I will say, “This is my mother.” If there is some confusion or need for clarification I may explain that I am an adoptee and we are reunited.
Language: Evolving or Manipulated?
“What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
Toni Morrison (as quoted in the New York Times Magazine, 1994)
The conventionality and suitability of words change over time. Girls were once “chicks” and guys were “cats.” “Unwed mothers” are now “single mothers.” The Orient is now Asia; rugs are still “Oriental,” but its natives are “Asian.” People are no longer handicapped; instead they are “challenged” or have “special needs.” Then, there are the pejoratives, purposely created to insult and disparage. Although drummed out of polite conversation, derogatory words for women, various races and nationalities, gays and lesbians are not gone.
So what about Positive Adoption Language (PAL)? How does it compare to “politically correct” language, which strives to minimize offense to certain groups and has been embraced by the government, employers, and the media?
“Neither adoptive parents nor social workers consulted with the people they were naming about how the term ‘birthmother’ made them feel,” writes Sandra Falconer Pace, Director, Canadian Council of Natural Mothers (www.ccnm-mothers.ca). “(Politically correct language) arose from the right of a people to name themselves. For example, we once referred to the Eskimo people, but now we use their own term for themselves, the Inuit. We refer to African-American and Hispanic people because those are the terms they have chosen for themselves.”
The stated objective of PAL was to promote adoption as a way to build a family, equally important and valid to birth. Some examples of PAL: “Real” and “natural” parent are considered negative; “birth” or “biological” parent are positive. “Adoptive parent” is negative; “parent” is positive. “Give up,” “surrender,” and “relinquish” have been replaced by “make an adoption plan” or “choose adoption.” “Reunion” has been deemed negative, while “making contact with” is the positive phrase.
Does this supposedly kinder, gentler language reflect the true experience of adoption? I certainly never chose adoption or made a plan. If my son and I were just making contact, I doubt we’d still be reeling in emotion after eleven years. Was there intent to further sever the bond between mother and child, as some would accuse? Or was it simply an oversight in the exuberance to assuage the feelings of adoptive parents? Those who reject the “birthmother” term feel as if it was forced on them, as opposed to politically correct language, which is based on self-affirming descriptors.
While it’s no surprise that natural mothers find PAL objectionable, many adoptees do as well. One friend of mine rejects the phrase “touched by adoption,” insisting that he’s been “whacked by adoption.”
“PAL is very negative when it comes to the first mother and dishonest when it drops the descriptor from the adoptive parent,” said one adoptee. “I don’t expect a child to constantly refer to the parents who raise her as her adoptive parents. The parents who raise us become Mom and Dad for most and fair enough. But adoptees should grow up comfortable acknowledging the truth of their relationship to their parents. PAL seems to reinforce denial.”
“If adoptive families are dismissive of the child’s mother, what does that say about their attitude toward the child?” another wrote. “We love you and accept you as long as you acknowledge only us as your true mother and father. What came before was just biology and we discount that. We wish it were different, wish you were ours completely, so let’s just pretend it’s so.”
Educating the public on the issues of adoption is a common goal among member of the adoption triad. How useful is a word that only confuses them?
“The term ‘birthmother’ is neither widely used nor understood by the uninitiated,” said one reunited mother. “I’ve told others that I’m my son’s birthmother and half of the time they think I was a surrogate.”
Perhaps, as Toni Morrison said, it is all about power: who has it and how they use it. When it comes to adoption, the power lies with the industry itself: the agencies, social workers, pregnancy counselors, attorneys, and legislators. Another author, Philip K. Dick, wrote in 1986: “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” Maybe that’s what the fight is all about.
A Matter of Respect
Find out what it means to me.”
(From the Aretha Franklin song, Respect; written by Otis Redding)
Clearly, “birthmother” works for some and not for others. Can we live with that? Is the b-word as bad as, say, the n-word that was once used to identify African-Americans?
It seems to me that in recent years language has become more divisive and adversarial. For all of our political correctness and supposed humanity-centered speech, we are more easily offended, we have lost tolerance and compassion for others, and lip service has replaced honest dialogue. Individuals no longer matter. People are being categorized into groups — the bigger, the more clout — and these groups are pitted against one another. And not just by race, gender, sexual orientation, and political affiliation.
As I researched this article, I was shocked that almost every post-adoption web site I visited had some degree of bias. No wonder we can’t function as a “triad,” which implies three equal and united sides. No wonder triad is being replaced by “adoption constellation.” In truth, we’re all floating around, part of the same universe, and yet as isolated as can be. Or worse, like the rest of our culture, it has become “us against them.”
The words we choose are important, and respect is a two-way street. I cringe when I hear adoptive parents referred to as “adopters,” or worse, “abductors.” Even if this was the case, and I don’t doubt that birthmothers were lied to and babies were stolen, these words have the same vengeful ring as calling an absent father a “sperm donor” or an ex’s new wife a “step-monster.”
Respect — for oneself and for others — is the key. Self-respect is something natural mothers fight hard to regain after relinquishing a child. Reunion can bring battles for respect from their children, the adoptive parents, and a society that doesn’t understand. On the other hand, there seems to be no shortage of admiration for parents who adopt. Does that mean they don’t deserve the same courtesy we would give a stranger on the street?
No minds are going to be changed here. Hopefully, some will be opened. It’s unlikely that we will ever agree on language that suits everyone’s needs. We can and should use the words that resonate with us and stand up for our preferences, while being respectful of others.
“I think terms should reflect our own experience,” said one adoptee. “As long as nothing derogatory is used, the speaker should be given the choice of using the words most correct to them.”