Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Watch Your Tongue. Sometimes.

It's hard not to think about language when writing about adoption from our vantage point --because it feels as if we are assaulted constantly by admonitions to watch our tongue, in an effort to not offend someone, aka adoptive parents. I have a friend, an adoptive mother, who is offended when I refer to my daughter's adoptive parents as my daughter's adoptive parents. (Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, as long as the person gets the drift.) She has, on two occasions, corrected me, and on a third, my husband, because obviously, she finds it offensive to use the word "adoptive" before "parents" when referring to adoptive parents. I've said nothing, but internally seethe.

I don't refer to her child as her adopted child, or make the distinction (except with those in this inner circle of hell we inhabit) when I talk about her. But that's what is so infernally frustrating about life at our end: we are continually asked to be deferential, when as far as I can tell, adoptive parents feel no such compunction.

Shortly after my daughter committed suicide, my husband Tony was at a Christmas party (which I did not attend) and a close friend, who had known my daughter for over twenty years, was asking Tony about Jane, and me...and simply referred to "Lorraine's daughter." An adoptive mother whom I don't know well was in that circle of three, and the second time Genie referred to my "daughter" the adoptive mother corrected Genie and said, "birth daughter."

My husband was irritated, but of course, said nothing. Impolite to point out? Right. But I do feel like asking her one day, how her adopted daughter is.... Why do I think she won't be happy? Guess we won't be good friends any time soon.

While that was irritating, sometimes spontaneous language that isn't "correct" feels just right. At one point during my daughter's wake a woman approached me and asked: Are you Jane's biological mother? She said it without hostility or emphasis, and I answered in kind: Yes. She was with a small group of people who turned out to be Jane's friends from Toastmaster's, and they seemed all delighted to meet me. They woman told me that Jane had talked about me often, in obviously a good way, to judge from their enthusiasm at talking to me.

In that moment, being Jane's "biological" mother was just fine--in fact, it was better than having this woman know the proper language. On that occasion, I preferred "biological" to "birth." When you deconstruct the word, "birth" gives off the vibe of being there only for the birth; biological says it all, clinical and machinistic though it can sound in a different situation. It's all in the context.

I try not to be overly sensitive, but sometimes you just can't help feeling that people on the other side of the adoption equation need to get a grip on reality, and be more sensitive our our feelings. How hard would it have been for the two adoptive mothers quoted above to simply hold their tongues? They can refer for me as "birth" mother or !@#!!* mother not in my presence, but when my husband or I are there, please refrain from feeling you have to put me in my place. I--or my husband--are really not going to forget that--Oh yeah, that's the daughter I gave up for adoption.

But what all this fuss over language does is acknowledge the enormity of the bond between mother/parent and child. If that biological/genetic/blood bond meant nothing, there wouldn't be this tug-of-war over language. I'm willing to be sensitive to adoptive families' feelings, and certainly those of adopted people, and consciously try not to offend them, but it would be nice if the favor were returned once in a while.

Lorraine

6 comments :

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. It's amazing what some people think is OK to say, or they don't think and it just comes flying out of their mouths.

    I'm a new reader, and just want to say how sorry I am for your loss, Lorraine. And the insensitivity of some around you.

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  4. I don't care what anyone calls me, birthmother, biological mother,natural mother, first mother, original mother, or any other term for a mother who surrendered a child as long as it is said with good will. The words themselves are not intrinsically insulting or uplifting to me; context and intent are what matter. I find it rude to correct another person's terms, as the person did who told Lorraine's husband to say "birth daughter" rather than just "daughter". This is rude no matter which side it comes from. I am no fan of "positive adoption language" and do not need adoptive parents telling me which words to use and which to avoid. Conversely, I do not need radical adoption reformers telling me which words are politically correct either. "Negative adoption language" is just as one-sided and detrimental to real communication.

    I mostly use birthmother when there is a need to differentiate which mother one refers to. I use "birthmother" because it is the term in most common current usage and understood by the most people. I do not find it at all offensive, just descriptive, and attach no particular ideological baggage to it. I do not love it or hate it.Frankly, I think the amount of hysteria around the word "birthmother" is silly and a waste of energy, like juvenile references to "The B Word" as if the very act of writing out the word had some sinister power like uttering the name of Voldemort the evil wizard in Harry Potter!

    If I am referring to an adoptive mother, "adoptive mother" is the term I use. I do not like the terms "adopter" or "adoptress" so do not use them, but if other people want to use them that is their prerogative. I also use just "mother" or "parent" when referring to either birth or adoptive parent, when the modifier is not needed in context.

    I realize many other mothers feel strongly about this; to them I say "use whatever words you want, and let me use the words I want, and let's get on with the dialogue without getting bogged down in semantics." If using another word would make me the only mother to my surrendered son, and make the adoption vanish, I'd be first in line to use that word. Sadly, in the real world where magic is just a trick, changing words does not change reality or pain or loss....at best, it just masks it with euphemisms or politically correct bullshit.

    I believe that both birthmothers and adoptive mothers are real mothers, each in her own way. They are just words to differentiate which mother one is speaking about. I don't read insult into a word where no insult is meant. There is no word which can make me any more or less than what
    I am, Mike's mother.....one of his mothers,the mother who gave birth, but not the mother who raised him, since he was surrendered and
    adopted. That is his reality, and I honor that. Some things mere word cannot change.

    maryanne

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  5. I hate the terms birthmother, and especially birth daughter. The whole idea of the modern use of birthmother is to deny the term of mother, as if it is earned. It is just meant to demean the bond between mother and child and deny the damage done.

    But no one can argue that daugther is an earned title. That your acquaintance found it so necessary to assert that, in light of the incredibly painful situation, may I just say I find no sympathy or excuse for her.

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  6. I am so sorry for the loss of your daughter Jane and for the rude behavior of an adoptive Mom.

    These comments are very enlightening, I'll come back and read your blog more often.

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