Some years ago, I went to the LDS Church with my surrendered daughter, Rebecca. She introduced me as her “birth mother” to an elderly African-American woman sitting near us. The woman gave her a puzzled look and then said “Oh, you mean your real mother?
As we left the church, the woman signaled Megan to come over to her. After we got into the car, Rebecca told me the woman criticized her for using "birth mother," saying that it was disrespectful. Megan asked if the term offended me and I told her “no,” displaying what I felt was appropriate deference to her adoptive mother, her full-fledged mother.
Although “birth mother” was coined by a birth mother (Lee Campbell, founder of CUB), the adoption industry has seized upon it, using birth mother to refer not only to women who surrender a child but to pregnant women considering adoption and women whose child is in foster care. (Birth mother may not be with us much longer, however. “Life-giver” is coming into vogue as in industry-sponsored Life-Giver Celebrations honoring selfless women who keep adoption brokers in business.)
In arguing over whether a birth mother is the real mother (an argument nobody can win since there is no scientific test or accepted definition for real mother), those of us who support family preservation have missed the real issue: the need to frame language surrounding adoption in a way that causes people to agree with us. Positive framing is no mean task. Political think tanks spend millions on it: For an overview of the power of framing see the UC Berkeley article on George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science.
The adoption industry has seized the upper hand when it comes to language. The Adoption Information Institute (founded in 1996 as Celebrate Adoption), an adoption promo organization has created “A Journalist’s Guide to Adoption” listing what it considers negative and positive adoption terms.
Not surprising, topping the list of verboten words are “natural” and “real;” the Adoption Information Institute's approved alternative is birth mother. The Institute knows that the public identifies positively with things that are natural or real (natural foods, natural child birth, reality TV) and eschews things which are unnatural or artificial (genetically modified foods, synthetic materials, artificial lawns).
If we want to convince the public and decision-makers to support preserving and reuniting families, we need to use the words “natural” and “real.”
Keeping families together is natural. The woman who gives birth is the real mother. Losing a child to adoption causes real pain. Mothers produce milk because it is nature’s way of nurturing an infant. An adopted person has a natural need to know his roots; a natural mother has a real need to find her child.
The corollary is that we need to associate adoption with “unnatural” and” artificial.” Surrendering a child for adoption is unnatural. The adoption and reproductive industries construct families through artificial means.
The wise woman at Rebecca’s church knew I was the real mother -- the mother nature created --of the young woman sitting next to me who looked like me and spoke like me