Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Natural and Real Language

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

20 comments :

  1. Oh no, the dead horse rises again and is ready for another beating!

    I am not interested in manipulating language to get others to agree with me by stealth or trickery. That politicians imploy such sleazy tactics does not make me want to emulate them. That the adoption industry and some adoptive parents twist language and publish lists of verboten words to suit their agenda does not make me want to do the same.

    Life and emtional reality are complex, not "either/or". Adoption is not unnatural, it is different. It occurs in nature, just as homosexuality does; another variation on human behavior that some want to declare "unnatural." Such are the tactics of bigots and dictators, not reasonable people of good will.

    The adoption industry is corrupt because of money, secrets and lies.The act of raising a child not born to oneself is not in and of itself unnatural or evil or always worse than being raised by natural parents.

    Rather than participate in a war of words with each side coining terms that make the other "less than", why not take the higher ground and let our agenda speak out in clear, non-manipulative language, regardless of what the other side does?

    Words do not change reality. Reality is complex and variable, not simplistic, and it has many levels. Very few things are black and white when looked at closely.

    The zombie horse limps on.

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  2. "There lies a horse on yonder plain,
    Whose by some cruel butcher slain,
    We'll perch upon his old backbone,
    And pick his eyes out one by one.
    And they all flapped their wings and cried
    Caw, Caw, Caw, Billy Ma-gee Ma-gar."

    I don't think anyone here would disagree that words are important, or that there's anything wrong in a general sense about framing language in such a way that it will predispose people to your beliefs. But to impose what is effectively an official vocabulary on people and expect them to comply?
    I don't think so.

    You're right that big bucks are poured into the persuasion industry, and the corrupt money-grubbing adoption industry has harnessed that. But if countering it comes down to playing the same kind of game by attempting to influence the freedom of individuals who may only have, really, not even minor, but *miniscule* differences of opinion (if that), and casting them into outer darkness if they don't comply, it's not only wrong, but a travesty of unity.

    Inflexibly expecting every supporter or sympathizer to use approved terminology is counterproductive.
    It's not going to swell our ranks.
    It's going to shrink them.

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  5. "The woman who gives birth is the real mother."

    "Real Mother-a mother IS one who carries a child inside of her"

    Technology outstrips vocabulary.
    A gestational surrogate may be implanted with an embryo, gestate and give birth to a child to whom she has no biological relationship whatsoever.

    Should she too be called the "real mother" ?
    "Birth mother" maybe.
    But "real"? In what sense?

    I suspect "life-giver” was coined at least in part to cover that eventuality.
    As well as to stroke the religulous right.

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  6. Furthermore (at the risk of being accused of "stalking"), it isn't adoption that is unnatural.
    Adoption of one sort or another has always existed in nature, though without the commodification of infants and the secrets and lies that are intrinsic to so much of contemporary adoption practice.

    It is encouraging and or forcing relinquishment that is unnatural. And the closed record system that protects and feeds those aforementioned secrets and lies

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  7. I'll agree that adoption is an unnatural act. It is a legally constructed family rather than a family created by the natural reproduction of the mother and father.

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  8. Kippa wrote:it isn't adoption that is unnatural.
    Adoption of one sort or another has always existed in nature, though without the commodification of infants and the secrets and lies that are intrinsic to so much of contemporary adoption practice.

    It is encouraging and or forcing relinquishment that is unnatural. And the closed record system that protects and feeds those aforementioned secrets and lies."

    To which I say "amen". That is exactly right. Why is that so hard to comprehend for some people?

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  9. I agree that adoption is not "unnatural" it does occur in the animal kingdom and it is natural to want to care for a child bereft of family.

    I do not agree that there is such a thing as non-manipulative language. I think all language, and its use, whether artful of innocent in use creates an atmosphere. A conundrum not even escaped with silence, as that too, often speaks volumes.

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  10. Joy,

    I do not believe that all language is manipulative. Creating an atmosphere, or even trying to convince others of your point of view is not necessarily manipulative. Changing and obscuring meanings is, especially when euphemisms or neologisms are employed to make something sound nicer than it is.

    As for adoption language, nobody outside the adoption community cares, uses it, or understands the subtle nuances that seem so important to those pushing their own "adoptspeak" from either side.

    Nor was it language that caused any change in policy or coercion. During the time of the largest number of surrenders, pre-mid 70s, the common terms were "natural mother" and "real mother", both terms still used by the general public much of the time.

    "Biologicalmother"and "birthmother"were coming into vogue just when the number of surrenders of domestic infants took a sharp drop due to a variety of factors.

    Were unwed mothers or surrendering mothers treated with more respect in the days when we were all "natural mothers"? Certainly not. Did coercion begin with preference for the term "birthmother", or become more effective? Not really, domestic infant adoptions have been decreasing for years, thank God!

    Yes, words are important, but actions and intentions are much more important and relevant.

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  13. Well I will have to disagree with you Mairanie.

    I see it as far more wide reaching than just adoption, you know there are all kinds of sublanguages, that are meant to exclude, every younger generation has one, in addition to minorities, the invention of terms like "gooks" used in Vietnam, the many words for snow in Eskimo, the way all things owned in English are given female pronouns, (boats, cars) and things one tries to control, "Mother Nautre" Things we use to control are male, God, Father Time, etc.

    Oh I could go on for days with this topic and end up looking like a superannuated grad student, but I will spare you that, this time ;)

    I am adopted too, IA, and no it think it is very hard for others to divine how it feels, but I also think it is natural, it just feels really bad.

    Lots of natural things hurt.

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  14. LIFE GIVER!?!?!?! OMG, I think I'm going to throw up...

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  15. "Kippa-you aren't Adopted and you have NO idea what it feels like. I do."

    Did I say I know what it feels like?
    I didn't.
    Nothing I've said makes such a claim, and you are wrong to infer it.

    Adoption does exist in nature.
    It is not the desirable norm for a child, but nature isn't always necessarily 'good' or ideal anyway.

    So what makes yours the universal experience?

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  16. Joy,

    Certainly, feel free to disagree. But the kind of "insider" language that teenagers use to confound the "outsiders" and older generation is exactly how I see postive or negative adoption language. The special meanings are only understood by the in-group and they are meant to exclude and obscure, not communicate.

    As to masculine and feminine, yeah, that makes a great grad school thesis in deconstructing language, but does not matter or impact how most people speak or think. And what do you do about languages like Spanish where everything is masculine or feminine?

    As to feelings of adoptees, I have heard all sorts of feelings from adoptees about being adopted. Some love it, some hate it, some don't care. Many, like you, find that it hurts. You are right that many things that are natural hurt. Nature can be cruel.

    I am not adopted so I do not know how that feels, but I have heard from enough adopted people to know there is no one universal or correct way for adopted people to think or feel. Or for birthmothers either, for that matter. No one of us can really speak for all of us.

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  17. Life giver! Pul-eeze! This ties right in with anti-abortion and conversion message of adoption. It's political language of the worse sort and needs to be killed.

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  18. Life-giver? That is the worst! It seems to me that about 40 years ago this sort of language made me want to take my own life; as if I believed think that soul-sickness felt natural.

    Life-giver to me has a quas-evil demon-religious sense, in that an alien God can throw this "Thing" into my belly, "use me up" to grow it, then take this "Thing" at its leisure. Come to think of it, that became a few movies, that was the theme of several movies, "It Came for Our Woman" being one of the weirdest (woman around the world raped by underwater monsters-I think they missed and killed cows first-how droll)

    In at least one, Alien, those lucky wo/men die at birth-quickly I might add. Can't have guys living through being a vessel for evil....My spiritual death took much longer.

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  19. Poor horse! Although horrified, you folks use arguments that make me think. There was a day that thinking of this would have made me want to end,, not give life. I am glad to be in my cranage. I thank you all for your intelligent insights.

    Life-givers? A commodity,necessary for life, like air, water,shelter; all the basics; The Geneva Convention does not let us withold these, but many dangle them over the heads of others for totrure and death.

    To use our fear, then dub us "life-givers" (which I might add must appear terribly at odds with marals, as many are taught only God gives life) in order to get the almighty adoption dollar may be a dilemna. Or not.

    Willingly coining such phrases, to ignore one's own integrity to take someone else's; for money, using self serving smut... Hellooooo, Judas goat.

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  20. Hmmm...

    Well as an adopted person, I would have to say that, for me, my "real" mother was the woman who adopted me as an infant. She was there to mother me and care for me. I had no other experience of any sort of mother.

    That is, until 10 years ago, when I searched for and found my birth/biological/first mother. Who wanted absolutely NOTHING to do with me. NOTHING.

    Why would I consider her more real than the woman who raised me and provided me with the only family I have ever known?

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