I hate those words. They make me sound like a baby machine, a conduit, without emotions. They tell me to forget and go out and make a new life.
I had a baby and I gave her away. But I am a mother.”
Those words are from my memoir Birthmark, and are the most quoted language in the book. At the time of publication in 1979, the debate over what to call women who relinquished children was just beginning. Before that, we were “natural mothers.”
But that term was thought to be offensive to adoptive parents and “birth mother” came into wide usage among those who wrote about adoption loss and reunion, and even, some mothers themselves. Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) had already embraced the term in its name, using the conjoined word “birthmother."
Yet not all of us to whom the term applies have been comfortable with this, as the term subtly but surely implies that we are there only for the act of giving birth, and then gone. Another group uses “first mother,” which is offensive to some adoptive parents. Today we are not supposed to “give up” our children, but “make an adoption plan,” a phrase that totally obfuscates the emotional crisis that precedes any relinquishment. Some mothers will only say they “surrendered” their children, implying they were overcome by forces they could not withstand.
DESPERATE PEOPLE DO NOT MAKE 'PLANS'
I relinquished, surrendered, and gave up, but I no more made a “plan” than a person who falls overboard from an ocean liner makes a plan to swim to the life preserver thrown to her. The language issue on many points is so heated that one can find hundreds of scholarly and popular articles on the internet about “positive adoption language,” lists of what is approved, and what is considered “negative adoption language.” The number of words written about adoption language itself is testament to the intensity of feelings on the subject.
But mothers who relinquished their children have never been consulted about these lists.
The phrase “real mother” as in, “Are you ever going to search for your real mother?”—which comes out of mouths of many not schooled in adoption-industry lingo—drives most adoptive parents around the bend, yet people being people use it and know what it means, and they also know that the adoptive parents are the ones who do the day-to-day mothering. Both women who give up their children and the women who raise them are real mothers. Different, but both real mothers.
I never have been happy with either “birth” or “first” as a term describing who I am, though I have had to use those phrases for writing on the internet. Nor have I adopted in my writing the other phrases endorsed by the adoption industry and attendant social workers, as all were designed to make a mother and child loss of each other seem simple, unemotional, clean and done, once a child is handed over. Nothing could be farther from reality.
Whenever possible, I have avoided the use of a modifier in my upcoming memoir, Hole In My Heart, before mother unless clarity demanded it, or I was quoting someone else, and generally used other and natural. Birth of course remains when in a quotation or research paper.
But modifiers other than natural shut us up in a delineated time frame: between conception and birth, then ipso facto: Gone. No matter the conflicted feelings I had when I first learned of her existence, I gave birth to my baby and once she was born I became her mother, a fact that a mere signature on a surrender paper, and the adoption that followed, can never undo.
I had a baby and I gave her away. But I am a mother.--from the forward to my new memoir, Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption. Copyright, 2015
Thanks for ordering through amazon! Ordering anything through the portal of FMF helps.
SEE CHART BELOW COMPARING USE OF THE DIFFERENT MONIKERS FOR NATURAL/BIOLOGICAL/BIRTH.
One of our readers, Suz Bednarz, gave us the link to this chart.
The blue line is the use of "natural mother" in Google books; the red is for "birth mother," and the green is "biological mother." Looks like birth mother peaked in about 1986. Of course, I'm looking for that natural mother resurgence.