Nothing in the way either of us spoke about adoption had ever been a sticking point. One afternoon I casually said something about "giving up" my daughter. For the first time ever, my friend decided to "correct" my language. Giving up sounds like you are drowning or something, she said. You made an adoption plan, she said. I
stared at her, at a loss for words, grasping in that instant that her previously clear vocabulary had been corrupted by adoption agency gobbledyspeak. I was stunned by her "correction" and my brain wasn't operating quickly enough to counteract then. I said nothing, the conversation shifted, we moved on, I left. Other things got in the way, but that was the turning point in our friendship. We've not met since.
The controversy over language regarding adoption just won't quit.
'PREFERRED' ADOPTION LANGUAGE IS BUNK
The “preferred adoptive language” or "positive adoption language" that agencies and adoptive parents have promoted since the Seventies has made adopters—a term in common usage around the world more comfortable with the situation of adoption, but this has been at the expense of the realities and feelings of the mothers who bore the children. The realistic language of the past has been smoothed over to sooth the sensibilities of those who take the children--not make them--and in doing so, has made giving up a child, or surrendering a child, seem like a much more clean, thoughtful, swell decision for mother.
Once we were natural mothers, defining our role as conceived by nature; the term, to us, indicated exactly who we were and how we fit into the scheme of our children’s lives. It also signaled we were not raising the child, because the normal, average mother is a mother, period, no qualifiers necessary.
But as adoption became big business in the Sixties and Seventies, the clients—those who pay the fees, and thus the keep the industry humming— conveyed their discomfort at what the word, to them, implied: that they were the unnatural parents. So articles about “preferred adoption language” were written, charts of good and bad language drawn up and circulated (several available on the web), and the new, less harsh lingo was soon common currency among social workers, adoptive parents, and sometimes the media--especially if the reporter or broadcaster was an adoptive parent.
What was cleansed out of the shift in language was that every adoption begins with someone else’s catastrophe. Along with the introduction of terms such as birth or biological mother were a whole passel of others: give up or surrender (which is how we mothers feel) was to be replaced by placed for adoption or the ever more noxious, make an adoption plan. Mothers did not keep their children; they chose to parent them. An individual was adopted, as if it were a one time act, rather than is adopted, as in, for a lifetime, which of course adoption is. Mother and child reunions did not occur; they were meetings, or make contact. The rationale for that one goes into lala land, as it signifies that since mother and child never were never together, thus a reunion could not take place.
Excuse me? After a squealing, live infant painfully emerges from one’s womb after nine months you two have definitely been together, and a meeting is absolutely a reunion. The concept of make contact or a meeting also implies reunion is a one-time occurrence. I'm just skimming the surface here of the preferred adoption-speak typical at many if not most agencies.
WHEN DROWNING, SWIM DIRECTLY TO LIFE PRESERVER
The most toxic “preferred” term of all is "make an adoption plan" instead of "giving up your baby." Is someone who falls off an ocean liner and then thrown a life saver “making a plan” as she swims to it? Or is she just doing what she must to save her life, without stopping to plan--do I swim this way or that? Should I do it or just paddle water while the boat goes father away? If I can make an adoption plan, certainly I am able to rationally, unemotionally weigh various options, and have the resources to make an alternative plan. My social worker at the time of relinquishment may have been “making an adoption plan,” but I was drowning in a sea of shame and societal mindset that all pointed one way: Give up your daughter. Give her a good life, better than anything you can provide. She needs two parents, not one. Et cetera. Indeed, I was giving up to forces greater than I could withstand, and in doing so I was giving up my baby. I was bowing to the inevitable. I was a chaff of wheat in a field blown down by the wind of the times.
For the vast majority of us most of us--even today--that is the reality of relinquishing a child to be someone else’ son or daughter. This preferred adoption language diminishes a natural mother's connection to the children we bore; it is meant to lessen the calamity of losing our children due to circumstances typically beyond our control, such as youth and poverty, and turns a devastating experience into someone else’s “miracle of adoption,” a phrase commonly used on adoption websites. Our reaction is sometimes mere perplexity as we hear this language in common currency, on television, from acquaintances, not comprehending why the words make us uncomfortable. Yet we feel denigrated and react more negatively (and slink deeper into the closet) than we would if our true connection to the child, and the outright disaster that a surrender is, were acknowledged by everyone. And thus the divisions that separate us—mother/adoptee/adoptive mother—become intensified tenfold. As for calling this "positive adoption language," my question is: positive for whom? Certainly not for the mothers who lose their children.
A particularly evil practice is calling women who are considering relinquishing their children “birth mothers,” well before a child is born. Live among those who adopt, and you hear them refer to "our birth mother" long before any baby is born. Designating her as such establishes a mindset—in the social worker, in the adoptive parents, and, most harmfully, in the pregnant woman herself—that she is on a track to relinquishment of her child. Thus changing her mind, and keeping her child, will appears to be some sort of chicanery on the part of "their birth mother." Until she signs the surrender papers, she is no more a “birth mother” than a person who wishes to adopt is an “adoptive parent” until a child is brought home. Those designations need to come after, not before, birth, or the singing of the surrender documents.
But “birth” and “first” and “natural” are genteel compared to what we are sometimes called on various adoptive parent blogs when they think we are not reading--and sometimes they don't care if we do. Bitch, reproductive agent, uterus of origin, womb, source material, egg layer, and egg donor are some that I’ve seen. Someone once yelled at me that I was "No more than a reproductive agent." I've been told that I shouldn't refer to my daughter's adoptive parents as her "adoptive parents." I am only supposed to refer to her "parents" even though the adoptive mother I was talking to knew full well that I was the mother of the daughter in question. What am I, chopped liver? Oh yes, I am only a birth mother. How silly of me to presume otherwise. Why don't I get with the agency-approved program?
In a collection of essays titled Wanting a Child, essayist Jill Bialosky could not bring herself to use any “mother” term at all, but called her son’s natural mother “the woman who labored him,” which sounds a bit like she sent her child out to work at too young an age. Bialosky goes on to say that this woman is her definition of a Messiah. I would like to see her reaction if this Messiah ever came to talk to her and the son who was “born from other sperm and egg.” See, there are many ways to get around her even using to her what was a noxious term for her son's mother. Biological mother. Real. Mother. In one sense of the word.
The use of birth mother became common in the Seventies, and was even promoted by women who lost children to adoption when Concerned United Birthparents was formed, but it is little different from biological mother and I have never felt comfortable with either term: “They call me ‘biological mother.’ I hate those words,” I wrote in the Seventies. “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.”
WHY 'FIRST' MOTHER?
How about first mother? That too is stilted and unsatisfactory, and irritates adoptive mothers because they say, it makes them second mothers. They do come into the child's life second, but they are also the fulltime mothers who pulled all-nighters when fevers were high, made countless PB&J sandwiches, and did the hard work of raising a child. However, if we choose to call ourselves first mothers, one would think that considerate people would go along with that. Mostly polite people change with the times. As the N-word became so incredibly offensive, good people cleansed it from their language to the degree that anyone who uses it today do so at his peril. Comedians have been ruined; politicians have been first embarrassed and then destroyed if the word leaks from their lips. But we natural mothers find it is difficult to raise our hands and say--stop calling me anything but who I am: a natural mother. A mother by nature, by biology.
As for the despicable policy of referring to us as BMs, which unfortunately has become common in adoptive parent blogs and Facebook, what really needs to be said? Yet some people have become so inured to using the same shorthand for natural mothers as a turd, they see nothing wrong with it. What's worse, when told it is offensive, often get angrily defensive and refuse to stop using in while a natural mother is obviously reading the post. Perhaps we ought to ask the users of BM in their posts why they are suddenly infusing their bodily functions into the conversation.
When I was deciding what to call the blog, I chose First Mother Forum because I liked thealliteration and thought that would make it easy to remember, and that became the URL (www.firstmotherforum.com); however because birth mother is so inculcated into the language, I reluctantly added [Birth Mother]—now in parentheses—to the title so that people searching for the subject matter of the blog would be found by the greatest number of people. Newbies looking for adoption information don't search for "first mothers." That will take time, and we're doing the best we can to push that into the language. When I added birth mother to the logo, the numbers of visitors immediately shot up.
After I found my daughter and developed a relationship with her other mother, that is what how I generally referred to her. Jane’s other mother. In conversation with me, she referred to Jane as our daughter, not your birth daughter, a phrase I find particularly offensive. Small concessions on each part led to a relaxing of barriers. Of course, she probably referred to me as Jane’s birth mother when I wasn’t there, just as I referred to her as my daughter’s adoptive mother. But not every situation is so personal and allows for the kind of leeway that Jane’s other mother and I enjoyed.
Now I have to admit that in many circumstances, I do not flinch when I’m called a birth mother; first mother may be less offensive to some, but to me the degree is negligible, and should not be a dividing issue among us that it can be.
I try to use natural mother in any conversation, especially when talking to social workers, lawyers or adoption support groups where birth mother is the linga franca; I know they note the term I am not using. I did not use birth mother in Hole In My Heart except when quoting others, and explained the language choice of "mother" in a forward, stating that, in the end, both natural and adoptive mothers are real mothers. Different, but real. In the end, I did not use either adoptive or natural before mother if the meaning was clear from the context.
Some young mothers, evangelicals and Mormons particularly, call themselves “proud birth mothers,” but that comes out of being so thoroughly inculcated into the ethos of their religion where single mothers are seen as pariahs and giving up a child can seem like God's will. Less so than in the past, but still more so than most others. We shall see how they feel in ten, twenty years, or when what they expected to be an open adoption slams shut with no forwarding address.
CONTEXT IS ALL
|Four Generations: My mother, Jane, her daughter and me|
Jane's friends and immediate family were all friendly, but there were lots of times during the long four hours when I sat alone with Tony, or my nephew or my brother. At some point when I was alone, a woman approached me with a couple of other people. I sensed immediately she was friendly. “Are you Jane’s biological mother?” she asked expectantly. "I knew Jane from Toastmasters." Jane had been a member for a few years, even won a trophy for one of her humorous speeches.
You know, I liked that woman calling me: biological mother. It was direct, honest and as accurate as natural mother. I liked that she didn’t know she should be using PC language--aka birth mother--that she was asking, Did Jane and I share DNA? Before I could answer, she offered that the other people--including the town's mayor, had known Jane from Toastmasters. All were waiting for my response. "Yes, I said, wondering what would come next.
“She talked about you all the time,” the woman said, pleased to be telling me this. In that instant, I didn’t care how Jane referred to me with her friends.--lorraine
Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption
"Dusky writes the truth, but with a gentle poetic quality which makes those truths easy to understand and accept. HOLE IN MY HEART is beautiful, powerful, and painful. But most of all it is the truth." --Nancy Verrier, adoptive mother, psychologist, author of The Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self