' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Birth mother, first mother, biological mother, or relinquisher? Framing the language when we talk about adoption

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Birth mother, first mother, biological mother, or relinquisher? Framing the language when we talk about adoption


It's an issue at First Mother Forum for even the name irritates some--adoptive parents and adoptees. Adoptive parents object because if we are the "first" parents, what does that make them? You can figure out the answer. It starts with "s." To many of them, we are birth parents, first, last, but most importantly, always. Anything else--save biological--seems to get up their dander but then, biological is still troublesome because it implies DNA, hereditary, ancestry, health history, etc. Biological goes on and on. Biology is real and forever. DNA coding cannot be rewritten.

You can see the irritation on Facebook with the angry comments that pop up on all sorts of pages--for adoptees, for adoptive parents, for all members of the triad--from writers who are angry that birth is replaced by first. Birth connotes a one-moment (hours, actually) in-time occurrence that has us in and out of the baby's life, who by law, becomes someone else's child. No matter what. I don't mean to smear all adoptive parents, because there are many who are accepting and generous in their attitude towards the child's true, biological mother and father and don't get rattled by the term, first mother.

But it is not only members of the adopting class who object. Some adoptees find any use of the word "mother" connected to the woman whose DNA they carry offensive. First or birth, it doesn't matter. Don't even think about natural, the word that an old-timer like me grew up with. More about that later. We at FMF advocate connection and urge mothers whose children were adopted-out to search or be welcoming when contacted by their children, no matter who makes the first contact, the individual herself, or an outsider, whether that be a friend or confidential intermediary or agency worker.

Yet we know that a great many mothers are not receptive to contact with their lost children, and in doing so, compound the emotional consequences of a searching adoptee. Rejected twice is how it must feel, no matter the armor one has put on. So, who can blame them if they refute all claims of motherhood from the woman who rejects them? Poke around the internet, and you'll find relinquisher attached to women who relinquished their babies to adoption. Mothers from the Baby Scoop Era (end of WWII to 1972-73) are generally given a pass and excused. But no matter how you deconstruct it, the demeaning term relinquisher is designed to be hurtful. By ipso facto saying that all women who surrendered children past 1973 are relinquishers is unduly harsh, as well as off putting to those women who might be hoping to be found by someone born and adopted past that year. Discover that your daughter, who you are hoping to have a happy reunion with, might call you a relinquisher, and you might be less likely to search or be receptive when a confidential intermediary calls. The shaming, parental pressure, societal approval of adoption for "out of wedlock" or "illegitimate" babies did not end in 1973. America is a big country, and what might have been tolerated on the upper west side of Manhattan in the Seventies and today is a far cry from what goes down in Peoria. Or Salt Lake City, for that matter.

We've heard stories of women pressured bedside in the hospital to give up their babies, women who have no family or friend support, no financial fall back. Agency workers ask them to consider all that a baby needs, against what they can provide...and to measure that against what a stable, well-off-enough family or person waiting in the wings can supply for the baby you have given birth to. If you are broke and alone, and you've got an outsider pointing out just how broke and alone you are, and if you truly love your baby, you will "do the right thing" and give that child to another. Calling these women relinquishers is anyone's prerogative--just as use of the N-word is. But tell a woman she's no more than a relinquisher, despite what she may have gone through, she's almost certainly going to get her guard up. And be cautious and closed off until she finds she doesn't need to be.

Language has power. None of us are immune to outside influences. Adoptees, mothers, fathers of all sorts. How we frame the discussion influences how we think and act in a particular situation. Personally, the whole birth vs. first argument among mothers who relinquished or surrendered or gave up their children is defeating. When I gave up my daughter in 1966 in a tub of tears and recrimination and guilt, I was called a natural mother. Mothers who kept their babies didn't have to be called "natural" because it was assumed they were. The world has moved on, motherhood can come in many ways, and natural is considered outdated and both too encompassing and limiting. Does it include someone like Nicole Kidman or Sarah Jessica Parker who used their eggs, but a surrogate to carry them and give birth? You get my point.

In my writing, I try to drop using any adjective before the word, mother, if the meaning is clear. There is no need to always add it to adoptive parents as a way to remind them what they don't need to be reminded of; the same is true of birth or first. Since natural seems archaic today (but it is still the term I prefer) I often use other mother--which is what I also called my daughter's other mother--or biological mother. When necessary. I chose First Mother Forum for the blog because I thought it would be easy to remember; in 2008 when I started this blog, I didn't know there was a movement afoot to move away from birth to first. I drop the term birth mother into the blog because that is the term that most people use when they do an internet search about adoption.

What prompted this piece today is an Oped in The New York Times by Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor who writes that she lets her students choose what pronoun they will be called by. Some of them make up non-gendered "pronouns" and she honors their wishes. This is a courtesy that we mothers are not granted.

People will call us what they will, not only behind our backs, but to our faces. Despite what we want to be called. It took a long time for the N-word to fade and become so incendiary that largely it has been retired, except in reference to the word itself, as here. (Of course, I'm certain it's still used in some quarters.) But when adoptive parents and adoptees object to calling us what we prefer--first mother over birth mother, or natural mother, say, and I see the angry pushback, or the relinquisher term, I know that we are still the lowly members of the adoption triad.

Adoption may seem like a boon, a generous gift, to adoptive parents, but the execution of it to the adopted is our fault. We do best to try to move the language, but when that is impossible, let us let the slurs wash off.--lorraine

'Preferred' adoption language is bunk

Excerpt from hole in my heart: A few words about language

Watch Your Tongue. Sometimes.

On another note, I sent in my DNA test the other day. Stay tuned.

Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption
on September 14, 2017
This heartfelt book sheds light on the often untold, disregarded perspective of the birth mother who lost her child to 
adoption as a result of the cruelty of the times. It has been told that the mothers gave up their children, but many 
did not hand over their new babies through any real choice of their own, and often were left with unaddressed pain, 
loss, and lifelong suffering which for many, has never been remedied- even through reunion. As an adoptee, born in 
a closed adoption in 1976 to a wonderful, loving family, as Lorraine's daughter was lucky to be adopted into, I was 
captivated reading the various perspectives and immediately identified with all of the feelings candidly expressed by 
 Lorraine. I am intrigued to share a glimpse with a mother who was forced to relinquish her child, and Lorraine has 
done an outstanding job at making the reader feel what she felt and giving an honest depiction of what adoption looked
like from her viewpoint, which, in my mind, represents hundreds of thousands of silent voices.


  1. This thread takes me decades back to my most helpless, vulnerable state as a minor child. The tactics used to get my "consent" in my drugged state were short of cruel, hideous and barbaric.

    In the ensuing years, I realized I was more than a birth mother. I was also a:
    Persona non grata, Good little marionette, Fertility goddess, Handmaiden,
    Noble slut, Saintly whore, and a Shadow mother.

    I lost, she won.
    I was shamed, she was praised.
    I was fertile, she was infertile.
    I was the mother, she was a stranger.
    I became a stranger, she became the "mother".
    I lost my natural motherhood status, she stole hers.
    I lost my family, she gained one.

    When all is said and done, and what keeps me going:

    "I smile because she's my daughter;
    I laugh because there's nothing anyone can do about that.
    I am my daughter's mother, biologically, physically and genetically, heart and soul, from the moment of conception until eternity, and no piece of paper will ever ever ever change that."

    1. Kassandra, truly inspiring - at low moments I say out loud to myself: I am Joanna's Mother Forever.

  2. I was adopted in the mid-80s, surrendered more or less immediately after birth, in a closed adoption. I found both of my birth parents in my 20s and am in friendly, sporadic contact with my birth mother, but contact with my birth father ended naturally and amicably after about a year. I no longer have a relationship with either of my adoptive parents. My (non-biological) adopted brother doesn't think about his bio-parents at all, never wanted to look for them, and does not consider them parents in any sense.

    The concept of calling either of them my "first" parents is completely alien to me, because there was no actual PARENTING done - my birth mother apparently did a satisfactory job of gestating me, but pregnancy is not equivalent to caring for a baby.

    I think that the manner in which we refer to biological parents should rest with the children they surrendered. I could easily see how "first" parents might be more easily accepted if they did care for the baby for some length of time after birth, and only surrendered later. But I don't think leaving a newborn child in a hospital in the care of an adoption agency or temporary foster parents makes you a parent in any sense other than "you gave birth and made the decision that the child would be better off with other parents."

    That's my two cents as an adoptee.

    1. You make good points, Alli. As I said, I chose firstmotherforum for the URL because it was somewhat alliterative and thus possibly easy to remember but I do find being called a "first mother" a little clunky and even uncomfortable. I did enter my daughter's life when she was 15 and she soon was spending summers and later, longer times with me and my husband, a thousand miles away from her other home in Wisconsin. She came up with a name she sometimes used--Ma-Raine--a combination of my name with Ma. But mostly I was Lorraine; Mom was her other mother. I do think that we mothers in reunion have to accept how our children wish to refer to us, what feels right to them, and let it go. But IRL if an adoptee were to call their biological mother a relinquisher, it would carry a lot of negative weight and not foster much of any kind of relationship.

      Thanks for writing your thoughtful comment. I hope it helps some out there who don't understand why being called "mother" by their reunited child is not comfortable.

    2. 'Pregnancy is not equivalent to caring for a baby'.

      I completely disagree.

      For me, pregnancy and giving birth were times in which my son and I were profoundly connected. So profound that, despite three decades apart, we sought and needed to find each other for our lives to become meaningful.

      The intense anguish of trying to work out what was best for my son, when what I wanted went so against what I was told was best, is caring beyond what most parents are asked to do.

    3. And my son calls me such lovely things - mother of mine, the loveliest of mothers. He has allowed himself to have this truth, that he has a mother like everyone else. I'm not his mum, but I'm his mother. The woman who adopted him is his mum.

    4. [my birth mother apparently did a satisfactory job of gestating me, but pregnancy is not equivalent to caring for a baby.]

      I understand what you mean - the actual process of birthing an infant is not the same as literally feeding and clothing a child for 18 years.

      But for most families - and this includes intact biological ones as well - the mother and infant are affected and connected in-utero.


    5. I adopted my daughter from foster care and we have been so incredibly lucky to have a good relationship with her family. She calls her mom "Tummy Mommy" (she's only 6)and me her "Heart Mommy." She went to daycare with many other children who were in foster care, adopted and in non-traditional families, so at this point, she really doesn't see anything unusual about being adopted. I recognize that as a parent, I am "writing her story" through my words and actions. I have tried continually to ensure that she has the words to express how she is feeling and to accept her emotions with dignity and respect. Her mom has a place in her life that I can never fill, just as I have a place in her life that her mother can not fill.
      "She is hers in a way she will never be mine, and mine in a way that will never be hers."

    6. First of all, I think it is important not to minimize Alli's characterization of how she views her adoptive and biological mothers/fathers (I am using her terms). It is my opinion that, ultimately, it is up to the adoptee to decide what they want to call them.

      Next, speaking from the perspective of our situation, my adoptive son calls his biological mother "mom" or "real mom" when he talks to me (clearly, he knows I would understand he is not referring to me as "mom" or "real mom" in the third person). When he talks to my husband, he refers to his natural mother as his "other mom" - so my husband knows he is not talking about me. He calls me "mom" as well.

      While Alli has every right to describe her relationships as she views them, in my situation, my son's mother (whom I refer to on paper as first mother or natural mother, so people know I am not referring to myself, and I call her "your mom" when talking to my son because he understands I am not talking about myself) definitely had the most important parenting role in my son's life. My son's mother is a drug addict who lost her first child to adoption. When she found out she was pregnant with my son, she was determined to keep him and made a Herculean effort to stay clean. The excellent prenatal care she provided him gave him the start in life which, quite frankly, overrides anything I can give him as his adoptive mother. And I am not saying this to be modest, I think the advantages of good prenatal care are universally acknowledged.

      The fact that my son's natural mother could not remain drug free does not relegate her status to "Tummy Mommy." Sorry, Anonymous (the other Anonymous, not Mei Ling), but that is definitely a term coined by an adoptive parent. The "Tummy Mommy" provided the tummy and the "Heart Mommy" provided the heart? I know that is not at all true in my case, or in most cases. I have had two life experiences where losing a child did a number on my heart. One was when the baby I carried, a little boy, died in utero at 5 months - I don't remember much of the 2 years after he died, I stopped living too. The other was when the foster daughter I love dearly went back to her mother - I don't remember much of my life in the 2 years after she left either, I was grieving too much. So, the heart of a mother gets roped in early on, no matter when you get called on to be a mother. There is no "tummy mommy," only a mommy - and every mommy is a "heart" mommy as far as I am concerned.

      Having said that, however, I believe Anonymous has good intentions and acknowledges and respects the mother who gave birth to her daughter. Sounds like you have an open relationship - and if your daughter's mom has no problem with "Tummy Mommy," then it is not mine or anyone else's place to say otherwise.

    7. Meh, maybe not the first parent, but definitely the first mother. Never a birth mother or birth parent, but always the first mother and simply...mother.

  3. Adoptive parents control the language to shape children's perceptions of their natural mothers.

    "Birth" mother denotes that our primary and only function in the lives of our children is to incubate. We are incubators or birthers of "their" children. Our importance and "use" begins and ends at birth.

    "First" mother denotes a primary importance. Adoptive mothers want to be the most important so they often reject that. It also implies a continuing importance in the lives of our children, not "cut off"at birth, just first. They want us cut off so they don't like that term.

    They may like "biological" or "genetic" mother, as it implies we are only the "genetic contributors". At the same time, they want their own biological children, having only settled for adoption when they fully are fully convinced they can't have that, so they don't like to call attention to the fact that "their" children are not biologically theirs. Moreover, they don't want our shared biology to connect to each other for life. Most want to sever that connection completely.

    The need for current medical histories dictates that it is important to maintain that connection for the adoptees well-being. Yet, some adoptive parents don't care to maintain that connection even to the determinant of "their" child's physical health. They compromise that child's *life* to maintain their claim and hold on them. So much for unconditional love and self sacrifice for the "best interests" or "their" children.

    Most don't even want to connect the term "mother" to us at all. They want that title to belong exclusively to them, thereby severing the natural relationship and all importance of that natural relationship completely.

    They default to our first names. We are just another person in the world with no meaning or significance in the lives of our children. That woman named _______

    Since they shape the minds of our children, they chose the terms to dictate how our children view us.
    Ultimately, the goal is to diminish, demean, or eradicate our function and importance in our children's lives all together.

    (to be continued in another comment)

  4. Interestingly, in the beginning, they called "martyrs", "saints", for making the "ultimate sacrifice" for the "best interests" of our children. We are "beautiful", "selfless" mothers who are willing to suffer tremendous loss for the well-being of our children. We sacrifice for them.

    But, as soon as the papers are signed, we are "relinquishers", "abandoners", self-centered women who drop the ball in raising our "unwanted" kids.

    Tell me, how many of us were not given the "choice" of continuing to remain a part of our children's lives? How many of us were promised continued involvement, and were denied? How many of us fought to get through to our children, but the adoptoraptors wouldn't allow us to be a part of their lives? How many of us would have chosen to be as involved as we possibly could, providing as much financial and emotional support to our children as we were "allowed"?

    Most ALL natural mothers want AS MUCH INVOLVEMENT as we can get. We are denied and rebuffed.

    Adoptive parents DON'T ALLOW us to be a part of our children's lives.

    Then they tell our kids we abandoned them.


    It's complete bullshit. People toy with our heads and hearts. They demand we accept and promote their self-centered approach to adoption. The demean and abuse us with titles that don't reflect the reality of the situation at hand, to distort reality to build themselves up and tear us down in the eyes of our children.

    And they certainly don't want us to call *them* "adoptive mothers", because it calls attention to the fact that they are "mothers" *only* by adoption. They want the whole package, as if they were by nature the only mother. This is a clear distortion of reality.

    Generally adoptees, conditioned to the world view of the adoptive parents, use the language their adoptive parents dictate to appease their insecurities and narcissism.

    Personally, I refuse to use the language people demand that I use, to perpetuate whatever philosophy of thought they want adoptees to grasp.

    I call myself a natural mother, because I am, by nature, a mother. It is not just by biology and genetics, but by love. My entire physical nature changed to accommodate, nurture, and bond to that particular child. Their cells still remain in my body. I love that particular child with my whole being, and am bonded to that child for life. I did, and would still, sacrifice my life for him. That is what mothers are supposed to do.

    Our children can call us whatever they want. They usually default to whatever their adoptive parents want and have conditioned them to believe.

    I refuse to play that game, the game of distorting reality to appease adoptive parent insecurities.

    I call them adoptive parents, because that's what they are.

    If adoptive parents win "their" child through lies and coercion, as most do, I call them adoptoraptors, because that's what they are. They prey on young girls in crisis, woo them, lie to them, use them, break pre placement promises, and discard them like a piece of trash to make their dreams come true. They are, in fact, abductors. They are what they are based on objective actions.

    I call it as I see it, and no one can force me to use their preferred language.

    People can call me whatever they want. I know what I am. I am a mother, by nature. The first, the biological, the genetic, the physical, the real, mother. And I love my son, as mothers do.

    1. Unfortunately some of us first mothers are told by our found children that we abandoned them when we did not.

  5. I'll add, that I have difficulty calling most adoptive "mothers", "mothers" at all.

    By demeaning us, "their" children's natural mothers, by denying that relationship which adoptees so desperately want/need, to demand loyalty and dictate the language their children use, to toss out their entire natural family so they clear the way of competition for their affections, they use their children to assuage the pain over their infertility, just as they have used us.

    And the kicker is, adoption doesn't "cure" their infertility. They still long for, and grieve, the loss of the idea of natural children. I believe some adoptive mothers would trade in our children for a chance to have biological children of their own, in a heartbeat.

    So they cling on to those who soothe their grief, and deny them the very thing that they want for themselves so badly, a natural family.

    They betray their true motives by what lengths they would go to to make "their" family appear as natural as possible, their motherhood as natural as possible.

    They want that, so, so badly. If they can't have it, neither can "their" adoptive kids.

    A "real" mother will sacrifice her lives for her children. Most adoptive mothers then, by definition, can't be "real", because they are incapable of sacrifice for the "best interests" of "their" children.

    They are nothing more than legal guardians, and often doing a bad job of it.

    They mess with the heads of those they have promised to nurture and protect.

    1. Like a painting your words bring us deeper into and reveal newer meaning to the cruel world of adaption. Mothers like you and Lorraine and all the other mothers have been my only solace in bearing our society's sanctions against unsupported pregnancies.

    2. Denise, this is probably the BEST and most accurate explanation I have ever read. All three of your posts hit the nail on the head with the reality of adoption. Keep writing, as you have a talent of putting reality in a nutshell. You just told my story and described the adoptive parents to a tee. Thank you for putting in writing what I have tried to articulate for years. Your posts helped me so much.

    3. Denise, I’m an interested onlooker with adoption trauma in my extended family, not an adoptee or an AP, but I also found your posts thought-provoking and well-done.

      As Lorraine and others often have said, adoption is everywhere and they could just scream... well, I found another heart-rending example in detail.

      If this isn’t too O/T, I just finished Joe Hagan’s biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, titled “Sticky Fingers.” One of the many appallingly detailed details occurs when Wenner and his wife adopt a son in the mid-‘80s (“sharecropper babies,” the facilitator called his sources).

      Nine months later, the then-Mrs. Wenner conceived the first of her two biological sons, who grew up to be the golden, chosen ones while the adoptee became what Hagan called “very unhappy,” in great detail. I was grieved but not surprised.

  6. Lorraine, you have reminded me of my own insistence, to myself that if only the proper title were used to identify me as, in fact, the only mother without whom my daughter would not be born and suffered being "handed over" (my latest dark term)to another women in "need." Suddenly, I realize nothing would change. I am still grieving for my lost daughter to another woman and another world that rejects any possibility of my inclusion in their lives. Use of a proper title has not closed the wound, not relieved the grief and sorrow, nor the current daily reminder that my first daughter, Joanna, will be "celebrating" another birthday on January 29, and she will again be absent.

  7. I was never too politically aware or correct and so I never minded the term birthmother I actually like it "Birth" is a good word and "Mother" is a good word- so. I do respect and appreciate the mother who raised my child, but I disagree strongly with those who say that "gestating" a baby doesn't make a person a mother. If it didn't, I wouldn't have gone through the hell I did after giving my baby up and the unreality that ensued for years until I searched This damn connection is just a mystery and cannot be undone by any laws of man. Just my 2 cents-from my own experience. I never forgot and went on with my life like the idiot social workers said. They're probably happy I suffered so much. That'll teach me to be so young and happy when my baby was born

  8. From my own experience, the most common term used to describe first/birth/natural mother is "real mother." This nomenclature is preferred by almost everyone who is not a member of the adoption triad. It's used by all ages and classes.

    This really irritated my adoptive mother. She taught me a memorized script to repeat to anyone who referred to my natural mother as my real mom. It happened a lot because I often told people I was adopted, to which they would respond, "Do you know who your real mom is?"

    The memorized response was "My adoptive mother is my real mother." But no matter how often I repeated that, people didn't change their thinking. I felt misunderstood.

  9. The odd thing is that many people (specifically those who use the term "birth" mother) in adoptionland will say that they are not using the prefix "birth" to denigrate the mother who conceived - rather, it is an honour to identify her by using the prefix that indicates what her role was - she gave birth, but did not actively raise the child, so there is no malicious intent.

    To which I point out "Think about a situation where the mother died when saving her son. Let's say her son is a toddler. When we talk about her death, we refer to her as a mother. Not a birth mother. A mother. Period. Because she is recognized as the boy's mother even if she physically died, she did not stop being his mother."

    Another argument is adoptees who insist the term "birth" mother is not meant to mislabel, do not seem to have observed that literally every mother out there who conceived her child is by definition, a mother by birth. They say "We're not defining her by the act of giving birth, I only use 'birth' mother to differentiate her from the mother who raised me."

    But if that were the case - shouldn't we be saying every mother who has given birth is a "birth" mother? They all gave birth, correct? But what the difference is, is that they didn't RAISE their child, so they HAVE to be differentiated.

    Couldn't we all just use context and our brains instead of getting hung up over prefixes? I've never understood this.


  10. I understand the disparagement inherent in the term "birthmother" now that I am older and much more aware. The last few days I've been in flash-back mode which doesn't happen as often anymore. Anyway, it's very unpleasant and I've been trying to trace it back to the beginning and I think it was signing some legal documents This is the time of year I signed the surrender papers. Anyway I've been sending weird e-mails to all kinds of political groups- Democrat and Republican alike As far as language goes I think a lot of girls are tricked by the name "Planned Parenthood" -because I think most girls really want their babies but are scared and conditioned by society to think they're supposed to do the right thing and have an abortion. In a haze of youth and panic and semi-consciousness, "planned" is a good word and "Parenthood" is a good word. Maybe they should change the name to women's clinic or something. Maybe this flashback mode was just the weather It happened when the temperature went from 60 to 28 in 3 hours Yeah, I'll just blame it on the weather Thank you for this blog -I think I'll stop sending weird e-mails now


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