' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose

– Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily, 1913

Ah, the power of words. In her December 8 post, Lorraine noted, “By the way, I've seen some new list of acceptable language [to adoptive parents, one assumes], and reunion is now verboten.)” And I had commented that I was curious enough to do a little homework. I located the list, a reprint of an OURS Magazine May/June 1992 feature in Adoptive Families magazine, which indicated that “reunion” was negative language, while “making contact with” was considered positive language, and it was one of several spirited threads on this post. Those who commented agreed that reunion accurately described the dynamic, i.e., brought together again. One commenter wondered if “forever family” would be added to the list; I certainly hope not. Five years ago, Building Blocks Adoption Service, Inc. of Medina, Ohio, a Christian agency specializing in international adoption, placed the following ad in my local paper:

Did you know there are thousands of children residing in orphanages and foster homes overseas in need of homes? These children are in need of forever families. You can make a difference in the life of a child. Children from newborn to school age are immediately available for referral. Call and learn how you can make a difference in the life of a child through Adoption.

As soon as I saw “‘forever families” I went ballistic and sent an e-mail to the agency that the term was offensive and disrespectful to me and all biological families. While these children might need safe, stable, permanent homes, they already had families who grieved for their lost children. Surprisingly, I received a response and apology. Several months later this same agency had a new ad announcing an adoption seminar in my area:

Adoption is an Option…Millions of people have completed their families through adoption. The joy found in making a difference in the life of a child is great—and the joy that child will bring you is even greater.

Much better, don’t you think? I don’t know how much influence I had, but I felt as though they heard me, and listened. At the same time they adopted a new slogan as well, “Creating Families Through Adoption, and Making the Impossible Possible.” Wellll, I dunno. Discuss amongst yourselves.

But back to adoption language. Take a look at the list. Why is biological parent more positive than natural parent? What’s the difference? I’m not crazy about birth mother; as I said in one of my first blogs, it makes me feel like a character in a science fiction novel, it’s just so clinical and cold.

During the first days and weeks of our reunion, my daughter and I wrestled with vocabulary. She’d refer to her adoptive mother by name; she was almost uncomfortable saying “my mother,” and I was always Linda. Once when I didn’t recognize her voice on the phone she exclaimed, “It’s your daughter!” followed by a sense of shock that she referred to herself as my daughter. Eventually, quickly, she simply gave up and her mother was “Mom” or “my mother.”

A mother is a woman who conceives, gives birth to, or raises and nurtures a child. I may not be my daughter’s mother, but she was, is, and always will be my daughter. I conceived and gave birth to her; there’s no other euphemism to describe our connection. While being fitted for the dress I wore to my daughter’s wedding almost four years ago, I explained to the Italian dressmaker that I was the mother of the bride but we were separated by adoption, so I wasn’t her “real” mother. One of her immigrant assistants, a seasoned woman, was sitting at her sewing machine, carefully eavesdropping on the conversation. As I was leaving the shop, this woman smiled at me, nodded her head, and in her heavily accented English said firmly, “You’re her mother.” And of course I thanked her and started to cry, just as I’m tearing up right now at the memory of being acknowledged as a mother.

Somewhere along the line I began using the phrase “childless mother," a takeoff of the old spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” I lost my child to adoption; ergo, I’m a mother without a child. Looking over the list, I suspect everyone will have one or two terms that will rub them the wrong way. I think my favorites are substituting “terminate parental rights” for “give up” and “make an adoption plan” for give away. Though I know she feels differently, I didn’t give my daughter away. But hell yes, I gave up! Every time I wrote my list of pros and cons whether to parent my baby as a single 19-year-old without resources or surrender her to a couple who could provide the financial security that I couldn’t at the time, it was clear which side would be the victor, so yes, I gave in, and gave up.

How much of a difference, if any, does positive adoption language make to triad members? Is it kinder and gentler for adoptees to be referred to as “born to unmarried parents” rather than “illegitimate," the term widely used during the dark ages of adoption? Does it relieve single mothers of decades--even a lifetime--of guilt? Who distinguishes between adoptive parent and parent? Oh, wait! I just looked up the definition of parent, “One who begets, gives birth to, or nurtures and raises a child; a father or mother.” Ah, I see.

I wish I had answers; I only have more questions. If it’s any consolation, remember a rose by any other name would still be as sweet.


  1. I hate "positive adoption language"as prescribed by some adoptive parent groups like the one that does not like the word "reunion." "Reunion" is just a better, more precise word than "making contact". The rest of "positive adoption language" is baloney as well, more geared to the insecurity of some adoptive parents than the way normal people talk about adoption.

    But since I am generally against euphemism and political correctness, I also hate the sort of "negative adoption language" promoted by some birthmother groups whose heads explode on hearing the word "birthmother" and who insist that ONLY giving birth makes one a mother.

    In general, yes, "a rose is a rose" no matter what you call it, and language works best when it is easily understood by all, and has no agenda other than clear communication.

    Nobody should be told what words they can and cannot use. What matters is the intent of the speaker, not the words. Prescribed adoption language, positive or negative, clouds communication by relying on cult-like in-group meanings of words different from general usage. It polarizes rather than enhancing understanding.

    As to who is a mother, birthmothers and adoptive mothers are both mothers, but in different ways. Both sides need to get over trying to find words and ways of speaking to invalidate the reality of the other.

    I am comfortable with the term "birthmother", to me it is merely descriptive, not negative. If others prefer natural mother, or first mother, or something else, that's fine with me, but don't tell me what term I must use.I think we have much more important issues to talk about and work towards than what we are called.

    I don't like "adopter" instead of adoptive parent, unless referring to an abusive or otherwise unworthy adoptive parent. But if others like the word, I am not going to correct them, I just won't use it that way.

    I think there are situations where both adoptive mothers and birthmothers can be referred to as "just mothers" depending on the context. What matters to me is clarity and grace of language, not political correctness of any sort.

    One area where I think it important to make the distintion between "mother" and birthmother or any other term for a surrendering mother is when talking about a pregnant mother, or a new mother who has not yet surrendered. Nobody is a birthmother until they have given up a child, before that, they are an expectant mother or just a mother. And they have a right to change their mind about surrendering, no matter how upset prospective adoptive parents might be.

    Language should be a tool of communication, not of propaganda on either side. Calling a skunk cabbage a rose does not make it smell better!

  2. "A rose by any other name would small as sweet".
    And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    I know that language is always in flux, but I don't like it when words get *deliberately* coopted, and have their meaning manipulated so that they can become part of the opposition's vocabulary.

    I'm not crazy about the word "birthmother", but it doesn't make my head want to explode, and I'll happily use it when expedient (like writing to legislators or whatev), and will defend to the death anyone else who wants use the term.

    "Adopter" I don't mind that much, but that's probably because it's common usage in the UK. I've used the label for myself on occasion.

    Really, mostly I don't care.
    Though I get angry when I hear adult adoptees referred to as "adopted children".
    Plus I have to confess "Gotcha Day" drives me wild.
    I think it's crude in the extreme.

  3. I forgot to add that I *like* "biological mother".
    It doesn't feel cold to me at all. I think it says it like it is. I'm proud and happy to know there is that visceral connection between us.

    "Natural parent" has always seemed a bit archaic to me.

  4. Just a note, in my comment I must have mispoken. I would like for "forever family" to be on the list of the negative language, not the commonly or okay to use list! I am offended by it. As for birthmother, my daughter refers to be as her birthmother. SHe doesn't seem to want any relationship so right now birthmother hurts. I like first mother because I like to say I was her mother first.


  5. I think "forever family" sucks too, Kristy.

  6. "Well, I don't know." Anne looked thoughtful. "I read a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage."

    It seems to be an effort to erase biological ties.
    To rename a rose.

    And also to view adoption as a one act play.
    It fails to take into account that over time, circumstances and people change.

    I find the act unfair and hurtful.

  7. Ugh..."Gotcha Day"! Forgot that one. "Forever family" is icky.

    I'm not really attached to "birthmother", don't mind if someone calls me biological mom,or natural mom. I am not real fond of "first mom" (sounds like "first lady"), can't stand "mother of loss". I'm the mother of a son, not a loss! In any event, no word can sever the genetic connection between me and my son. What is, is, no matter what you call it.

    My son does not call me anything, he just starts out emails without a "dear anyone." I sign stuff to him with my first name. I don't care what he calls me as long as he continues to keep in touch. If I am ever lucky enough to be a grandmother, that kid can call me anything too. Titles do not matter to me.

    I don't understand all the fuss about names and words. None of it changes reality one bit.

  8. "I don't understand all the fuss about names and words. None of it changes reality one bit"

    I feel the same way. Though I do think to a certain extent words can be used to manipulate the feelings and opinions of people who don't really understand the issues. So when presenting an issue to the general public, I think it's good to be cautious.
    The intense passions that some these disagreements ignite though, that I don't get.

    Word fascists really piss me off.

  9. I understand the fuss.

  10. To be more clear


  11. I guess I've been called so many things that, from a personal pov., it's like water off a ducks back.
    So I guess I'm the wrong person to talk.
    But I will anyway .

    I really don't the love word police.
    I don't think people who've been used to one term for many years, whose identity is bound up in it and who have used it innocently, should obligingly switch to a different term because it is judged by more 'enlightened' people to be demeaning (like, when it wasn't thought to be before)
    I don't think they should be excoriated for that.
    Like the fuss over B. J. Lifton, for instance.
    I wish people would 'give' a little. Not always, but sometimes. Depending on the message and and the messenger.

    I see making a fuss over other attitudes, of which that may (or may not) be representative, perhaps.

    But not simply because of that.

  12. "I think we have much more important issues to talk about and work towards than what we are called."

    True and yet here we are stuck on terminology. Or maybe it is only me being bitchy, but I hate the birthmother thing mostly because that is what my son's adopters taught him that I was. As a scientist, biological suits me just fine. And I often sign off as mother of loss, just because that's the way I feel.

    I agree, there are more important issues that we should be addressing, yet these names, labels, whatever they are, are very important to each of us and at different points of our lives as we define ourselves as mothers often for the first time in our own words.


  13. I know that no-one here will agree with me, but I won't use the term "birthmother" for myself as I did not cease to be a mother. And the two words are exclusive of each other.

    The technical term "birthmother" was developed by adoption workers as part of "Respectful/Positive Adoption Language" (the same campaign for replacing "reunion" with "making contact"). In RAL, the adoptive mother is the only mother the adopted child or adult has, whereas "birthmother" was defined as being a mother for the 9 month reproductive process only.

    But of course, all of us have the right to determine for ourselves whether or not we consider ourselves still to be mothers to the children we surrendered/placed/gave-up/lost. If a woman decides that the adoptive mother is the only mother, and that she is only the birthmother, then that is her choice. But it is not mine.

  14. Birth mother seems to me exclusive to the first 9 months also, or at best, the final event; the final push then the mothering ceased. But semantics are in the eye of the beholder, and I do not begrudge anyone their comfort. To paraphrase, "we have miles to go before we sleep", before we are recodnized as "real mothers". If we bicker now, we may well not be taken seriously. It is good that we have somewhere to stategize about terminology and how to proceed. On another note, I am finishing , en toto, "The Girls Who Went Away". It is frightening and eerie to put a name on what happened to us. At the same time, I am blessed to be in contact with my son after to 38 years. Unfortunately, right now, they are both giving me nightmares. What's a girl to do? 3 cheers for PTSD.

  15. Cedartrees wrote:But of course, all of us have the right to determine for ourselves whether or not we consider ourselves still to be mothers to the children we surrendered/placed/gave-up/lost. If a woman decides that the adoptive mother is the only mother, and that she is only the birthmother, then that is her choice. But it is not mine.

    Here we have the problem with dueling personal definitions that people do not agree upon. Just to be clear, to me the terms "birthmother", "First mother". "natural mother" and "biological mother" all mean exactly the same thing, a mother who surrendered a child to adoption. No more, no less. interchangeable as far as meaning is concerned. None of them are better or worse than others, or contain other meanings to me.

    Just because I use the term "birthmother" for myself does not in any way mean I do not consider myself my son's loving mother forever, or that I see the adoptive mother as the only mother. That may be your interpretation of the word but it is not mine, and I find it presumptuous and insulting.

    Adoptee have two mothers. That is true whether they like one more than the other, whether one is loving and one is uncaring, whether they wish they had not been adopted. Neither mother can negate the influence on the other of their child.

    Am I my son's mother? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, "you betcha"! He has my eyes, my writing style, my love of cats and books and fantasy, and some family health problems as well. No way because I sometimes use the term "birthmother" do I think I am not his mother, do I not love him, do I consider his adoptive mother more his mother than me.

    And ironically, he does not even communicate with his adoptive mother any more because of problems in how she raised him. But she is still his mother,albeit a piss-poor one, because it is not possible to wipe out the years of his childhood and start over with a blank slate, any more than he was a blank slate when he was adopted.

    The assumptions Cedartrees has made about all mothers who use the word "birthmother" are dead wrong in my case. She and others are very welcome to use other words that suit them, and I will make no assumptions about what inner personal meanings they might asign to their favorite term.

    But anyone who wants to communicate with other people had better use words are generally understood, not assign meanings and implications that are just not there for many people, nor spin a whole wrong scenario as Cedartrees has done from one innocent word.

  16. "I know that no-one here will agree with me, but I won't use the term "birthmother" for myself as I did not cease to be a mother. And the two words are exclusive of each other."

    Well, as someone who rarely uses the term and even more rarely applies it to myself (and then only under very particular circumstances) I certainly do disagree that calling oneself a "birthmother" necessarily means one has disavowed or forfeited one's motherhood.
    It might. But it might not.

    Anyway, the controversy about the origins of the label still hasn't been satisfactarily resolved, and probably never will be. First, it was supposed to be Pearl. S. Buck who coined the term as two separate words, then Lee Campbell of CUB who linked them together to make a workable acronym. But there you go. Who really knows?

    Let's not flog a dead horse, eh?

  17. May that deceased and rotting equine rest in peace!:-)

  18. A hot topic all the way around. Words are important and will always be manipulated to serve their user/group. I researched a d wrote an article a year ago, which appeared in the PACER Newsletter... then Adoptive Families Magazine picked up a much shorter version and put it on their web site to gather comments.

    A Mother By Any Other Name



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