' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: If woman hasn't given birth, how can she be a birth mother?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

If woman hasn't given birth, how can she be a birth mother?

Adoption reformers argue what the woman who lost her child to adoption should be called. Birth mother or birthmother? First mother? Natural mother? Biological mother? Real mother?  What we all do agree on is that before a woman gives birth or loses her child to adoption, she should not be called any of the above. Yet the adoption industry persists in referring to pregnant women considering adoption as birth mothers or birthmothers.

Using this nomenclature dehumanizes them by leading the public--and the women themselves--to believe that they are carrying a baby for another and have no vested interest in said baby. "Birth mother" reinforces in the pregnant woman's mind that she is on track to relinquish her child and keeping her baby would be some sort of chicanery on her part.

The general public has picked up this misnomer and people seeking to adopt commonly use it, unaware of how offensive it is to many of us. Prospective adoptive parents write "Dear Birth Mother" letters and run ads to identify "birth mothers." Erin and Dan, whom I wrote about last week use "birthparents" on their Facebook page soliciting for babies. Dan commented on my post asking us to forgive them for using birth mother. "It is the term we've seen most in this process." They continue to use birth mother on their Facebook page, however.

People often use euphemisms to smooth over the unpleasant.  Relatives don't die; they pass away or go
to the Lord. The adoption industry loves any language that disguises what happens in an adoption. Mothers don't give up their babies; they make an adoption plan or choose not to parent, mother and child don't reunite; they make contact.

So what should replace "birthmother" or "birth mother" in the industry lexicon? At one time, they might have called her  an "unwed mother." That went out in the 70's replaced by "single" which makes no value judgments. And today, when 40 percent of babies are born to single mothers, "unwed mother" includes a lot of women who have no interest whatsoever is letting someone else raise their child.

I'd like "pregnant woman who lacks resources to raise her child" or "expectant mother in a crisis." Using these terms, though, would get too close to the truth for the industry and prospective adoptive parents so I'd be willing to go for expectant mother, or pregnant woman. As for the "Dear Birth Mother" letters, perhaps they could just leave off the salutation entirely--let's be clear, it's not meant for anyone in particular when prospective adopters write, just for anyone who might want to give them a baby. Anyone. 

Readers, do you have any ideas? -- jane

PS: Though we support the use of the term, first mother, we find writing birth mother as one word particularly offensive . Have you ever seen adoptivemother like that? Making it one word is incredibly demeaning.
Positive Adoption Language?
They call me "biological mother." I hate those words
Advertising for a baby to adopt on Facebook
Infertility may be Earth's way of slowing down population growth

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Recommended for ages 4-8.

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  1. Thank you for this post, but also thank you for the book recommendation. I'm placing my order right now. The loss of name, especially through an intercultural/intercountry adoption, is unforgivable.

    While I understand your objections to the terms, what is your reason for not liking "first mother?" To me, that term shows respect in that one woman has the first and primary claim.

  2. Personally I hate the letters anyway, but if they must, I would like to see expectant mother.

    The idea that a pregnant woman is a birth mother before they have even given birth goes along with the idea that a woman can make a decision about adoption before that baby is born. Of course, then we read about birth mothers changing their minds and failed adoptions, when the fact of the matter is, the mother could not have ever made up her mind prior to birth.

    The entire Dear Birth Mother idea is so incredibly misleading to both the PAPs and the expectant mother. Instead of assuming that a mother is going to follow through with an adoption, wouldn't it be great if both the PAPs and the agency assumed the opposite? How much less heartache for all involved would that be?

  3. How about "expectant mother," a phrase that applies to all noticeably pregnant women?

  4. "Birthmother" as one word was popularized by Lee Campbell, founder of Concerned United Birthparents in 1976. She is a mother who gave up a child and one of the first adoption reform activists. It was meant to be like "Grandmother" which is hardly an offensive term. Like any other word, if you do not like it don't use it, but do not impute ill intent to everyone who innocently uses that word or prefers it to other terms

    As far as using any term but "mother" or "expectant mother" or "mother with a crisis pregnancy", I'm with you. Nobody is a birthmother or first mother or any other term analogous until they give birth and surrender.

    I have no problem with "contact" instead of "reunite" and have not seen anyone object to that term before. The bottom line for me is always the intent of the speaker, good or ill, not the exact words they use, and I would not correct anyone's usage as long as they mean well. Too much energy is expended squabbling about whose terms are more correct that could be better put to use fighting the real and concrete injustices in adoption.

  5. I am liking the ""expectant mother in a crisis" terminology. Can you imagine a website full of "Dear Expectant Mother in Crisis" letters written by hopeful adoptive parents? I wonder how the content of them would change if that were the norm instead of the noxious "Dear Birthmother" letters.

  6. Maryanne: Of course Jane and I are well aware that Lee Campbell popularized "birthparent" and "birthmother," as one word because adoptive parents were having so much trouble with "natural mother." Be that as it may, I find "birthmother" as one word extremely objectionable. It is not the same as "grandmother" as one word, or as you would say...birthgrandmother?

    We use "first mother" here of course, but Jane was talking about what the industry calls expectant women who are considering adoption. No one is a mother until she gives birth. Not a first, natural, biological, genetic, original or birth--mother.

    The writer Jill Bialosky, in her essay in Wanting a Child could not even bring herself to use the word "mother" in reference to how her son came to life. She refers to the "woman who labored" him, and that would be for the birth. One doubts that she is much interested in supporting him should he be curious about "that woman who labored" him.

    Tchiki, We have no objection to "first mother"--it's even the name of this blog! However, Jane was talking about the use of the terminology before a woman gives birth. I am happy to report that at least some adoptive parents have begun to use the term, as it was in an essay by an adoptive father, rather than birth mother, in the New York Times a few weeks ago. (Until this morning I had a link to it on the right sidebar.)

    But when I used "first mother" in an essay in Newsday a few years ago, an angry adoptivemother wrote that her son's other mother was his "birth mother" and not his first mother! She was very irked by the shift in language. (Yes, I used the term adoptivemother as one word knowingly.)

    I agree that that use of the terms among ourselves should not prevent us from working together, but alas, it appears to. Even the AAC, with its contingent of adoptive parents, has not (as far as I know) changed the wording on a petition for open records to include "first mothers," only birth mothers. And those who find the term objectionable in any context would not sign it. I signed it. And I use both birth mother and first mother in the blog so that it can be easily found by people looking for this kind of experience.

  7. While you and Jane are aware of Lee Campbell's popularizing the use of "birthmother" as one word, perhaps all your readers are not, as new people come here all the time. There is enough misinformation out there about words and adoption to fuel self-defeating actions like people not signing that petition at AAC because they do not like one word. Good for you for signing it anyhow.

    As to words dictating how much respect surrendering mother or women with crisis pregnancies get, remember that in the 60s and before, we were called "natural mothers" and treated horribly. Actions are much more important than words.

  8. The African-American community has also changed language to reflect a different awareness, no matter who came up with "colored people."

    I am not even sure if AAC uses birth mother or birthmother. At least the computer does not like it as one word, and always redlines it. :)

  9. Check out the adoption themed
    barf-fest airing this week on Today.



  10. Actually Jane is keeping track of these spots on the Today Show and we hope to have a blog on it tomorrow or the next day.

    Me? I need a nap!

  11. What I still find more disturbing than the acutal terms used is the use of the word "our" by AP's and PAP's.
    *OUR* birth mother.
    It seems more prevalent now than even five years ago.
    As if mothers are performing a service.
    Our birth mother= OUR handmaiden.
    Very scary stuff indeed.
    My mother is MY mother. She never belonged to my APs. She did not provide them with a service.

    BTW at the beginning of my reunion, I didn't know what to call her especially to other people. Now I just introduce her as my mother.

  12. I always feel hurt and demeaned by the term birth mother/birthmother because I feel it distances me from my son and erases the reason for our importance to each other.
    It also erases the long, intimate, deeply personal months of pregnancy, an unbelievably connected time which, decades later, still feels so precious.

    I feel dignified by the term 'first mother'. It leaves the word 'mother' free and unencumbered, yet acknowledges that adoption has altered our relationship.

    Contemporary life seems allergic to the depths of experience. Saying someone has passed is so neutral - in physical terms, the net curtain would barely have been moved by such a slight breeze. Saying someone has died contains the unfathomable enormity of what has happened, as well as describing how unyielding, absolute and irrevocable this change is, and how demanding on the psyche it is. It also reflects the word 'cried', which seems so fitting.

    Words DO matter. Those who insist on a specific terminology (like those shirty adoptive mothers who cannot abide descriptions of our sons and daughters without the qualifing 'birth' beforehand - demanding that this little self-soothing rule of theirs is adhered to even by friends of a woman grieving the death of her beloved daughter) are insisting we think in a particular way. In a way that suits them. They are trying to shape our view of the world and our relationships. Also of ourselves.

    Everything in our particular reunion is about us being a mother and son. That's why it hurts so much. That's why it means so much.

  13. Thank you, Cherry. You remembered my violent reaction to hearing that an adoptive mother insisted that I was only grieving my "birth daughter" so how could it matter so much?

  14. I think expectant mother is appropriate for anyone who has not given birth, regardless of the circumstances.

    I don't find adoptivemother or adopter offensive for APs. The only offensive term I have come across is adoptoraptor, which of course is meant to be offensive.

    I don't really see the difference between birthmother and birth mother to be honest, but if it is offensive, will be sure not to use birthmother. My daughter calls her first mother her "other mother". I don't know if this is considered offensive; please let me know if it is. This is the term my daughter came up with. I always called her "Your mother in Russia" and sometimes we refer to her by her first name as well.

  15. It's incredibly offensive to use "birth mother" before an adoption occurs (not just birth, but actual adoption). Letters should open with a simple "Hello." No title is required. When agencies need to use a term to aid in discussion, they can use "expectant mothers," the same term used for all pregnant women. I see no difference. I think "birth mother" used prior to adoption is manipulative. APs are PAPs before adoption (you can't be a parent without a child), but we call birth mothers the same things the whole process through (even though they are simply a mother at that moment)? I am pretty skeptical on that being simply happenstance.

    After adoption, I think it is really up to the first mother. I know some birth mothers who are comfortable with that term. I know others who are not. I cannot speak from firsthand experience, but I would imagine the relationship one has with the child and adoptive parents can have some impact upon the feelings associated with the title? If it is used by the APs to impart a separation or devalue the role of the first mom, then I can see why it is offensive. It's more the emotion and meaning behind it than the actual word, maybe?

    I personally don't care for the word. It's odd to me as all bio moms are "birth moms." It's just an illogical term for me. We just use "other mom" or "other dad" if clarity between her two moms or two dads is required in the conversation. Sometimes I think adoptive parents really need to get a grip on their own sensitivity to sharing a title.

  16. I love "other mother"!
    Better than first mother, in conversation where it is easy to understand who you are talking about. I referred to Jane's adoptive mother at times as her "other mother."

    It says it all. And I so well remember when I was talking to my daughter's other mother and she referred to "our" daughter. We had a lot of ups and downs, we did, but she also did a lot of things right.

    Michelle, you sound like you are doing the right thing and your daughter came up with the best of all possible words, in my opinion.

  17. Tiffany ( 11/5 &:16 pm)

    While I agree with the majority of your post, I do not agree with aparents needing to "share" the titles of "mother or father". Let's be honest, yes, the adoptee has two mothers and two fathers BUT only one set is raising them ( the other forfeited theirs roles and responsibilities of raising the child).
    For many people, "mother" and "father or Parents are the physical emotional and psychological parents that are raising the child regards of bloodlines. When you (general) give up your role as a parent to raise your child, the title and role goes to someone else. To demand that they share "share" is a bit much.


  18. Bee said...

    'What I still find more disturbing than the acutal terms used is the use of the word "our" by AP's and PAP's.
    *OUR* birth mother.'

    Yes, that voracious appetite for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g is repulsive. As is the assumption that another human being is there solely to serve them. Such assumed superiority too.

    History has many examples of women being viewed as merely an insentient vessel, and still it goes on. This time perpetrated by other women. Horrendous.

    Bee said...

    'My mother is MY mother. She never belonged to my APs. She did not provide them with a service.

    BTW at the beginning of my reunion, I didn't know what to call her especially to other people. Now I just introduce her as my mother.'

    When I read words like this, I feel lifted up by them, and a little piece of my ragged heart feels restored. Even though it's not about me, it still has that effect. Because it makes me feel that something good, something deep and great, is possible, when sometimes I feel under an avalanche. So thank you so much Bee for sharing your thoughts.


    Yes, I remember your post about what that awful, glacier-hearted fellow human being said about your dear daughter. Even reading about it, my blood boiled for you and for all of us.

  19. Anonymous 11/6 9:01

    You didn't mention if you are an adoptee, first mother, or adoptive parent.

    If you are an adoptive parent, like I am, then you can only define the relationship between your child and his or her birth parents while they are young. Once they are an adult, it is up to the individual to define his or her own relationships to anyone else, including birth parents.

    I am not trying to demand anything of anyone. I shared my personal viewpoint and our choice. If you are referring to my last sentence where I said APs need to let go of their sensitivity regarding titles, then I stand by that statement based on my personal experience with APs. I'm not sure if you noticed that I specifically said I wonder if the intent behind the title can cause the majority of the pain- the intent to separate and devalue. I choose not to devalue the importance I believe my daughter's other parents have in her life, not just her birth, but her life. That is our choice, and when she is older, that is her choice.

    Because of that, and because of what other adoptees have told me and my own personal feelings, we approach our daughter's other parents with a neutral title. They are, in fact, her mom and dad, biologically. "Mother" is more than an emotional title- it is also a definition of a biological relationship. We mostly use first names, but when names are not appropriate, we use other mom and dad.

    I want my daughter to make her own choice on her relationship with her other parents without having to worry about our feelings or our emotions because I see the hurt and pain it can cause to an already difficult situation. As I said in my comment, I do not want that for my daughter. I want to support her feelings, whatever the may be. I do not want her to deny a relationship because she is worried I will be upset or feel uncomfortable or left out.

    Her mom and dad made a difficult choice in exceedingly crappy circumstances. They did not just glibly decide to not accept responsibility because they couldn't be bothered, and I'm won't accept the insinuation that they do not deserve to be "mom" and "dad" because they could not keep their daughter. They loved her. They love her still. They are part of her, and she of them. For now, that's enough for my husband and I to view them as mom and dad to our (collective "our") daughter. As my daughter gets older, it is my hope she will love them as well, and the titles are up to her to choose. We will support her decision, whatever it is, and try to ensure she makes it without regard to our feelings and based only on her own desires and needs.

  20. Adding an additional point to my comment 11/6 at 1:08

    We are in a very open adoption. That likely plays a role in our viewpoint as our daughters see our youngest daughters other parents frequently. As she grows up, my daughter will know them and they will be very present in her life. This is not always the case in every adoption, I realize, but it is the case in ours.

  21. Tiffany I loved reading your insights on your daughter's open adoption and I too favor the term, "other mother." I think bringing to life a human being vs. nurturing /guiding him or her are equally important. Therefore, each of us are our adoptive son's "other parents," if you will. In addition, as you say, most biological parents do not relinquish their children out of a desire to shirk responsibility for them.

    I sometimes use the term "birth mother" or "first mother" when I am writing, so readers can understand who I am referring to - but I do not think of my adoptive son's mother as having a title that's any different from mine in relation to him. But maybe I need to use "other mother" in my writings as well.

    1. Jay, thanks. I'm no expert, by any means. I'm simy following my heart and treating my daughter's other parents how I would want to be treated. Most of all, I listen to other adoptees because I want to be the best mother I can be in all ways, and for my adopted daughter, it means also helping her process her adoption in the healthiest way possible.

  22. Tiffany, I really respect you.

    1. Thanks Cherry. That means a lot to me.

  23. Off topic but important.

    In case anyone doesn't know, Matt and Felanie Crapobianco have filed a million dollar lawsuit against Dusten Brown, Cherokee Nation and Veronica. Yes, they have filed a lawsuit against the 'daughter' (and I use that term loosely) whom they profess to love so much. I guess this means that if they win, they can garnish any wages or property Veronica has as an adult to pay them back for stealing her from her REAL father. I don't know how this case can go any lower.

    South Carolina attorney, Raymond Godwin, is still fighting to have Desirai's natural father, Jeremy Simmons, declared a deadbeat dad and unable to get custody of his own child.


  24. Robin I read the details. It is impossible to feel any more sickened that we already are about everything - the Capobiancos, Paul Swain, Raymond Godwin and all the other greedy players, both attorneys as well as non-attorneys, in the Baby Veronica, Baby Desirai and who knows how many other cases. I guess the whole "pro bono" deal was nothing but a sham, just like the sham and disgrace of these adoptions.

  25. I am a birth mother who surrender her child. I have also recently reached out to her only to be met with rejection. I have started counseling and my counselor said something that stuck with me she said " When people push us away our automatic reaction is often to chase after them, but chasing people is usually just chasing an illusion, Stop chasing, the people that are meant to be in your lives don’t need to be chased". My daughter knows how to contact me if she should change her mind, she has read my letter and knows how much I wanted to raise her ,my love for her will never change ,but I have made the decision to mourn no more ,19 years is long enough. I have done all I can do and I am at a point in my life that I going to focus on the children and the loving people who want to be in my life.

  26. Tiffany:
    With all due respect, your opinions are yours as mine are mine. You might not have a problem of sharing titles but for other who are doing the hard work and sacrifice of raising a child,they do have the right to not share. Yes, telling the child they are adopted is imperative BUT putting the birth parents on equal status as the aparents ( as in they ALL are helping to raise the child) is false. The bparents gave-up the responsibility of raising the child, it is what it is.

  27. @Anonymous - I already said my statements were simply my opinions. My daughter's other parents and my husband and I aren't in a competition, so I don't feel the need to try to determine status and levels and sort out titles and be all possessive. They ARE on equal ground with us- there's nothing false about my personal feelings.

    I'm not looking to argue. These next statements are general remarks not made to anyone in particular.

    I'm confident in my love for my daughter. That's enough for me. I have no wish nor desire to try to limit her connection with her other parents because they are not raising her. There are plenty of adoptees who view their adoptive parents and birth parents on equal ground (I'm friends with several). We have an open adoption in the hopes that our daughter will be able to go to her other parents when she has questions about, well, anything, really. Her adoption. Her athletic ability. Her heritage (which is different than ours). I talk with her mother all the time about these types of things and greatly appreciate her insight. So, her parents are taking an active role in her life as of now, and forever, I hope. I'm so happy to have more people loving my daughter. It's a benefit, not a burden.

    Someday, every adopted child grows up into an adult... and someday, I want my daughter to grow up into an adult who is secure in her mothers' love for her, without boundaries, limitations, restrictions, or caveats. Both mothers.

  28. Anon wrote:
    but for other who are doing the hard work and sacrifice of raising a child,they do have the right to not share.
    Wow!!!! You are doing the hard work. Wow!!! How about your are the luckiest man or woman alive that you got the chance to parent your child. And you care about titles? I shudder at how your child feels about the burden he/she has put you through.

    I am raising two kids and I was coerced out of raising my oldest. I know what a priveledge it is to raise children. Guess what? You are not the biological parent so like it or not, you SHARE!!!!!

  29. Barbara:

    With all due respect, NO one has to "share". Your sense of entitlement, because you are a birthparent, does not give you the right to demand that someone "share" with you. You gave that up when you signed those papers. I think this is why some open adoptions closed or are modified because some birthparents think they are entitled to have a say or must be included in the triad as the "other" parent.

    As I said before, telling the child they are adopted and about their the birthfamily is important, but the birthparents are no longer "mom and dad" or "parents". Those titles and roles belong to others and they are not obligated to share them.

  30. Of course no one is "obligated" to share the title of Mom and Dad--and most adoptees as far as I can tell don't--but why the attitude here? For instance, using "other mother" doesn't take away anything from either parent and gives us first mothers a semblance of comfort that we are recognized as the blood relative who sent the child into the world. If adoptive parents could just be more relaxed about their roles, a lot of the acrimony would disappear. Mom and Dad is the familiar title for the parents who raised you, but come on, everybody alive has biological "parents." We are not the stork.

  31. Nice if all parents, adoptive and natural, could stop caring about titles and focus on treating each other like human beings. It goes both ways. And stop putting the adoptee in the middle of a contest nobody wins.

  32. When I learned that my son's adoptive mother had complained that she 'didn't want to share' I thought 'well you shouldn't have adopted then.'

    I also felt contempt for her selfishness and her demand that denial be maintained. For as well as being deeply disrespectful to me (which has slowly and entirely corroded the initial warmth I felt for her as I entered into reunion with our son), it has also profoundly hurt our son who regards her as his mum and me as his mother.

    Her attitude and resulting actions have added great pain to the immense amount I already live with (as someone who, at 16 years old, was pressurised by all the trusted adults around me till I evenually lost hope and confidence and surrendered my son for adoption).

    But worse, it tortures our son as he is stymied from peacefully accepting and enjoying the profound, enduring love of his mother.

    I find his amum's selfish attempts to block that unforgiveable. However she feels, I believe her pain is petty compared to his. And compared to mine.

  33. Anonymous, you are posting on a blog written to support first moms. Every time you preface a comment "with all due respect," everything you say after is so disrespectful to the women here. It's really hard for me to understand why you feel the need to post such negative words about first moms on this particular blog? Everyone is entitled to different opinions and all, but some kindness and consideration could be extended. There are so many other online places that are supportive of your viewpoint.

    Cherry, I wish I could say more than I'm so sorry because that just sounds so trite. But I am. That is a hard position for your son to be in, and one I want to never place my daughter in. I do appreciate you sharing because reading your words, and others as well, confirms for me that I am making the right decisions with my daughter.

  34. Lorraine:

    My post was towards Barbara. I "get" other mother but when she stated that one must "share" because the child is not biologically related to the aparents- that's not cool nor correct.

  35. Thank you for your kindness and understanding Tiffany. It's a real balm tonight, when things feel so raw. Thirty years later and it still takes my breath away. So I feel your gentleness and care and I appreciate it deeply.

  36. Sharing is a *fact*. We belong to both sets of families.

    This comes from an adult adoptee, 60's vintage.

    My APs are very kind, usually progressive. They always told me the "right" things. They loved me wholeheartedly, or so I thought.

    When it came to me finding my other families, however, it was not so easy for my amom to play the progressive game. My adad doesn't have issues; apparently he trusts that I love him unconditionally and for always (which I do). My amom, however, has done much recently to ruin our relationship by changing the subject, leaving the room, withdrawing, and making me feel uncomfortable when I want to talk about finding my father.

    I don't trust my relationship with my amom the way I used to. And then she hurt it further by coming to me and telling me, six months later, after not listening to me, that she wanted to present *my* story to *her* genealogy group. WTF? She didn't know how many siblings my father had, their names, nothing--she'd never even said my father's name OUT LOUD. Because hearing me talk about it *hurt* her, and she turned away, over and over. I am sure it does hurt her, but shutting down communication doesn't help our relationship, and it rejects ME, too. It's my father, my family; not talking about them doesn't make them less important to me. I am exhausted by protecting my amom's feelings, and the sense that I have to do so is annoying. When they adopted a baby, they adopted a baby who had other families. Period. Even back then.

    I belong to both my families, and the more my amom tries to control how I feel about it, the less respect I have for her. I didn't think it was possible to wreck our relationship, but she's doing a great job of it right now.



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