' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Excerpt from hole in my heart: A few words about language

Friday, March 24, 2017

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

Daughter Jane and Lorraine, circa 1992
Regular readers know that I'm moving from a house where my husband and I have lived for 33 years ago another house in the same village.

It's only a mile away, but even moving next door means going through the collection of a life and deciding what to take, what to discard, what is worth taking, what is not, what you cannot live without, what you no longer want to live with. It's time consuming and somewhat emotional. My husband and I are both collectors of a sort--he has 5,000 books and he's getting rid of about a thousand; I've collected various sets of dishes and odd plates and platters that I like, as well as antique butterfly wing trays from Rio, and they are going to go!

We are moving from an Arts and Crafts house built in 1930 to a modern house built in 1990. And I want our new life to reflect the change. I'm going on here more than I meant but this is a way of saying that for the next couple of months (the move itself is in May), I won't have much time for writing. Jane will undoubtedly post now and then, but she too is busy with her life. While this is going on, I will publish excerpts of my memoir, hole in my heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption. The spacing will follow how it reads on the book page. This is the first section, not a forward, but "A Few Words about Language":

“They call me ‘biological mother.’

I hate those words. They make me sound like a baby machine, a conduit,
without emotions. They tell me to forget and go out and make a new life.

I had a baby and I gave her away. But I am a mother.”

Those words are from my memoir Birthmark, and are the most quoted
language in the book. At the time of publication in 1979, the debate over what to
call women who relinquished children was just beginning. Before that, we were
“natural mothers.”

But that term was thought to be offensive to adoptive parents and “birth
mother” came into wide usage among those who wrote about adoption loss and
reunion, and even, some mothers themselves. Concerned United Birthparents
(CUB) had already embraced the term in its name, using the conjoined word

Yet not all of us to whom the term applies have been comfortable with this,
as the term subtly but surely implies that we are there only for the act of giving
birth, and then gone. Another group uses “first mother,” which is offensive to some
adoptive parents. Today we are not supposed to “give up” our children, but “make
an adoption plan,” a phrase that totally obfuscates the emotional crisis that
precedes any relinquishment. Some mothers will only say they “surrendered” their
children, implying they were overcome by forces they could not withstand. I
relinquished, surrendered, and gave up, but I no more made a “plan” than a person
who falls overboard from an ocean liner makes a plan to swim to the life preserver
thrown to her.  The language issue on many points is so heated that one can find hundreds of scholarly and popular articles on the internet about “positive adoption language,” lists of what is approved, and what is considered “negative adoption language.” The number of words written about adoption language itself is testament to the intensity of feelings on the subject.

But mothers who relinquished their children have never been consulted
about these lists.

The phrase “real mother” as in, “Are you ever going to search for your real mother?”—which comes out of mouths of many not schooled in adoption-industry lingo—drives most adoptive parents around the bend, yet people being people use it and know what it means, and they also know that the adoptive parents are the ones who do the day-to-day mothering. Both women who give up their children and the women who raise them are real mothers. Different, but both real mothers.

I never have been happy with either “birth” or “first” as a term describing
who I am, though I have had to use those phrases for writing on the internet. Nor
have I adopted in my writing the other phrases endorsed by the adoption industry
and attendant social workers, as all were designed to make a mother and child loss
of each other seem simple, unemotional, clean and done, once a child is handed
over. Nothing could be farther from reality.

When possible, I have avoided the use of a modifier before mother unless
clarity demanded it, or I was quoting someone else, and generally used other and
natural. Birth of course remains when in a quotation or research paper.

But modifiers other than natural shut us up in a delineated time frame:
between conception and birth, then ipso facto: Gone. No matter the conflicted
feelings I had when I first learned of her existence, I gave birth to my baby and
once she was born I became her mother, a fact that a mere signature on a surrender
paper, and the adoption that followed, can never undo.

I had a baby and I gave her away. But I am a mother.--lorraine

Next: Prologue 


  1. Raising a child no more makes you a mother than liking pretty dresses makes you a woman. I seem to be doomed to constantly encounter these sorts of questions about people lying to themselves and mistaking symbols for reality. If a human being did not come out of your body after being made from one of your own eggs you are not that person's mother. You're important to them, you might have raised them, but you're not mother. They can CALL you that all they like. Lots of men call themselves women these days and vice versa. Doesn't change the reality. Language is not reality.

    But speaking of language, we need more words for people in childrearing roles who aren't doing it for pay. Our language is insufficient to encompass the reality that mothers don't always raise our children and certainly, not usually by ourselves.

    We already have one word for a nonmaternal childrearing figure: "father".

    (People may be going "wtf with the 'men who call themselves women', that's intolerant and off-topic." Dig this, OK? There are transwomen out there now adopting children and calling themselves mothers. So not only am I constantly running into these two issues of Society Lying To Itself but they're crossing streams too. Eep.)

  2. I agree. I do not think that the woman who adopted me is my mother. I cannot understand adopted people who believe this. It's just a crazy made up fantasy to me, and I don't know how anyone can possibly see it differently.
    But, many people do. They seem to believe that a woman who did not create, and give birth to you, can be your mother. They can be like a mother, or act as a mother, but women who adopt children can never, ever be their mothers. It just is impossible.
    I don't know how reasonable adults can believe anything else.
    Infant adoption is based on fantasy and lies, and every thinking adult should be able to see that.

  3. Great idea to publish excerpts from your latest book, "Hole in my Heart:...". I've been having difficulty facing these issues lately, at the same time that I cannot avoid them - lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning contemplating the meaning of it all and if any sort of meaningful. resolution is possible. But your writing is so clear and your metaphors so apt that when I read your words, it actually helps ease me back into those contemplations in a more grounded way. I've contemplating the struggles of many whose journey was invisible to all but themselves before finally making breakthroughs - African Americans, LGBTQ, Jews, and currently Muslim Americans. Those groups struggled for recognition and made gains, and then the curve of history sometimes throws them back (now). So I know that the struggle is worth it and that eventually we will make gains, but getting there - the actually nuts and bolts of how to proceed, not just politicallly & activist-wise, but as a wounded animal trying to nurse those wounds and make meaning of the muck in my own daily struggle - how shall I be an instrument for change in this crazy existence so that others may not suffer this confounded fate.
    Language DOES matter, as your words belie. How we frame things can influence attitudes and justify actions. So discussions of who we are and how we are presented to the world matter greatly. Thank you for make the invisible seen and the silent audible.

  4. I have recently connected with my birth mother and have stumbled around to find the right language that defines her to me. As I read your post here, I had hoped to find some creative options. I've considered your perspective for some time, but it doesn't feel right to me.

    If I understand your perspective, you want to own the term "mother", without modifiers to describe who you are to the daughter you surrendered. Further, you seem to believe that modifiers have been added to comfort the women who ultimately stepped in to raise your child after you surrendered her. I can see your point. However, I am not ready to buy your argument. I have not found any consideration in this excerpt or in your other post about positive language that even references the adoptive child's needs or point of view. As an adoptive child, here is my point of view on the subject.

    I recognize that adoption is a very difficult solution to a very difficult situation. That being said, as the surrendered child, I had no say in the matter. I have had to live with the label "adopted" my entire life. That wasn't my by choice--that was by the choice of my birth mother. And my parents are "adoptive" parents. We are family without condition and we live with these labels. Why then, does a birth mother, get to be indignant and demanding when it comes to modifiers?

    The decision to surrender/adopt results in modifiers for all of us, especially for those of us who were surrendered. It seems to me that by insisting on the label of mother without modifiers, you are attempting to ignore, or at least minimize, the consequences of your decisions on others. You want to feel good about being a "Mother" without doing anything other than giving birth.

    As for me, the woman who raised me is my MOM and I love her for opening her heart and her family to me and raising me to be a strong, self-confident woman. This is no minor task given that I was struggling with self doubt and a sense of worthlessness, based in the belief that something must have been so wrong with me that my own MOTHER didn't want me. Now that we have reconnected, "birth mother" may eventually evolve to "mother", depending on how our relationship evolves. I guess I believe that "mother" is a label that is earned by relationship, not merely by giving birth.

    1. FYI--My daughter normally called me Lorraine, and I was fine with that. Mom was the mother who raised her. My daughter did refer to min in writing as "mother" and signed letters "your daughter" but then added: "Don't tell Mom."

      The adoption industry has fostered the use of the words "birth mother" to denigrate our role. You can call your mother whatever you like--that is up to you--what I am talking about here was how the industry and now media uses language that constantly puts us in our place, and that is as a lowlife who gave up our child.

      The mother who gave birth to you may not have had a "choice" in placing you for adoption, as you write. "Choice" indicates completely free will and that the two "choices" are equal. That is usually not the case in relinquishing a child.

      Incidentally, the ONLY person who has ever referred to my daughter as my "birth daughter," and went to far to "correct" the language of a friend who knew my daughter, was an adoptive mother. To me, she is always and foremost an "adoptive mother." And a bitch. No one who knew me did not know my daughter had been adopted, and that we had been reunited. I have never interrupted her conversation when she refers to her daughter to remind her that she was her "adoptive daughter." She did it again about a month ago when she happened to be standing near me while I spoke to a friend.

      As I said in the post, we are both mothers.

    2. The phrases "the women who ultimately stepped in to raise your child after you surrendered her" and "I love her for opening her heart and her family to me" suggest that you believe that adoptive parents are taking in babies as a charity cause, assuming a burden. It's likely, though, that these women WANTED a child and adopting was fulfilling their dream of motherhood.

      The demand or perceived for babies was one reason mothers gave and continuing to give up up their children. Adoption industry ads implore mother-to-be to bring joy into a family, etc.

      Having said this, I'm like Lorraine. I'm fine with my lost daughter calling me "Jane" which she does. She introduces me as her "birth mother." I'm fine with that too. In a lot of ways, I don't feel like her mother but more like a big sister. Her children call me Jane but introduce me as Grandma. Birth grandma would be awkward and confusing to others. I'm fine with that too.

    3. There's no 'mere' about gving birth, as anyone who has given birth knows.
      Nor is there anything incidental or superficial about the long period of pregnancy beforehand.
      Or the traits that are undoubtably shared, despite decades apart from each other.

      We can rearrange words all we like but the facts remain.

      Otherwise, what explains the profound and individually specific grief that both my son and I experienced following reunion.
      What explains it is that we were a mother and child parted from each other, and that has wounded us both beyond measure.

      What explains the profound love we have for each other? We are a mother and son reunited, and our hearts are filled by the existence of the other. We are not a typical mother/son relationship because adoption has interfered with that, but we are mother and son and no amount of wordplay can obfuscate that. And who would want to? And why?

      This doesn't discount that he has a mum that isn't me. Or that he was parented by someone else. But I am his mother.

  5. Yes! Forgot to add that my granddaughter introduces me as her grandmother and calls me Lorraine too. Like mother, like daughter, I said to myself. Sales clerks and strangers have no trouble assuming I'm her grandmother.

  6. "the women who ultimately stepped in to raise your child after you surrendered her".

    ...could also be seen as:

    "The woman who went looking to acquire the newborn baby of some unfortunate mother who was told she wasn't good enough to bring up her own child, and who therefore benefitted mightily from someone else's extreme and enduring pain'.



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