Wednesday, September 29, 2021

'Give up' or 'surrender' or 'relinquish'? 'Forced' or' stolen'? The impact of culture on adoption language

A preview of the new cover of
hole in my heart. Coming soon
How we think about life and its exigencies, its ups and downs, cultural shifts and societal norms, the everyday incidents and the big moments that change the course of our lives are framed by the language we use. My daughter was born "out of wedlock," a phrase that most understand, but rarely use; yet it was commonly heard when my daughter was born--if people talked even talked about this. (Of course they did, but all very hush-hush.) 

I've never shied away from saying: I gave her up. When an acquaintance--an adoptive mother--criticized me a decade ago for using that phrase, I was quietly astonished. Quietly because I didn't want to raise a fuss--but since we had been friends, and she knew all about my story, I was surprised that even she had been influenced by the adoption industry, an industry that prefers the antiseptic sounding, "make an adoption plan." I feel now, as I did then, that I gave up: gave up on finding a different path, gave up on believing my daughter's father would leave his wife and family for us and our new family; gave up on being able to write and support myself, and a baby. I gave up, and in the process, I gave up my daughter. Society made me feel I couldn't/shouldn't keep my daughter, but at the same time, my parents did not "force" me to give her up. They did not even know about her. My social worker did not push or coerce me to leave my baby with her agency; in fact, I think she would have been relieved had the father, with whom she had some contact, changed his mind and said, Bring her home, we'll figure this out.


I effing made no more of a "plan" over the months I was pregnant than a woman who's fallen overboard swimming toward a life preserver. The times, they were so different then. I felt societal pressure bearing down on me--a single woman who was impregnated by a married man, such a hussy was I!--to the degree I saw no way out other than surrender my daughter to adoption. That would give her a better chance on life, right? I couldn't see then that adoption would mean different, not better. Yet with the wind behind me pushing adoption, I went forward. I know many adoptees today look askance at that language, for it absolves me of the act of surrendering my daughter somewhat. It says: Society made me do it. 

I get that. It's the reason that when we talk to our reunited children we at some point need to simply say: I'm sorry. Without excuses. Just I'm sorry you were adopted. I'm sorry I didn't raise you. I'm sorry. And the sooner the better, by the way. 

Fellow blogger Jane points out that in legal lingo, mothers "surrender" to an adoption agency; in private adoptions--those arranged by an attorney--the child goes straight to the adopters and the word "relinquish" is used.  

But all this led me to wonder how readers today--from anyone in the triad--prefer to use language. For instance, a great many teens and women were promised openness in their adoption--that they would be given photographs, have regularly scheduled visits, sustain an amicable relationship with the oh-so-nice people who wanted to adopt your baby. Yet frequently none of that happens. Or the very minimal letter-of-the-law compliance. A photograph of the back of the baby's head. Excuses are made to cancel visits. Or, a complete denial of all the promises made, promises that may not have been written down in a contract, but made at the hospital bedside.* Shouldn't that be called fraud? In that case, is the baby stolen

How do you feel and what language do you use? Do your feel scammed? Do you feel that your baby was stolen by trickery and obfuscation? Were you coerced by your parents, the father of the child, or anyone? Did you feel the agency and your social worker or adoption broker was at times both sympathetic and predatory during the adoption process? Did you give up, surrender, relinquish? Were you forced/coerced? Was your baby taken under false pretenses? Stolen? Do you feel lied to? What do the natural mothers reading here prefer to be called? I started out with natural mother and I still prefer that. When somebody insists that the phrase birth be inserted every time I refer to my daughter, I'd like to smack that person--there's only been one--right back with, "How's your adopted daughter?" Of course, I haven't done that. 


The phrase birth mother, or even worse, birthmother, further cementing the term birth before mother, has been contentious for more than a decade, but is still in wide use. This blog's url is, but I had to add "birth mother" to the title page to get more people to find the blog when they were searching for the topics we cover. 

I'd love to hear from adoptees about this too--what words do they use in their own minds? In conversation? What words do they wish natural mothers used in reunion? What words do adoptees use? With their mother? With friends and adopted relatives? I imagine most of them grew up hearing only birth mother if they heard anything at all about her, and that's partly why reforming what we mothers are called is so resistant to change. 

However, this morning I learned that Children's Minister of Ireland, Roderic O’Gorman, has said the term “birth mother” is “reductive and hurtful,” adding that an alternative term should be used--first mother or natural mother. This is in regard to long-awaited legislation will enshrine into law a right for adopted people to access their birth certificates, and birth and early life information.

Well, how about that? Progress is slow, but it moves relentlessly forward.--lorraine


You might also enjoy:

*An Un-Open Adoption: Adoptive Parents Lie and Break a Mother's Heart


  1. I think many people use the term birth mother because they're so used to it. For a long time it was the only term used. I feel bad that I used the term in my book, published so long ago, 2007. My (adopted) daughter uses it when talking to others about her mother, whom she loves and has now known for 20 years. I hope the terms you prefer become so widely known that they replace the old term. It will happen. Keep fighting the good fight, Lorraine!

  2. My son was stolen, by Orange County. I had a nervous breakdown, had to place my sons in foster care. My infant was sold for profit. At the time, Social Workers, were given a 20k bounty, for every child the placed. I have never recovered, from his loss. And my oldest son, died of a OD a year ago. I am no longer a Mother

    1. So sorry this happened to you and your family, Anon Sept 29, 2:48. California was skilled at baby grab.
      My son and I were also separated by the California system. I was told they would "help" but it was a lie. My caseworker also told me that my son was a "California resident" but that was also a lie, designed to make me think they had power over him.

      He was not a California resident.
      My worker told me it did not matter whether i signed a relinquishment or not because she would file the court termination papers anyway. It would be a slow process but it would happen, she said, because I had no way to support him.
      I was a minor, had no family support and no help from the father of my son.
      My father was an attorney who had put me in foster care(kinship care) with relatives in california and he and my mother ordered my son to be adopted. I was to be disposed of, and told to "forget."
      I tried to find a way to stop the adoption, but i could not.
      But I always thought it was wrong.
      Now, I think it was a crime.

    2. Kitta, that's a sad story. No one deserved that kind of treatment, but it is indicative of how a lot of families handled the situation of a unmarried pregnancy--including my husband's family when his cousin became pregnant in the early 50s. The child's younger sister has never been able to find her.

    3. Yes, it was a very common BSE story. I have now heard similar stories from many mothers, especially after I became "active" in the search/support movement.
      An interesting thing I have noticed is that while some of the "grandparents" who actively forced their pregnant daughters into adoption eventually admitted their guilt, others never did.
      Some of the grandparents, during reunion, have continued to reject their long-lost but now reunited grandchildren. Others, like my parents, wanted their adopted-away grandchildren to accept them and to "love" being adopted!
      My son did not like being adopted. He also knew my parents had engineered his adoption, so his response was, "if they didn't want me then, why do they want me now?"
      I could not answer that. My son was born in the late 1960s and at that time the 'stigma" was beginning to lessen. I told my father that, and begged him to help me raise my son, but he said no.

    4. How these parents could inflict such pain on pain on their daughter and grandchild and still not grasp what they did. Sadly there are still parents like this today.

  3. Yes, it should be called "fraud" when you make promises to someone you know you don't intend to keep, so you can finagle their infant from them. It is fraud. I look forward to a day when people who do this are held accountable and even possibly adoption signatures revoked. That's how strongly I feel about this. An unpopular opinion I am sure, when people all jump on board with the "better life" propaganda, but is it a better life when you've blatantly deceived someone to basically steal their child, when you know the adoption wouldn't have happened, otherwise? I don't think so. I do feel scammed. Absolutely. Looking back, I realize the social worker, adoption agency and adopters were all working in unison to make this happen, at any cost.

    I call myself my child's natural mother, because I am. Don't like it? Ask me if I care. No one cares about how I feel or never did, so I'll call myself what I want. I am my child's first mother, natural mother and a mother of adoption loss. The adoptive parents were adamant about being called nothing but "parents", however. Funny how that works, huh? Dehumanization for thee, but not for me.

  4. I use "gave up my baby." Like Lorraine I gave up on trying to solve "my problem." I have realized for a long time that I didn't try hard enough.

  5. Replies
    1. Hey thanks! Coming in about a month, I hope. This one will have an index! And more front story. About the character...who ends up "in trouble."

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Lorraine. I've definitely had trouble navigating what terms feel right in different contexts. I'm adopted and my family used "birth mom" when I was growing up. In college I started studying adoption laws and policies and transitioned to using "first mother." However, in reunion, the woman who gave birth to me prefers the term "birth mom." So, I use different terms when referring to a group than when referring to just her. Her discomfort comes from feeling like "first" means better or more, and she doesn't feel that she is more of a mom to me than my adoptive mom. My adoptive mom actually likes "first mother" better since it made it clear that my first mom remained my mom not just for birth. This also comes up when talking about a "first dad."
    Regarding the act itself, I've used given up or surrendered, like "they gave me up" or "they surrendered their parental rights."

    1. Have you talked to your mother about these different titles...when things were going well with my daughter's other mother, that is how we referred to each other...Other mother. Don't let it cause you grief but you have you told your natural mother that your other mother prefers to call her "first"?

    2. We've talked about it. She knows my adoptive mom is more comfortable with "first." I think it makes sense that she self-identify with whatever makes her most comfortable. We don't use it much. In most contexts, it just comes up that I'm her daughter, but not the details around our relationship. I use her first name, instead of mom, though she is one of my moms. Since we reunited when I was 18, "mom" doesn't feel quite right, but I'm uncomfortable qualifying her motherhood with either "birth" or "first" unless there's a specific reason it needs clarification. Using a first name or saying "my moms" when referring to both of them removes that from the equation. For the rest of my first family, I don't use qualifications. They are my uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents.
      My mother inlaw is comfortable being called mom too, but I can't imagine using that term with her. Fortunately, she isn't set on it and is ok with me using her first name.

    3. My daughter's relationship to Mother was fraught with knowing that her amom was freaking out if she ever called me that. So she did refer to me as her "mother" occasionally in letters and then add a PS--Don't tell Mom. Which just struck me as amusing. In life, You have to let somethings roll off your back and not be tiriggered by everything.

      When we were together, it was Lorraine and I was always fine with that. Oddly enough, as I've just posted on Facebook, I always wanted to be called Dusky, something that grew out of working on a newspaper. Editors always call you by your last name, helps when there are a number of Johns or Joes or Patricks in the city room/ Of course in my day, Lorraine would have referred to only me, but it was much preferred by me to be one of the guys. Yes, I see that as a gender-neutral term. And I wish it could be adapted as such, rather than obliterated.

  7. Lorraine, yesterday I read a thesis about Dutch adoption from 1968, with lots of comparisons with other countries. It mentioned among lots of other interesting factoids, like a birth mother never agreeing with her child being part of the adoption mill getting her child back in 1962, that mothers allowing this to happen to her child were more common among those who were "white, of a somewhat higher social class and capable to rationally distance themselves from the issue", but what is really interesting is that the author considered as rational not considering the strongest pro-keeping argument romantically described as the "Voice of the Blood" (as we know now: trauma by abandonment of the mother, disregarding the human right to know one's origins, medical family history will not be up to date, inbreeding avoidance in dating may become difficult, and so on...). You seem to fit that profile, and you might think first mother more acceptable for you, but I would not think that it would fit somebody like that woman who got her child back in 1962, and using birth to clarify her claim seems justified in that case, it all depends on context, no description includes everybody you want to include, but excludes everybody else.

    1. What's wrong with natural mother--which we all were at the beginning of time--for all women. I still prefer that term. And birth is just another way of saying "biological." Both natural and biological cover everything. But language evolves, I've seen birth used in non-adoptive contexts to mean biological. My daughter had two mothers. Pearl Buck started the movement away from natural mother by being the first to use birth mother.

    2. "Natural mother" has (at least in older literature) very strong connotations of giving birth in a natural state, i.e. the unmarried one,(often even its very definition) and many mothers of adoption loss were married or widowed. That thesis (to be defended in the last month of 1969) told me that in the 1957-1963 era 75% of the Dutch adoptable children were illegitimate, and that that percentage increased to 90% in later years, (divorcees and widows were single mothers too, you understand) and in international adoption cases of married mothers of adoption loss are not really uncommon either. So "natural mother" might feel as if it is not including those women whose children lost to adoption were, if not born, at least conceived in marriage. I have seen "natural mother" used in ways suggesting that "like a wild beast", rather than "as an unmarried citizen in her own right" was an intended connotation.

      There is a slight difference between biological mothers and birth mothers, as since the early 80's the ovarian mother and gestational mother can be different people, both are fully biological parents, but if you're talking about BSE mothers, you're 100% right. I have seen that not-adoption related use of "birth mother" too, as long as we call any female parent a mother, and it makes sense, as it sets one apart from foster mothers, adoptive mothers, egg donors and/or mothers by recognition, not a bad thing in itself.

  8. To her credit, my adoptive mother always used the term "natural mother." I wasn't familiar with the term birthmother until I got to college and had a roommate who had given a baby up. The term that caused me anxiety as a child was "real mom." To the entire universe, with the exception of my household it seemed "real mom" referred to the first mom. My, adoptive mom created a script which she coached me to memorize so that I could educate the universe that it was mistaken. "My real mom is my adoptive mom ... The lady who gave me up isn't real..." It was unfair to give a 7 year old the responsibility of correcting people. A lot of the language surrounding adoption is used to protect the adoptive mother's feelings.

  9. Everyone only has one mother or father, they are the ones who conceive you.
    There is no such thing as a birthmother, a natural mother or a biological mother.
    No one has a right to give their child away either for any reason and it's time this system was made illegal, especially since it was stared by a crazy pedophile named Georgia Tann.
    I think it's sad after all this time that the world and the legal system doesn't see how schizophrenic adoption is and how mentally ill all adopters really are (not to mention incredibly selfish and immature).
    Adoption is horrible for kids and everyone needs their mother's love or they will never have good self-esteem, a healthy ego or ever really be happy and those things are more important than growing up with money.
    Poverty can be fixed,the damage done to children by losing your mother and the brutal adoption system can't ever be.
    Recently this goddamn rotten adoption attorney wrote an article for Adoption dot com and she compared babies of single mothers to rolls of toilet paper and cleaning products-ie: commodities. Here is the article.

    I am going to file a complaint against her with the Bar Association and I want her disbarred and arrested for violating the 14th Amendment.
    Adoption IS slavery, it is the buying and selling of human beings and it's time everyone, everyone in the industry including adopters were arrested and thrown in jail. Others (moms, adoptees) need to start fighting back like this, if they want the crime called adoption to ever stop.
    I strongly suggest everyone consider suing and pressing human trafficking charges against all adoption agencies as well because sitting around bitching on a blog is never going to change anything and as bad as adoption was during the BSE era, it is just getting worse now.

    1. I repeat the article has been taken down, and there are links to other places where you might be able to still find it.

    2. Of course it was taken down. So she can cover her criminal ass. No matter tho, because I have it and it has been printed out so that's her problem. And TRUST me it is going to be..

  10. As a mother rejected, I don't really care how my daughter designates me. Her point of view is skewed by, according to her, decades of abuse and neglect that were my fault. Thus making anything about me, including designation of role, invalid. Also, adoption was not started by Georgia Tann. Just the most recent convolution of adoption. Adoprion is recorded in biblical times - Moses, among others - and something that occurs in nature at times. I am most curious, however, to ask adopted persons who responded, how they perceive their mothers (meaning the woman who gave birth to them) and if those perceptions help create the designation they have chosen for her. Also, are their fathers' labeled in the same way... interesting.

    1. Hi Lori hope you are doing well we have spoken before if you remember,the only view i can give you is before I met my first mother i was open and keen to hear what she had to say and even though I had had a very less than ideal adopted family i was able to seperate that life experience from my birth mother.I had no personal view of her really at all.However after all the lies she told me and me making excuses for her over and over I was left with no other option other than to distance myself I didnt expect her to say sorry or anything like that but I would have liked to have been treated like a human being so what i`m saying is some adoptees may come to reunion with a view of their mother and others may just like to know what their mother is like as a person.I always thought and believed that my adoption was my fault and I can see now it wasnt it was in fact the whole families fault because still to this day they are all trying to cut the pieces of the jigsaw in order to make it fit their own narrative and agender which adoptees can also do.Yes as an adoptee I had to be very strict with myself not to project on to my birth family which sounds like what happened to you from your daughter which means she was not seeing you clearly...unfortnately every single member of my birth family projected so much onto me that it just fell apart.The problem with this is that alot of adopters project onto the adoptee as well that we are then either getting it from both sides or like in my case it was just a repeat of my past with my adopted family.My birth mother projected all her problems with her own mother/husband and other children onto me and my birth father projected his problems with wife onto me and we only met the once lol and all that happened even before I`d told them anything about my life and on the first meeting.So as people I felt I was wasting my time with them if there is no basic respect from the beginning it is hard to form any new relationship.As I know a bit of your story your rejection was not your fault.i searched for one reason to find my birth mother and have that intimate connection with her,the problem also with the one doing the searching whether it be the adoptee or the birth parent is that it can feed in to the "ego" of the one who is found, where as with the searcher it is need.... and ego and need are two very different things



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