' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: 'Positive' Adoption Language?

'Positive' Adoption Language?

By Lorraine Dusky  (c) 2011

Shortly after my daughter, Jane—whom I had given up for adoption but had reunited with a quarter of a century earlier—died my husband and a friend of ours were talking about the circumstances of her death at a cocktail party I had chosen not to attend.

If you are an adoptive parent reading this blog, do I have your attention yet? I’ve used words that adoptive parents recoil from: gave up, daughter without modifiers, and though you may be thinking, birth mother, I avoid the use of the term whenever possible. Women who relinquished their children are not having the same negative reaction to my choice of words.

To continue: both my husband and our friend simply spoke of my daughter as they talked. An adoptive mother walked up midway in the conversation. The second time she heard “her daughter,” the adoptive mother interjected, birth daughter.

I have never been able to see this woman since and not be reminded of that incident; actually my reaction is much more visceral: I want to scream at her and pointedly ask about her “adopted daughter’s” migraines. 

To do so would be such a social faux pas—and it would hurt her to the quick. Yet she felt no compunction refining my friend’s language, and neither did another adoptive mother, and a friend, I thought, hold back when she interrupted me to insist that I not refer to my daughter’s adopters as her adoptive parents. “They are her parents,” she said willfully while I stood there, bewildered and diminished. Where is it writ, I wondered, that adoptive mothers and fathers are merely mothers and fathers, but we women who bore the children, who are, in fact, mothers, must always be reduced to someone with a modifier?

The “preferred adoptive language” that agencies and adoptive parents have promoted since the Seventies has made adopters—a term in common usage around the world--more comfortable with the situation of adoption, but this has been at the expense of the realities and feelings of the mothers who bore the children. The tough language of the past has been smoothed over to sooth the sensibilities of those who take the children, but in doing so increased the defensiveness and animosity towards those who raise them.

Once we were natural mothers, defining our role as conceived by nature; the term, to us, indicated exactly who we were and how we fit into the scheme of our children’s lives. It also signaled we were not raising the child, because mothers are mothers, no modifiers necessary. But as adoption became big business in the Sixties and Seventies, the clients—those who pay the fees, and thus the keep agencies in business— conveyed their discomfort at what the word, to them, implied: that they were the unnatural parents. So articles about “preferred adoption language” were written, charts of good and bad language drawn up and circulated, and the new, less harsh lingo was soon common currency among social workers, adoptive parents, and the media. But what was cleansed out of the equation was that every adoption begins with someone else’s catastrophe.

Along with the introduction of terms such as birth or biological mother were a whole passel of others: give up or surrender (which is how we mothers feel) was to be replaced by placed for adoption or the ever more noxious, make an adoption plan; mothers did not keep their children; they chose to parent them; mother and child reunions did not occur; they were meetings, or make contact. The rationale for that one goes into lala land, as it signifies that since mother and child never were never together, thus a reunion could not take place. Excuse me? After a squealing, live infant painfully emerges from one’s womb you two have definitely been together, and a meeting is absolutely a reunion. The concept of  make contact or a meeting also implies it is a one-time occurrence.

The most toxic  “preferred” term of all is make an adoption plan. Is someone who falls off an ocean liner and then thrown a life saver “making a plan” as she swims to it? Or is she just doing what she must to save her life? If I can make an adoption plan, certainly I am able to rationally weighing various options, and have the resources to make an alternative plan. My social worker at the time of relinquishment may have been “making an adoption plan” but I was drowning in a sea of shame and societal mindset that all pointed one way: Give up your daughter. Give her a good life, better than anything you can provide. She needs two parents, not one. Et cetera. Indeed, I was giving up. For the vast majority of us most of us, even today, that is the reality of relinquishing a child to be someone else’s. 

This preferred adoption language calls we mothers up short and diminishes our connection to the children we bore; it is meant to lessen the calamity of losing our children due to circumstances typically beyond our control, such as youth and poverty, and turns a devastating experience into someone else’s “miracle of adoption,” a phrase commonly used on adoption websites. Our reaction is sometimes mere perplexity as we hear this language in common currency, on television, from acquaintances, not comprehending why the words make us uncomfortable. Yet we feel denigrated and react more negatively than we would if our true connection to the child, and the outright disaster that a surrender is, were acknowledged by everyone. And thus the divisions that separate us—mother/adoptee/adoptive mother—become intensified tenfold.

A particularly noxious practice is calling women who are considering relinquishing their children “birth mothers” well before a child is born. Designating her as such establishes a mindset—in the social worker, in the adoptive parents, and in the pregnant woman herself—that she is on a track to relinquishment of her child—and changing her mind, and keeping her child, then appears to be some sort of chicanery on her part. Until she signs the surrender papers, she is no more a “birth mother” than a person who wishes to adopt is an “adoptive parent” until someone brings a child home. Those designations need to come after, not before, any birth, or signing of the surrender papers.

But “birth” and “first” and “natural” are genteel compared to what we are sometimes called on various adoptive parent blogs. Bitch, reproductive agent, uterus of origin, womb, source material, egg layer, and egg donor are some that I’m aware of.  In a collection of essays titled Wanting a Child, writer Jill Bialosky could not bring herself to use any “mother” term at all, but called her son’s natural mother “the woman who labored him.”  She goes on to say that this woman is her definition of a Messiah. I would like to see her reaction if this Messiah ever came to talk to her and the son who was “born from other sperm and egg.”

Does what we call the same thing make a difference in how we perceive it, in how we experience the world? Until very recently, thinkers assumed that the human experience was universal and language diversity could not modify that. However, new research from a Stanford University psychologist is demonstrating that indeed language shapes thought, so much so that the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically, even so far as to include basic sensory perception. While the work of Lera Boroditsky is with people who speak different languages, it is not a great leap to see how the words we use to describe the adoption experience shapes how people feel and think about it. Today the preferred language, or agency-speak, has been so thoroughly imbedded in English that the pain and suffering every adoption represents is all but obliterated in the public mind. Damn straight we’re pissed off about it.

The use of birth mother became common in the Seventies, and was even promoted by women who lost children to adoption when Concerned United Birthparents was formed, but it is little different from biological mother and I have never felt comfortable with either term: “They call me ‘biological mother.’ I hate those words,” I wrote in the Seventies. “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.”

First mother? That too is stilted and unsatisfactory, and irritates adoptive mothers because it makes them second mothers. They are, in a sense, but they are also the fulltime mothers who pulled all-nighters when fevers were high and made countless PB&J sandwiches, and did the hard work of raising a child. After I found my daughter and developed a relationship with her other mother, that is what how I generally referred to her. Jane’s other mother.  In conversation with me, she referred to Jane as our daughter. Small concessions on each part led to a relaxing of barriers. Of course, she probably referred to me as Jane’s birth mother when I wasn’t there, just as I refer to her as my daughter’s adoptive mother. But not every situation is so personal and allows for the kind of leeway that Jane’s other mother and I enjoyed.

When I was deciding what to call my blog, I chose First Mother Forum because I liked the alliteration and thought that would make it easy to remember, and that became the URL (www.firstmotherforum.com);  however because birth mother is so inculcated into the language, I reluctantly added [Birth Mother]—now in parentheses—to the title so that people searching for the subject matter of the blog would be found by the greatest number of people. The numbers of visitors immediately shot up. Now I have to admit that in many circumstances, I do not flinch when I’m called a birth mother; first mother may be less offensive to some, but to me the degree is negligible, and should not be a dividing issue among us. 

Yet it is. The American Adoption Congress has a petition of “birth parents” in support of adoptees’ right to their original birth certificates, but many mothers will not add their names because of that distinction. This is sad. This is an intermural skirmish among us working for the same goal, but letting this fracture us as we try to change legislators minds and votes ultimately weakens us and drags down the movement. My hope that any parent—mother or father—involved in a relinquishment will sign the petition so that we can, together, be a greater force for change than we are if we are splintered into many factions. (See sidebar for link.)

Some young mothers, evangelicals and Mormons, particularly, call themselves “proud birth mothers,” but that comes out of being so thoroughly inculcated into the ethos of their religion. We shall see how they feel in ten, twenty years, or when what they expected to be an open adoption slams shut, with no forwarding address.

Yet I am sadly aware that some natural mothers refuse contact when reached through intermediaries, or even by the adoptee herself. These women have been able to shunt their grief and turn away from their children's need for a complete identity. I don’t know what to say to these women. I can understand what they do--years of lying by the sin of omission and telling their spouses or other children is a difficult hurdle to overcome--but I do not think they understand the additional pain they inflict on their children. If they do, they are without mercy for others, they are simply cruel.

4 Generations: My mother, Jane, Granddaughter Kim, and Lorraine
At my daughter’s wake, it was clear that some members of Jane’s extended family were not happy with the studio portrait picture of Jane, my mother, Jane’s daughter and me that was on display, or even with the fact that I was there, and so were my husband and a nephew, a cousin of Jane's. So be it, I thought. I'm here. Jane's friends were all friendly, but there were lots of time during the long couple of hours when I sat with Tony, or my nephew. At some point, a woman approached me with a couple of other people and I sensed immediately she was friendly. “Are you Jane’s biological mother?” she asked expectantly. "I knew Jane from Toastmasters."

You know, I liked her calling me that: biological mother. It was direct, honest and as accurate as natural mother. I liked that she didn’t know she should be using PC language--aka birth mother--that she was asking, Did Jane and I share DNA? Before I could answer, I saw that she was with a few other of Jane’s acquaintances from Toastmasters who were waiting for my response.

Yes, I said, wondering what would come next.  “She talked about you all the time,” the woman said, pleased to be telling me this. In that instant, I didn’t care how Jane referred to me with her friends.
Do not reproduce without permission but may be linked to freely and at will.