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A Mother by Any Other Name

Is the term 'birthmother' an example of appropriate, positive language—or an offensive and demeaning label?By Denise Roessle

I don't recall being referred to as anything—birth-, natural, or biological mother—when I relinquished my son for adoption in 1970. If I had shared my secret afterward, I might well have been called something: a slut, a bad mother, or, worse (at least to me), a saint.

Better, I decided, to be nobody.

By the time my son and I reunited, 26 years later, his adoptive mother had died, so he had no mother except me. He called me Mom from the start. I was thrilled, despite my doubt that I deserved the title. The first time I heard the term "birthmother" was in a search/reunion support group. I took no offense. Birthmother seemed appropriate: I had given birth to, but had not raised, my son.

Only recently did I discover that many birthmothers and adoptees object to "b-language" ("birth-" or "biological"). Some consider it demeaning, insisting that "natural," "first," or "mother" are the only acceptable labels for women who have "lost children to adoption." I began to wonder: Had I been in a weakened state when I assumed the b-mother title? Or are those who object to it being overly sensitive?

The term "natural mother" was once used in adoption documents, but social workers began replacing it in the 1970s, citing "birthmother" as more adoption-friendly. Positive Adoption Language (PAL), outlined by social worker Marietta Spencer, in 1979, has standardized the terms birthmother, birthfather, and birthparent.

The stated objective of PAL is to "promote adoption as a way to build a family, equally important and valid as birth." "Real" and "natural" are now considered negative; "birth" or "biological" are positive. "Give up" and "surrender" have been replaced by "make an adoption plan" or "choose adoption." Does this reflect the true experience of adoption? I certainly never "chose" adoption nor made a "plan."
"Neither adoptive parents nor social workers consulted with the people they were naming," said Sandra Falconer Pace, director of the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers. "Politically correct language arose from the right of a people to name themselves. For example, we once referred to 'the Eskimo people,' but now use their own term for themselves, 'the Inuit.' We refer to 'African-American people' because that is the term they have chosen for themselves."

Perhaps it isn't about words, but about who decides which words will be used. As Toni Morrison wrote about political correctness, it is more about having the power to define others. When it comes to adoption, the power clearly lies with the industry: agencies, social workers, pregnancy counselors, attorneys, and legislators. A mother may refer to herself as a birthmother, but bristle when the term is assigned to her by someone else.

It seems to me that, for all of our professed political correctness, language has become more divisive in recent years, and we are all easily offended. Almost every post-adoption website I've visited displays some degree of bias. There are those who resent the b-words and yet refer to adoptive parents as "adopters" or even "abductors." Have we, like the rest of our culture, fallen prey to the "us against them" mentality?

The words we choose are important, and respect is a two-way street. It's unlikely that we will ever agree on language that suits everyone's needs. We can and should use the words that resonate with us. Although I use the term less frequently these days, I reserve the right to call myself a birthmother (even though experience tells me the general public is likely to think that means I was a surrogate). If another mother wants to be called something else, I will respect her wishes. What I will not stand for is our being collectively labeled to disparage or manipulate our significance as mothers. 

DENISE ROESSLE is a freelance writer who lives in Arizona. She’s active in post-adoption organizations, such as PACER (Post-Adoption Center for Education and Research).

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Well said, Denise. The loss of my first child to adoption happened very close in time to yours - 1968. I was fortunate to have happened to be introduced to CUB (Concerned United Birthparents) very early on. I remember the discussions about Lee Campbell asking for us to be called "birth" mothers rather than "biological" which became shortened to bio-mothers.I was never crazy about the term as I initially did not see much difference between the two. But I simply got used to is and after all, like you, was proud that I had given birth to ALL of my children and pleased to be identifed as being connected to my first daughter by blood and genetics...a connections she could NOT have with her adptive family. I was not active with anything to do with adoption for about ten years subsequent to my daughter's death in 1995. I returned to the "b-word" wars with a notable and respected author being censored from speaking at a NYC conference. I always fully understood the politics of self-identification, but the extent of the anger among and between mothers has never ceased to befuddle me. I believe that each of us and ou children has the right to identify themselves and those they love. Some people call their mother-in-law Mom and some don't. A mother with any amount of self-confidence does not feel insulted to lesser if her married child refers to his or her in-laws in this loving and respectful manner. Having said that, there is one place the b-word absolutely, positively, never, ever belongs: when referring to an expectant mother. A mother-to-be is just that, At best the word birthmother means a woman eho has surrendered a child to adoption. To call an expectant mother a birthmother - or even a birthmother-to-be is coercive as it sets up one and only one "decision." I invite all to read:

Posted by: Mirah Riben at 11:47pm Jun 24

I am the author of the article. I hadn't planned on coming here to view the comments. But I did and now I feel compelled to respond. "Tummy mommy" is akin to "biological." And yes, we are their biological mothers. But they are in our hearts as well. ALWAYS! We don't move on and forget them. Would you? So "heart mommy" -- as in the ONLY heart mother -- isn't exactly accurate. Adopted children are loved by both mothers, both families. Don't forget that "chosen children" often feel "unchosen" by their original moms. Doesn't lead to good self esteem to know that someone, for whatever reason, didn't "choose" you. As if they weren't good enough. And that is how children may interpret this. I also object to the term "natural." As Lyla said, it implicates that the adoptive mother is unnatural, and I don't think that is fair. As for "forever mom," hmmmm... let's say your mother (married to your father) dies when you are still a child. She is still your mother, always and forever. Any subsequent woman that your father may marry becomes your step-mother. Not your ex-mother (as in ex-wife, if there is a divorce). Just think about it. A mother is forever: both by birth and adoption. I see nothing wrong with a child being loved by two women, two families. Can a child have too much love? Sharon, you scare me. I hope you come to grips with the situation and can be honest with your children. They are young right now but do prepare yourself for the moment of truth. My son's adoptive parents didn't tell him he was adopted. He found out in therapy at age 12, by accident, and all hell broke loose. He no longer trusted his parents and acted out accordingly. Read up on this. Get some support for how to approach the subject. Just please do not think it will be okay to "ignore it and it will go away." I am grateful for the voice that Adoptive Families has given birth parents. I appreciate that they understand that we don't disappear, that we have feelings and the right to be heard. And finally, I must add to all the adoptive moms out there: were you sexually active at 15, 16, 17, 18 or whenever? Could you be one of us? Could you have been pregnant and coerced by family, society, church or your own insecurities into believing that you could not mother? That's how most of you got to become mothers. We are people, women who loved our children and depend on you to do right by us.

Posted by: Denise Roessle at 12:45am Jun 28

I feel like the internet is a double edged sword. On one hand we can reach out to each other, and understand. But I am beginning to question the wisdom of reading blogs by (first/birth/bio/natural) mothers. I have read ones that express such anger at adoptive families, and there is not indication of wrongdoing or dishonesty. Some have said that they hate the term :forever family: I think the origin of that term was developed for the children, to underscore the sense of permanency and unconditional place in their adoptive family. Aside from situations where an expectant mother has been coerced, I think that you can use a lot of different terms and someone will find fault. As a mother in an open adoption, we addressed early on my daughters birth mother's assumption that she would be called "mom" I have thought long and hard about this and in our situation, its not appropriate. She often calls her birthmom H, or just H, but in her early childhood ( we adopted her at 1.5 days old) it is too confusing for her to address two women as mom. One is someone she sees as often as once a month, and the other is me, who has been parenting her since she was a day and half old. I actually think all the terms first, birth, bio, natural mother are all accurate. I am her adoptive mother. In the end, and I say this, because its the truth, not because I want to "get credit" only one of us gave birth to R, and only one of us is raising her. In learning about open adoption practices, I have taken in books, blogs, etc. and while my heart still aches when I think of my dd's birth mother, I can't make all my decisions centered around her pain, and what might hurt her or not. I have to do what I think is best for my child. I am always concerned when I hear of adoptive parents who do not acknowledge the unique connection to their bio family. But I am equally concerned when I hear of birth mothers or families talks abut reuniions with the children as adults and describing the time with the adoptive families as a mistake, or almost pretending it didn't happen. Not only does that obviously hurt adoptive families, but it hurts the adopted person . Regardless of their feelings towards their parents, and adoption,, I feel so strongly that its important to own their life story. I have adopted and I have given birth . I adopted first, after a short course of fertility tx. I met people who would rather have no child than a non-biological child. As a one of the many who considered adoption early on, I am formed by my own experiences. My mother found her biological father (absent from age 2) in her late 40's. While she felt completed in learning about her relatives from her father, she didn't find a deeper connection to them . She was raised by her stepfather, who formally adopted her when she was 6. She supported my decision to pursue open ness in adoption, but not because she felt that the connection to the first family is stronger or more important. As someone who chooses to adopt, you can pretty much assume that I am someone who believes that connections made through shared memories, daily care, etc are the ones we wanted, versus needing to see our physcial selves in a child. With that belief, I put the majority of my energy and resources in this famlly , and consider R first famly now a part of our extended family. Lastly, I want to say that its really easy to assume that all adopted persons, all birth mothers, all adoptive families feel the same. Each story is different.

Posted by: eandjmadre at 9:55am Jul 2

I have a daughter who was adopted by her step father young. Both her adoptive father and biological father are adopted themselves. Her Bio father always knew and did not want contact with the bio grandmother that forced her way into our lives. He kept contact professing interest only in any inheritance. My second husband wanted desperately to find his bio family only to discover the answers were paritally enough. His adoptive family was violently opposed to his looking though their relationship ended when my husband left. I have siblings from both parents who were adopted out prior to their marriage. I always knew about my mother's daughter...though she never knew her kids knew. I found out about my father's as an adult a couple years ago. After listening to our ordeals with my husbands' families and my daughter, he had continued to lie to us. I felt betrayed and stupid. I forgave him and loved him, but I still remember that he lied. I have chosen to not seek them because of the experiences I have had with biological families. My daughter now, working on her family tree, has made contact with her father. I understand the insecurity of birth families. I understand the loss they feel. I also understand the same need to know adoptees feel to know their is the same I feel doing my genealogy. I only have two thoughts...unless a person is coerced to give up rights, adoptive parents are not abductors and people who refuse to tell their children "because they love them so much" are "building" a life on lies that will haunt them. I have helped others find their families and I know from personal experience. Lying and nastiness towards the other is not conducive to love and strong families.

Posted by: Andi at 9:30am Aug 5

Wow -- so many opinions! I am both an adopted child, and an adoptive parent. I was born in 1965, and although mine was a closed adoption (as usual at that time) my parents were always open about the fact that I was adopted, as were 2 of my brothers. It was never a big secret, never a big deal. My (bio) sister and I used to get a kick out of the fact that people who knew our family couldn't remember which of us was adopted. I don't remember having any special terms for the woman who gave birth to me -- I suppose, given the "language" of the time, I would have said "real" mother -- although there has never been any doubt in my mind that my adoptive mom is also my real mom -- we are very close. My own adopted children are in a different situation - they are easily identified as adopted because they area different race than my husband and I. We have used the terms "first" and "China Mommy" -- although how her Chinese mother would feel about this is purely a matter on conjecture, since I can only speculate about the circumstances surrounding my daughter's abandonment (or my son's). We talk openly about the adoptions (my daughter came on my son's adoption trip) and have collected any possible information about the children's histories. We also try to maintain ties with their orphanages, since there is a whole other set of people who have loved and cared for them at a point in their lives. My kids are 3 and 5. Sharon (and anyone else who dreads the conversation) start talking to your kids -- the earlier the better -- they CAN understand, and the sooner they have the story, the more natural and normal it will be for them -- start with an adoption picture book (like the one by Jamie Lee Curtis, or one that more closely matches your own adoption story) , or make their own "life book" into a storybook they can read and talk about. Don't make a big deal about "revealing the secret" -- just follow your kids' lead, and answer their questions simply and honestly.

Posted by: Kristen at 4:52pm Sep 2

I am resubmitting as I used my alternate e-mail before and it is possible I did not type it correctly: Reading the responses to these types of articles always makes me sad. Some adoptive parents "get it" and some so clearly don't. We who have lost children to adoption are real people who love and grieve just like you do. We were sexual at a point in time when we were not able to raise a child as the result of that union. I've just described the actions of about 95% of the human race, including adoptive parents. For some of us, that sexuality was forced upon us without our consent while for others the sex act was chosen willingly. What makes us different from others is that we became pregnant, carried our child, gave birth to our children, and then made the most supreme sacrifice that a PARENT can make, which is to put the needs of our child before ourselves and sacrifice our parenthood for our children. Rightly or wrongly, we believed those who told us that others could provide better for our children, so we relinquished them to that hoped for “better life”. Sometimes that relinquishment was forced upon us, sometimes that relinquishment was coerced, and sometimes it was with full understanding and consent. Regardless of how we got to that place, we lost our children into a system where so many strangers now declare we are not worthy, we cannot love, we do not grieve, and we do not exist - because it threatens their position in their own eyes. I had a choice when I found out I was pregnant as the result of date rape. I could abort or I could give my child life. Adoption was pushed on me at a later point in the process. I chose to carry a baby in an era when I could have aborted in secret without shame, while being pregnant out of wedlock was seen as a shameful, negative, hurtful sin against society. I protected my child, nurtured my child, gave my child life, loved him from the moment of conception, and continued to love him, all the while being labeled someone "bad" and "unworthy" because I was young and unmarried. That's quite a fall from being an honor student, at the top of her class, winning awards and being held up as an example. I chose to endure being scorned, having to drop out of high school, and being hidden away in secrecy and shame so that I could give my child life. I was a mother and parent to my child, and those roles did not stop at relinquishment. I continued to love him and grieve his loss, to have hopes and dreams for him, to put him and his needs before my own. All this was done in an atmosphere of shame, where I was told to keep quiet, sweep it under the rug, go on "as if" it had never happened. That is an impossible task, as I had suffered the greatest loss that a person can endure - the loss of a child. I continued to love and grieve for my lost child, who had become my ghost child. If I was not a mother, not a parent, not "real", would I have welcomed with open arms the angry, troubled young man who found me at 19 years old? The young man who called me Mom, who loved me, hated me, tested me, needed me, threw me away time and time again, all the while screaming silently that he needed his Mother to love him? I have endured more than a decade of this love/hate relationship that my Son has with me. He loves me because I am his Mother. He hates me because I am his Mother, and I was not there for him in body when he needed and wanted me. He loves his Adoptive Mother because she is his Mother and she was there for him in body and spirit, and he hates her because she is not me. We are both real, both important to him, and both necessary to him. I am not a "tummy" or "birth" anything. I am a real person, a real Mother who spent almost 20 years separated from her child and who suffered greatly as a result of that loss. Because I exist does not negate his Adoptive Mother, who is also real. However, her existence does not negate mine either. I did not cease to exist in actuality or in the heart of my son when we were separated. He needs both of his Mothers in his life to make him whole.

Posted by: Isabo at 4:31pm Feb 19

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