So it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually get into a discussion of the language of adoption. She and I have many things in common, but one thing we differ on is the word “birth mother.” She doesn’t like it. I’m rather fond of it.
For her, the word “birth” refers to an event that happened and passed in our relationship, whereas her connection to me continued. “Birth mother” doesn’t reflect that her mothering of me didn’t end; it continued even through the years that we were separated.
She likes “blood mother,” which reflects a connection between us that is more enduring. But I’ve never really warmed to that one. With its “blood brother” association, it calls to mind an image of the two of us in a club house making a solemn pact. In a recent e-mail conversation, she hinted that she likes “blood mother” for that very reason. “It implies sacrifice,” she wrote, “and a deliberate chosen bond. I choose to connect with you and to maintain that connection. I want a pact. I want a ritual: Maybe write my name in ink on a copy of your birth certificate….” (See, I told you she was a word person.)
And yet for me the “blood brother” association remains problematic; it suggests two people who aren’t biologically related becoming related symbolically through ritual. The crux of my relationship with my birth mother is the opposite. We are related, and nothing can change that. Not the fact that the law doesn’t acknowledge us as such or that her name doesn’t appear on my birth certificate. Not thirty years of separation. The bond between us simply is.
I use “birth mother” and “birth mom” largely for reasons of practicality (they are the established words that people instantly recognize as having the meaning I intend). But I also like them. It's true that my birth was not the last event that we shared together. (Nor was it the first. Those nine months in the womb were not insignificant. Nancy Verrier notes that adult adoptees are often driven to locate their biological mothers yet typically show very little interest in finding biological fathers; she attributes this to the bond formed in utero.) My birth was also not a purely joyful event, followed as it was by our separation. But it is a history that I share with her and no one else. It is something that separates her from every person on the planet.
Like a lot of adopted persons, I was told growing up that my birth mother was someone who loved me very much and that she gave me up because she wasn’t able to care for me and wanted me to have a better life than she could provide – and act of love. There are problems with this story; it does not reflect the fact that many birth mothers, including mine, experienced coercion around the act of relinquishment. They did not give their babies away because of love; they reluctantly signed papers giving up their right to parent because they experienced intense pressure to do so, and – young, scared, and lacking support – couldn’t see an alternative. The love was there – yes, definitely – but it wasn’t the reason for relinquishment.
For an adopted child, however, this isn’t a bad story to grow up with. I never associated the word “birth mother” with abandonment. I associated it with love. There was somebody out there who loved me – somebody unknown but connected to me by an unbreakable thread.
I am aware of other terms that have been put forth as alternatives to “birth mother.” “First mother” is one that has become common in recent years and is preferred by many first mothers themselves. I can understand the appeal from their point of view, but it resonates less strongly from mine. My birth mother may have been the first mother that I knew, but she wasn’t the first mother that I knew as “mother.” The word “mother,” with all of its associations, was originally linked to someone else. “Birth mother” has a specific meaning to me that none of the alternatives capture. It refers to someone who began as an amorphous concept, shifted over the years in my psyche to something more specific, and eventually, through reunion, became flesh – a real person who looks like me and shares many of my quirks of personality, including a tendency to be over analytical about words. (When you think about it, that’s kind of miraculous – a sort of “birth” in and of itself.) I’m aware that “birth mother” may not be the perfect word, but I choose it intentionally because it is the only one that, for me, represents all that this person is and always has been in my life.