When I first started blogging one of the first posts I wrote was called “My Birth Mother Doesn’t Like the Term Birth Mother,” in which I explored the different ways my mother and I held that term. I’ve shifted significantly in my position since then. There is still a part of me that likes “birth mother,” simply because it was the word that I first learned for her. It is the word that stands for all that she was to me in the years when I could only guess at who she was. Simply put, “birth mother” was the word that kept me tethered to her through all those years of separation.
These days, I usually use “original mother” or “first mother” in my writing when I want to specify which mother I am referring to, but I think of her as my mother, unqualified. I am comfortable with duality. I have two mothers and two fathers. One mother and father are my parents because they raised me; the other mother and father are my parents even though they didn't. It’s a position that’s hard for some people to understand, but it’s my reality and I am fiercely protective of it. It has taken me many years to get here, but I stand solidly on this ground now. I get to define what family means to me.
I haven’t thrown the word “birth mother” out of my vocabulary entirely. I may use it, for example, when conversing with someone (mother or adoptee) who uses it as the preferred term in her own adoptive situation. Or I may use it, initially, in a conversation with someone outside the adoption community, starting with the word that is most likely to be familiar to my listener before shifting to the words that more accurately reflect my own position.
And yet, though I have shifted away from using the term “birth mother” myself, I still get triggered when I encounter a certain situation online: a mother of loss to adoption admonishing an adoptee for using the term “birth mother,” or, in some cases, any qualifying term. “She is your mother and nothing less,” she says. “You shouldn't call her anything but that.” The insistence on mother unqualified in all situations is problematic for me because it prioritizes the mother’s experience over the adoptee’s. To my mind, it reveals a lack of understanding of the adoptee’s struggles and the complexity of his or her experience.
I may be OK with mother unqualified now, but there was a time when I needed the qualifier for my own survival. Does that seem an exaggeration? My wording may seem extreme, but the analogy of fighting for survival reflects an important aspect of my inner reality, of my adoptee experience. The mother who gave birth to me may have remained my mother by way of her own experience; she did not forget me or cease to feel the emotions of motherhood. But my experience was different. I emerged into consciousness using the word “mother” for someone else, a woman who was present and mothering. The other mother, the one for whom I was given the word “birth mother,” was absent. Mother present. Mother absent. This combination of presence and absence makes for a complex emotional reality, and it is the adoptee who faces the daunting task of making sense of it all. At an earlier stage of my processing I used the word “birth mother,” but it wasn’t wielded as a weapon to wound my mother and keep her in the position of “less than.” Rather, I clung to it as a life buoy to keep myself afloat in the swirling maelstrom of adoptedness.
When I first reunited with my mother, I was in a different place than I am now. I was in still in my loyalty phase and therefore gravitated toward language that prioritized an adoptive definition of family over biological. But I was also processing, as I have been my whole life, the distinction between presence and absence. To have applied the word I used for the one who had been present to the one who had been absent would have been as nonsensical to me as calling a dog a cat. They were simply two completely different things in my experience.
Part of what is different now is that my original mother is now a full presence in my life. She has been such for almost two decades. As is often the case, two seemingly contradictory things are true. On the one hand, I have come to understand that she was always my mother and that we have always been bonded to each other—even during our years of separation, even when I didn’t understand that bond or have the words to name it. The woman who gave birth to me and experienced me as a hole in her heart throughout the many years that followed doesn't need to “earn” the title of mother. In one sense, it is simply what she is and has always been. Period.
And yet, I can also say that she has earned it. She has done so by being present for me in multiple ways throughout the past two decades. Of all of my parents, she is the only one who has been willing and able to walk into the fire of adoption processing with me. She is the one who has accompanied me on this journey of words, even when I wrote things that I know must have been painful for her. She is the parent who has been my sounding board through many long conversations, especially in recent years, as I delved deeper and deeper into adoption processing in search of myself. To the extent that she is a “birth mother” she is really a “birth-times-two mother” for, in a sense, she has been present at both of my births. The first was the literal birth of my infancy. The second was the figurative one, in which, with her in the role of midwife, I was born into my true self: the adult me who can now stand here in my strength and claim her, mother unqualified.