Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mother Unqualified: Revisiting Adoption Language

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. 



24 comments:

  1. Beautifully expressed. I especially appreciate it as someone who took great comfort in the term birth mother - or birthmother - when I first discovered there was a whole world 'out there' searching for one another. Another mother might come into my daughter's life, but I was the ONLY one who could claim to have given birth to her, thus qualifying me as her ONLY "birth mother." I saw no negatives whatsoever in the term.


    As a court-appointed Confidential Intermediary, I ran into various terminology in adoption files relative to mothers. Yes, birth mother was there, but more commonly it was "first mother," a term we're hearing now as preferable to the "B-word." So go figure!


    What troubles me a great deal about the vocabulary discussion is the vitriol I see in postings from those who oppose the B-word. I've seen newcomers get attacked for the use of the term when they are just beginning to find their way into the maze of emotions. Sad!

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  2. What we'e both learned over the years is that mother is a verb.

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  3. Thanks you, Rebecca. I love reading your writing, and I am fascinated by what you write about. So foreign to me, but their own realities to several of my friends, adoptees and birth-mothers alike

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  4. He is their son but he will always be my child.

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  5. Love so much about this post, I don't know where to start. Love the part about the fact that *I* get to define who family is. Yes.

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  6. Love love love this. Yes, if we continue to use the words :"adoption is supposed to be about what is best for the child" and if ANY mother is suppose to put the needs of our children first, then YES... you DO get to define it. Otherwise it's all just lip service.
    And I am SO sick and tired of the terminology debates! Yes, I was taught to be birthmother and I accepted that. Yes, I understand the origins of the word and I know the power of language. No, I do not See myself as needing a modifier, but I DO choose to use the word now because it first MY needs and MY goals. (full reasoning is detailed here with links..:) http://www.adoptionbirthmothers.com/adoption/adoption-language-word-birthmother/) It's not as simple as "Bad or Good" and the language police would be better off using their energies educating others in other ways...or at least respecting where newbies are on their own journeys JMO.

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  7. "Calling a dog a cat." I love love love this analogy. Two separate people, two separate roles in my life, two different sets of experiences.....it should be okay for me to have two different names for these women. Also as you said, "not to be wielded as a weapon" but as a way for me to make sense of MY world, MY life.

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  8. In my adult years I have always referred in conversations when talking about mother/s to other people as mum = my birth mother and have always refered to the other mother as my adoptive mum that let's people know that mum is my mum and the other lady just happened to adopt me. So for example I would say when I was little my adoptive mum used to do this and that. It's to confusing for people I don't look like act like or am anyway like my adopters ( what a blessing) but my mum and me look do alike .

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  9. Once again, a very poignant post. The adopted person is the one who gets to define, IMHO. My DD is only 5, but she calls her first mom (who we do not see in person-her choice) by her first name, but fluidly discusses us as her mothers. Both real, both mothers.

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  10. Thank you so very much for this piece. I often struggle with the terminology and finding the right fit for our family. As of today I refer to our "birth mom" by name and as my son is 3 that is okay for now. Words can be such triggers for different people and for different reasons - myself included as an "adoptive mom"! I so appreciate your comments about finding the right word for you and your getting to define your family. I hope to be able to do this for my son as well. Beautiful piece!!!!!

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  11. Thanks for sharing this. When I first started exploring my adoption status and my feelings, my search process, etc. I heard the term "birth mother / father" (space optional). I never thought this offensive. If a birth parent ever called me a "birth daughter" I wouldn't be offended either. 'Birth', at least seems more personalized than 'Bio' or 'Biological', but it literally is what it is. My birth / first mother is deceased. We never had the chance to discuss preferences of this term. It would have been interesting if we had. What I hope doesn't happen is to be made to feel that I am walking on egg shells because I am unintentionally using the "wrong" words with someone. (Adoptees walk on enough egg shells as it is.) I don't need that. BTW: I absolutely love your shirt!

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  12. Thanks! That's actually my mother in the shirt, but we look a lot a like (unsurprisingly), so pretty much the same thing ... me in a few years! :-p

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  13. Thanks for commenting. I'm also an adoptive mom (a term I'm OK with personally, when specification is required) as well as an adoptee. When referring to my daughter's other mother in conversations with others, I call her just that: my daughter's other mother. Or "first mom." Or Erica (because that's what I call her myself, naturally). Our daughter calls both of us "Mom," sometimes with humorous results when we are all together! :-)

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  14. Thanks. Yes, I also approach this matter from the AP angle as well. My daughter was adopted from foster care so she lived with her other mother for the first 5 years of her life. Though the family came into crisis, they remain bonded to each other. There's no question -- Erica always has been and always will be "Mom." Now I'm "Mom," too. Just not the only one! http://www.rebeccahawkes.com/2012/11/moms.html

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  15. Those physical resemblances certainly can be striking. I look a lot like my mother, too, especially in photos of us at certain ages. Thanks for commenting!

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  16. Exactly! We have a challenging batch of "stuff" to sort out. I need all the tools I can get!

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  17. Thank you Anne, friend of my mother! :-)

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  18. Yes, and one with more senses and subtleties than people realize! xoxo

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  19. "I was the ONLY one who could claim to have given birth to her" <--Yes, you've hit on part of why I like the term, too. There can be lots of other kinds of mothers in a person's life--foster mothers, adoptive mothers, step mothers, mother-in-laws--but we all have only one person who gave birth to us. When I use the term I mean with that "only one" connotation, rather than in a dismissive "just a birthmother" way. On the other hand, I understand that the word has been used dismissively and coercively in the industry, so I avoid it for that reason.

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  20. this is such a beautifully moving post, rebecca. as an adoptive mama I know our daughter will some day need to determine what to call members of her family of origin (she does in fact refer to her first mother as her "birth mama"). yet posts like this remind me not only why but how she may begin to process what these terms mean to her. thanks for sharing this!

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  21. As a survivor of adoption dissolution, I (legally) have had three fathers, three mothers and one step-mother. If the woman who gave birth to me is my "first mother," then do I have a "second," "third," and ..... ummmm ..... "third-and-a-half" mother as well? Or do I have a "next mother," an "after that mother" and a "last mother"? It's just too confusing.
    No. I had a birth mother and two adoptive mothers, and that's the way I explain it.
    However, if we do look at "mother" as a verb then, really, I didn't have a mother at all. At this middle-aged point in my life, I've taken to simply referring to them as my "parental units" -- that best describes the relationship(s) and emotional distance present in all of them.
    The bottom line, though, is that as the person most affected BY the adoption(s), *I* get to choose the terminology.

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