"Ms. Birthmother"

Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation. Noam Chomsky
Adoption language has been on my agenda this week, in the form of a discussion on the term birthmother. Is it right? Is it wrong? Can the adoption community find a more generally-acceptable term? Some say this is an endeavor that's sure to fail, but the linguist in me disagrees.

Today's adoption language divides, but the divisions don't surprise me. In fact, they remind me of similar debate in the 70s when Ms. entered our vocabulary. Opponents and proponents were equally vocal, and it took very little time for Ms. to become a label rather than the simple title it was intended to be. Opponents (many of whom were men) viewed it as an unnecessary change that threatened the traditional role of wife and mother. Proponents saw it as a critical first step toward equality for women.

No one argues about whether it's appropriate to use Ms. anymore, in spite of the fact that there are certainly women who still prefer the titles Miss and Mrs. And I'd wager that young women today are far more likely to choose Ms. as their title rather than the alternatives, and probably don't give it or its history a second thought.

The ultimate evolution of whatever term replaces birthmother will be, in my opinion, not unlike that of Ms. The origin of birthmother is not entirely clear: some say it was coined purposefully by social workers in the 50s; others say it was first used by CUB (Concerned United Birthparents); and there are others, too. But regardless of which is accurate, it's clear that birthmother was always intended to be an alternative to something else - some say to mother, natural mother, or real mother; others say to biological mother; and still others to more pejorative names. No wonder it's controversial.

That controversy is the catalyst for identifying a more universally-acceptable term, though, just as the controversy of the 1970s feminist movement pushed Ms. into our vocabulary. And if that evolution is to deliver a less divisive term, first mothers and adoptees will need to identify it, not adoption professionals or adoptive parents - just as Ms. was claimed by women, not men.

Ms.'s journey to linguistic and cultural acceptance was swift - 35 years is a blink of an eye in the lives of language and culture. Whatever term today's mothers coin to replace birthmother will join our vocabulary in a similar blink - but to us that could still be years away. In the meantime, we have choices to make about the role we play in the current debate. Language is dynamic, and evolves to meet the needs of its time. Whatever term becomes the accepted norm, never doubt for a moment its impact on the way our culture and society perceive adoption and those it has touched, nor that we have the power to influence the changes.

How can we adoptive parents help? We can avoid using terms we know will wound and feed the flames of debate. And we can keep this discussion alive - here online, in our organizations, in adoption agencies, and among our friends. Just as Ms.'s acceptance followed years of heated debate, this needed change in adoption language will not come without pain. I look to the mothers who have lost their children through adoption, and to the adoptees who are those children, to own and lead the dialog.


Lisa V said…
I think you can look at race and ethnicity for changes in language too.

Negro, Colored, Black, African American

Oriental, Asian

Indian, Native American
Rachel said…
Yes, language evolves along with attitudes. Language and attitudes shape each other.

My sister and my niece have struggled with what to call each other. I think they use first names mostly, but it's complicated.
suz said…
i am personally not a fan of birth mother. to me, there is a mother and an adoptive mother. i get the need to clarify for the childs sake (although even the child eventually understands he has a mother and an adoptive mother).

far worse than birth mother is "prospective birthmother". WTF? the correct term would be expectant mother. you are not a birth mother until you have surrendered your child. how can you be one before you even lose your child to adoption?

i use first and natural in my own blog and dont get too bent by all the labels.

i am my childs mother. i know that. i dont care what you call me. i care what i call me.

(as a side note, I got beat up recently for using "mother of loss" - another common term. it was an adoptee who got offended and reminded me that I did not give birth to loss. I gave birth to a child. The loss came afterwards)
HollyMarie said…
Interesting topic.... the "winds of change" are definitely blowing as far as terminology in the adoption world goes. If we progress from "birth" mom to first mom (the woman who gave birth to a child and was that child's literal first mom) then we must be moving away from "adoptive" mom (the woman who adopted said child) toward second mom or third mom or ..... I don't know. One thing is for sure, and that is we are all moms....and non of us are "un-natural"... kwim? Great post!
margaret said…
I'm finding myself wishing just for some mutual respect out there. I see a lot of people insisting others use a particular term in reference to THEM, but then turn right around and use insulting terminology for someone else. It just doesn't work that way.

I try to use whatever term is generally most acceptable to the population I'm talking about. I have found little disagreement among firstmothers about being called firstmothers, so that's the term I use. Terms like PAP, adopter, and some others are very offensive, yet people still use them. If you demand respect, you should give it as well. That's the bottom line.
Margie said…
Suz, I really like your choices, because they are the truth. You are your child's mother - my children have mothers in Korea. I am my children's adoptive mother. And when it's confusing, chronology can be very helpful. Both my husband (not an adoptee) and my son refer to their various mothers chronologically. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Thanks for the comment, Margaret.

I see self-identification and mutual respect as two separate issues. For example, if I believe the most respectful term for myself is "adoptive parent," and the majority of others like me feel the same way, the term "adoptive parent" is likely to become the prevailing term in our language and culture.

But that doesn't preclude others from calling me something else, something offensive, if they choose. Think of the many racial slurs that exist today, in spite of the fact that those they are used against have chosen to be known by other names.

How each group or sub-group identifies itself is what will ultimately prevail, not the offensive labels that others may use. It's therefore unlikely that we'll see a societal shift to calling adoptive parents adopters any time soon - although that may be no comfort when that's what we're called.

PAP has never bothered me because it's just an acronym for prospective adoptive parent, which is a valid term. Adopter has more of an edge, but to those who believe their roles in adoption have been reduced to no more than breeder (birthmother) and product (adoptee), an equally stark label should apply to adoptive parents. I do not mean to imply that all first parents and adoptees share this view, however; but knowing that some do helps me understand the use of the term adopter.
Michelle said…

You say to get respect one should give it.

I agree to a point. But...as a person who was used by the adoption industry and sent to live with strangers, had my identity fabricated and was legally cut off from my mother, father, siblings and relatives for 32 years - I have a hard time respecting anyone I see participating in this same practice, especially those who do not try to reunite their adoptees with their families.

So, anyone I see posting on the web about the joys of adopting, and knowing that a child is without their family, culture and often homeland....I find it difficult to have respect for that person. It's not a choice, it's reality - people are celebrating my losses, my trauma and my family's pain and losses. Respect is not even a consideration.

I lost an entire family, my identity and culture - I will use whatever language that best suits MY experience, my pain and my loss.

If those who have adopted don't appreciate my language, I most certianly will not modify it for them out of respect. Why would I? Are they thinking, "Hmm...there are a lot of adoptees around the world who have suffered because of adoption . . . maybe I shouldn't post about how happy it has made me." I don't expect them to, either - everyone has the right to talk and write about their own life - but that does not mean I must automatically respect them for it.

Adoptees have had to modify their entire existence to please and accommodate others - so, my language is my language - resepct, really, has nothing to do with it.
Margie said…
Thanks, Michelle. That's exactly what I mean - what a group chooses to call itself typically is the result of a "majority rules" process that puts a particularly name into common usage. But it doesn't mean that others in that group can't call themselves something else, nor does it mean that anyone in that group must use the commonly-accepted label for anyone else. Language is one of the tools, weapons even, that we all use to state our cases and fight for our causes.

Some believe it's a lesser tool, I believe its impact it both deep and broad.
margaret said…
Thanks for your response, Margie. I hope you are right.

Michelle - I try to give respect even though I don't always get it. The language you choose is really your own choice.
Margie said…
Exactly, Margaret! We all ultimately have to do what we have to do. Time and majority will decide which terms become the norm, and which take on different or lesser roles. In adoption language, we're just not there yet.
Michelle said…
Margie, I believe the oppressed are the ones who need to choose the language.

The adoption industry has certainly tried to dictate what language people should use. To me that is where adoption language has been used as a weapon.

How dare the industry that profits from separating families decide what I should call myself or my family, or how I should feel about losing my family and identity. The industry has opressed people for decades (sealing birth certificates, changing identities, instilling confidentiality/privacy fears about searching for our mothers and mother/fathers searching for their sons and daughters).

That is why so many of us who suffered the losses and liveed through the inhumane expectations in adoption don't care what people think - we are the ones who lost - we should decide what we will call ourselves.
Margie said…
That's what I'm saying, Michelle:

". . . if that evolution is to deliver a less divisive term, first mothers and adoptees will need to identify it, not adoption professionals or adoptive parents - just as Ms. was claimed by women, not men."

My message may not be too clear here, but the point I'm trying to make is that first parents and adoptees should determine how they are to be known. And I believe that process self-determination is going on right now as first mothers and adoptees work through their differences on appropriate terminology. Adoptive parents can help by paying attention to the prevailing preferences, and avoiding terms they know are hurtful.

I hope that clarifies!
Michelle said…
Thanks for clarifying Margie...I was slightly confused...:)

When I was growing up most people who asked me questions abut being adopted would say, "Do you want to find your mother?" My adoptive mother and father always referred to my mother as my mother. Sometimes I heard biological mother, but mostly it was mother.

In the early 1990s when I received my non-identifying information (another disgusting term) I saw "birth mother" on my documents....my mother was called a birth mother -- wtf is that? I asked myself. - this made me feel even more disconnected from her. She was my mother!

Then when I began getting more involved with adoption advocacy, I leanred about Mothers and how they had their babies taken from them and that they were changing the language....gave up for adoption to surrendered, and birth mother to mother. I was pleased to see this. I have definitely seen a shift in the last few years with language. Moms and their daughters and sons are speaking out more - more reunions and more laws are (slowly) changing and adoption agencies are being exposed for the baby/children-selling criminals that they are. I think if adoptive parents used our language it would help to change perceptions.
Michelle said…
I want to add that adoptive parents speaking our language, and not seeing it as disrespecful toward them, rather as part of movement that is helping millions of people reclaim what they lost and changing practices and assumptions that allow the separation of families to happen in the first place.

Language may seen as attacking or dismissing one's views or feelings, but if we look at the whole picture, it is really about coming out of oppression and how a person, after waking up, views their adoption experience - it's about validating that pain and loss and moving toward change.

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