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 ChomskyAdoption 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.