Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Adoption Language

Reflections of the Conference Part II: Language*

There was a concerted effort throughout the conference, as noted in my previous blog, not to use birthmother for an expectant mother as mentioned and acknowledgment that to do so was coercive. This is a nice step forward. However, there was, of course, confusion over what mothers want to be called as over the past few years there have been a plethora of phrases suggested by various groups and individuals: first, original, lifemother, exiled mother. . . or the accurate, but a bit lengthy and awkward “a mother who surrendered a child to adoption.”

I noted in a critique of this year's Adoption and Culture Conference, "Encountering New Worlds of Adoption" the issue of language, and entitlement, also came up there. MaryAnne Cohen posted on the CUB ALL list that on: "a very interesting panel on adoptive parent language that included a discussion of how many adoptive parents say and believe that they were 'fated' to get a particular child. I put in my two cents as a birthmother on how repugnant this concept was, considering that the adoptive parents' good fortune or fate was predicated on the suffering and loss of the
birthparents. Happily nobody there was pushing the 'fate' idea and everyone, adoptive moms included, gagged at Rosie's 'wrong tummy' story."

And, so while there are efforts from all involved in adoption to do and say the right thing, there remains resistance to the use of the word mother as confusing and “mother who surrendered a child to adoption” as too lengthy and cumbersome. And yet, while this statement of fact is avoided because of its wordy nature, I couldn’t help noticing that many times throughout the conference adoptive parents identified themselves as a “parent of Guatemalan child” someone having an “interracial family” or, often: “Mother of x number of kids, x number of whom joined their family through adoption.” It seemed quite apparent that 1) they did not want to identify themselves as adoptive parents, and 2) they preferred language they chose, that softened reality with phrases indicating that the child “joined their family” as if it was the child’s choice to do so.

While this may not sit well with some of us, they will identify themselves as they chose. Mutual respect therefore demands that we continue to self-identify and not fall prey to feeling the need to use their defining terms for us, and continue to educate triads members, professionals, and the media on the language of our preference.

Helpful to this process is clarifying what it is we want to be called, and that has been evolving and led to a great deal of confusion. OriginsUSA has a very simple, honest solution for this dilemma, and that is that we are mothers with no prefix.

In an effort to clarify this for all involved, in adoption today both grassroots and professionals,OriginsUSA has prepared A Journalist's Guide to Accurate and Honest and Adoption Language and a more detailed explanation of the language of motherhood, in the explanation of our motto: “Motherhood is Forever:”

The motto of OriginsUSA, a national organization promoting family preservation and advocating for family members separated by adoption is “Motherhood is Forever.”

A mother is simply defined as one who has conceived and borne a child. Every person has one, and only one, forever mother. Our mother remains our mother throughout life...even if our parents divorce, even if we have a step-mother, and even after our mother is deceased. Nothing can or should change nature's truth. A mother is still a mother after her child is deceased. Even mothers who murder their own child(ren) do not lose their motherhood or become "ex" or "former" mothers.

The termination of parental rights, without which there is no adoption, is the legal severance of the relationship between mother and child. Adoption adds a legal caregiver and creates a new familial relationship for the child. Neither the relinquishment of parental rights, nor the adoption which follows, however, severs the emotional or genetic bond nor the biological reality of mother and child. No more than the le dissolution of one's marriage, or re-marriage makes a mother less a mother or a father less a father. Despite the fact that the law makes her a persona non gratis where her child is concerned, in her heart, a mother knows she is the mother of her child.

When a mother is made to believe that it would be the most loving and unselfish thing for her to do to allow others to raise her child through adoption, she still remains that child's mother. She no more becomes a "birth" mother or any other hyphenated designation of anything less than a mother, than any other mother who is not currently mothering.

No prefix or descriptive modifier is needed to describe her role in her child's life. Adoption, which thrives on pleasing those who pay to adopt, is predicated on the myth that adoption is "the same as if" the child was born into the adoptive family. Birth certificates thus become state secrets, and states issue falsified birth certificate naming another woman as the "mother" who gave birth to the child, in an attempt to obliterate the reality that every child has a mother prior to any adoption.

Our language and laws need to reflect and respect the reality that a mother is forever, and every adopted child has just one mother.

The term "mother" should remain intact and the caregiver -- the additional, legally created role -- given a hyphenated term with an adjective to describe his/her role, such as step- or adoptive parent or legal guardian. If any further description is needed to describe child's mother to resolve any confusion, she is a "mother who has surrendered" (as in the case of "persons of disabilities" rather than a "disabled person").

Terms such as birthmother or birthparent (as one word or two) diminish the reality of the relationship that is unchanged by the legal fiction of adoption. In a sense, all mothers are birthmothers, but when used for mothers who have relinquished - or worse expectant mothers - it is dehumanizing, reducing them to a breeder, surrogate, handmaiden or incubator. Mothers who have relinquished need to have our feelings and ability to self-identify respected, as we respect people of various ethnicities and races to choose how they prefer to be identified.

Those who adopt or become legal guardians for children are not made any less by allowing their child's mother to remain his mother, as they maintain the day-to-day connection of caregiver, protector and decision maker. Nor is there is any need for concern that children who are adopted, fostered or in a guardianship would be confused being taught to use respectful and honest terminology in addition to whatever terms of endearment one might choose to bestow upon those in close, daily, personal relationship. Young children seldom call their female parental figure "mother" but use terms of endearment such as Mom or Mommy. They will thus not be confused at all to have a Mom and a Mother. There is thus no need to use contrived terminology like "tummy mommy" or "natural" or "birth" mother, or "the woman who gave birth to you." There is, in addition, a need to leave the legal documents of one's birth intact and stop state committed fraud in falsifying such documents.

* Tomorrow: Reflections of the conference Part III: Ethical Accountability to Mothers Who Have Surrendered


Anonymous said...

I know the whole question of terminology is a complex one and you can't please all the people all the time - however, personally I don't use the terms 'surrendered' and 'relinquished', as it seems that those words suggest that mothers made a rational decision to give away their children, which I feel does not adequately represent the complexities of the situations in which they found themselves. If you eliminate those terms, that pretty much leaves two choices; 'mothers who have lost children through adoption' and 'mothers who have been separated from their children by adoption'. I prefer the latter as mothers who have 'lost' children through death may feel that adoption is very different from their experience and find the use of the word 'lost' in association with adoption to be distressing.

Evelyn Robinson

Parents & Professionals for Family Preservation & Protection said...

I agree to a point. I prefer "lost to adoption" and as a mother who twice lost my daughter - to adoption and death - I am perfectly comfortable with "lost to adoption."

I totally hate the term "mother of loss" because it is unclear that it has anything to do with adoption and totally sounds like a death.

suz said...

Interesting feedback from Evelyn. I was so glad to see she did not support PLACED. That term makes me shiver. That to me totally implies rational decisions.

For me, surrender works, as there was a war being waged against me to get my child and I did indeed surrender. Was I rational? Not at all. I was weak, weary, coerced, intimidated, lacking strength, resources and any ability to fight back.

So yeah, for me, surrender it is.

Also, many adoptees I know also despise Mother of Loss. We did not give birth to a LOSS. We gave birth to a child. We are a mother of a child (but I do understand what folks imply with mother of loss...I just dont happen to like it)

Third Mom said...

Thank you for this discussion, I don't think I've understood the nuances between the various terms quite as clearly before.

Parents & Professionals for Family Preservation & Protection said...

It's evolving...

The first step is to stop calling expectant mothers birthmothers. the other thing that is as distasteful as the "n" word is adoptive parents referring to the other of their child as THEIR birthmother! "Our birthmother" is just appaling. It make sher into a surrogate or handmaiden, ala Margart Atowood....or one's Nigga!

Jess said...

As a "found" adoptee and an adoptive mother in an open adoption what strikes me most about the terminology issue is the pain that that simmers just beneath the surface on both sides of this fence.

Adoption is painful for all involved and no politically correct lexicon can alter that fact.

I grew up in a closed adoption. My parents did what they could to help me locate our my family.

Finally, I paid a searcher to find my mother. There is a lot of pain that has come with our reunion but also peace and great happiness.

For myself, I have two mothers as does my daughter. There is joy and pain with this particular type of family as there is in any other familial configuration.

As I have no way of predicting the future or knowing a different past I only have the information provided by my beloved, brand-new, biological half-sister (sorry-labels are only for clarification.) I can tell you that after learning of the horrid childhood she and my half-brother endured at the hands of my mother, there is no way my mother could have managed raising a third child. I do not judge my mother for this. My mother is a profoundly damaged woman who, herself, was raised by a woman who did NOT want a child.

By the way, I was also wondering if Family Preservation has extended its concern to women and girls who may feel compelled to terminate a pregnancy for the same reasons others have found themselves considering adoption.

Parents & Professionals for Family Preservation & Protection said...


Thank you for your very thoughtful and perceptive comment. Yes, adoption - which always begins with a tragedy and involves loss and separation - is very painful for at least two of the parties whose lives are irrevocably changed by it.

While some mothers have experienced more than one type of maternal loss, neither PPFFPP nor Origins-USA provides any specific resources for women who have lost children to death, miscarriage, or abortion for a number of reasons:

1. There are organizations who do this (usually religious in nature)

2. Because abortion is such a hot-button issue we stay away from it as mothers who relinquish run the gamut politically and religiously with the full spectrum of views on that issue and we respect that

3. Abortion is really a very separate issue from adoption. Pregnancy termination is a reproductive rights issue. It can only occur during the first trimester.

Adoption, which cannot take place until after a child is born, involves the lives of two human beings. It is thus NOT a reproductive right and should not be framed in that context. Adoption is a child-care and custody issue.

Women who are considering adoption have long past any thoughts about abortion. Many did not even know they were pregnant until that was no longer an option, or simply chese not to for a variety of reasons -- most often because they WANTED their child and were pressured to have the child adopted.

4. Adoption is big business and creates a great deal of coercion and exploitation on pregnant women. Abortion is a private decision that is not "promoted" and "encouraged" by media, friends, family and governmental and religious agencies.

And finally:

5. Post adoption, mothers are plagued by grief, shame, and guilt and shame and spend their lives wondering how to answer how many children they have, and is the child they relinquished well cared for. While other forms of loss have their issues, adoption is an unresolvable, limbo loss that involves knowing there is someone out there, somewhere...not an imaginary "might have been" but a real live person!

Anonymous said...

Are any of you actually adopted? I'm a 42 year old adoptee, raising an adopted daughter whose birthmother/lifemother/forever mother is still in her life. I don't mean to sound harsh, but I fail to understand why we can't move past language. The only person in any of these complex relationships that should be allowed to define the language is the adoptee. With all due respect to all of the hurting people out there who have lost a child to adoption, this isn't really about you. You had your day, the decision you made affected your child in ways you'll never understand, and while your anger is rooted in linguistic exercises, mine is rooted in the fact that I had no champion, I wasn't worth fighting for.

I understand that for many generations adoption involved a process of coercion and shame. Religion, pride, morality all played a role, which is tragic. I fully understand how the choice to give up a child was not perhaps a rational decision, but in the heat of such extreme moments it's all we're left with. The one person who did not have a voice is the child. For every woman who gave up a child to adoption, for the multitude of reasons and pressures that exist, there is a child who literally had no such opportunity to weigh into the process, none.

My birthmother has spent many a long hour telling me how her parents and her doctor conspired to force her to give me up, and I'm certain that was the reality of her life at the time. But she was 19 when she learned she was pregnant; a high school graduate heading to college. At the end of the day, when she stood in that courtroom without her coercive parents and doctor, and the judge asked her three times whether or not she wanted to do this, she said yes.

And that, friends, is the pain of court transcripts and the pain of an adoptee. I will always know that for whatever reason, through force or choice, when it really mattered I was left in a hospital room to be taken home by people I didn't know. That was NOT my choice. So pardon me if I sound as if there is no pity here, but the family you're trying to preserve doesn't exist, and semantics are not going to change that.

The fate argument is, I've noticed, a loathsome and odious thing to birthmothers, but it's one of the strongest survival tools an adoptee has. To try to take that away is also coercive. The idea that I was so unwanted I was left in a hospital two days after delivery is somehow made gentler by the idea that fate played a role, however minor, and however flawed it may be. For if fate meant for me to be with my birthmother, I should think she would have fought to the death for me.

Please know that I do rationally understand the trauma of the closed adoption process on the biological mother. But in a cycle of pain, the adoptee is the crowned king. Adoption works for my family because we're open and honest about it, but more importantly because we've ALWAYS put my daughter first, even when it hasn't been easy for us. That's the difference between birthing and parenting.

Parents & Professionals for Family Preservation & Protection said...

To the most recent anonymous poster (10/30):

Please do not tell me - or anyone else - that we "had our day" and made a "choice." You have not walked a day in the shoes of a mother coerced, pressured and offered no other options, support or help.

You may be aware that more than one person has pleaded guilty to murders they have not committed, even under pressure, and later been proven innocent through DNA, so signing papers "voluntarily" does not preclude one's back being against the wall.

If you feel better being the king of pain or victimhood or whatever - good for you.

I will not go there. I do not think of any of this as a competition, nor would I disrespect anyone by belittling their pain in order to judge whose pain is greater than whose. That's am exercise in futility like deciding if is worse to have a child die at birth or as a teen. Is it worse to loose your arms or your legs?

As for fate...If I am to believe that some supreme being or fate is orchestrating adoption, I would have to believe in a very cruel God, which is outside my comprehension. I do not think it is fated that there are losers and winners and that chidlren are taken from mothers simply on the basis of their age, martial status, or finances...all issues of powerlessness. I cannot believe that it is fated that baby brokers coerce and exploit mothers here and abroad to gain their chidlren to supply a demand. Nor, can I believe that it was fated that my daughter was lost to adoption to be fated to remain in foster care for a year, and to find the only way to end her torment in suicide.

As for language - I believe that each of us have a right to self-identify. Period.

There is no words... that can alleviate my pain or bring back my daughter or anyone else's. But I have a right not to allow myself to be additionally subjected to language that adds to my pain by diminishing me and my role in my daughter's life.

I am my daughter's mother. Always have been and always will be. Nothing can change that fact.

Does it make your pain less if I am denied being called my daughter's mother? Are you less the "king" of pain by my declaring my motherhood of the child I bore?

Please also do not make who is the "real" parent a contest either. Nor whose sacrifice is greater.

The pressure that was put upon us to relinquish our right was just that: that it was the most unselfish thing we could do and the "best" thing for our chidlren. We were told that if we really loved our baby woe would let them go.

We were told it would be selfish to keep our babies because we couldn't give the the "best" that they deserved.

King Solomon believed the test of a "real" mother is she who sacrifices, not she who is the recipient of another's pain and tragedy.

I hope the openness and honesty in your a family means your daughter knows her mother.

RussiaToday Apr 29, 2010 on Russian Adoption Freeze

Russi Today: America television Interview 4/16/10 Regarding the Return of Artyem, 7, to Russia alone

RT: Russia-America TV Interview 3/10

Korean Birthmothers Protest to End Adoption

Motherhood, Adoption, Surrender, & Loss

Who Am I?

Bitter Winds

Adoption and Truth Video

Adoption Truth

Birthparents Never Forget