Adoption-friendly Language or Honest Adoption Language

A common term to describe a mother who has lost her child to adoption is 'birth mother' or 'birthmother.' The old term was 'natural mother,' and some adoptive parents objected to their children's first or original mothers being referred to as 'natural' because they felt that this made them its opposite, 'unnatural.' So, a movement called 'adoption-friendly' language has grown up to give a positive slant to all aspects of adoption. Adoptive parents felt that their families were not viewed as positively as natural families and that, by changing the language, they could change this view of adoption as a 'second choice' for family creation. Social workers eagerly followed this trend by spreading the terminology broadly. This movement was quickly allied to politically correct language to make it legitimate.

Neither adoptive parents nor social workers consulted particularly with the people they were naming about how the term 'birthmother' made them feel. Let's go back to where politically correct language arose, however. It arose from the right of a people to name themselves. For example, we once referred to the Eskimo people, but now we use their own term for themselves, the Inuit. Instead of the Ojibway people, we talk about the Anashinabe. We refer to Afro-American or African American people and Hispanic people, because those are the terms that they have chosen for themselves. It is respectful to use the terms people themselves choose. When talking about people with challenges, we use the term 'people' first, to indicate their essential humanity, and then we use the descriptions we need to indicate who we mean, so 'people with brown hair' or 'people in wheelchairs' or 'mothers who've lost children to adoption.' Out of respect, we place their humanity above their description.

Mothers who have lost children to adoption are coming to feel that the term 'birthmother' attempts to limit their role to the birth of their children. However, even the dictionary says simply that a mother is a female who has given birth to a child. We never tell a mother whose child is stillborn or dies that she's not a mother, just because she can no longer raise her child. And these days, progressive adoptions are open, and the children know always that they have two mothers, who play different roles in their lives. Even for those children adopted under the old secrecy laws, as adults more and more of them seek and find their first mothers, re-building the relationship that solidified in the nine months they grew in their mothers' wombs.

It is important to note that parents who had lost children to adoption did not refer to adoptive parents as anything but adoptive parents. It was adoptive parents who highlighted the opposition between natural and unnatural. The dictionary defines the opposite of natural in terms of parenting as adoptive, not unnatural. One begins to wonder at the insecurity of the adoptive parents who have such difficulty referring to their children's first parents and who can only see themselves in opposition to those whose children they have taken. Why are natural and adoptive seen as opposite terms? Both sets of parents are important to an adopted child. Why are these terms not seen as complementary?

So what do we do with this dilemma of what to name the first parents of a child later lost to adoption? Some of these mothers, cloaked in the shame of unwed, young motherhood, accept the term that is common. Many of the mothers who have lost children to adoption prefer the old term, natural, because it describes what is simply true. Some mothers prefer the terms first or original mothers, because in point of plain fact, that's what they are, though they may not be the children's only mothers. Other mothers prefer to follow the template of those with various challenges, and refer to themselves as a mother who has lost a child to adoption.

This brings us to another effect of 'adoption-friendly' language. The function of this language is to denigrate and break the bonds of the natural family. For example, the only mother a child has is his or her mother, unless and until the adoption occurs. So, no couple can be parents until they give birth to or obtain a child and no mother can be a birthmother until she has signed those papers. Therefore, to call a mother 'a birthmother' while she's still pregnant is an attempt to have her come to think of the child within her as belonging not to her, but to someone else. This induces an emotional numbing, which makes it easier for others to convince her to lose her child to adoption. Honest adoption language would refer to her as the child's mother until the time comes where she is convinced by circumstances or coercion to lose that child to someone else.

The very terms that describe how a mother loses her child convey impressions of her--if she 'gives up' her child, she is callous, and uncaring of her child. This is the worst crime a mother can be accused of--that she does not care about her child. Yet in years gone by, few mothers had any choice in losing their children. Society decreed this punishment for those pregnant before marriage. Even now, the terrible loss of one's child is couched in language designed to give a lofty impression--'giving a gift of life to a childless couple.' What 'gift' does one give out of poverty, youth, and naiveté? Children are not objects to be given away. The simple fact of adoption is that it separates mother and child, so that someone else can raise that child. It breaks a family in order to build or create one.

Similarly, 'making an adoption plan' is really 'convincing a mother to lose her child.' Some people are even so silly as to suggest there aren't 'adoption reunions,' because the (now adult) child is meeting blood relations for the first time. This is patently impossible: how could a baby not have met the person in whose womb he or she grew for nine months? The only reason for such silliness in language is to pretend that the natural family does not exist, and that the adoptive family is all there is. While the adoptive family may come to be the most important in the child's life, this cannot negate the child's bonds to the natural family. Like it or not, adopted children have two families.

The whole suite of 'adoption-friendly' language should come under the same scrutiny. (What man ever gave birth and became a 'birthfather'?) If we're honest about what's happening in healthy newborn adoptions, we're talking about convincing a mother that she should lose her child because someone else can't have a child, and wants to take hers to raise. These are not prospective adoptive parents; they are people who want to become parents by taking someone else's child. This honest language is difficult language, of course, because it does not sugarcoat what is happening. It does not help to separate mother and child. It does not denigrate the child's natural mother. Perhaps that is why it is not language the adoption industry will embrace any time soon.

If you want to be respectful to mothers who have lost their children to adoption or even those who 'have surrendered or released their child,' listen to the terms they use for themselves, and use those terms. If you want to be clear about what you are doing, use honest adoption language. At the least, balance the language you use so that you are respectful of the terrible pain caused when mother and child are separated.

Sandra Falconer Pace
Director, Canadian Council of Natural Mothers

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