October 09, 2007

Further Thoughts on Language

The discussion of "first parent" vs. "birth parent" pops up from time to time in online discussion groups; lots of adoptive parents seem to have very strong opinions on both sides. (For the record, I (a) use both in real life, (b) am not particularly interested in forcing anyone else to do so, and (c) don't think my opinion as an adoptive parent is the one that really matters in this debate.)

I can understand being initially unsure about the term "first mom" as an adoptive mom, because I had that experience myself. New language sometimes forces us to see things from a slightly altered perspective; that is one of its benefits. I think it is good to engage in discussion about what makes us uncomfortable and why, and to honestly critique whether that discomfort stems from personal anxiety or legitimate disputes with a term. Those things are worth talking about so that we can all move forward.

There is one argument against "first mom" that I'm seeing more frequently that I find a little puzzling, though. It usually goes something like this:
Maybe "first mom" makes sense if a child is raised by her birth family for awhile before the adoption. But I was present at my daughter's birth; we took her home from the hospital. There has never been a time in her life that I've not been her mother. So "first mom" is fine for some families, but it doesn't apply in our case.
I am acquaintances with a woman who lost a son a few years ago. Something unexpected happened late in her pregnancy, and she birthed him knowing he would not live very long. For the duration of his brief life outside the womb she and her husband held him and loved on him, tried to make sure he was safe and cared for. She never set foot outside of the hospital with him, never bathed him or buckled him into a car seat or sang him to sleep. But she considers herself a mother, one who no longer has her child with her. I don't know anyone who would contradict her.

K didn't leave the hospital with Puppy, either.* But she took care of him while she was pregnant and after he was born she made sure that he would be safe and loved. If my friend was a mother to her son, then surely K was a mother to Puppy. The fact that she eventually placed Puppy for adoption doesn't negate all she had done up to that point. Neither does the fact that her mothering of him overlapped with my own make hers any less real.

I think the key, for me, is that a person's story begins before they are born. So even for those of us who adopted our children as newborns, we have not been there for the entirety of their existence. If we can acknowledge that, then we should also be able to acknowledge the ones who were there and the mothering they provided.

* I hope no one thinks I'm comparing adoption to death. I meaning to say that the length of time one parents doesn't determine the legitimacy of the parenting.


Anonymous said...

My opinion is a women starts being a mother once she becomes pregnant. Here, she chooses wether to take care of herself and her unborn child or unfortunatley not take care of herself and unborn child.
I don't care for any of the names really. Truthfully I think when a child is handed to another woman to parent, this child now has 2 mothers. PERIOD. One gave life the other is parenting that life.
However, I do understand the use of these names to clarify who is who in a child's life.
I'd have to agree that whatever is comfortable for each individual should be respected. I just can't tolerate others calling an expectant mother a birt/first mother. I think they are jumping to far ahead.

Heather said...

Roni, I totally agree with you on all points.

Dawn said...

You know it's interesting to hear this argument from people who are pro-life and who would say that a child is a child the minute they are conceived. So what would that make the woman who conceived that child?

Anonymous said...

I know I'm over-emotional right now but ... I needed to read this from an adoptive parent tonight. I've been having a hard time with some issues/people/yaknowthekind and... dang. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

From the start I have considered T. as the first mother to our son. She cared for him and loved him for 9 months: how we call her is our choice but it will never ever diminish the fact that she was taking care of him, and therefore was a mother, is a mother and always will be.

happy mom said...

I never put much weight in the name I used, I have never had a problem with first parent, it is a new term that I only started hearing on the net, in blogs.

I have always used birth parent, (I am starting to think the state I live in is more behind then I thought) even that seems new for a lot of people around me. I wonder if I am wrong and what would happen if I started changing my wording. I guess I have never actually thought to give first parent or birth parent an actual difference in definitions.

For me they are both just terms used for PR trying to be PC. But there is no way that either term expresses how amazing the mother who helped our family become complete is!

Tammy said...

I couldn't have said it better myself. Exactly how I feel. Someone ELSE had to be my kids' mothers before me or they wouldn't be on this earth. That is just the way it is. Somedays I struggle with this as I grieve having to share this role (who wouldn't?) but most (and I mean MOST) days I just live and parent doing what my kids' first mothers asked me to do, be Mom to their kids. But I wouldn't be a Mom without the other Moms in my kids' lives. Anyone who can negate that role just isn't living in reality.

I use the terms first/birth/other mother interchangeable or sometimes, if others I am talking to know the context, don't use a "label" at all. I sure don't want to always be known as their adoptive mother. So why would I always have to define the other's role in the life of our children, except for clarity's sake. It's not about her or me being fully mother... in our case (and not in all...as their are some first mothers who in the end, may have been able to parent their children) our kids would not be who they are without the other mother there.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Heather, and well said.

Deb said...

I'm fascinated by this discussion, because I've never heard it before. My husband and I are talking about adopting, and these kinds of issues never occurred to me. Thanks for enlightening me a bit, both on this topic as well as some of the emotional wrangling you're doing with yourself over K's visits. You make it very easy for me to put myself in your shoes and try them on for a bit to see how I might react in similar situations.

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