October 03, 2010

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Our Birthmother

(With a bashful apology to one of my favorite poets.)


I don't use "our birth parents" when talking about Marian and Eddie's first parents. That's my choice. You may very well make a different one.

But this is about me and my decision. And, I suppose, about the sorts of things that go through my mind when I hear or read "our birthmom" or "our birthparents" or even, as I saw the other week, "our expectant parents".


I am positive if you dig back far enough in my past that you'll find me dropping "our"s all around. Agency #1 used that language constantly when we were going through the training ("When you meet your birth mom...") and we didn't know any better than to parrot it back. (And, no, six years ago it didn't even cross my mind that we shouldn't be talking about expectant parents as birth parents.)

If anything, I remember thinking it was a lot more personable and less cold to talk about "our birth mom" than "the birth mom". It was overwhelming to imagine the then-nameless, faceless stranger who would change our lives, and thinking about her as "our birth mom" made the thought less intimidating. I imagine that was one of the reasons the agency counselors used it with us. Of all the thousands of possibilities, the only ones that would matter would be the ones contained in this specific person we would eventually meet. Talking about "our birth mom" felt safer, smaller. Warmer.


I can't pinpoint as clearly when I stopped using "our". But I think it was soon after Kelly and Ray entered our lives. They were real people, with a real connection to a very real Eddie. They had full lives beyond just their first parent roles, lives that were quite independent of us. As much as we cared for them, it felt odd to refer to them as "our birth parents" as if they belonged to Todd and me in some way. I didn't want to make them smaller.


On a practical tip, "our birth mom" really only works for families with a single adopted child or who adopted siblings. If I said to you, "We're going to see our birth mom next week," you wouldn't know if I meant Kelly or Beth.


Picture your child's first mom. Now imagine her calling you "my adoptive parents." Weird, right?


At the most basic level, they are not our birth parents. They did not create me or Todd. They are our son's birth parents. Our daughter's birth parents. We don't share them with Eddie and Mari. Nor do they share them with each other.

There is something worthy of recognition in that distinction. These are their families by birth and their links to their ancestral heritage. They are their connections to their personal origin stories, to the beginnings of their lives before Todd and I entered the scene. I believe appropriating them as my own family of origin (even symbolically--I know no adoptive parents really mean to say these are their actual birth parents) diminishes the unique relationship they have.


It's been pointed out to me before that people use "our" all the time in ways that aren't demeaning and don't imply ownership: "our accountant" or "our pastor" or "our senator." But all of those do involve relationships of obligation or even employment. They are "ours" because of what they do for us. There is enough imbalance in adoption triad power dynamics as it is without dragging in those overtones.


When people start talking in particularly inflammatory ways about the supposed scarcity of babies to adopt and the difficulty of finding a match, I start picturing frantic prospective adoptive parents shouting, "Get your own birth mom! This one is ours!"


Two summers ago, Eddie and I were killing time during during a car ride with a game. It combined two activities he enjoyed at the time: naming people in our extended family and pairing people up relationally. For instance, I'd say, "I love Grandma!" and he'd respond, "I love Grandpa!"

Enthralling, I know. But it kept the three-year old happy.

We had gone back and forth through all sort of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, when I got to, "I love Kelly!" Expecting, of course, to hear, "I love Ray!" in return.

Instead Eddie scrunched his face into a frown. "No!" he said immediately. "She's mine!"

His possessiveness over her in the car was surprising. I acknowledged that she was his very own, and it also led into a good discussion of how family can overlap, how Grandma and Grandpa are Daddy's parents and your grandparents, but they are also special to me and so on. But, thinking back later on his intense claim on her, I was very glad he had never heard me call her "our birth mom".


Logically, the only people who can talk about "our birth mother" are biological siblings who were placed for adoption. They do, indeed, share a first parent or two.


Someday my kids will grow up and their relationships with their first parents will be something separate from Todd and me. More often than not, their visits and chats won't include us. Would I still talk about them as "our birth parents" then? Somehow "our birth parents" seems to a part of the early childhood years, when--as with all their relationships--all their contact with their first families is solidly in our domain.


I live in the world of open domestic adoptions, which is where I hear "our birthmom" the most. I wonder, are we the only ones who do this?  Do adoptive parents of children born overseas or in closed adoptions talk about "our birthmom"? Or is this something we've created in our little open adoption corner, a place where these family relationships overlap? Where we're maybe more likely to be talking about our children's first parents with others, since they are an active, visible part of our lives?


An online friend introduced me to machatunim. Literally the Yiddish term for your married child's parents-in-law (so the relationship between my parents and Todd's parents--like consuegro in Spanish), it can also stand for the broader concept of "the family of my family."

In my gut I think when we adoptive parents say "our birth mom," we are fumbling for a way to describe machatunim. Most of the people I hear say it deeply respect and care for their children's first parents. Our words fall short of what our spirits want to convey: that this person, this family of my child, is family also to me. We are connected in a real and significant way.

The intent of our words is important, but the effect is more so. If only there were a machatunim equivalent in adoption. A single word  to describe who my children's first families are to me, one that doesn't carry the baggage of "our".


Sam said...

I prefer "first mom" over birth mom. I refer to him as my "first son" because he is, but I know that it would be weird if he was instead my second child. But, at the end of the day, the feelings and relationship are the important pieces, not the titles.

Regina said...

We struggled with this too. This is our son (now 8.5 years old). He has four parents. Two who created his marvelous mind and body, and two who guide him through life. All nurture him in their own way. How to describe that connection?

For us, 'what to call them' was solved by our son then 18 MO. When we showed yet again photos of R and J, and said 'birth mom' - to which he replied "Bema". "Good. Birth Mom." "Bema". "Birrrrth Mooom". "Beeeeemmaaa." (looking at me like I'm a class A moron). Well, that solved that. They are Bema and Beda. Their son gave them special, unique names, private but also specific to them.

Worked for all of us.

LeMira said...

This is a good reminder of how our adoption language needs to change as adoptive parents. My agency also uses the term "your birth mother," and I see my husband saying "our future birth mom," and it feels awkward to say or to here. It will take some practice changing it, but it will come. Thanks for the reminder!

LeMira said...

That word should be "hear," not "here." (How embarrassing!)

luna said...

I like the last one.

we've talked about this with K and her mom as we struggled to find appropriate terms to call each other that weren't so clumsy. at least with grandma, it is easy (my daughter's grandmother -- that hasn't changed). somewhere along this discussion we agreed that we were "kin."

Anonymous said...

I've never even thought of it before, but I don't use the word 'our' anyway. I've always used the term 'his' or 'your' as I'm talking to my son about his first mom. I would truly feel weird to have someone call her 'ours'.
Great post!

The Accidental Mommy said...

You're right, "our birth parents" sounds possessive, almost like you own them. Taking that concept to the next logical step would be an ugly one.

I LOVE the idea of "the family of our family". Of course that is likely to lead to a whole 'nuther series of questions and issues but it feels.... inclusive. I hope that makes sense.

Great post. Made me think!

Anonymous said...

As a 20-year high school English teacher, I know that parts of speech are extremely important, as are titles. I've always called Cricket's birth mom by her first name (T), and even though my daughter is not even yet 3, she knows intuitively who she is (we have an IMac slide show of her life book and she will see T this May for the first time as a toddler). I have trouble with "first mom" - would my daughter think that there will be a third and fourth mom/family? Also, to me, the word "adoption" is a noun (as in the process of) and not an adjective (as in "my adoptive daughter" or "adoptive mother"). Cricket is my daughter through the process of adoption and I am mom. I just blogged about this very topic yesterday...

Anonymous said...

(SORRY for the duplicate post!! I'm so new at this and don't know why it's coming out as anonymous.) As a 20-year high school English teacher, I know that parts of speech are extremely important, as are titles. I've always called Cricket's birth mom by her first name (T), and even though my daughter is not even yet 3, she knows intuitively who she is (we have an IMac slide show of her life book and she will see T this May for the first time as a toddler). I have trouble with "first mom" - would my daughter think that there will be a third and fourth mom/family? Also, to me, the word "adoption" is a noun (as in the process of) and not an adjective (as in "my adoptive daughter" or "adoptive mother"). Cricket is my daughter through the process of adoption and I am mom. I just blogged about this very topic yester

Unknown said...

sorry again; nevermore to be known as "anonymous"...

Anonymous said...

Noone asked this yet, and I'm sorry if I seem silly but...

Can you post the correct way to pronouce those neat-o Yiddish and spanish words??

It's just bugging me that I might be thinking them wrong...lol


Limbo Mama said...

Excellent post and reminder about the importance and power of words. Thanks again for your insight.

P said...

Well done, on all of it. I'm a birthmom, and my son's parents and I used to joke about the notion of them calling me "their" birthmom, as if I'd given birth to them! That would be kind of problematic, considering they are older than I am ;) It really annoys me when I read aparents talking about "our birthmom", but this post has given me a different perspective and I think I'll now be able to be more understanding. Thanks again, for terrific food for thought :)

Elly said...

The whole 'our birthparent' thing bugs me like crazy for the reasons you said. I also wish there were some better terms. I'd love a special name for DS to call his birthmom, maybe he'll think of something himself, like Regina's son, that'd be great!

Maru said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I'm a birthmother, but I am not my daughters parents birthmother, I am her birthmother. Her parents never referred to me as their birthmother.

As a birthmother, I sometimes struggle with the best way to refer to my daughter. Really, she is someone else's daughter, not mine. Why isn't there a term birthmothers use for their children they placed with an adoptive family?

Lisa said...

I struggle with this too. My daughter knows her birthmother by her first name, but she's only 3 and doesn't yet know what it all means. I prefer birthmother over first mother because it's more descriptive, and first mother make me think of "first wife", like the kid divorced the first mother to get a new one. And I don't like that connotation. But "birthmother" is an imperfect term. It's hard to describe the unique relationship going on there, in an open adoption.

Megan said...

We never referred to our daughter's birthparents as "our birthparents." We didn't decide not to use that phrase. Rather it was more that it rubs me the wrong way to say it and doesn't feel right rolling off my tongue. If you use it that way before birth, it's rather like forcing an obligation to place the child with you. If you say it after, it's condescending, not to mention inaccurate.

I also don't like the term "first mom." I tried it on for a while, but in the end, it reminds of first wife/ second wife. I suppose I'm also comfortable with the term birthmother because I never had any negative association with the term "birthmother" growing up. I now realize how many people DO have negative opinions of birthparents, but it honestly never crossed my mind that birthparents were anything but good people in really difficult positions making an excruciating choice. So, for me, birthmother is simply a term describing a woman who has placed a child for adoption with no other baggage attached. To be clear, if my daughter's birthmother wanted me to use the term "first mom" I certainly honor that request.

Heather said...

@Cindy - To say 'consuegro' think of it like the name Consuela, but with "grow" at the end. Consuegra is the feminine version.

I speak absolutely no Yiddish but the Internetz say you pronounce 'machatunim' as mach-ah-TOO-nim, with a guttural 'ch'. 'Machatunim' is plural; I'm afraid I don't know the singulars.

Hopefully I haven't flubbed those too badly!

DrSpouse said...

I'd really appreciate some advice on how to handle this issue with our agency... over at my blog...

harriet glynn said...

I've always referred to Theo's birthmom as his birthmother. While we have an important relationship, I don't want to take ownership of her and it's simply gramatically incorrect -bah! For the most part, we use her actual name but explaining to others and not revealing her name, we say "his birthmother."

cynthia said...

You have such an articulate and gentle way of explaining things, Heather. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I love this - the family of my family is a great way to think of this sort of relationship.

Unknown said...

Love your post.

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SustainableFamilies said...

I really liked this post Heather. While I don't melt and turn into a pile of goo if I hear the word "birth mother" I do find it interesting that you use birthmother throughout in a post talking about the meaning of the words we use. Is there a particular reason you use birthparent even though a large portion of first parents feel hurt by that terminology?

I do understand that first parent and natural parent and original parent don't seem to feel perfect either. I think the shift away from "birth" terminology is more about claiming an identity by firstmoms themselves and defining themselves outside of what adoption "experts" define them as.

So it's more about signifying a shift in thinking about who a first mother is, than it is about the word "birthparent" itself being harmful.

Do you use birthparent because it's easier for your audience, or is there another reason that you choose it? My daughter calls me her birthmother and of course I'm not about to correct her. But she also calls me mom sometimes too. It's totally up to her whatever she's comfortable with, but of course if her momma didn't call me birthmom that wouldn't be a term she would use.

I don't know, just sharing random thoughts. : )

Heather said...

@Sustainable Families - It's a fair question. This post was way more "birth parent" heavy than my usual writing and I was uncomfortably conscious of that.

1. I wanted to write specifically about adoptive parents' use of "our" when talking about their kids' first parents. I don't know that I've ever personally heard someone say "our first mom"--it's always "our birth mom". Switching to "first parent" throughout (which is what I naturally did in earlier drafts) just wasn't making the point I wanted to make.

I hoped people might think about that "our" so many of us APs do use/have used. I think that tackling the "birth mom" part at the same time would have meant what I wanted to say about "our" getting lost in the much more emotional topic of first/birth/natural/etc. So, to answer your question, it had to do both with the intended audience and the specific point I was trying to make.

Whether the trade-off was worth it in the end is hard to answer, I suppose.

2. More generally speaking, the kids' three first parents we're in the most regular contact with use "birth parent" to describe themselves, Eddie uses it on occasion (Mari isn't labeling much yet), and we use it in our home along with "first dad," "other mom," etc. (Eddie lately has taken to simply calling them "my Ray" and "my Kelly.") So I do use "birth-" sometimes in my writing, because it's part of our family's vocabulary and I write about my family's life.

I wrote about the adoption language I use a couple of years ago and I'd write more or less the same things now.

I really am sorry if the post came across as dismissive of the important criticisms many first parents have of the "birth-" prefix. It is hard to find that balancing point sometimes with language.

Lori Lavender Luz said...

I love the new terms you've introduced me to here: consuergro/a and machatunim.

My language continues to evolve. I swayed toward first parents for awhile. But then someone pointed out that "first" could imply a second, and a third, and impermanence. So I still use it intermixed with birth parent.

An excellent Creme post.

a Tonggu Momma said...

I remember loving this post when I first read it - the only reason I didn't link it was because it's not commonly an issue among the China-adoptive community. But only because of the nature of China-adoptions.

I read a blog just yesterday that used the term "our birthmother" and immediately thought, "Heather wrote about this."

An Older Version said...

Hmm. Something I hadn't given much thought. If I had adopted, It would feel odd to refer to my child's birth mother as our's.
In my own family, I refer to my adoptive father as regular dad and my "birth father" as bio dad.
I imagine it would be awkward in the open adoption community. I am uncomfortable with the terms.

(from the creme)

Mr. Thompson and Me said...

Never thought of this before but it all makes perfect sense. Thanks for the insight. (visiting from Creme)

gailcanoe said...

Thanks for writing. I'm from the Creme.

Esperanza said...

I really appreciated the insight you provided for this delicate topic; it was very heartfelt and incredibly well written post. As a foreign language teacher I do believe in the power of words and their connotation - I think it is worth the effort you're obviously putting into this topic to figure out the best way to name the relationships you all have with each other. I did not build my family through adoption but I have two close friends who are currently doing so. Their adoptions are not open so I have not heard them refer to the birthmothers at all, so this is the first time I've come across this conundrum. I think what you're saying makes sense and your reasons are eloquent. Thank you for sharing this.

Creme de la Creme #125
Creme de la Creme Iron Clad Commenter Attempt 2010

Grace said...

We have been fostering our son for over a year. He'll be about three and a half when we expect to adopt him and his sister.

Until the end of 2010 we fully expected that kiddo would be reunified with his father. Kiddo has always called us by our first names. His father, who he saw (until recently) on a very regular basis, was called "Daddy". His mother, was called "Mama".

Kiddo is old enough to choose what he would like to call my partner and me when we become his permanent parents. We'll respect his choices and probably use his names for us with his sister as well.

But I have absolutely no idea what to call his first parents. His Daddy was a huge part of his life. I feel like calling him something new might be a dishonor to kiddo's relationship with him. On the other hand, "Daddy" is a role this man will never play in kiddo's life again. I don't object to his being a part of kiddo's and baby sister's lives, but he won't be their daddy anymore.

You've given me an enormous amount to think about.

Creme #176


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