(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".