The Language of Adoption
“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” Desmond Tutu
The term “birthmother” was created by adoption professionals to reduce a natural mother to that of a biological function. This term marginalizes mothers and creates a role for them in society which separates them from their lived experience. The use of this term implies that the sacred mother-child bond ends at birth and that the natural mother is secondary to adoptive parents and other mothers in society.
The earliest recorded use of the terms “birthmother” and “birth parents” are in articles written by adoptive parent Pearl S. Buck in 1955, 1956, and 1972. They were further used in articles published between 1974 and 1976 by adoption workers Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor and social work professor Arthur Sorosky (Origins Canada, 2011).
Prior to the use of the term “birthmother,” mothers of adoption separation were “natural mothers”. Most provinces in Canada still use this terminology in their adoption laws. Adoptive parents were uncomfortable with the term natural mother as it was felt it made them unnatural. “We use the term “birth family” instead of using “natural parent” as this implies that there is something unnatural about adoption.” (Snodden, 2009). The term natural mother was also challenged as “it recognized that the sacred mother-child relationship extended past birth and even past surrender” and “it indicated respect for the mother’s true relationship with her child” (Turski, 2002).
For the adoption myth to work effectively, adoption and adoptive mothers could not be perceived as unnatural. Adoptive parents were promised that the child would be “as if born to” and that “no one will ever come for the child.” The secrecy of closed adoption records was for the benefit of adoptive parents, not for the benefit of natural mothers as governments protecting closed records would later attest. Calling a natural mother by her true name was intimidating and threatening to adoptive parents. The “natural mother” had to be destroyed. Adoption reformer Dian Wellfare explains, “Adoption practice works on the premise that, in order to save the child, one must first destroy its mother.” (Wellfare, 1998)
The work of Marietta Spencer, a social worker at the Children’s Home of Minnesota St. Paul and co-director of the Adoption Builds Families Project, became the model for the adoption language in use today. Her work strongly supported the use of the adjective “birth” for mothers, fathers, sisters, and any other relatives of a child who was being adopted. These terms were meant to assign the mother’s relationship with her child to that of simply giving birth, relegating her role to that of a biological event. In Marietta Spencer’s work, she applauds any term that implies only a biological tie, such as birth mother or bio-mother. In addition, it was suggested by Marietta Spencer that the term birth mother or “the women who gave birth to you” was useful in explaining birth to a young adopted child; and in so doing became part of the psychological warfare used on children to further separate and break the sacred mother-child bond.
The adoption industry embraced the birth terms calling them “Respectful Adoption Language” (RAL), although they were hardly respectful to natural families, and in particular natural mothers.
This new language not only psychologically destroyed the existence of the natural mother, but also became a tool in the arsenal of the adoption industry for use on pregnant youth and women for coercion. By labelling a pregnant woman a “birthmother” BEFORE birth, the adoption industry had a new, powerful weapon in hand.
While pregnant, a woman given this label is instantly drawn into coercion and given a psychological role to fulfill by the adoption industry. A pregnant woman is not a “birthmother,” but simply a pregnant woman. However, once labelled a “birthmother,” the natural progression of her pregnancy is impeded. She is psychologically groomed not to bond with her child, but instead to produce her child for someone else. She is caught up in a kind of reproductive exploitation. Having a mother choose adopters and bond with them prior to birth is common adoption practice. Mothers begin to think of themselves as “birthmothers” BEFORE they are aware of the powerful transformative powers of birth; BEFORE they hold their babies in their arms; BEFORE they are fully aware of the love they will bear their newborn infant. By then it is too late, as the adopters are in the hospital waiting for “their baby” and the mother feels pressured and obligated to complete her assignment. “The only thing I was ever told was that it was best to begin separating now… To think of myself as a birthmother rather than a mother.” (Heather Lowe, natural mother, quoted by Axness, 2001)
A lucrative satellite industry has grown from the term “birthmother.” This industry promotes “Birthmother Packages” (offering everything from all expense paid trips to designer maternity wear), “birthmother” jewellery,” birthmother” stationery, “birthmother” gifts, and more. Marketing firms aid prospective parents in drafting “Dear Birthmother Letters” designed to be the one to catch the attention of a vulnerable pregnant woman in a sea of desperate infertile couples. If lucky enough to catch one, she is referred to as “our birthmother” similar to their car or other chattel.
The celebration of Mother’s Day was created to honour mothers. For mothers of adoption separation, Mother’s Day is rightfully and equally their day to reflect upon, celebrate and acknowledge their motherhood as they choose to do; they stand equally with all other mothers on that day. In contrast, “Birthmothers Day” was created to marginalize natural mothers, and to perpetuate the message that mothers separated from their children by adoption are not considered to be mothers. Separate social celebrations called “Mother’s Day” and “Birthmother’s Day” perpetuate the marginalization of natural mothers and undermine their position in society. This blatant separation of mothers is often embraced by young, unsuspecting mothers who may not fully understand the implications of their complicity.
The “birth terms” comprise part of the insidious psychological coercion which continues in the modern world and are derived to break the bond between mother and child. A mother cannot be a mother and a “birthmother” at the same time. This term keeps her separate and apart, in her separate sphere. The use of this term is synonymous with past practices such as preventing eye contact between mothers and babies in delivery rooms, sealing original birth certificates, and changing the identity of children.
The term “birthmother” which is widely used by media, governments, and even by mothers themselves, is similar to many other words which we do not use in society today. The difference is that groups have rallied together and fought against inappropriate terms applied to them by society, and have had new terms applied to their status which are acceptable to them.
For example, terms such as African American, disabled, challenged, Little People, and First Nations are terms which have replaced others that were felt to be inappropriate, degrading, and disparaging for those groups. Society has responded appropriately to various groups when they have insisted they be identified differently. Groups and individuals in society should have self determination with respect to any term applied to them.
Once we understand how and why the term birthmother was coined, how it is used today to coerce women before birth, and how it is used to marginalize women after birth, it becomes impossible for us as a group to embrace this term in any way. This is not a term that we created for ourselves, but is a term that was created for us by the adoption industry to further break our bond with our children; to remove us, and relegate us to the sidelines of their lives. We are mothers. We are simply mothers… and if differentiation is required, we are natural mothers.
Even though we may be separated from our children by adoption, our motherhood remains. It is time to abolish the “birth terms” in our modern vocabulary.
- Axness, M. (2001). When Does Adoption Begin? . The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.
- Origins Canada. (2011). The Development of “Birth Terms” to Refer to the Natural Mothers of Adoptees (1955 to 1979). Download PDF.
- Snodden, Catherine, Communications Coordinator, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, 2009.
- Spencer, M. (1979). The terminology of adoption. Child Welfare, 58(7), 451-459.
- Turski, D. (2002). Why “Birthmother” Means “Breeder” . Mothers Exploited By Adoption.
- Wellfare, D. (1998). A Sanctioned Evil. Submission to the NSW Australia Parliamentary Inquiry into Past Adoption Practices.
Copyright © Valerie Andrews 2011