As I indicated in my 10 by 10 on adoption, I think about Curious Girl's birth parents all the time. I think about adoption all the time. And I've been pleased, if sometimes discomfited, by the number of birthmother bloggers and commenters who've been adding their voices online of late. It can be hard for all members of the "adoption triad" to read each others words: adoptive parents don't always like what adult adoptees have to say about their childhoods or their a-parents' attitudes about adoption; birth parents don't always like what a-parents have to say about adoption. There are lots of issues that make people uncomfortable, and language is central to all of it.
Positive adoption language has been developed to assuage some of this discomfort, but listening to adoptees and birth mothers write about their experiences, I've realized that the positive adoption language movement is mostly about framing things from the adoptive parents' point of view. Don't get me wrong: as someone who chose adoption as a way to build a family, I'm heavily invested in language choices that normalize adoption, that make clear that families are ultimately born of love, not biology. But I'm also heavily invested in encouraging conversation about the way adoptive parenting requires us to confront the ways in which families bring together people. Flawed, loveable, mysterious people who are capable of feeling a full range of human emotions. And adoption joins adoptive parents and birth parents, even in closed adoptions. While we don't have contact with CG's birth parents, they are present in our home. Her smile, her big brown eyes, her gait, her smile: somewhere, there are people who share those characteristics. Maybe they are thinking about CG. Maybe they are not. But I think about them, and I think about Curious Girl, and how I want CG to grow up free to explore her feelings about adoption and her past.
Positive adoption language advocates are very down on the phrase "real parent" and "natural parent," arguing that the former term dismisses the day-to-day work of (adoptive) parenting and the latter term suggests that adoptive parenting is unnatural. Adoptive parent blogs and listservs usually have a fair bit of discussion over how to respond to the rude question "do you know anything about his real parents?" Over time, I've gotten less irritated by that phrasing--I will usually use another term in my response to the question ("CG's birth parents... or CG's biological parents...") but sometimes these days I don't even call attention to that. After all, CG's birth parents are real, too. And they will remain real all her life, and it will be up to her to craft her own relationship to them (maybe in real life, there is a small chance of that, but probably mostly in her mind and heart). I owe it to CG to keep her birth parents as real as possible for her. She needs to find her own peace with her past and her lifestory, and we help her do that by making room in our lives for the very real presence of her past and her first family.
The birthmother blogring highlights the growing number of birthmother bloggers (note to the best-of-web award category makers: the adoption/infertility category is really poorly defined: not every adoptive family approaches adoption after infertility and not all adoption blogs are written by adoptive parents). If you surf the blogring you'll quickly see that birthmother is not a welcome term, and natural mother is frequently used. Kateri, at
Wet Feet wrote a wonderful post:
I have been thinking about the term 'birthmother'. I've always been uneasy with it. Like Cookie says, 'it sounds too much like some kind of a mysterious entity, not a mother of any kind, but, a 'babymaker'. ' I use it more for clarity's sake, it's a word that most people know (I don't think anyone outside of the adoption world knows what a 'lifemother' is). I sit with it because there don't seem to be any clear, simple alternatives to distinguish what kind of mother I am. 'Birthmother' doesn't make me feel like a mother. It makes me feel like a throwaway."
An adoptive parent commented on that post, noting that Kateri's post "irritated" her, and it got me thinking that so often adoptive parents get upset at negative emotions discussed by either birth parents or adoptees (leaving aside the issue that it probably isn't reasonable to get irritated by a viewpoint someone you don't know has written about in their own blog). When I teach argumentative writing, I teach reason and structure (Toulmin, anyone?) and coming to conclusions in the midst of competing views. But in real life, sometimes you need to listen, and just live with something that seems hard. And so that's what I've been doing with the birth mothers--the natural mothers--views on the terms they find useful, not useful, hurtful, meaningful. I still use birthmother--in part because it's such a dominant term in the discourse. But I am a better mother to Curious Girl for having listened to people like Kateri or Cookie tell their experiences. Knowing more about the connections that some birth mothers feel to the children they bore and placed for adoption only helps me think about mothering more fully. It doesn't threaten my relationship with CG.
I love my daughter passionately and unreservedly. But mixed with the immense joy she brings to my life is an awareness of profound sadness. She is my beautiful girl because someone else's life was not set up to permit her to parent a baby. She is my beautiful girl because widespread social disruption makes it impossible for the country of her birth to take care of all its children. She is my beautiful girl because she moved away from her first language, culture, and heritage. And it's my job to give her the emotional tools to come to terms with that loss. And, of course, to come to terms with the general happiness and goofiness of regular life around here. The point is, it's all CG's story, and I want her to move in and out of any possible feelings as she wants or needs to. I don't know whether she's going to have a burning desire to locate the family she was born into, or whether she'll say "I know I'm adopted, and I'm happy." Whatever she wants is fine with me--but I want her to make her own choices amidst her own feelings. That's what's really natural.
So I purposefully seek out adoption discourse that I'm not entirely comfortable with, precisely to help myself become the parent Curious Girl needs me to be. And I wish it were possible for more birth parents, adoptive parents, and adult adoptees to simply listen to each others' experiences, no matter how hard that can be at first, so that we can all find ways to make the experience of growing up adopted better for the children. As lots of people have been saying, open adoption is a great step in that direction. But even in closed adoptions, there's plenty of work, and plenty of listening to be done.