30 January 2006

Some Thoughts on Adoption, Language, and Birth/Natural/Unmodified Mothers

I've been blogging in my head about adoption for weeks now, and I have about a zillion topics floating around. I can't quite make this post as refined as I'd like it to be, and I've finally decided just to hit "publish" and see what anybody thinks. Maybe that will help me figure out where to go with some of these themes.

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.


jo(e) said...


Moxie said...

Good post. I commented on that post of Kateri's that the irritation that commenter felt meant that she was learning. I remember when I started reading IF blogs (two people close to me were going through IF and ART and I wanted to know what they were going through the be a true friend) I was so hurt by some of the things these women wrote about. It was so important for me to swallow my feelings and urge to lash out and just keep reading, keep reading, keep reading. Eventually it all sorted itself out in my heart and then a few weeks later in my headd.

I feel like the internet is at that same point of painful tension about adoption right now. I'm hoping we (I include myself even though I'm not part of an adoptive relationship. yet?) can hang in there and keep writing and reading reading reading. I think this post of yours should be required reading.

M. said...

Beautifully written. Thank you.

FauxClaud said...

You got it..thank you.

kim.kim said...

What a lovely post. I don't like the word birthmother either, I prefer natural mother or just other mother. What a lovely and intelligent post, thank you so very much.

Wraiths said...

wow, great post.

Heartened said...

Wondeful post!

susan said...

Wow...lots of comments popped up here while I was at work today. Welcome, everyone: I'm glad you're reading, and leaving a comment.

Moxie, your comment makes me think about a bunch more topics worth writing about, too.

Arwen said...

When we met my bio-sister how to refer to each other did come up a fair amount. I understand an amount of defensiveness on the part of the family - it seems pretty clear to us that they provided the post-partum nurture and are therefore her "real" family. We're more like - removed cousins, or something.

That doesn't invalidate that my mom has a deep and different connection to her process of being pregnant and choosing to gestate and give up my bio-sis. That was a big and emotionally charged series of actions, which affected my mom a lot. In the end, I think, Mom wanted to do the counting of fingers and toes. Make sure that her baby/the baby grew up okay, and help if she needed help.

The nature thing sure is interesting, though. Bio-sis is much like my mom in looks - but what threw us was the gestures. That's really interesting: the body you have causes you to hold it in certain ways? Anyway, there definitely is a genetic connection that runs deeper than how you look; but I think it's really the kids who decide how important that is to them. After all, a person may have gotten from their bio-family things like brown hair or a tendency to be left-handed and like maths; but there are lots of kids who have those traits in the world who aren't related.

Cookie said...

Ah, yes, I see where you offered the link to us. Thanks! Good post too!

And thanks for stopping by my blog!

magicpointeshoes said...

Lovely post! You are more than welcome to join in my adoption/birthmother posting at my livejournal. Unfortunately because of the delicate nature of family eyes reading my blog, I can't post publicly... but if you have a livejournal account to log on with, then I can add you in to the protected posts.

Email me if you want further info. magicpointeshoe@gmail.com

afrindiemum said...

yes, ditto.

N said...

A true example of what parenting SHOUlD be--a willingness to listen and learn, so that our kids are free to choose their own beliefs and feelings.

Thanks for this.

speakingformyself said...

Yes!! Thank you, Thank you! I think several of us blogging moms should write a book together

Lisa V said...

This is a wonderful, insightful post. I have two children through very open adoptions. My daughter is 14, and my son is almost 4.

I just commented on this topic over at This Woman's Work-
Noelle is my daughter's other mother. She refers to herself as a birth mom. My daughter is fine with the term- it quickly explains their relationship to others who don't know of the adoption. In our life, she is Noelle.

I don't care if Noelle is refered to as natural, life, birth, biological, first or just plain mother. It just doesn't bother me, I am secure in my relationship to my child. Noelle's title doesn't negate mine. After all I have two grandma's, and it didn't seem to confuse me or demean one relationship over the other. However adoptive mom and birth mom quickly explain the relationships to
the outside world. Most people know what the phrases mean. So that is why we continue to use it, all of us are comfortable with it.

My daughter is bothered by "real mom" to describe either Noelle or myself. She thinks it means someone doesn't understand how adoption works. I think it's problematic because I consider both of us her "real mom" with equally important, yet different "real" roles.

halloweenlover said...

Beautiful post, Susan.