“Birthmothers” as Incubators

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(Originally posted as a page on Facebook, I wanted to share it with my blog readers here as well.)

Before the term ‘birthmother” was coined, a mother who had given birth to a child was called that child’s natural mother. It was accepted that the mother was a mother by the laws of nature. The myth that adoption was any sort of “ancient” or “natural” act was not as prevalent as today. The truth, that child adoption is a modern legal convention invented in 1851, was not hidden or forgotten. It was accepted that mothers who had lost children to adoption still had an emotional, familial, and social connection to that child and there was no attempt to hide this fact.

The term ‘birthmother” is part of the “Respectful Adoption Language’ terminology set that was invented by the adoption industry in the mid 1970s. It may have been “coined” in 1956 by adoptive parent and adoption promoter Pearl S. Buck, but it was further developed and formally defined by adoptive parent and baby broker Marietta Spencer with the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota. And its meaning is clear: that we are no longer mothers (emotionally, socially, or legally) to the children we surrendered for adoption. That the sole parent and mother of our lost child is the woman who adopted our baby.

Spencer (1979) defines a birth parent as being a “non-parent” by use of  numerous examples in her article which validate the sole parenthood of adoptive parents after the adoption of a child, implying that no emotional or familial connection remains between members of the pre-existing family.

“For biological parents, a clear semantic separation … may be helpful in grasping the important fact that their child will no longer be occupying a role of family membership in the kinship group … appropriate language stresses the severance of both moral and legal obligations and emphasizes that there can be no social or emotional role expectations” (Spencer, 1979, p. 456)

Spencer (1980) goes on to state,

“An adoptive mother becomes the child’s parent through the transfer of parental rights.  Although she can never become the child’s birth or biological parent, socially, functionally, and finally she does the permanent mothering of the child.  In terms of the time continuum, she is the successor to the biological mother (p. 27).

Granting sole motherhood to the adoptive mother as the child’s only female parent (in the case of opposite-sex parents adopting)  eliminates the original mother from any claim, either singular or joint, to this title.

Those who raise and nurture a child are his parents:  his mother, father…” (Johnston, 2004)

So there is a “role expectation” placed upon us by the adoption agencies, adoption lawyers and other baby brokers (businesses and agencies that provide babies to prospective adopters for a price). No grief, no pain, no loss — nothing “lasting” anyway. Adoption loss as a one-time event, not a traumatic loss that continues on and on for the entire life of the mother and child.

Being “birthmothers,” we’re not supposed to have any feelings for, or emotional connection with, the children whom we lost to adoption.

“… those women who gave into the pressures suffer in a way the others will (mercifully) never know. For the saddest and most horrifying aspect of adoption is the amount of emotional damage inflicted upon the natural mother. To call her the ‘birth mother’ instead of the ‘natural mother’ allows her only the physical birth and denies her those feelings she wasn’t supposed to have.” — Death by Adoption, Joss Shawyer, Cicada Press (1979), page 62.

I always loved the son I was forced to surrender for adoption. I never wanted to lose him. I never “chose” the adoption “option” because I was given no chance of choosing — to have such a choice, a mother needs to recover from birth first with her baby PLUS have access to the resources she requires in order to raise her baby in a safe, secure, and healthy environment (which is her basic human right). If I were to call myself a “birthmother,” I would be denying that I had any feelings for him after his birth. I would be denying that we are related as family. I would be diminishing my role in his life to being only that of a willing gestator. In fact, Spencer also provides the terms “gestational parent,” “prenatal parent,” and “biological stranger” as synonyms for the term ‘birthmother.”

Am I a “birthmother”? No, because I am still a mother to the son I lost to adoption. It’s as simple as that.


  • Johnston, P. I. (2004).  Speaking positively: Using respectful adoption language.  Indianapolis, IN:  Perspectives Press.
  • Spencer, M. (1979). The terminology of adoption. Child Welfare, 58(7), 451-459.
  • Spencer, M. (1980).  Understanding adoption as a family building option. Boulder, CO:  Adoption Builds Families.

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9 thoughts on ““Birthmothers” as Incubators

    unicorn said:
    July 12, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    When I reunited with my son, I said he could call me anything but birthmother, He said ok and called me by my first name. I said that if it made him more comfortable with others, he could call me a friend.

    Several months later, while we were looking at a tall ship together, someone started chatting with my son, discussing things nautical. My son, without prompting or hesitation, introduced me as his mother. I was pleasantly surprised – it was so unexpected.

    When we were left alone again, I asked him about it as he had always said that I was his friend or friend of the family before that.

    He said that he had given it a lot of thought.
    He decided that he had 2 mothers and that I should be introduced as such. He thought that I deserved that respect. How sweet of him.

    Myst1998 said:
    July 15, 2009 at 1:29 am

    Brilliant post Cedar… and so true. I hate, detest that stupid term… it makes no sense anyway. ANd then there are those stupid terms of ‘birth’ son/daughter which are completely ludicrous… as if a son or daughter could be anything else! By the laws of nature, one becomes a son or daughter when they are born. Just in the same way a woman becomes a mother once she is born. Nature doesn’t discriminate; Nature doesn’t see age, personality, circumstances etc… it just works on the very basic laws of Nature itself. Its humans that interefere with all the dicriminating etc. Leave it to a man/woman to change things to better themselves… even if it does mean going against the very thread of Nature herself.

    Yes, this term was created by adopters FOR adopters to help themselves feel better about parenting/taking/adopting another MOTHER’S child.

    Thanks Cedar. Great post!

    osolomama said:
    August 30, 2009 at 3:41 am

    a-mom here and I think the term is awful. I use mostly first mother or *original mother*, which I notice few people using, but which I quite love (or original parents). It has so much meaning in the word–origin, etc.

    arlineHunter said:
    March 23, 2011 at 1:49 am

    My SW that found my son through CHS agency kept calling me a birthmother saying I di a selfless thing by giving my baby up,I was forced to surrender him in high duress,husband snapped,left me to have baby alone but with no money,he had it.If he had stolen my savings I wouln’t be writing this period.My son was taken from me ,knowing the SW knew he was planned never offered help,friends or family at time ,they made sure with their trickery to get my baby.Forced me to sign papers right after they were carrying my baby off,my mind wasn’t focused on any papers ,only him.There is a law with defendents if they were proven under duress that the judge would dismiss case

    Rosamund Brawn Robbins-Cherry said:
    June 16, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I am 5 years into reunion. Right at the start my son asked if he could call me ‘mum’. I was amazed and delighted. But now he has decided I am not his mother. The only term he wants to use is ‘birth mother’ and I have explained why that is not acceptable. So we are now in the uncomfortable position of not calling each other anything, to the point where neither signs emails etc. at all. He has made it clear that he sees my role as minor and his adopter’s role as major. Yet, strangely, he is moe than happy to refer to me as the grandmother of his three children.

      Adoption Critic responded:
      June 16, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      Hi Rosamund, it sounds like both of you should sit down and talk — find out *why* he has come to this conclusion, and provide information to him that disproves his assumptions. For example: some adoptive parents feel that as “they” were the ones “changing the diapers,” they deserve the title of “mother” and “mom.” By that logic, many nannies, babysitters, and daycare workers should be called “Mom.” The woman who adopted my son had a nanny raise him, he tells me, while she went back to work almost immediately after obtaining him, to her high-paying/long-hours college professor position. Plus, we would have given ANYTHING to have changed their diapers and nurtured them every day. I would have died for the chance! So, they “won the lottery.” The other argument is that our only role was to give birth — but we KNOW we have feelings and emotions and mother-love. A “birthmother” is nothing more than an incubator who has NO love or feelings for her child. That is the definition, plain and simple. That’s what the word was defined to mean. So, if we love our child as their mother, we are not a “birthmother’ because we are more than a set of reproductive organs. Good luck with your relationship with your son. I hope it improves.

      Adoption Critic responded:
      June 16, 2011 at 2:16 pm

      You may also want to point out to him that if you are a “birthmother” then he is a “product of conception” or a “birth-product” but is not your son, because again, there is NO continuing connection or family relationship if the term “birthmother” is used.

      Joyce Ramer said:
      May 5, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      Sounds to me like my situation; the adopters bullied and manipulated my Daughter to change speaking about her 2 Mothers to reducing me to no contact. We had a fabulous Reunion & on going relationship for approx. 7 years. At my Daughter’s Ph.D. Graduation, the bad attitude started showing; it just became worse at her wedding and once my Grandson was born…..wamb! I feel for my Daughter as she was being torn in two by the adopter’s jealousy, insecurity, resentment, etc. In the beginning, the adopter acted very supportive & friendly but I guess, she thought the novelty would wear off and I would go away real soon. Huh! She even stooped to lying to our Daughter which I caught her in doing. I. now, am very angry with her and have cut off all communication with her and their extended family.

    jgvansickle said:
    May 4, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    I never refer to my mother as BM, and I will not even spell it. Its a very condesending term, might as well use “Breeder” – not much recent activity here but very interesting blog

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