adoption language

Always a(n adopted) child?

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I was thinking about this issue this morning, and it occurred to me that there may be an analogy to the demand by the adoption industry and its supporters — but others as well including even many adoption-reform organizations — that natural mothers must accept the title (and status) of being nothing more than incubators (a.k.a. “birthmothers).

That analogy would be if everyone who is adopted must always live be referred to as an “adopted child” or “adopted baby” or “infant who was adopted” and may never call themselves an “adoptee” or adopted person” or “adopted adult.”  That they will always be perpetual children and be called that, no matter what their personal preference.

Some adoptees of course may be okay with being called a ‘baby” or “child” for the rest of their lives, finding it “endearing” or “special” — the same way that some CUB members I have spoken to say that ‘birthmother” is “endearing” or “special.”  Some mothers may insist that calling the child they lost to adoption “their baby” all his/her life is “endearing” and want to call all adopted persons “babies” — the same as some adoptees say that the term “birth mother’ is a special and endearing term for their own natural mother and want to call the rest of us that as well.

We know that the adoption industry and its customers want to treat adoptees as if they were children with no power and no voice. WE also know that this same people and its customers want to designated all natural mothers as being nothing more than breeders with no power and no voice.  But adopted persons do not want to be classified as perpetual infants and natural mothers do not want to be classified as being breeders.

Some adopted persons have protested about being called “babies” in online support groups.   I understand their point of view entirely,  and I would never belittle an adopted person this way.  I did not reunite with my “baby.”   I reunited with my adult son.  Society in general, and anyone who personally knows an adopted person, must cease treating  adult adoptees as if they were still children.

So, my thoughts on this are that just as adult adopted persons are not perpetual children or babies, never to grow up; natural mothers are not “birth-mothers,” never to be considered to be mothers.  We all deserve some mutual respect.


A Natural Mother

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As most of my regular readers know, I refer to myself as a mother, or in relation to adoption, as being the natural mother of an adoptee (or natural mother, for short).   I reject the term “birthmother” to refer to myself, and “Birthmothers as Incubators,” explains the reason for this in more detail.

But the term natural mother may not be one which is familiar to you.  Let me explain a bit about it.

What is the origin of the term natural mother? Before the term birthmother was invented, the term natural mother was used throughout adoption-related literature. It was in the first modern child adoption law (Massachusetts, 1851) and is still in the laws of several states including California, Florida, Virginia, and Texas.

Some say the term natural parent means that the adoptive parents must therefore be unnatural.  I call this “playing the opposites game.”  By this reasoning, the opposite of birth parent is death parent.   Obviously, forming a false black and white dichotomy is no reason to reject the term “natural mother.”  (That is, unless you have adopted a child and really do enjoy being called a “death parent”… )

Instead, more accurately, the adjective “socially-created” contrasts with  “natural.”  Calling someone a natural mother refers to motherhood by the laws of Nature, while the adoptive mother is a mother by the modern legal and social process of child adoption.  It respects the reality that legal child adoption did not exist prior to 1851 (see “Why Adoption Is How it Is”).

Choosing to use the term natural mother to describe one’s self is a way of saying, “I am a mother, too. I never ceased having a mother’s love for my lost child.”  In using the term natural mother for her instead of birthmother, others are saying to her, “I respect you as a mother; you are not an incubator.”

Reclaiming the term natural mother—honouring ourselves and each other as being mothers and refusing to be defined/dehumanized as being walking incubators—is an empowering way to reclaim our dignity, pride, and humanity. And as Wade (1997, pp. 23-24) states, “resistance to violence and oppression is both a symptom of health and health-inducing.”


  • Wade, Allan. 1997.  ”Small Acts of Living: Everyday Resistance to Violence and Other Forms of Oppression ”  Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy 19:23–40. doi: 10.1023/A:1026154215299

The Power of Words … and an Adoptee Rights Petition

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Sometimes my blog posts are inspired by conversations which occur on message boards, and this is one of them.  So, it is very possible that you have read the original conversation where this took place, and if so, then I apologize for the repetition.

This came from an online conversation about a recent “birthmother petition,” where an organization is requesting the signatures of natural mothers to support adoptee-rights.  Now, I believe wholeheartedly in open records, and that EVERYONE has the right to their original birth records, their family history, and the right to make contact with their lost family members if they choose (this means both ways!) … BUT, I also do not believe that it is the right thing to do to objectify a group of people in order to further the rights of a separate group, at the expense of the first.

So, in this conversation about this petition, several natural mothers such as myself stated that we would not be signing it.  Not that we do not support adoptee rights (we wholeheartedly DO! and the women discussing this have spent years of their lives actively working for open records), but because: (1)  being mothers still, we are not “birthmothers;” (2) we find it offensive, dehumanizing, and objectifying to be defined and labelled as “incubators;” and (3) we feel that the organization which sponsored this petition could just as easily have used the term which respects us:  “natural mother.” Even if it used both terms, that at least would show respect for all of us, those natural mothers who respect themselves as being mothers, and those who accept the adoption industry’s statement that we are no longer mothers.

So, this is my response to the person who defended the use of the term “birth mother” in the petition.   I sincerely respect her an an open records advocate, but I do feel that even if she does not feel that her own natural mother is a mother to her, that is her personal choice in her life, but it does not mean that this can be generalized to cover other mothers-of-adoption-loss without our consent.  And I do not give consent to be dehumanized.

” I am sorry to hear, xxxxxx, that your natural mother is nothing more than an incubator to you (yes, this is what she is reduced to if your adoptive mother is awarded the status of being your sole mother, it means that her only relevance/action as a mother in you life was to gestate and push you out), but the word dehumanizes and objectifies women as being nothing more than convenient uteri. Legislators also recognize and understand the term natural mother. They have for ages, as much currently-in-effect state and provincial legislation still uses that term.

”  I disagree with you that it is necessary to use this term with politicians. I have been involved in open records campaigns in 3 provinces, actively writing to politicians, creating websites that promote open records, and sending out bulletins to members of nonprofit organizations I belonged to in order to publicize open records campaigns and get members in involved in open records. I have never yet had to use the term ‘birthmother’ in any of these actions.

”  People have the right to not be objectified. The ‘birth terms’ objectify women. They were invented and defined by the adoption industry, which treated and treats us as livestock anyway:

‘… the tendency growing out of the demand for babies is to regard unmarried mothers as breeding machines…(by people intent) upon securing babies for quick adoptions.’ – Leontine Young, ‘Is Money Our Trouble?’ (paper presented at the Nationa…l Conference of Social Workers, Cleveland, 1953)

”  And, if one reduces a human being to an object, one can then treat them as voiceless, with rights, in need of protecting. The term ‘birthmother’ actually plays into supporting closed records legislation by defining us as having NO continuing love or connection with our lost child, and thus no interest in ‘reunion’ or being ‘found.’ And reunion IS the elephant on the dining room table when it comes to ‘adoptee rights’ and ‘open records.’

”  I have the right not to be defined as an non-mother, an incubator, etc. So do all other MOTHERS who have lost children to adoption. Thus the term natural mother, which recognizes and respects our continuing motherhood, is the one which is not derogatory or denigrating to us. Or you can call us mothers, or mothers of adoption loss. Or mothers separated from a child by adoption.

”  What is a natural mother? I am a mother by the laws of nature. The adoptive mother is the mother who was created by the laws of modern human society, pursuant to laws which began with the first child adoption law, invented in 1851 in Massachusetts. So, natural and socially-created. But the continuing love and blood-bond I have with my child, our sharing of genes, that I created him through the processes of Nature, all count towards me being a mother. (He also calls me Mom and I have adopted him back, but these are moot points). If laws and social-worker-procedures and the adoption industry had not been created to rip us apart, we would still have been together. My love for him never died, my connection with him that is just as strong as my connection and love for my other children. This is NOT saying that adoptive parents are unnatural. It is not a game of ‘Opposites,’ because if you say that this makes adoptive parents ‘unnatural’ then in the ‘Opposites Game’ the term ‘birthmother’ makes them into ‘deathmothers.’

Sometimes I feel that i beat this topic to death, and you, dear readers, are likely sick of hearing it. But why ask for my support in a way that treats me as less-than-human, that assumes that I do not have or want a family relationship with my son?   The issue this time is that we, as natural mothers, are being asked to further the interests of another group while ignoring our own interests (e.g. open records for natural parents as well), but we’re being asked as “incubators” do to so.

Meanwhile, please sign this petition, which has been active and on in the internet since 2000:

Mothers for Open Records Everywhere

Musings About the Term “First Mother”

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Regarding the term “first mother”:  I have seen it used increasingly over the past 10 years or so, and as a former linguistics major, I am fascinated with the etymology and semantics of words.  I do not automatically use the term “first mother” myself, but I do belong to a group called the First Mothers Action Group, which is celebrating its 10th birthday as of today.

I admit, I sit on the fence regarding the term “first mother.”  I am not certain whether I like it or not, or whether I feel it is insulting or not insulting.  It is ambiguous, and a little informal poll that I took reflected this ambiguity.

It was only 11 years ago that I first went online to look specifically at adoption-related topics, as opposed to the other online research, website design, and information exchange I had previously engaged in.   What plunged me into “internet adopto-land” was the new reunion with my eldest son.   At first,  I thought that the semantics of the term “first mother”  were that it without ambiguity meant someone who was still a mother, because it has never occurred to me that there was anyone who would ever define me as not being a mother!  Of course I was still one of his mothers, I thought to myself!  That was my reality.

Then I learned about the official definitions of adoption-related words as part of the adoption industry’s “Positive Adoption Language” (or “Respectful Adoption Language”) terminology set.  This is the terminology set which defines the woman who adopts as being the ONLY mother, the sole mother, and hence the woman who has surrendered (PAL term = “birth mother”) is not a mother at all, but only breeding stock:

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

In her 1979 article that laid out the basis of “Positive Adoption Language,” Marietta Spencer wrote  “Choosing emotionally-correct words is especially important in adoption transactions.”   She follows this with many examples in the article reinforcing the notion of 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.

PAL/RAL thus reduces us to being only important for the biological/uterine purpose of having given birth, and that we are nothing to our children past this point as we are now former mothers and fathers.  And PAL/RAL also officially defines the term “first mother” as only appropriate for women who have lost older children to the child protection system:

“‘First mother (or father):’ This term is accurate only if the birth-giving mother or biological father did some parenting during the postnatal period.  If they never functioned as parents, their contribution was limited to the pre-natal and birth-giving process.  Only in the case of an older child who experienced some parenting from his birth parents is it correct to speak of a ‘first mother’ or “‘first father.'” (Spencer, 1979, p. 456)

Then came a discussion with an adoptive father who was adamant that the term “first mother” was paralleled by “first wife/second wife,” with an adoption being akin to a divorce.  That it indicates sequential motherhood, and being a “first wife” means you are no longer the man’s wife. This made sense to me, that this definition would be the one that many people assumed at face value.  But I wanted to find out how prevalent this meaning was.

So, out of curiosity, to find out the range of opinions, two years ago I asked a question on the Yahoo Answers “Adoption” board  to find out what people thought.  Interesting selection of answers, indicating that some people considered it to sequential, and some, concurrent.  Results seemed to be split about 50-50.

This last month, I took it one step further and wondered “what is the general breakdown of what the general population considers ‘first mother’ to mean?”   I posted a very unscientific poll in a Cafemom forum (“Newcomers Club”) where I took a guess that there might be a relatively proportional representation of the general population regarding how adoption may or may not have affected their lives.  I did not want answers solely from those directly affected (adoptees, natural mothers, “baby brokers,” or people who had adopted or were intending to adopt).  But I did want to get opinions from mothers or those interested in the topic of motherhood.

This was my question:

The term “first mother” has entered adoption-related discourse, and I am sitting on the fence on this one, because I am not certain about what it implies to the “general public.”The term “birth mother” was coined about 40 yrs ago by the adoption industry in order to define a mother who has lost/placed/surrendered a child to adoption as being a non-mother, a mother whose motherhood ended at birth.  The term “natural mother” means a woman who has surrendered a child to adoption but is still a mother, a mother by the laws of Nature and still having that instinctive love/bond with her child.   But what about the term “first mother”?  What does it imply to you?1 – Does it imply concurrent motherhood, like in “first child and second child,” that both the “first mother” and the adoptive mothers are both mothers at the same time to the child? 2 – Or does it imply sequential motherhood, as in “first wife and second wife,” that the first mother of the child is no longer that child’s mother?Whether or not you think one way or the other, please answer this poll, focusing on just what the term “first mother” means to you.

There have been 123 responses (updated on May 16, 2012), and here are the results:

Concurrent. The term “first mother” implies that the woman is STILL a mother of the child who was adopted 33%
Sequential. The term “first mother” implies that the woman is NOT a mother of the child who was adopted 36%
I am not sure. 30%

Looking at the results over the first 13 days in which they gradually came in, there was little variance, only about 5% trending one way or the other.   The comments are also interesting to read.

So, as you can see, the results are pretty divided as to the semantics of the word, but more people consider it to mean “former mother” than “currently a mother to her lost child.”   Of course, this survey is really just an unimportant bit of fluff, and I don’t think it really has much practical purpose in “the real world.”  It was only done out of curiosity.

But, what do you think?  Personally, this to me gives me reason to continue to describe myself using the term “natural mother.”    There is no official legal body of course dictating how words are defined, and even if a person begins using the term “natural mother,” it does not mean that they really do consider us to be mothers.  But to me, at least, there is no ambiguity in this term.

I am a mother to my lost son, and I have not ceased being his mother.   I was not replaced.   I did not stop loving him and we did not stop being related to each other as family. And, maybe I am wrong, but I want my motherhood to be recognized in any terms that are applied to me.   I find it insulting to be relegated to the status of being nothing more than a “breeder.”   I am still of two minds about the term “first mother.”   Overall, I think I find it a bit less offensive than the term “birth mother”  — someone using it might be making an effort to respect me as being a mother — but then again, they might not.   I prefer clarity to ambiguity,  so “natural mother” is my preference.


Johnston, P. I. (2004).  “Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoption Language.”  Indianapolis, IN:  Perspectives Press.

Spencer, Marietta (1979). “The Terminology of Adoption,” in Child Welfare, 58(7), pp. 451-459.