My mom was adopted. She referred to my maternal grandmother as her “birth mother”. My mom died in September of 2015, but if she were still alive, I would not have attempted to correct her own terminology. There is no way for me to second guess the meaning an adoptee or a such a mother may place on the role of that event in their lives. I am not either one.
Certainly, a woman who has given up a child for adoption is going to have a preference. How she might be identified by others would matter to her. After I began learning who my genetically related grandparents actually were (both of my parents were adoptees), I soon learned that in the mature adoption community “birth” mother is no longer considered the best choice when referring to any woman who gives up her child for adoption.
An adoptee might refer to her own self as a “surrendered daughter” but never as the “birth daughter”. Many times, her mother will have had other children subsequently, who she did raise. That mother would not call those children her “birth” daughter or son. When an adoptee goes into a reunion with the woman who gave birth to her – to that woman – she is the mom, though one who lost one of her children for a little while and now has her child back in her life. I understand such a sentiment. I lost (physical custody of but never legal custody of) my daughter for a little while during her childhood. I am grateful she is still in my life and accepts me. Very often, the adoptee (and this was true for my own daughter as well) will be expected by BOTH mothers to refer to them the same way, ie “Mom”. My daughter did not call her other mother “step-mom”. The adoptee (or my daughter for that matter) has no difficulty in keeping the two of them separate in her own mind.
I believe such issues are the truth for every person who’s family dynamics are complicated. Everyone who has been a part of that person’s life is “real” to them. My relatives due to the adoption of my parents – the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – were always “real” to me. Duh. Hello? They live and breathe (or did, if now deceased). No one is more or less real than anyone else is. Everyone who was involved in an adoptee’s existence and their nurturing on this earth is “real”. I do not refer to the people I now know were my grandparents (deceased) or the still living aunt or cousins (who I have been fortunate enough to locate and meet) as “real”. But they are my genetic, biological relatives and the adoptive ones are not. This is a fact of DNA.
What the terminology I am highlighting here is intended to be focused upon is referred to as person-first language–a way of speaking about others that puts them first. In this regard, how we refer to someone else is informed by following their cues or asking them how they identify. This is being considerate or respectful.
So I did learn new terms when it came to referring to the people I am in community with in an adoption related group (all aspects). I now refer to parents who adopted children as “adoptive parents.” And so, now I call the people who raised my parents (who I viewed as my grandparents for over 60 years of my life) as the adoptive grandparents. I call parents who have surrendered children “original parents” – or the “original mother” or “original father” – the people who were the ones who conceived and gave birth to my parents, for example. “Adoptive” and “original” are the terms that make the most sense to me. I feel they are the most accurate in general and totally clear as to their reason and meaning.
The truth is that “birth parent” is still the most commonly recognized term for those not steeped in the issues around adoption. Too often, adoption places an overwhelming importance on the role of original mothers for their reproductive ability because this enabled someone, usually an infertile couple, to have a child to raise.
I believe that ALL original mothers matter to their sons and daughters. I am a feminist who has become aware of the stereotypes and issues of gender and class when it comes to the practices of adoption. Therefore, I have grown uncomfortable using the “birth” label in discussing adoption.
I believe all women should be valued by society; and sadly, too often they are not. Women are not here on this planet to simply give “birth” more human beings. A woman’s value is greater than her ability to reproduce. All of this is an explanation regarding why the label of “birth” has fallen out of favor with those in the adoption community to whom it matters the most.