Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Language of Adoption

My friend Rachel recently wrote a wonderful blogpost about the language of adoption, and it got me thinking again about the terms we use to describe our situations and label our family members.

People take issue with certain terms used for mothers and fathers:
  • "birth" or "bio" mother/father: too cold and unfeeling, only acknowledges the role the mother played in the birth, when there's much more to it emotionally and post-birth
  • "first" mother/father: this qualifier can be silencing for the adoptive mother, as "first" can mean not just order but "top"..."she comes in first, you're second"
  • "adoptive" mother: again, a qualifier that by its very essence seems to undercut how this person is simply a mother
(I can imagine this is also an issue for families with children from previous marriages who use the term "step-mother")

BUT the problem is, if you just use "mother" or "father" in all situations, people won't always understand what you're talking about.

In my head and heart I call both my mothers simply "mother" and both my fathers "father." Though rarely do I think of my first parents with the more familiar terms "mom" and "dad" because, for some reason, to me those connote a certain experience I did not have with them. When I talk about my situation with people who don't know much about adoption, often I end up using terms that they will immediately understand, such as "birth/biological" mother-father, though I know by doing so I am leaving out many nuances of the language for this.

Both my birth mother and birth father and their families referred to me as simply their “daughter” right away when I contacted them. How might I have felt if they had said, “I’m so glad to finally hear from my birth daughter”? I don't know...maybe a bit slighted. We must acknowledge the shortcomings of our language, because always using terms that exclude no one and offend no one and hurt no one in the adoption triad is impossible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.


Korean War Baby said...

Whoa! I can really dig what you are talking about! I too have had discomfort with all the "terminology" and difference each word implies. 'Birthmother' is indeed cold. Bio-Mother as well, I have even heard 'Natural Mother' or 'First mother'.
I have been using "Natural/birth mother" but always call my Adoptive Mother just MOM and of course my Adoptive father, DAD. You bring up very good points. Would you expand on this more and do a Guest Post on my blog? Don Gordon Bell, the Korean War Baby

AdoptAuthor said...

So right. For me, bio mother is MUCH colder and more offensive than birth mom.

I think each of us gets to decides how we are comfortable identifying ourselves and can ask others to use that preferred term. When I am speaking in public, I identify myself as a mother who lost a child to adoption. Much like a person with a disability rather than a disabled person. I am my daughter's mother and she is my daughter. Even now that she has passd away, i still count her among my children. I have four children, one has passed away. She doesn't stop being my daughter now anymore than she did when I signed a piece of paper and she became legally someone else's child.

It does get complicated and people use different terms to describe those in their lives under different circumstances and to different people.

To a close friend you say Tom and I went on vacation. To an acquaintance you say "my husband" and I. And when speaking to Tom, you might say: "Dear, can you please get me..." or other terms of endearment.And Tom may be your first, second or third husband but doesn't ned that qualifier every-time he is spoke of.

On the other hand, if you are fortunate and have a very amicable relationship with an ex-g=husband, and I know some who do, and he is around a bit with the kids or attending occasions together, then you might find yourself having to explain things a bit more clearly to an acquaintance: That's a photo of Tom and I with our new grandson, and that's my first husband Jim with his wife.

Adopted relationships are really not that different than any others. We are just not as used to having first and current families knowing one another. Adoption wa sonc such a scret that those who adopted were told not to tell their children they were adopted. Slowly we have come form that to open adoptions and reunite families. Our language seems awkward but it's really not at's just in transition.

When in doubt, ask the people in your life what they prefer to be called, and help those unaccustomed to extended adoption kinships by suggesting how they call the people in your life.

Mirah Riben blogging at

Liberty said...

@Korean War Baby,
Thanks for stopping by! Sure, I'd love to write more on this topic for your blog. Let me know more info, you can e-mail me at