Birth Mother or First Mother?
Does it matter what we can the woman who gave birth to an adopted child? Is all this fuss just another form of hyper focus on political correctness?

A friend of mine is soon to be a grandmother.  She is thrilled for her son and daughter-in-law and can’t wait to see her first grandchild, but is really struggling with her soon-to-be new name.  “This,” she says, pointing to her size 6, running trained, yoga toned, 45 year old body, “is not a grandma!”

What, you ask, has this to do with my usual topic of adoption or infertility?  Well, not much, but the same week I was listening to my friend wrestle with grandparent nomenclature, I consulted with a woman to help her prepare a domestic adoption profile.  For the uninitiated, prospective adoptive parents compile a “profile” about themselves with pictures and some narrative showing their life and explaining why they want to adopt.  The completed profile will be shown to pregnant women considering adoption in hopes that she will choose this family to parent her child.  As we talked she referred to these women as “our birth mother.”  And each time, I squirmed just a tiny bit.

Why a Pregnant Woman Isn’t a Birth Mother

Normally, I’m the least likely person to play the role of word police.  I hate hyper-focus on the politically correct word choice because the usual outcome is people clamming up and conversations ceasing, which is seldom a good thing.  But as much as I hate to admit it, words do matter because they both reveal and ultimately influence how we think.  And it is both the revealing and the influencing that gives me pause with calling a pregnant woman a birth mother.

“Birth mother” is an adequate description (awkward initials aside) of a woman that has relinquished her child for adoption.  But when a woman is pregnant, she has yet to, and may not, relinquish her child.  She is considering making an adoption plan.  This is the case regardless if she has selected prospective adoptive parents, met with these parents, and accepted their legally allowed financial support.  No woman can relinquish her parental rights until after birth, and it’s not uncommon for a woman to change her mind after birth.  Although I acknowledge that I may be splitting a mighty fine hair, I think it’s worth thinking about what we call her.

What bothers me about calling a pregnant woman a “birth mother” (or worse yet, our birth mother) is that it seems to relegate her status as solely an incubator of this child.  It also might encourage prospective adoptive parents to forget that she still has the right to change her mind.  Unfortunately, the phrase “pregnant woman considering making an adoption plan for her child” doesn’t lend itself to a ready acronym, so it’s easy to slip into prematurely calling her a birth mom.  When pressed for space, which I often am when posting on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, I often compromise with the term “prospective birth mother”.

Is First Mother Better?

Notice above the careful use of the personal possessive pronoun “her” when talking about the child.  (I actually don’t have a clue if that’s the correct grammatical term, but it sounded impressive and by including both “personal” and “possessive” it helps make my point.)  This child she is carrying and will give birth to is her child.  He may soon be your child too, but he is and will always remain her child as well.  For this reason, more adoption professionals are using the term “first mother” to describe a woman who has relinquished her parental rights, and I like it.

Some adoptive parents dislike the term “first mom” because they object to being labeled “second mom” by implication.  I don’t see it that way. The one who is raising the child is just plain “Mom” or “Mommy” or “Mama”, no adjective descriptor necessary.  But, I like acknowledging the “motherness” of the women that gave birth to our children.  It’s respectful of them, and respect towards birth families is good for our kids.  (Check out some interesting research on openness in adoption on our Adoption Research page. )  Respecting her role as my child’s first mother does not lessen my role as a mother.  I have no problem loving more than one child, so I imagine my child will have no problem loving more than one mother.

My friend is still trying on names.  Her husband has decided on “Duke”.  (He denies it, but I suspect a boyhood crush on John Wayne.)  My friend has rejected (thank goodness) “Goddess” and “Mama Mia”.  I keep telling her that she could own “Granny” and set the standard for a 21st Century granny.  So far, she’s not buying it.

Check out these blogs by first mothers.

Image credit: maybeemily