What’s in a Name? Birth Mother? First Mother? Real Mother?

Dawn Davenport

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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

05/01/2010 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 23 Comments



23 Responses to What’s in a Name? Birth Mother? First Mother? Real Mother?

  1. Dawn says:

    Hi Adoptive Mom, I am less interested in the exact term you use in your family than I am in your showing respect for her position in your child’s life. Some families call her by her first name, or Tummy Mommy, or the lady whose tummy you grew in. Make sure that you aren’t avoiding talking about his birth mother. Sometimes that happens when you aren’t sure what to call her.

  2. Christina says:

    I really appreciate the respect that you give to women who may be considering making an adoption plan for their child. It is very refreshing.

    We have a few ways that we refer to birthmoms in our family…
    “birthmom” is the one that we always used. Our 5 year old son came up with his own and calls her his “First Mom”. Our two year old calls hers her “Tummy-Mom”. I think that so long as it is respectful, it is a very individual and personal choice.

    I know a family who has adopted 7 children…they pretty much shun the mention of any of their birth mothers and usually only refer to them by their first names and in not so positive terms. I truly think that has more to do with Mom’s insecurities and that it doesn’t do the children any favors. I imagine a time when they are adults that they will resent that.

    • Dawn says:

      I think you make a really interesting point and it is what I thought when I was reviewing some of the recent research on open adoption. I was interested in longitudinal research that would have followed families and children for long enough to show “the right way”. My interpretation of the research was that the most important factor for kids and adoptive parents and first parents was the degree of collaboration. understanding, and ultimately respect they were able to have for one another that made the biggest difference in how the kids “turned out”. Thanks for your wisdom.

  3. vela says:

    TIFFANI- um… I would sever all contact with them and change my number. Move if I had to. That is not a healthy relationship and I can’t see how that is doing your child any good. YOUR child. A relationship with them would be for his benefit, not theirs, and it sounds like you saved a boy who needed to be away from those people. Keep him away. You owe them nothing but your gratitude for having not aborted him. Don’t feel guilty.
    Marilynn- Sounds like maybe you have had a bad experience with adoption, but the situations you describe are not universal. Not all people involved in adoption feel that way at all. Sometimes parents and kids don’t get along or don’t feel close. That is true of biological families as well as families started through adoption. Adoption isn’t magic. I wasn’t adopted and I don’t like my parents. I don’t think they like me much either 🙂
    I am a birth mom. Open adoption and I’ve always had a great relationship with my girls parents. Everyone calls me by my first name. Sometimes the girls have referred to me as “my birth mum” to other people. They have always been loving and respectful to me and I have always tried to be so with them. I ALWAYS correct someone if they call me their “real” mother, or “natural” mother. The woman who raised them is their real mother, not a fake or stand in. And for me to be the natural mother would make adoption relationships un-natural.
    Their parents are their parents, Mom and Dad. That’s what I call them too.
    They can all call me whatever they’re comfortable with. I just feel blessed to have them in my life. My girls and their Mom and Dad.

  4. Tiffani says:

    It seems that in open adoption, the feelings and needs of the “birth” or “first” parents take priority over the feelings and needs of the adoptive parents and, sometimes, even the children. Adoption does create a complicated relationship between the triad of the parents who created the child, the child, and the parents who adopted and are raising the child. We are right now really struggling with our son’s birth (or first or biological or whatever you want to call them) parents over who we are to our son. They have told us that they do not consider my husband and me our son’s parents, only as his legal caregivers. They are his “mommy” and “daddy”. They want him to call them “mommy” and “daddy” and to call us by our first names. What is frustrating is that we know from their family that, in the 9 months that they had custody of our son (yes, OUR son- we are not his godparents or other affectionate people), that they had little to do with him. They shuttled him from friend to family. Our son’s birth mother even showed neglect and abuse. Now, post placement, to talk with her, you would think she was the most doting mother on the planet. They try to interact with us as if their son was staying with friends while they are on a long term vacation and will be coming to get him some time soon. What complicates the situation is that they both are truly delusional from different mental illnesses (the man is hospitalized and the woman lives in a group home). Our son isn’t 2 years old yet and we wonder at how all this will unfold for him as he is getting old enough to interact with them and to understand. Anyways, we are our son’s parents, no matter who they are, and we deserve the same level of respect that they receive.

  5. marilynn huff says:

    It really would be best if people that adopt just called themselves godparents or had the children call them by some other affectionate name. Raising someone elses child does not make you that child’s mother or father, even if you have adoption paperwork to prove it. The desire to be called mother and father and parent really screws with kids heads, they would probably come to think of you as “like a mother” anyway. Its just that behind the adoptive parties backs the kids and everyone else still think of and refer to the people that the child is related to as the child’s real family. You really can’t get around it = a family created by contract is not as forever as a family of people related to each other (Even if the related people don’t love each other as much or do as good a job as the unrelated people.

  6. Willow says:

    As an adoptive mom in a very open adoption, I think about these issues a lot. We use the term “birthmom” because that’s what our agency uses, and used “prospective birthmother,” also because that was their terminology, before our son was born. Our son is only 8 months but he will always know his birthfamily and the love they have for them and that we share with them, which he sees already through frequent visits, emails, and exchanging of pictures. I do feel weird about the term “first mom,” but our son’s birthmom just wants him to call her by her first name, so that is what will work for us. I do think names are very important and it’s vital to speak of a child’s birthfamily with caring and respect, since even in a closed adoption, they will always be a part of who that child is.

    • Dawn says:

      Willow, I think a lot of families call the first mom by her first name when addressing her and use the phrase birth mom or first mom when explaining her relationship to others. Congrats on your new baby.

  7. Vicky says:

    Thank you for this post. I loved every word.

  8. Heather says:

    Dawn,
    As a woman who lost her dad at the age of 4 years old (death), I referred to him as my birth dad for a number of years at an attempt to have my mom’s boyfriend accept my sister and I as his children. After my 20’s when it was clear after 20 some years we were still “her” children I started calling my biological father my dad and my mother’s husband my stepdad. I am an adoptive mother (as well as having a biologicial child) and switch intentially between referring to my adoptive child’s birth mom as her Ethiopia mommy and her birth mommy, but I always attach a first name to try to make it personal. She is both and we love her so dearly.
    ~ Heather

  9. WinniethePoo says:

    I hear what you’re saying about respect, but when I read the research you summarize the degree of openness doesn’t really matter on how the kids fare in life. So is the current emphasis on openness just part of that pendulum swing you talk about periodically on your show?

  10. Hal says:

    Dawn,
    I have thought a lot about which words are the right words, too, and agree with your line of thinking. I have two things I would like to add, however.

    First, I have found the simple phrase “expectant parents” to work well (or “expectant parents considering adoption”). In a way it it is even more respectful and direct/factual than “prospective birth family” (which I use, as well).

    Second, I prefer expectant PARENTS and prospective birth FAMILY over the use of the term “mother” unless it is the woman who is specifically being referred to. It gives more respect to the birth father and other birth family members who play an important role in the process.

    Just my 2 cents.
    Thanks for the post.

  11. Adoptive Mom says:

    I hate to disagree with you since I use you as my primary resource for all things adoption, but I think it is confusing for our children to hear the term mother used for anyone other than me. At least until they are older than about 6. I just think we’ve gone overboard in all the politically correct language and stuff. Sorry to disagree, but I sstill love the site and especially the show.

  12. Amy says:

    I used a book by Beth O’Malley when I made my son’s lifebook and it also suggests the name birthday mom…any thoughts on this term?

    Good, interesting post:) The birthmother of my son will always have a special place in my heart.

  13. Robyn says:

    A woman who is considering relinquishing her child for adoption is an expectant mother, just like any other pregnant woman.

    I call my son’s biological mother his birthmother. I don’t have a problem with “first mother” in general, but I think everyone needs to use the terms they’re comfortable with.

  14. Great thoughts. I hope it sparks an open conversation. We use the term Expectant Mother (or Expectant Father etc) prior to placement. Each domestic adoption situation is very different and creates a unique family. All need to participate in the decision of what titles are most comfortable and appropriate for their situation.

  15. Vinnie says:

    So true, every word of it. Thank you for your show and your blogs. We follow each one and learn from each one. I actually look forward to your newsletter, which is saying something.

  16. Taz says:

    Hi – Just discovered your blog, and love it! I refer to my children’s birthparents as their Thai (for my son) and Vietnamese (for my daughter) parents. My son has autism so his understanding is limited and i try to keep it all as simple as possible.

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