Birth-mother vs. First-mother? A Shift In Adoption Terminology

I have a deeply entrenched habit of referring to my birth-mother as birth-mom, as this was how I referred to her for 25 years of my life, prior to our reunion. Post-reunion, she has asked that I replace that I discontinue using that term, and instead simply say her name. I'm ashamed to admit that I have failed at her request as my habit is so entrenched, and the word birth-parent is so inculcated within the adoption field, and thus my vernacular. Aware that this reasoning is insufficient and in order to show respect, I need to address this habit rather than make excuses. Thus, upon further examination, I can't help but wonder if part of my inability to discontinue the use of the word; birthmother (specifically in relation to Deborah) reflects my discomfort and unresolved adoption-related issues. After all, calling her by name instantly humanizes her which feels a bit scary.

Adoption terminology can be tricky - many terms evoke strong emotions, are used incorrectly and aren't always completely thought through. Some terms verge on extinction as we begin to realize the repercussions and importance of language. For example, asking an adoptee about their "real parent" is now commonly understood to be inappropriate and demeaning. Professionals discuss a biological parent's rights being terminated rather than stating that she gave up her child. Myself, along with many other adoptees are working to replace the phrase adopted child with word adoptee.

This trend towards taking a careful look at adoptive terminology stems from the fact that agencies and adoptive parents have been in charge of coining these terms since the early 1970's. An adoption agency's website currently states that "Positive adoption vocabulary helps to ensure that adoption is viewed as a wonderful way to build families." As I read this, I wonder do birth-parents view adoption as a "wonderful way to build a family"? "Positive" adoption language may have subconsciously served as a way to further insulate those most privileged within the adoption dynamic (agencies & adoptive parents). 

That word makes me sound like a baby machine, a conduit, without emotions.
— anonymous birth-mother/first-mother

During a recent webinar, Beth Hall, the founder of PACT, remarked on this shift from birth-mom to first-mom, stating that the use of the term first-mom implies that the biological mother is more than simply a genetic connection to the adoptee. Perhaps it's time we examine the word birth-parent and afford it the option of a 21st century re-brand?

Birth-parents/first-parents; please weigh in - what word (other than your name) do you prefer within this context? 

Post-Adoption-Visit-Blues with a Side of Profundity


Deborah's visit to Seattle has come and gone. There were high high's and low low's. It remains to be a surreal experience for both of us to be able to spend time together. I am now left to recover from the post-adoption-visit blues, I imagine that she, too, is navigating her own feeling of loss, separation and sadness. Deborah uttered many profundities during her stay. However, one remark in particular has left me with a lot to ponder. She said:

...they cared a lot about you right away. But no one cared about me. Hours after you were born, I was back out on the streets. Homeless. But you were getting medical care, people were choosing your name, and searching for a good home for you...
— Deborah (birthmother)

The term "abandonment" is often thrown around with regards to a child when a parent is unable to care for them, but it seems we could just as easily apply the word to birth-parents who receive no support after relinquishing their child. I spoke with a colleague about this statement, to which we both wondered what advances the social-work profession has made specifically regarding treatment of birth-parents. Where can we learn about best-practices?

My Birthmom is Coming To Town!

Seeing my mom and my birthmom together is one of my favorite sights. 

Seeing my mom and my birthmom together is one of my favorite sights. 

In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, the word enouement means "The bittersweetness of finally seeing how some aspect of your life turned out, while wishing you could share the news with your younger self." John Koenig created this dictionary coining words for emotions that had never been linguistically described. In 17 days, my birthmother will board a flight and travel across the country, to spend time with my family and I for a week. As I countdown towards her arrival I traverse into my personal enouement.

Four years ago my birthmom left muggy Tennessee and flew to soggy Seattle to tour my hometown for the first time - my dream-come-true after 25 years of longing. At that time, I subconsciously chose to allow only one emotion to be present at the time; elation. I was absolutely elated to have her near! I planned out her days ensuring that all but the red carpet would be rolled out beneath her every step. While walking around downtown Seattle, I looked back at her every 25 seconds to make sure she was happy, safe and as ecstatic to be together as I was. I likely resembled a new parent after giving birth to a child, checking to make sure their newborn baby is still breathing. I needed assurance that she felt welcomed by us, forgiven for any remaining pangs of rejection, and safe with us, strangers, in a foreign city. I wanted assurance that she believed in my truth that she holds a sacred place in my adoptive family. The planning, execution and suppression of my anxieties during that trip invariably led to exhaustion and loneliness following her anticlimactic departure.

As I countdown to her arrival in a few short weeks, I realize that I am also ushering in a new phase in our relationship. Keeping our long-distance relationship healthy via text messages, snail mail and phone calls has had it's difficulties, but it seems we moved through the early phases of our adoption reunion relationship quite smoothly. Phase 1: Excitement & Disbelief, Phase 2: Obsession & Infatuation.  Personal experience tells me Phase 3 is Acceptance & Grace.

Both she and I will soon come to accept that some of the high hopes we have for our relationship may never come to fruition. I may never know all of the details about her pregnancy, my birth story or how she felt leaving the hospital without laying eyes on the fruits of her labor. Both she and I will need to accept the fact that spending time together now does not make up for lost time. I hope to accept and release the desire to know exactly what my life would've looked like had we never been separated. The damage from all those years of separation, subsequent rejections and years of wonder is irreparable. However extending grace for all entangled in our beautiful relationship may assist in allowing all emotions to be present during her visit. My hopes are that Phase 3 will allow the safety for a repressed tear to roll down my cheek, or a frustrated scream to escape my lips. Or maybe my large smile will remain plastered on throughout the week in contentment and delight. We shall see. 

It seems that the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows does not yet have a word for the combination of abandonment, fear that I'll never see her again and residual joy from spending time with a special person.

I imagine a pedicure & hot chocolate might be in order in the days following to help with my inevitable post-visit blues. Acceptance & Grace, here we come. 



**The phases of reunion relationships that I listed are not evidence-based. This is based on my personal reflection and interpretation of my relationship. 

Are You My Mother? Adoptees are in reunion whether they’re searching or not

Many of my weekends are spent mentoring young transracial adoptees. While browsing books at a local bookstore, she grabbed the book "Are You My Mother," even though it is below her reading level. It prompted a rich discussion around her "Ghost Kingdom."  -Angela Tucker, 2017 

Many of my weekends are spent mentoring young transracial adoptees. While browsing books at a local bookstore, she grabbed the book "Are You My Mother," even though it is below her reading level. It prompted a rich discussion around her "Ghost Kingdom."

-Angela Tucker, 2017 

During a recent presentation at an adoption conference, I had the members attending my session participate in a quick exercise before they took their seats. I asked them to walk around the room and find the person they thought they most closely looked like. The room instantly filled with nervous laughter as the participants met each other’s gaze, searching for facial similarities. After a few minutes I had them take their seats and we talked about what that experience was like. I explained that this is what adoptees often do. They walk through the world, searching for their lost “twin” or someone they resemble. Like the little bird in the popular children’s book, adoptees look at others and wonder: Are you my mother?

As an adopted child grows older he wants to know if he resembles someone. This is especially true during the adolescent years when the quest for identity emerges. “Who am I?” Individuals who were not adopted are able to see themselves in the features and mannerisms of biological parents and family. This is more difficult for an adoptee. He looks around a packed stadium wondering if a biological connection is among those cheering on the football team or if a sibling might be sitting next to him in geometry class. One teen client explains, “I spend a lot of time scanning crowds, wherever I am, imagining a brother or sister. I make up stories in my head about what it will be like when we finally meet.”

The author Betty Jean Lifton, an adoptee and trailblazer in the field of adoption calls this living in the “Ghost Kingdom.” It’s the place where adoptees can go and “hang out” with their birth relatives and imagine life if they hadn’t been adopted. One of my young clients, “Ben” was adopted at birth. At age eight, he was struggling with separation anxiety and sleep problems when his parents contacted me. Ben’s parents doubted his issues had anything to do with adoption. “He never talks about it. He’s fine with it,” said Ben’s dad. Soon after we began working together it became clear that adoption was on Ben’s mind often. “Well, I think about her when I wake up in the morning,” he said, referring to his first mother. “I wonder what she looks like and if she would even recognize me. I feel sad that she might not.” I asked Ben how often he thought about this and he answered, “Every day, more than just in the morning. Maybe about 5 or 6 times.” Ben’s anxiety was linked to the worry that his birth mother might not recognize him and also, the fantasy that he might be seeing her each day and not recognizing her.

Years ago, I worked with “Kate,” a 12-year-old girl, who like Ben, was adopted at birth. Kate’s parents described her as “angry, oppositional, and living in her own world.” They explained to me that they had met her birth mom and knew she did have biological siblings but they hadn’t shared that information with Kate. They were waiting for the right time. They explained how they answered Kate’s questions related to adoption when asked but added they never initiated conversations. “She’s just not that interested,” they said. I quickly learned Kate was very interested in who she was, who she looked like and where she came from. She was indeed living in her own world – she was living in the Ghost Kingdom! Kate explained she likely shared her hair and eye color with her birth mom. “She must like to dance because I do,” Kate said. She planned to live with her birth mom for one year when she turned 18. Kate “knew” she had brothers and sisters and suspected she saw a sister recently at a farmer’s market in her town. “She looked exactly like me and we had on the same jeans!” she exclaimed. Kate had much to tell and I suspected she was angry because no one else seemed interested in her internal world. Kids Kate’s age may not start talking about adoption but they would like their parents to be curious and begin the conversations.

Professionally, my work with the adoption and foster care community has shown me most adoptees spend a lot of time thinking about adoption, reunion and genetic relatives – far more time than their adoptive parents might think. Personally, I knew this all along!

I first “met” my birth mother in elementary school. “Mrs. Jensen” was a classmate’s mom who volunteered during the lunch hour a few times a week. Her platinum blonde hair, frosted lips and mini-dress completed her “Charlie’s Angel” look. My eight-year-old self was convinced that we shared the same hair color and same eyes: we must be related. I imagined how surprised Mrs. Jensen would be when she discovered that her child, me, was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich right next to her!

Adoptive parents can rest assured that this “searching” and wondering is completely normal. While it doesn’t mean their child is unhappy or longing to be somewhere else, the amount of time spent fantasizing may interfere with day-to day activities and concentration. It may be the root of anxiety and sadness. Part of knowing who you are is knowing where you came from. This isn’t a “given” for many adoptees whose ancestry is a mystery to them. Living in the Ghost Kingdom can be distracting for a child who is trying to study for a math test.

Parents are their child’s best advocates and there are many ways parents can help their child integrate their biology with their biography. Parents can obtain as much information as possible about their child’s history before they came to be a family including information about both birth families. This makes it easier to answer questions and provide valuable information to their children. Parents can lead conversations and bring up the topic of adoption often. In doing so, the child gets the clear message that mom and dad are okay talking about everything related to adoption. Once Ben’s parents began talking about his birth mom “Cindy” and allowing him to verbalize his worries, his anxiety began to dissipate. Ben’s parents also created a “Lifebook” for Ben. Lifebooks include pictures of birth relatives, and other visuals incorporating pre-birth and birth history. As the child gets older, he can become his own historian, adding information to the Lifebook.

Parents may also consider open adoption, a choice that is becoming increasingly popular. Author and adoptive parent Lori Holden explains how adoption creates an unnatural split between a child’s biology and biography. Openness in adoption allows that split to be healed. Although they first thought she was too young, Kate’s parents agreed that maybe connecting with her biological siblings would be helpful. In our subsequent meetings they began to share pictures of Kate’s birth mom and also told her she did indeed have siblings. Over time and with much guidance, we worked together and decided the circumstances were appropriate for Kate’s parents to contact her birth mother to set up a meeting. This was healing for Kate and the families continue to have a relationship.

Support groups are a way for parents to connect with others in the adoption community. I co-facilitate a monthly group for all adult members of the adoption and foster care communities, that is: adult adoptees, adoptive parents, foster parents and birth parents. It’s a powerful experience for everyone to hear the varying perspectives. There are numerous books and online resources relating to all aspects of adoption. Finally parents may wish to contact a professional to help them. In seeking a therapist, it is wise to find one who has special expertise in working with the adoption population.


By Lesli A. Johnson, MFT ~

Originally posted on May 2015