My Adoptivemother and My Birth Mother

No, there is no error in the title of this post.

Use of the term “birth mother” to mean a woman who has relinquished a child to adoption can be traced back to Pulitzer Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck, who was herself an adoptive mother and who also founded an adoption agency. Buck first wrote about the adoption “birth mother” back in 1956, though the term gained broad popularity during the 1970s.

In, 1976 Lee Campbell formed an organization specifically for mothers like herself who had lost children to adoption. For many decades, these women had been called natural mothers, but adoptive parents objected to the term because it painted adoptive mothers as the unnatural alternative. Adoptive parents preferred to say “biological mother,” but those mothers themselves felt that term was too reductive. So, Campbell chose to call herself and other women like her “birthmothers,” and named her organization Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), “hoping to forge a cohesive identity that mothers and fathers with children missing in adoption could rally around.”

In 1979, Marietta Spencer published an article on “The Terminology of Adoption” in Child Welfare, in which she introduced the concept of Positive Adoption Language (PAL). This model has evolved over subsequent decades into Respectful Adoption Language (RAL).

Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

RAL says that “birthmother” is a positive, respectful term for a woman who relinquishes a child to adoption. RAL also says that “adoptive mother” is a negative, disrespectful term for a woman who becomes a parent through adoption; the only positive, respectful term for this woman, according to RAL, is simply “mother.” RAL has evolved to reinforce the validity of the adoptive family.

If RAL proponents find “adoptive mother” offensive, I’m guessing they’ll be horrified by my coining here of the term “adoptivemother,” all one word, similar to “birthmother.” But, why is putting the word “adoptive” in front of “mother” offensive, while putting the word “birth” in front of “mother” and, even worse, combining the two words into a single new word is deemed to be respectful?

The answer, of course, lies in perspective. Except that in the history of adoption language I’ve described above, one perspective is not taken into account—that of the adoptee.

From my perspective as an adopted person, I have two mothers. I do not have one mother and one birthmother. To graft those words “birth” and “mother” together into a new compound word is to imply someone who is other than a mother. A new word requires a new dictionary entry, a new definition.

I can find no dictionary that includes an entry for the word “birthmother.” However, several dictionaries do include entries for the phrase “birth mother,” with “birthmother” listed as an alternative spelling. A birth mother is a biological mother according to Random House Dictionary and American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. Per Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, a birth mother is a person’s mother related biologically rather than by adoption.

I have conceived and given birth to two children, whom I am raising. I am their birth mother. My children have only one mother, and that mother is their birth mother.

Photo by Tony Fischer via Flickr

As an adoptee, I have two mothers. One mother gave birth to me. One mother adopted me. I have a birth mother and an adoptive mother. If you want me to say that I have a birthmother, then I must also say I have an adoptivemother. Language matters.

There is no entry in any dictionary for “adoptive mother,” which is odd to me. Why do we need to define “birth mother” when the usual means for a woman to become a mother is via conception and birth? Shouldn’t “adoptive mother” be the term that requires definition?

From Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, here are two meanings of the verb “to mother:” 1. to be the mother of; give birth to. 2. to look after or care for as a mother does. One mother gave birth to me. One mother looked after me. Two women are my mothers. Two women care for me as a mother does. has no entry for either “birth mother” or “birthmother.” There are only entries for the noun mother and the two adjectives, birth and adoptive. This is as it should be, I think.

We create new words all the time. Kids create what we might call nonsense words to describe things they haven’t yet learned how to properly talk about. The nonsense words become a secret code that other family members understand. These words become real, understandable by a small, closed group, though they never make it into any dictionary.

As adults, we name things, and some of these names take on other meanings and imbed themselves into our language. Quarterback. Scapegoat. There is no high power determining which words are worthy of formal definition, though many people only consider a word legitimate once it’s added to a dictionary. But dictionary editors don’t create words; rather, dictionaries reflect trends in everyday word usage. According to Michael Quinion, a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary and founder of the website World Wide Words, “. . . we record, we collate, we analyse, and we describe what people actually say and write. If enough English speakers decide that some word or phrase has value, to the extent that those who encounter it are likely to need to consult the dictionary in search of its meaning, then it is put into new editions.”

In other words, the more often we use this new term “birthmother,” the more likely it is to become a legitimate word, defined in a dictionary, with a meaning separate from that of “mother” alone. This is why, besides this post, you won’t find me using it without that important space between the adjective and the noun.

I am an adoptee, and I call two women mother.

18 thoughts on “My Adoptivemother and My Birth Mother

  1. Reblogged this on elle cuardaigh and commented:
    I’ve said this as well, but Karen did it better. With all due respect to Lee Campbell (who can refer to herself as she wishes) I call my mothers simply “mother” unless there is a real need to clarify.


  2. Thank you from a MOTHER who lost a child to adoption. I gave birth to my daughter Alicia, just as I did the three children I raised. She remained my daughter despite legal procedures which severed my parental rights and made others her legal parents. She remained my daughter and I remained her mother.

    My daughter, Alicia, ended her life on earth in 1995. She still remains my daughter and I still remain her MOTHER, just as she is the sister of my three surviving children as well as the sister of the three brothers she was raised with. It’s not all that confusing.

    We live in time when children have multiple moms and dads, some are legally “step” parents and some may be addressed that way, but often not. Some children are now BORN with multiple mothers or multiple fathers – a surrogate womb, a donated egg and a social parents.

    I think no matter what the legal connection, every human knows in their heart who their MOM or DAD is. For some that may be the one they are genetically connected to by blood and for others it may be the step parent to whom they feel that special bond.

    You have two mothers, but do you have two moms? Instead of all the fighting over who is the “real” mother; who is natural or not, perhaps MOM and mother define the roles?

    Mirah Riben, author THE STORK MARKET: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry


    1. Mirah, I’m very sorry for the loss of your daughter.

      You asked if I have two moms. I actually do call both of my mothers Mom. 🙂


      1. Thank you. I only mentioned her death to illustrate that once a mother, always a mother. Nothing changes that bond.

        It’s very sweet that you call both your mothers Mom. But I imagine that would get confusing when speaking to others about one or both. Children raised by same sex couples find two terms of endearment such as Mommy and Mama. There are many ways to differentiate without diminishing either.

        Your semantic lesson was very factual and informative and I thank you for it. I was one of the original members of CUB and am thus comfortable with the term birthmother as I am proud to have given ALL my children life, something no adoptive mom can say! In my case, it did limit my role in my daughter’s life. We never had an opportunity to establish a relationship. I am her mother. She is my daughter. But I am also comfortable being her birth, first or original mother when that distinction is necessary. But that’s just me.

        The literature on adoption and the media are fixated on it and it is an uphill battle to change it because “RAL” is language that is respectful to those who support the mega-billion dollar adoption industrial complex which cater to THEM – not you or I. .You are the commodity and I, just the discarded wrapper the gift comes in. Money buys “respect” – just as sports arenas are now named for banks!


      2. Yes, there are times when I need to make clear which of my moms I’m talking about, and then I do clarify using the adjectives “birth” or “adoptive.” But I only do this when clarification is needed. I sometimes also use the adjectives “biological,” “natural,” and “original” depending on the topic of conversation and/or who I’m speaking with.

        edited to add … I want to add some additional thoughts here.

        First, understand that when I’m talking with people who are in my close circle of friends and relatives, I don’t use any of these adjectives. Everyone close to me knows that I have two mothers, and they usually can tell who I’m speaking about by context. If I need to make it clear to them, I use the first name of the mother I’m speaking about to clarify.

        In regards to the words I sometimes need to use with others, I do not use the adjective “first,” because I think it has the potential to create more confusion: First in my life? First that I consciously remember? First that I called “mom?” First in importance? First in my heart? All of this is murky.

        Also, thinking about the descriptors I use makes me realize how many fewer of them I have for my adoptive mother. I will sometimes say “the mother who raised me” or “the mother I grew up with.” Likewise, when speaking generally about adoption, I will sometimes say “mothers who relinquished children” or “mothers who surrendered children” or “mothers who lost children” to adoption; I think it’s fine to also say “mothers who gained children” or “women who became mothers” through adoption. I would not, however, say “mothers who gave up children” or “mothers who made an adoption plan” or “mothers who got children.”


  3. Yes! I too have two mothers and call them both Mom. Unfortunately, it would probably kill my adoptive mother and father to know that (and I’m only a little bit exaggerating) so it’s not something that is talked about.


  4. I belonged to CUB for years in hopes my beautiful daughter would find the information if she wanted… I always loved her and wanted her but due to the times, I wanted her to have the best. In 1982, she found me! One of the most wonderful days of my life and along with her she brought me the greatest gift ever, her Mother, who supported her in her search. We became like sisters, she is now no longer with us but my love for her will always remain in my heart. I thank God my daughter had a Mother like her!


  5. I am really liking this mic drop:

    “The literature on adoption and the media are fixated on it and it is an uphill battle to change it because “RAL” is language that is respectful to those who support the mega-billion dollar adoption industrial complex which cater to THEM – not you or I. .You are the commodity and I, just the discarded wrapper the gift comes in. Money buys “respect” – just as sports arenas are now named for banks!”

    Word, Mirah, Word. John Oliver needs to be brought on board to expose the multi-billion dollar crime ring of legal kidnapping.


  6. Thanks for writing this. I haven’t heard the name Pearl Buck in a long time. I think I read one of her stories when I was 13, but I didn’t know she had any connection to adoption at the time. I think it’s great when adoptees just use the term mother to refer to both, but I still call the woman who gave birth to me my birth mother. A lot of it has to do with the second rejection I dealt with and her attitude toward me in the several months I knew her. I know a lot of people might judge me for that, but I feel like it’s my choice to refer to her how I see fit. If I were in a relationship with her today, maybe things would be different.


    1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to your comment. I just want to say that I agree with you that it is your choice to refer to your birth mother (and any other family member, for that matter) in whatever way works for you and for that relationship. I know adoptees who won’t use the word “mother” in any way to refer to their birth mothers, who will only refer to them by name. That is what works best for them. There are no rules about this stuff, nor should there be. People who are not adopted need to try to understand that these relationships cannot necessarily be held to the same standards as traditional parent/child relationships.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed this post Karen, as I love semantics and this was very enlightening. Do dictionaries have the phrase “birth father”? If not, it may have something to do with the fact that 99% of my son’s questions, when he has them on occasion, are about his birth mom, not his birth dad. (He idolizes his adoptive dad, so that could be part of it, too… as in maybe he’s totally satisfied in that department. Or maybe the primal wound just doesn’t involve the birth dad? So many angles to analyze, it’s very interesting.)

    However, regarding familyadvocate’s saying “something no adoptive mom can say!” Comments like this often seem to happen in these discussions. Why is that? It’s a jab to the heart.


    1. Rebecca, thanks for reading and for commenting here.

      “Birth father” is in some dictionaries, too, but typically not as an entry unto itself. It’s usually mentioned under the “birth parents” entry.

      I have heard many adoptees say that they often thought about their birth mothers but not necessarily about their birth fathers. In fact, this was true for me as well. I always wondered about my mother, but usually only thought about my father in relation to who he might have been in my mother’s life. That changed when I received my non-identifying information from my adoption agency, which unexpectedly included information about my father. From that point forward, I was equally curious about both of my parents. I searched first for my mother, but I really had no other option, as I was able to find her name but not my fathers since his name is not on any birth record of mine. Thinking back on my childhood longing for my birth mother, I do tend to think that the fact of her carrying me for nine months and also spending some time with me after my birth probably had something to do with it. I didn’t have that early contact with my birth father.

      Re: Mirah’s comment, I understand why you receive it as a jab, but I also understand that from her point of view, birth mothers are often thought of as “less than” in a number of ways and have historically been marginalized in discussions about adoption. So, I understand why she, and others, would want to take ownership of the “birth” aspect of motherhood.


    2. I do not mean it as a jab. It is simply a biological fact and was said to explain why I do not share other first mom’s objection to being identified as my first daughter’s BIRTH mother. I am connected to her via birth. If that upsets her adoptive mother, or you, or anyone else, I am sorry but it also upsets me that others raised her and i was denied that opportunity, and it upsets me to see her adopters’ names on her “birth” certificate as her parents of birth. That’s a bold faced LIE and a slap in the face of every mother who was persuaded to do the “loving” this and let their child go to others. Others are her parents, but I gave BIRTH to her! I think we need to both recognize these facts, no matter how painful.

      It’s very special that K and others can think of both as “Mom.” I would never expect that. But I am her MOTHER, with no prefix.


    3. Want a jab to the heart? Carry a baby for nine months and then be persuaded to give that child up to strangers and then move on with your life like nothing happened.

      Adopters spend a lot of time freaking out over stuff that might have been. Relinquished parents have to contend with things that actually were but are no more. Big difference.


  8. I am a mom because of adoption. I use my own language. I call my kids mother their mother. Look in any dictionary and the first definition of the word mother is a woman who has given birth or a woman in relation to a child she has given birth too. That isn’t who I am. I call myself a parent. In some ways, parent seems synonymous with mother. But, parent can also be used as a verb that includes the duties of a parent feed, protect and educate children. That is the role I have in their life. Part of who they become will depend on how well I carry out that role.

    All my kids now call me mom. My oldest daughter called me “Hey you” for about 2-weeks after she moved in. So, we had a talk about what she was going to call me and we at first agreed on Ms. Julie. But, then she went to school and I would pick her up and her friends would say, “Is that your mom?” It was easier to say yes than explain your journey. But, that was over 15 years ago. I don’t think it comes hard anymore. My kids call their mothers mom too. I hope to help my kids navigate pain and loss… and balance it with a little happiness and love. I can’t do that if I ignore their history.


    1. NICE! I like what you’ve said. I have seen mother defined as:

      a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth.
      synonyms: female parent, materfamilias, matriarch; More
      2.. bring up (a child) with care and affection.
      “the art of mothering”


  9. I came across your blog on Twitter. I am an adoptive mother. (I don’t find offense in that term; however, making it one word makes my mind spin!) I refer to their biological parents – that’s the term I use and its reason is in one of my blog posts – as “your other mommy and daddy.” Just the other day I posted this pin on pinterest: “We know a mother and father can love more than one child so why is it so hard to understand that a child can love more than one mom and dad?” Enlightening post, thank you from an adoptive mother.


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