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).
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.
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.
Merriam-Webster.com 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.