Perspective | Why I don’t use positive adoption language

By Adrian Collins

I’m a birth mom. Twenty years ago, I gave birth to a baby girl and walked away from the hospital without my daughter. While I succumbed to grief and guilt surrounding my choice, the adoption community was busy coming up with terms that would turn my agony into beautiful language. I don’t call myself “first mother.” I don’t tell others I “made an adoption plan.” I don’t highlight the importance of the “Adoption Triad.” These terms disregard the complex and heart-breaking realities of adoption.

Adoption is both loss and life-giving. Adoption is sometimes pain and sometimes peace. But, adoption is always complicated. Substituting the pain and complexities of adoption with overly positive language neither soothes nor placates the emotional roller coaster of my experience as a birth mom.

The adoption community has created dozens of printable charts that serve to educate adoptive families and the community at large about what language is approved, and what is no longer acceptable. According to some adoption agencies, “Positive adoption vocabulary helps to ensure that adoption is viewed as a wonderful way to build families.” It makes me wonder—were birth moms polled when making this list? Does every birth mom view adoption as a “wonderful way to build a family.”

Positive adoption language appears to favor agencies and adoptive families, leaving some birth moms without a voice.

“Giving Up a Child” versus “Making an Adoption Plan”

I found out I was pregnant during my junior year of college. I’d always dreamed of being a mom one day. Just not  yet. As a college student, I had no way of providing the kind of life I felt my baby deserved. For the majority of nine months I agonized over my decision. In the end, I made the heart-wrenching choice of adoption. I sacrificed my own dreams so my daughter could have hers.

At the hospital, I held her tiny hand and watched as time dwindled away. When the adoptive parents arrived and I had to say goodbye, I kissed my baby softly on her cheek and told her I loved her. Then I left the hospital without my daughter. Yet, I didn’t leave the same person as when I first entered the building. I was broken. I’d left a piece of me behind. For me, it felt like I gave away a perfect and beautiful gift. I didn’t sit down and make a plan for her life. I didn’t make a neat diagram of her future. It wasn’t a orderly arrangement or objective. Instead, I gave her—entrusted her—to another set of parents.

“First Mother versus Birth Mother”

Technically, both of these names are accepted Positive Adoption Language, although I hear more members of the adoption community using the term “First Mother.” To me, First Mother carries with it the notion that I parented my child for an extended period of time. I did not. I did, however, give birth and hold and love my newborn for several hours before giving her to her adoptive family. Therefore, “birth mother” is an acceptable term to me. “Birth mom” does not make me feel like a baby machine without feelings, but it does clarify my role in her life. I gave birth. I am her biological mom. Plain and simple.

The adoption community has spent a large amount of time and care qualifying adjectives for a biological parent, yet feels the need to drop adjectives altogether for an adoptive parent. This feels unfair. The terms “Real Mom” and “Natural Mom” have evolved to Birth Mom and First Mom, yet the term Adoptive Mom is no longer acceptable. An Adoptive Mom is simply, “Mom.” But by dropping the adjective, the adoption community neglects the other mother in the equation. The reality is it took one mom’s sacrifice to make another woman a mom in the first place. An adoptee has both an “adoptive mom” and a “birth mom.” Both are mothers, and both need to be recognized in the life of an adopted child.

The Problem with “Adoption Triad”

Adoption isn’t a perfect triangle with each part working seamlessly together. Instead—it resembles seismic waves with highs and lows that impact a variety of people outside the boundaries of birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees. Its impact reaches far beyond those three sets of people. In its path are birth grandparents, adoptive grandparents, birth siblings, adoptive siblings, spouses, cousins, aunts/uncles, friendships, and so on and so on. It’s a family affair and leaves fingerprints on generations past and future.

When it was time for me to say goodbye to my newborn daughter at the hospital, I asked my dad to carry her to the social worker because I couldn’t bear to do it myself. That moment haunted him for decades—and he kept the heartache buried inside. Although my parents supported my decision, I didn’t realize the trauma they would both continue to carry deep inside. The impact of my decision had certainly  leaked outside the “triad.”

Shapes with straight lines represent structure and order while shapes with curves represent connection and community. Nothing inside the adoption community is neatly structured and in perfect order. If I had a choice, I would call it an adoption nautilus or spiral that represents a journey, transformation, the notion of growth and evolution, circles of life; something that is free-flowing. A spiral encompasses well the changing tides of adoption.

Words evoke powerful feelings. Changing terminology doesn’t change the feelings I carry on a daily basis. This is my story: it’s important to me to choose the words that best describe my experience of adoption—in all of its complexity.

Adrian Collins writes about the real-life complexities of being both a birth mother and an adoptive mother. She is married to her high school sweetheart and a mother of five where they currently reside in Denver, Colorado. Connect with her on Facebook or Instagram @adrianccollins.

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