Side-tracked

I got a message on Facebook the other day from someone who took offense to my using the word birthmother. I was glad to receive it. It made me stop and think about how I describe Virginia Peters. Sometimes I just use her name, Virginia M. Peters. Other times I use mother. I have no trouble with that, though I admit using mom usually does not feel right. Still other times, I`ve used birthmother. And it is the use of that word to which my Facebook friend objects. Believing the correct term should be ¨first mother,¨ she said: ¨Every child has a first mother, the one who conceives, nurtures and carries him until he is ready to be born. She is the one who has all the right material to raise her baby. Please call us first mothers.¨

Hmmmmm. That set me thinking. Years ago the term was biological mother. That fell out of favor, and the term birthmother gained popularity. Now, many mothers who have surrendered their child to adoption wish to be referred to as first mothers. I am sensitive to the names used in adoption (I was adopted, but I do not always like to be referred to as an adoptee). If a mother relinquished her child for adoption and wants to be called the first mother, I respect that. When, in my story, I try that term on for size, it does not ring true for me.

But my friend has a point. Now that I think about it, the term birthmother does not feel quite right either. Maybe I am guilty of simply using outdated and time-worn terminology. Birthmother, as a term, implies the single act of giving birth. In my case, my mother not only conceived and gave birth to me, she kept me for the better part of 2 years. Then she gave me away. To refer to her solely as a birthmother acknowledges only the act of giving birth and nothing more (even though, in trying to come to terms with everything, I have, at times, called her a few other things that might not quite fit either). One could reasonably argue that Virginia Peters was my first mother, as in she was the first person in my life who was also my mother. But I don’t want to use a term simply because others tell me to do so. I don’t want to use it because others tell me to do otherwise demonstrates a lack of respect for all women who have relinquished their child for adoption. I do respect them. But I also I want to respect my mothers, both of them. I want to respect myself as well. For my story, I want to use terms that work for me, that feel right to me.

Years ago, when I was a lawyer, I represented a courageous woman, Marilyn Burson. In the 1960’s Marilyn found herself alone and pregnant in Buffalo, New York. She tried desperately to keep her baby boy. She was very close to working it out, but the right combination of family support and a steady income were devastatingly elusive. She wrestled back and forth with what to do, while the Agency involved pushed her towards adoption. Finally, when all else seemed hopeless, she agreed, on one condition: that if the Agency were not able to arrange a suitable adoption, Marilyn would get her boy back. After she signed the relinquishment papers (after receiving reassurances about her condition), she continued to search for the economic means for the return of her baby. She wrote letters to the agency, asking for news of her baby and seeking his return. The letters went unanswered. She visited the agency and was rebuffed. She received no further information. Years went by with no word. As the political climate began to change a bit in the 1980’s, Marilyn kept pressing the Agency for information. She delivered a letter to the Agency on her boy’s 18th birthday, in case he wanted to look for her. Incredibly, more than 20 years after she had (conditionally) relinquished her baby boy for adoption, the Agency told her the awful truth. The baby had been placed in a home nearby for prospective adoption. Within just a few weeks, and before any adoption, the baby was electrocuted when he touched both an old television and electrical outlet simultaneously. The prospective adoptive parents were not even home when the tragedy occurred. The boy was dead instantly, and no one bothered to tell the mother. Marilyn was not a birthmother (though there is a photo of her from an adoption march holding a sign saying ¨birthparents care forever¨). She was not even a first mother. She was, simply, the mother, a mother the Agency totally ignored for over 20 years. The baby was buried in the family plot of the prospective adoptive family, and the truth was kept from Marilyn. When she found out the basics of what happened, she sued to unseal the Agency’s records. Marilyn also sought to have her baby disinterred and laid to rest in her own family burial plot. One cannot imagine the grief she felt. I flew up to Buffalo to argue her case before the Supreme Court. When the case was called, Marilyn’s request was formally made known to the Court.  The several hundred people in the Courtroom (for their own legal matters) stopped what they were doing. There was total silence, except from the hallway outside the Court room. A baby was crying. We argued what seemed unthinkable. Since there was never an adoption, the prospective adoptive parents had no legal right to bury the child as their own. The Agency had no right to permit it. The Agency also had no right to withhold information from Marilyn. The tragic death terminated the agency, the legal authority by which the Agency was authorized to act. We demanded the unsealing of all of the Agency’s records. We demanded that Marilyn be permitted to disinter her baby and re-inter him in her own family plot. Though arguably entitled to money damages, Marilyn was not interested in suing the Agency for financial gain. She was interested in telling the world that you cannot treat people in the manner in which she and her baby were treated.

Because of the sensationalism surrounding the case, we retired to argue privately in the Judge’s chambers. The lawyer for the Agency, pressing for the continued sealing of the records, noted that in Marilyn’s Petition for relief, she used the word ¨I¨ 18 different times.  The point? – that she was being selfish when she should be thinking of others (who, you night ask? her baby?). In the end, the case was settled. Against her wishes, the baby remained in the burial plot of the prospective adoptive parents. Marilyn was given the location and permission to visit the grave (though still buried under the surname of the family that had yet to adopt him). She had made her point, and there was nothing possible to do to bring her baby boy back. I respect the dignity with which Marilyn pressed her cause. I am humbled by the pain she felt. It may well have contributed to her early death from cancer. In my life, when I have come across woe-is-me moments, I have thought or Marilyn and her baby. In trying to answer my friend who objected to me using the term birthmother, I see the image of Marilyn Burson holding that sign, declaring that birthmothers care forever. There is a point there someplace.

Though I was glad to receive the message from my Facebook friend, I have to admit my first reaction was ….. it’s my book – I’ll call Virginia what I want to call her! That was maybe not a particularly mature response. After all, my friend did take the time to write me. Okay, she seemed more interested in what I called Virginia than in my story, but that’s cool – she obviously read at least part of what I wrote. For that I am (dare I say?) grateful. By the way, I never understood the word ¨grateful¨, or ¨gratefully¨, for that matter. If grate means to irritate or annoy persistently, why is grateful a good thing? Wouldn’t one just be full of irritating and annoying behavior? When one says an adoptee is not grateful for being adopted, what’s that all about?  Normally, no one asks to be adopted, so the whole ¨grateful¨  thing seems a bit of a set-up. Since I was, in  fact, adopted, how is it that I get called an ingrate for something that was essentially arranged without my participation? And how do I, down the line, end up getting called ungrateful? Shouldn’t the word be ungreatful? – as in not being full of thanks? Well, there you go – they should be saying thankless.  And yet, it is right there in our lexicon. . . . when an adoptee acts up he/she is considered ungrateful, an ingrate. I was called that a few times. You’re ungrateful!!!! Grate seems to come from Middle English (by way of the French), and grateful has its roots in Latin. No matter. Anybody who would call someone ungrateful for their adoption probably loses at chess. But I digress.

I respect my friend’s participation in the struggle to change our vocabulary, to continue to advance the cause of mothers who have relinquished their children for adoption, maybe all mothers. I was confused, though, by her statement that (the first mother) ¨has all the right material to raise her baby.¨ I didn’t understand what that had to do with arguing that mothers who relinquish their children for adoption should be called first mothers. So I asked. She explained that she is an advocate for family preservation (I am too) – that babies thrive from the sound, smell and milk of their first mothers (I’m with you). She argued that babies look in their mother’s eyes to connect them to the world, and that is the first thing on which babies try to focus (I agree – I  even saw it myself, with each of my own boys). She went on to define a first mother as someone who carries and gives birth to an infant (what others before have referred to as biological mothers or birthmothers). And while she did say ¨please try to respect us enough to use that term¨ (???), she later added that she respects anyone who cares enough to think about the issues (okay I like her again).

First mother, to me, seems a politically charged phrase. ¨First¨ is a word susceptible of several meanings (kudos to the person that thought of using it in this context). If one simply means first, as in original, I understand. A woman who conceives a child and carries that child to term, then relinquishes it for adoption, is still a mother. And she is the first one that came along, to be followed by an adoptive mother. Absolutely. I get it. But like so many words in our lexicon (including lexicon), first has other meanings. It means coming before all others in time or order, but first also means being foremost in position, rank, or importance. That’s where I get a little squeamish. As an adjective, it can mean ranking above all others. Why do I have to rank my mothers?

Maybe the proponents of using ¨first mother¨ argue that the intended definition is simply to denote the original mother. If that’s so, why not use ¨original mother¨? First mother feels, for me, ambiguous – a double entendre. I don’t want to be a party to ambiguity. I have had enough of that for one lifetime. Emma May Vilardi, a saint in the adoption movement, once said: ¨A mother can love more than one child. Why can’t a child love more than one mother?¨ (she might have been quoting someone else, maybe Jean Paton). I like that quote. It’s simple, direct and rings true to me,  but I do not want to be pigeonholed into categorizing my mothers, intentionally or unintentionally. I can understand why some people who wish to be called first mothers believe that all of these definitions apply, and in some instances maybe they do. But I feel like the person on Facebook who, not sure of the answer, lists their relationship status as ¨It’s complicated.¨

Part of me believes I have the right to call Virginia whatever I wish to call her, within the bounds of respect and decency. Biological mother, birthmother, first mother, mom, mother, mother for a little while (just kidding. . . . ). As an adoptee (no, as a person who was adopted and am now an adult), my adoption and my story is my experience, no matter how universal the themes may be. I have sometimes used my mother’s name to describe her, Virginia M. Peters. I have done that because, at that particular moment, that is what felt correct. In doing so I am not seeking to diminish her stature in my life. I have devoted a substantial amount of time in my life trying to figure out the significance of everything she set in motion years ago. It is not my intention to ignore the fact that she gave birth to me or, indeed, did quite a bit more than that.

Other times I have used the term birthmother, for a number of reasons. I am going to think about it before using it again, because my friend is right that birthmother does not do justice to my mother’s contribution to my life. I have been around the adoption movement for a long time and remember when I first heard that term and when I met, for the first time, what was then known as a birthmother. Earlier, when I met Olga Scarpetta, the mother of Baby Lenore, the term birthmother was not yet common usage. In 1983, I sat in a roomful of what were then called birthmothers, at an American Adoption Congress Conference in Columbus, Ohio (I was scared). When I have used the term birthmother in referring to my mother in my life,  I have never meant to diminish her contributions. I also, by using that term, never meant to imply she simply gave birth to me and did nothing else. For me, that would not only be inaccurate, it would be just a small part of the story. She did a lot more than just give birth to me – good things and not so good things. I want to tell that story, as much for myself and my kids as anything else. It is something that I have been promising myself  to do for years. I have also found it incredibly difficult for me to accomplish.

I appreciate what my Facebook friend implies by her message, that  the term birthmother is limiting – in the sense it evokes a feeling that a birthmother does nothing more than get pregnant, give birth, and then move on down the road. Although it does not mean that for me, I can see where some people might feel belittled by the word. I am thankful (as opposed to grateful) to my friend for pointing it out. I can’t promise her that I will start referring to Virginia as first mother. When I met all those women who were then called birthmothers in the AAC conference room in Ohio, it took me a while to understand and accept that adoption affects more people than just those who were adopted. Over the years, and through my search, I have run the gamut of emotions concerning Virginia Peters. The other day, I spoke with a good friend, also adopted, about this issue after my Facebook friend wrote to me. We both agreed that, for us, the  preferable term is not biological mother, birthmother, or even first mother. It is, simply, mother.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this subject, especially your final words.

    I am a mom. Who lost her firstborn child to adoption. Although when it’s necessary to give title to myself, I prefer anything except birthmother!

    Susie

  2. I truly believe the term “First Mother” is outdated.
    Birth Mother is the term used most often these days.
    Please check with the adoption groups on Yahoo, such as Theregistry, Soaring Angels, Adoption-Search-Angels, and Adoption Cafe. Also check with posting sites such as Adoption.com or Reunion.com.

    • Thanks Emily, though I think it is the other way around? The term birthmother came into usage in the early 1980’s (I am – unfortunately! – old enough to remember), and the term first mother more recently – those people see first mother as a more progressive description than birthmother.

  3. When I was a child, my Mom (adoptive) always referred to my Mother as my “Natural Mother”… Then when I got active in search and reform the term others used was Birth-mother; and, now I am hearing First Mother. To be honest, the woman who gave birth to me, the one that named me and then gave my younger sister my name as her middle name… That woman is my one and only Mother. She’s not the first because I wasn’t supposed to have more than one. She’s not a ‘birth’ mother because giving birth was not her job. When I am speaking to someone about both my “mothers” I use Natural Mother and Adoptive Mother… oh, and then there is Mother-in-Law. Come to think of them now – how would I have addressed my Mother. I always called my Mom, Mom or Mama and I call John’s mom Trudie…


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