"The one where I lose half of my followers"
I am going to make a disclaimer now: I am not a parent. Not through biology, birth or adoption. I get that I may not be able to fully grasp all of the emotional layers that goes into this subject. I look at it from all the points of view - but I usually make my decision on a subject with the child's best interests in mind. That means that sometimes, I decide that how the parents' (any type) feel not the most important. Please don't' misunderstand - everyone's feelings are important. But I generally err on the side the one person in the adoption triad that never got a choice about anything - and that is the adopted person.
I know that I've talked about how I use certain terms before - how I use them on the blog and how I speak about them in real life. But this post is more than just a discussion about names and labels. It is about the differences between the worlds of domestic, international, and foster care adoption. I read a lot about all forms of adoption - their joys, tragedies, and ethical issues cover a lot of the same bases. But I do notice some interesting differences - especially when it comes to the differences between international & domestic infant adoption vs. foster-to-adopt adoption.
Recently I read a blog post by a parent who has adopted children from foster care. (I make the distinction that her children came from foster care because I think how the children come into a family makes a difference in how adoptive parents feel about their children's biological family.)
The following is some (edited for space, emphasis mine) of the blog post:
I received a notice about upcoming conferences and was happily reading away when I noticed that one of them had a caution that certain words are not to be used at the conference ... currently objectionable terms included “birth mother” and “biological parent”... and were to be replaced with “first parent” and “natural family”.
But, what about others not using words or phrases that hurt me? I thought “natural family” went out 20 years ago. We all know what the opposite of “natural family” is – right, it’s *unnatural family* ie the adoptive family.
And, let’s face it, those people who might be considered “natural family” were, for many of the children we adopt, the same people who beat them, starved them, raped them, and permanently harmed their brains with pre-natal exposure to alcohol. I don’t lump these people in with the women who chose, either because of emotional coercion or economics or youth, to place their babies for adoption, but there is clearly an expectation that the terms that are being bandied about are to be used for all genetic parents regardless of how their offspring came to be available for adoption.
I also react to the word “first mother” in reference to the one who gave birth. Does that mean I’m to be referred to as “15th mother” because I was the 15th to one of the my children, the 14th to another, the 11th to another, and I was, at the very least, the 3rd mother to others. Well, I don’t like that.
Truly...my family is not the opposite of “natural”. I don’t normally care how others see that, or what they want to call me, but this time, it irked me to the extreme. I’ll do my best not to use words that hurt others...but darn it, I want the same in return.
I think part of the problem with names and labels is the tendency to look at them all with their opposites. If one person is the "natural" parent - the other must be "unnatural", if one is the "first" (ie winner), the other must be "second" (ie loser). Though, if strict rules in opposites were being followed, adoptive parents would be the "last parents" which I actually like the sound and meaning of!
But we only really do this in the foster/adoption community. We don't look at two biological parents and think - "If she's the "mom", he must be the "non-mom", do we? Of course not! We give fathers their own name, completely separate from "mom" - we call him "dad".
It seems pretty obvious to me that just because we use the word "first mom" or "natural father" doesn't reflect anything about the parents who adopt that child. The term for these parents hasn't changed in years as far as I can tell - we call them "adoptive mom" and "adoptive dad". It is a term that explains how they came into their role in the child's life. I haven't heard anyone say that they feel put down or stigmatized by it. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if you use the words "adoptive parent" around most of the general public, their response would be 100% positive.
"Adoptive parent" describes someone who was selfless, open hearted, and willing to love a child who was not born from their body.** Most people look pretty favorably on that title. There is not much reason for adoptive parents to want to change it right now.
But the terms "biological parent" and "birth parent" can carry a prejudicial meaning. When most people think of a "birth mother" in a domestic infant adoption, they think of someone too young or too poor to parent their child. At best it is just the "too young" or "too poor" part! At worst, a "birth mother" is someone who shamefully got pregnant out of wedlock and needed to cover up her mistakes. In international adoption, "birth parent" may mean someone who died, which is terribly sad, or someone who could not provide for their child due to the poverty or pandemic illnesses of their home country. **
With domestic and international adoption it is easier to imagine calling a woman who "loved her child enough to give them more" the child's "first mother". It feels okay to give her that place of honor - even though most still agree that the baby is "better off" with his new family.
However, when someone thinks of the "biological parents" of a child in foster care it is obvious what goes through their mind - irresponsible, uncaring, abusive, mean, angry, monster.
We certainly don't think they deserve any positive recognition do we? So, we strip them down to the bare bones. Only necessary in the "biological" aspect or responsible for the child's "birth". In child welfare, the term "biological parent" becomes prejudicial because it is used for every parent that comes through the system, irregardless of circumstances or outcomes.
Most people don't even think about the real reasons that the child comes into care - addiction, poverty, mental illness, generations of broken families. I even see it on forums and blogs that are "anti" adoption - they are generally anti domestic and international adoption. But they totally understand the need for adoption in the cases of children that have been abused or neglected by their biological parents.
And let me tell you - it makes me pretty furious sometimes.
Because the truth is,
I don't believe that the parent who willingly signed away her rights at birth is a more loving parent than the ones that kept their children and abused or neglected them.
I truly don't.
I don't believe that those parents discovered they were pregnant and decided to keep the baby with the intention of putting them through hell. I've never met a mother who told me, "I hated that baby from the minute I laid eyes on him". I've never heard of a father who said, "We decided to have our daughter, but decided not to feed her or hold her". I've never met a family whose children were removed, and their first reaction was, "Great, we never cared about them anyways".
In fact, most of the parents whose children are removed, fight to have them returned to their care. Some don't fight as hard as others. Some are not able to change their circumstances enough to have their children returned to them. Some go about things the wrong way - they can't get past their anger or accept their part in a situation - and lash out. Some appear to not care- they don't participate in services or visit regularly - but they hang on, they won't relinquish their rights.
Because they want to make their child's life miserable?
I don't believe so.
I believe it is because, despite their issues and limitations, they love their child.
Why do adoptive parents, who understand that "love isn't enough" to cure the problems that their foster children come with, believe that it should have been enough for the parents? Loving their child doesn't cure a parent's mental illness, doesn't erase their own horrific childhood, doesn't negate their addictions and pull them out of generational poverty. Just as many adoptive parents discover that loving their adopted children won't cure, erase, or negate their children's issues or past either.
So, why do foster/adoptive parents make the names of biological/birth/first parents about themselves? Who does it harm to give their biological family an extra benefit of the doubt and a less prejudiced title? Does it really hurt anyone to call them "first" or "natural" - even if you don't feel they deserve it? Does it make your adopted child love you less? Does it make you love your adopted child less? (Why do we try to quantify "love" at all?!?) Just because we call them "first parents" doesn't make you less of a parent to the child in your home - especially not in the eyes of the child. They don't call you anything but "Mom" and "Dad"- isn't that what is most important?
I'm not immune to feeling frustrated and angry about the things that children are put through. I have seen the marks on children's bodies. I've heard the atrocities from the child's own lips. I've witnessed the never ending struggle to process, accept, and move past the hurts. But to be brutally honest, most foster children weren't just hurt by their natural families. They were hurt, neglected, and abandoned my many well intentioned foster parents too.
And every foster child I have known has been very identified with their natural parents. They take on the issues of their parents - especially their struggles. The child already believes that they are the problem, and likewise must be the solution, to their parents' issues. And if we tell a child that their parents are 'bad' - they incorporate that into themselves as well.
As an adult, an adopted person will decide what value they want to ascribe to their first family. Some will insist that they don't think about them or need them at all - their adoptive parents are their "real" and only parents. Others will want and need to establish their place and meaning within their biological families. They will decide if "first", "birth", "biological", "natural" or some other term describes their feelings and relationship with their original parents.
Until then, I will try to use whatever term is deemed most "neutral" or "positive" or "PC". Because it gives the benefit of the doubt to parents who I believe love their children despite their limitations. Because I believe that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, even when I don't like their actions. But most importantly, because at the end of the day I hope that it will help the children who are caught in the middle of a situation that they did not ask for and can not control.
** I realize that not everyone will agree with these generalizations, nor are they 100% percent accurate. My point was that if asked, a majority of the general population would agree with these definitions or assumptions about the players in foster care and adoption.