I gave a talk about motherhood today at my Unitarian Universalist church. I thought I'd share the text of that talk here.
I am male. As a result, you may think I have no business talking about motherhood. Part of me is inclined to agree with you. I am not a mother. I never will be a mother. And so, there are aspects of motherhood I can never understand fully. I will not argue the point.
However, I have something in common with all human beings: I have a mother. We all have had a mother. And that does give us some perspective on the concept of motherhood, whether or not we are, ourselves, mothers.
Our mothers are those that bring us into the world and care for us during our most vulnerable times. For me, this discussion is complicated by the fact that I am adopted. That is not something I discuss in public for the most part. It is something that feels awkward and even shameful. And thus I generally keep it to myself. I have, more recently, spoken a bit more about this reality. It has become important to me to speak out about my experience because if I do not, no one else will. I cannot speak for all adoptees, though I have spoken to many, and shared experiences emerge along predictable lines for many of us. But I am only prepared to speak to my experience. I simply intend to indicate that I do not think I am alone.
Having been adopted means dealing with a question that society does not give us the tools to deal with: Who is my mother?
For years, this question was merely an academic question (though not an unimportant one). After all I had my adoptive parents, who loved me and cared for me as long as I could remember. They did everything that parents are supposed to do. They weren't perfect, just like every parent in the world of humans. My mom was my mom. I knew that somewhere out there was a woman who had given birth to me, but I knew who my mom was. Still, even as a child and adolescent, I had occasion to refer to this other woman. What to call her? For years, she was my "biological mother." I had a mom and a biological mother. Complicated perhaps, but it provided me with language to avoid the deeper question lurking around the corner.
Another potential complication came up when my parents each remarried. My mom remarried first. I called that man my "step-dad." I addressed him by his first name. He never would be my "dad." My dad remarried later, when I was almost sixteen. His wife was my "step-mom," and I had the same attitude towards her. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was not my parent. She provided no guidance nor love. She never earned the title of "mother" in any way, shape, or form.
So for me, for years, it was my mom, and the occasional reference to my biological mother. It was clear, in my mind, who these people were to me. My mom had raised me and given me love and a sense of how I ought to behave. My biological mother had given me life. It was that simple. (I brush past, here, my very complicated feelings regarding adoption itself. My feelings towards my mom were straight-forward, I thought. But not towards adoption. But while those are closely connected, I will try to stay focused on my topic.)
I don't remember when I stopped using the term "biological mother" and began using the term "birth mother." It may have been around the same time I decided to search. It may have been earlier. Searching, and even more being in reunion, began to make me face up to the difficulty that the language had allowed me to gloss over. Because I didn't know anyone else adopted when I was growing up, and because my adoptive family never spoke much about my adoption, I did not hear different language used. No one knew (outside of a few close confidants) that I was adopted. I didn't bring it up. So I avoided many of the insensitive questions that other adoptees have reported hearing.
For me, the first inkling of the problem came shortly after I began my search in earnest. I mentioned it to the administrative assistant in my department. She said something like, "this doesn't change who your real parents are." It was clear to me that she thought my adoptive parents were my "real parents."
I don't think I had ever heard that phrase before. "Real parents." Who are my "real parents"? What does it take to be a "real parent"? Parents care for their children, raise their children. Those seem crucial to the development and even the survival of a child. But the child wouldn't exist at all unless someone had conceived and given birth to him or her.
With two sets of parents (ignoring step-parents and in-laws), which ones were my "real" parents? That seemed like dangerous landscape to venture upon. I decided not to enter into it.
But that wasn't possible. How could it be possible? My search lasted all of about three months. Before I knew it, I was in reunion. This woman, my birth mother, was no longer an abstract concept. She was a real figure in my life. And now that she was here, I had to decide what to do with her. I don't mean what I had to do with her when she visited, or some such. I meant I had to decide where to put her in my interior map of myself. Did I have two mothers? Was one of them "real" and the other one, by parity of reasoning, "not-real"? Do you think the answer is obvious? Maybe it is. It wasn't to me. Perhaps it's still not.
Society does not prepare us, any of us, for this situation. Society is comfortable with having many siblings. We might have many aunts. And we have two grandmothers. But we only have one mother. Right? But if that's right, who is my mother? And who is the other woman, if not my mother?
Does any of this matter? I mean, really. They're just words, right? But I have contended before, and continue to contend, that words have import for us. Words help us structure reality. Indeed, words are one tool we use for creating the world around us. There are certain words that, were I to write them would infuriate some readers to no end. It would be naive to think that words are unimportant to us.
And on this day, can we honestly believe that the word "mother" is not of utmost importance in our lives? Who are we, but for our mothers? For some of us, our mothers are our best friends, our confidants, the person who taught us what love is and means. For others, perhaps our mother was an impediment to growth, someone to be overcome, someone to be fearful of. For yet others, our mothers embody both of these extremes. But our mothers gave us life, and helped form our first impressions of the world. Who we call "mother" says much about our values, our relationships, and who we are. The word carries with it import; let us not kid ourselves about that.
And that is the rub. Society tells us that one person, at most, can occupy this role for each of us. There can be only one. So who is my mother?
The language is destructive. "Birth mother" is rejected by many who feel that that relegates the role of women who relinquish children for adoption to that of an incubator. Their role is to give birth. It reduces a woman to that most basic biological function, but gives her no room to be anything else. Further, it seems odd to use the same qualifier for others in the biological family. What would a "birth father" be? Or a "birth sibling"?
"Real mother" is sometimes applied, I have discovered, to the woman who gave birth to the child, rather than to the adoptive mother. But the suggestion is, as I have already indicated, that the other mother is thus "unreal." And the same is true for another common term, "natural mother." Is the other mother, then, "unnatural"? (There are those who would say yes to that question.)
Why do we need these qualifiers at all? Because there is a confusion inherent in the way we talk. We know (in that way in which we know things but cannot explain them - or to put the point more clearly we don't really know) that people have only one mother. So we need a qualifier to talk about the other woman. We could, of course, talk about mothers and adoptive mothers. But that, too, seems to minimize the love and care shown for the child by the woman who adopted him or her (assuming the adoptive mother showed that love and care).
But the language aside, even if I find the right qualifier, is this woman who gave birth to me, my mother?
Well, that's the question, isn't it? What is a mother? A female parent, perhaps. But we then just want to know what a parent is. And, we may find something vaguely disquieting about that. After all, mothers occupy a sacred place in our thinking, as I have already indicated in my opening. While I have long held that we must not minimize the importance of fathers, this is a day for thinking about mothers. And reducing the question to that of "parent" seems to ignore something important. But what? What is a mother? Who is a mother? What qualifies one to be called "mother"?
And for me, in reunion, this question took the form of, do I call this woman who gave birth to me "mother"? But in order to answer that question, I needed to know what a mother was. The problem seems insurmountable.
One person online (and this is not an uncommon position, though he states it in a particularly inflammatory way) claims: "A mother is someone who takes care of you, loves you unconditionally. would never leave you and always has you by her side no matter what. So just because you carry a child for 9 months and then give them away, your still a mother? I strongly disagree...thats not a mother, more like incubator." This claim seems common, especially among a certain sort of people who want to minimize the importance of the first mothers. (That, incidentally, is the qualifier I've currently settled on. Even "first" is objectionable to some. But it seems the least loaded term, and I need something to help distinguish which mother I'm talking about.) By stressing the importance of the nurturing aspect of motherhood, they seek to minimize the importance of the connections that are due to nature.
For me, the rub is that this won't do. If I accept this view of what a mother is, then I don't have one. The mother I'm related to through biology didn't keep me by her side no matter what. She did not have the choice to take care of me. But neither did the mother I'm related to by law. When she and my father divorced, I was only seven years old. My father got custody. My mother thus left my side. I knew she wanted to be there. But she couldn't. If this defines what it means to be a mother, then I lose out.
What if we ignore the claim, which seems to be hyperbole anyway, that a mother never leaves? That seems to leave us with someone who loves you unconditionally. If that seems the right view, then I have two mothers. For both of the women in my life whom I might call mother love me unconditionally. Either one would do anything for me. Indeed, I know that both women who might be my mother wanted to be with me. They wanted the very best for me.
Adoptees, though, often feel a great deal of loyalty to their adoptive family. That is why many adoptees don't search at all for their first families, or at least wait long into their adulthood to search. During a search, and even after reunion, adoptees will often reiterate that they love their adoptive family, much more so than most other people. And many adoptees resist ever calling their first mother their "mother." They will say that they have a mother already and don't need a second one. And we want to make sure that we do not hurt the family that raised us.
Not every adoptee who searches finds the love and acceptance that I did when I found my first mom. Sometimes, they experience rejection. Of course, it's also true that not every adoptee has a loving adoptive mother. So while it feels like I have a problem, perhaps it's better to have a problem of trying to figure out which of two women is my mother, than not having any woman in my life who seems like a mother.
I cannot say, for all kinds of obvious reasons, what it feels like to be a mother. In that sense, perhaps I have no way of answering my questions. Of course, since we all have a mother, we know what that's like. Perhaps I can't speak to the love of the mother from her side, but I know what it feels like from the object of that love.
But even that seems confused. After all, being loved by the woman who gave birth to you is different than being loved by a woman who took you in. Is it better or worse? I don't think that kind of comparison really applies. But it does seem different somehow. And there is something odd about having the woman who gave you life be different from the woman who nurtures you.
Part of the problem, in this discussion, it has begun to become clear to me, is the idealization of motherhood in our society. When trying to give a definition of what a "mother" is, many people pick out the positive ideals. The definition I gave earlier from one person is, I suspect, merely that person's ideal. No one could be that person. We should not assume that only someone who exemplifies some ideal counts as a mother. Some mothers, biological, adopted, or otherwise are lousy parents, whether through neglect or abuse. Not all mothers are good mothers. Even the good mothers are not perfect. No one is. No one should be expected to be perfect.
Most people know who their mothers are, good or bad. Their mothers gave birth to them and raised them. For the adoptee, those two different, yet important, functions are provided by two different women. Both women share some features of what a mother is. For me, both women are my mother.
My first mom gave me more than just my DNA. She has been with me my entire life. I didn't always realize how. But she has been with me my entire life. And my adoptive mom has been with me for almost as long. I won't deny that that creates a great deal of confusion, and some amount of pain. But this day, this Mother's Day, I finally have personal relationships with both my mothers. I know the love of these two wonderful women.
So what does all this mean? It means that, from my perspective, given the complications inherent in adoption, there is no single meaning for the word "mother." Whether she gives birth or raises you... Whether she does a good job raising you or not... There is something special about the relationship between child and mother. It is unquantifiable. I am glad to have both of my moms.
This was originally posted at Informed Adoption Advocates.