September 21st, 2006
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FirstWe all have our personal preferences when it comes to titles, don’t we? For example, I have a Papaw and a Grandpa; I would never call one Grandpa and the other Papaw. We are currently trying to decide who gets what title in regards to the eleven grandparents and great-grandparents that our Son Nicholas has; and those are just the living ones. It will come down to personal preference, tradition and, in the end, what Nicholas wants to call these people who are so important in his life.

So it is with adoption terminology. I, myself, prefer the term firstmother. Why? It was a slow evolvement. Originally, shortly after the placement of my firstborn, her Mom asked me what I would prefer to be called. Having never heard any of the other names, I said that birthmother was just fine. D, Munchkin’s Mom, went so far as to ask me whether I would like the title of Munchkin’s Mother. Still in the throes of postpartum hormonal outfall, I declined stating a desire to avoid confusion as my reasoning.


I went a long while calling myself a birthmother. It was not until my Husband and I had our first child that I began to rethink my original decision on which title I preferred. (In fact, you will see through my writings that the birth of my Son changed many of my thought processes. (Don’t all children?) After I placed Munchkin with J & D, I spent hours upon hours researching how to heal as a birthmother. I joined group upon group, hoping to find someone who understood what I was thinking and feeling. Some of these women called themselves birthmothers as well. Then we had Lifemothers, a name chosen by Skye Hardwick who has written a great deal as to why she chose that specific title. I found other titles that felt disrespectful to my daughter’s Mom. Then I found the title of Firstmother.

When I was reevaluating who I was to the Munchkin in those months after the birth of our Son, I found myself coming back to the term Firstmother. It seemed to click with something in my heart; in that one place that no one else fits or belongs but the Munchkin. At first, I tried to put my finger on in by saying that since she was my Firstborn, it made sense to call myself her Firstmother. Then I started to think about other firsts.

I have missed many firsts throughout her life. However, due to our fully open adoption, I was present on the day that she swam by herself for the first time. I also witnessed her first time jumping in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Yet I missed the first steps. I do not know her first word. And oh, if only I could have been there the first time she sang her alphabet. Thoughts like these really bogged me down. My heart felt heavy. I knew that I had to be looking at something wrong, that I was viewing things in the wrong light for some reason.

That is when it hit me: the title of Firstmother was working for me because I made the first decisions for her, as her Mother. I got her the prenatal care she needed to come out healthy. As it was a very complicated birth that put not only her health but also my own in jeopardy, it was not exactly the easiest task. I ate as healthy as I could during the pregnancy to assure that she was getting all of the proper nutrients; I wanted my daughter to be strong, to be healthy. In the end, I made that final parenting decision and placed her in the arms of J & D. After that point, all Motherly decisions were no longer my own but theirs even if they consider me in certain ways when making decisions. Yet, I made those first very important decisions for her with her best interest at heart.

She will always be my firstborn. I will always be her Firstmother. And someday she will choose what to call me. Right now, the name Jenna, from her lips, is the most beautiful sound on Earth.

With that, I encourage you to speak about titles within your own adoption situation. If you would prefer a different title, politely address the topic. Respectful titling goes all ways on every street, with grandparents, parents, children, siblings and, yes, even first parents.

Speaking of politely addressing topics, in my next post, I’I will go over some pointers on how to address touchy issues with adoptive parents without stepping on anyone’s toes. (Or vice versa!)

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27 Responses to “Adoption Language: Titles and my Preference”

  1. pieberry says:

    I’m glad you brought this topic up. There was a post recently on transracial adoption blog about the same thing. It’s nice to see the topic discussed from the other side as well. Our situation is a bit different as we are adopting an infant from Ethiopia (not to the referral stage yet). There is a strong chance that we will never know who her birth/first/original parents are let alone be able to have contact with them. So it will probably be up to us to choose what names to call them. I had always thought birth parents just because I had never heard of anything else. I do realize now how that term can have a less than desired meaning. However, being on the adopting end, I don’t really prefer the term first mother either. It’s probably from my own insecurities. It would make me “second mother” which I guess in reality I am, but it feels like it has the connotation of meaning second best when I hear it in my head. After seeing the post on the other board DH and I have been talking a lot about it and have decided to use the African (Amharic) names for mother and father. We feel this will lesson confusion while tying our daughter to her culture of birth and giving her terms of endearment to use for her birth/first/original parents while not making us feel “second best”. If, when she gets older, she chooses different terms we will of course honor her wishes. We feel this is what will work best for our family but everyone is different.

  2. Welcome, Jenna.

    I do wish you guys would pick a title, though. Those of us trying to do things right get a lot of conflicting info.

    Should I use ‘birth mom’… two words, no caps … with Jan, and “Firstmother”…caps and one word… with you? And you’re both on the same blog, facryinoutloud! No wonder this can be such an issue!

    (All this written with a light-hearted touch and as much warmth as can be conveyed in this little box…and a smile.)

  3. pieberry; I encourage you to work through your insecurities before you bring your child home. Children are all too quick to pick up on our insecurities. If for some reason you are conveying that you don’t feel secure in your role as Mother, it will be harder for your child to respect you as a Mother. (Note: that goes for ALL Moms; biological, adoptive, foster, step or otherwise.)

    That said, I know absolutely nill about Ethiopian adoption. I admit that one. :) However, if Ethiopia handles adoption like many other international ones, your child will be in foster care for a bit, yes? (I don’t know if they do orphanages or not; educate me, please.) If so, I encourage you to read a little of ThirdMom whose Son had a unique perspective on all of the parents, past and present, in his life. If children are secure with having more than one set of parents, why can’t we, as adults, do the same?

    Sandra; Though your post was a cute, warm welcome, it does bring up the issue, doesn’t it? To respond to your light-hearted question, you should, honestly, refer to a firstmom/birthmom/bio mom/original mom/whatever as she so desires. This works easiest when the Mother we are referring to is NOT involved in YOUR adoption. You can just simply call her whatever it is that she prefers and all will be well with the world. The problem comes in when the adoptive parents and that title-goes-here-parents don’t agree on what to call the other. Respectful and honest communication on the matter are needed. Which I will be posting about this evening. ;)

  4. The Moose says:

    Great post. I love reading into the hearts of others. I have no chance of understanding all you must feel as a Firstmother but through your writing I can gain a little perspective.

  5. Moose; I look forward to reading about you as well. Thanks for stopping in. And I do try to offer perspective. Sometimes I fail. ;)

  6. Thanks, Jenna. My quandary doesn’t stem, however, from what to call a person…whatever works for them works for me…but rather how to refer to the collective community. Since I write about adoption every day, this comes up often. From what I gather, the collective community debates this, as well. What’s a blogger to do?

    Sorry to start poking my finger into your pie on the first slice!

  7. Yeah -
    we can’t say birthmother for someone who is thinking of placing. She is the prospective birth mother. Do we say prospective firstmother? Or is the firstmother always the firstmother even if she decides not to place?
    I don’t need an answer – I’m just yanking your chain. I’m with Sandra – I want to be respectful when writing but I don’t always know what to call who!
    We call my son’s birth mother his Russian mother, since that differentiates her from me well. He lived with her for 7 months so I don’t think of her as “just” a birth mother or a bio mom.

  8. Oh gosh, not that a birth mother is “just” anything.
    See where we run into problems?

  9. Heather Lowe says:

    Sandra, unfortunately I don’t think you will ever manage to make the entire community happy, because all of us don’t agree on everything. (The CUB list just went through a massive brawl on terminology.)

    I think this is true in most communities formed on pain, loss or social misunderstandng (like minorities, the oppressed, etc.) We come to these groups with very different experiences and perceptions, so it’s natural that many of us choose to identify ourselves differently.

    So while you can’t win with some people, you will probably be generally okay if you stick with something the majority seems okay with, such as birth mother or first mother. And if someone then complains, don’t worry about it, because it wasn’t your intent to be insensitive.

  10. JudyK says:

    Great to read your first post here, Firstmother Jenna. Good job!!

  11. Seems to me that before she has made the placement decision, she is simply the mother….?

    Well, of course! But generally in the Hoping to Adopt blog I’m talking about a person who my readers are hoping to adopt from…so I call her the prospective birth mother. I think there’s a difference between being a prospective birth mother and a mother, since the former is considering adoption and the latter isn’t.
    But here we go –

  12. Adrienne said:

    Seems to me that before she has made the placement decision, she is simply the mother….?

    Mary, mom to many

    PS–And about the Ethiopia system– the kids are in orphanages before they come home….

  13. Overwhelmed! says:

    Jena, excellent post. I think I’ll be having another conversation with Snuggle Bug’s “birthmother” to make sure that is indeed what she’d like to be called. I have absolutely no problem with using Firstmother, if she likes it.

  14. pieberry says:

    Jenna – Maybe I should clarify. I’m not even sure why I put that in there about being insecure. I have three biological children and feel extremely secure in my abilities to parent my biological children as well as my future adopted children. We have always planned on embracing our future childs culture, heritage, and family(whether we know anything about them or not). I want her to know who she is and where she comes from and to be proud of that. In no way am I trying to devalue the part they they play in my childs life and history. Maybe I just said that because I was trying to be nice. To be honest, I just do not like the term “first mother”. It rubs me the wrong way. I think that every family has to work out what is best for them. For some this might be the perfect fit and for others not. When speaking to a community at large I think as long as a person uses whatever their chosen term is with respect and honor then I don’t see what the problem is. There will never be one set term everyone uses or one set term everyone evens finds acceptable. We just have to respect others choices for using the words they do.

    PS – the children in Ethiopia are in orphanages. Infants do not usually remain there for a great length of time as they are placed rather quickly and travel times are short after referral. Usually 6-8 weeks if all goes well.

  15. leftofright says:

    I’m assuming that the title bears more importance for you since you have given up a child for adoption. Our plan has always been to tell it like it is. While ‘firstmother’ is not something that I’ll suggest to my kids, I don’t have a hang-up about how they refer to birthparents. My parents have weird names for themselves as grandparents, but it seems to make them happy…

  16. Jan Baker says:

    What a welcome! I am very pleased that Jenna is joining me/us as a first mom blogger.

  17. JustJayne says:

    That is when it hit me: the title of Firstmother was working for me because I made the first decisions for her, as her Mother

    You got it exactly right, Jenna. You couldn’t have said it more perfectly.

  18. Ah, leftofright; I did no giving up. I’ll discuss that some day.

    Jan; :)

    Jayne; thanks. :)

    pieberry; :) Thanks for the info on Ethiopia as well. I love learning these interesting little bits.

    Heather and Sandra; while I do refer to myself as firstmother and use it often in my writing, I also respond fine to birthmother in others’ writing. If that makes ANY sense. ;) Sometimes I don’t. It’s kind of like how some people call me Jen and some people call me Jenna. But only my Dad can call me Jenny. ;)

    Okay. I’m rambled out.

  19. Mo says:

    I like your post and I enjoyed the comments. When I think of my mother in Korea, I generally think of her as my birth mother and I probably won’t stop thinking of her this way. I didn’t choose that title because I felt that she was less than a first mother, but because it is a comfortable word for me to use. Personally, I think that it’s all in the delivery. Anyone can take any title and make it sound great or horrible just by the words that they use around it. Just like Jenna says…I have been called multiple variations of my name and, as long as the variation is respectful, I answer to them without hesitation. Yet, I have a preference and that is how I introduce myself.

  20. Mo; you sure hit the nail on the head there. :) Can I call you Mo? ;)

  21. Dr. G says:

    i’m another one who is comfortable and secure in referring to my daughters’ other mom, as their, mom, other mom, mommy, mother. i also have a biological son and i always thought that had something to do with my basic confidence as a mother, period. but maybe, i’m wrong about that and being a biological mother before becoming an adoptive mother doesn’t have a single thing to do with one’s comfort level in refering to the first mom as mom.

  22. Dr G; Interesting points. I think it’s just a case by case basis regarding that certain comfort level. D wasn’t a biological Mother first but she was a stepmom first. It’s all very interesting to look at the dynamics of others’ adoptions and do a healthy compare and contrast. ;)

  23. Angela says:

    Welcome Jenna, I am enjoyed your introduction blog.

    I will admit that I am just a little bit jealous. 23 comments is a record for

  24. Coley S. says:

    Welcome to the blogs Jenna! I was glad to see your name as the new blogger – your writing is usually so thought provoking.

    I posted about this not too terribly long ago myself. It is a big debate. I too, prefer the term firstmother but in my everyday writing and lingo I tend to use birthmother as it is more common and people tend to know what I am talking about when I use that term, although I do still find myself having to explain that term to people outside the adoption community.

  25. Angela; :) I feel famous. Or something nerdier. ;)

    Coley; I tend to user first and birthmother interchangeably. Interchangably. However you spell it. We just took a huge nap in our home. :)

  26. merrill1277 says:

    a late # 26.

    I think I’m going back to bio. Plants are biological but don’t have a heart, soul or spirit. So its not because I myself feel ‘bio’ because I know I’m more than just DNA in a body, but it’s how a certain two people have always seen me… as a non-person. So this is what’s real for me regarding my own adoption reality.

  27. [...] on this issue. For an excellent post from a firstmom’s perspective, please see this post by Jenna.. Share & [...]

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