What do we mean when we say “birth mother”?

What do we mean when we say “birth mother”?  The answer might seem very self-evident: it means we’re talking about a woman whose child was placed for adoption. Yet, language is a very important tool, not just in conveying truths, but in constructing them – and this is part of the reason why the language of “birth mother” is worth exploring.

The term “birth mother” has not always been part of the language around adoption. Its use became common in the 1950s and 60s with the help of author and adoptive mother Pearl S. Buck, and became formalized by Marietta Spencer, a social worker at Children’s Home Society of Minnesota (and an adoptive mother) in 1979.

Spencer developed a framework for “Positive Adoption Language” (or, sometimes, “Respectful Adoption Language”), which expressed the preferred language of adoption agencies and adoptive families. This framework was endorsed as the “Correct Adoption Terminology” by the National Council for Adoption, and is still thought of as such by many lawyers and agency professionals that facilitate adoptions. This language framework upholds the legal legitimacy of adoption, conveys adoption as the choice of the birth parent, and attempts to reduce stigma or prejudice associated with adoptive families.

In contrast, the “Honest Adoption Language” (HAL) was developed in 1993 by researcher Susan Wells in response to PAL, to better reflect the experiences of many women who surrender children for adoption.  This framework conveys that “birth parents” are “real” parents (who do not need the “birth” prefix to express their relationship to their child), that the process of having one’s child be adopted is not always freely made, and that the mother does not reliably have agency within the adoption process.

The table below shows the preferred terms for both language systems.

Non-Preferred PAL Preferred Term HAL Preferred Term
First parent/mother
Natural mother
Real child, own child Birth child
Biological child
Natural child
Giving up for adoption Placed for adoption
Choosing adoption
Finding a family
Make an adoption plan
Surrender for adoption
Lost to adoption
Separated by adoption


I have formally interviewed 45 birth parents with a wide range of adoption experiences, and had informal conversations with many more. I take especial note of what language they use when telling their stories, and often specifically ask them about their choice of words. Depending upon their individual experiences, some use the language of “placed for adoption” or “relinquished for adoption”, with the latter implying they they experienced more coercion and felt they had no option other than adoption, and the former used more by mothers who do feel that they freely chose adoption and had agency in making an adoption plan for their child. When it comes to how they refer to themselves, the vast majority of the parents were comfortable with (or even really liked) “birth mother” and preferred it to all other options; a few said they preferred the term “first mother.” Only one woman told me she truly hates the word “birth mother.”

It is this last woman, and other who feel similarly to her, that challenge the use of the word birth mother most directly. For some, it is an insult, a slur. Though I found them to be in the very small minority of the women I interviewed, it’s important to hear their thoughts on the terminology that is so broadly applied to them — and that was first applied to them by people who had their own agenda in promoting adoption.

Some find it insulting, reductionist, and exploitative:

If I were to call myself a “birthmother,” I would be denying that I had any feelings for him after his birth. I would be denying that we are related as family. I would be diminishing my role in his life to being only that of a willing gestator… Am I a ‘birthmother’? No, because I am still a mother to the son I lost to adoption. It’s as simple as that. (From adoptioncritic.com)

Some prefer other terms, but don’t find it as divisive:

They make me sound like a baby machine, a conduit, without emotions. They tell me to forget and go out and make a new life. I had a baby and I gave her away. But I am a mother…. Now I have to admit that in many circumstances, I do not flinch when I’m called a birth mother; first mother may be less offensive to some, but to me the degree is negligible, and should not be a dividing issue among us. (From firstmotherforum.com.)

Some don’t like it, but use it because that is the language people know, and, importantly, what they search for online:

So, I have change the way I write now so it is optimized for SEO and adoption. It’s still the same me, but my choice of language has changed. Because I want to be found. I want to be heard. (From musingsofthelame.com)

As a researcher, I am very careful about the terminology I use. Whenever I’m writing, I try to use the words to describe people that they have told me they use to describe themselves. Whenever I’m speaking, I acknowledge the complicated use of language around adoption and give people in the audience space to challenge me on my choices if it feels uncomfortable to them. And, in general, I try to follow these rules:

1. Try not to use the term “birth mother” when the word “mother” will do.  Sometimes it is necessary to use the term “birth mother” to make clear that the conversation is about a relationship altered by adoption, or to differentiate between different mothers in one child’s life. However, if that context is clear from the rest of the discussion, try to just use the word “mother.”

2. If you are referring to “birth parents” as such, use corresponding language for “adoptive parents.” The inclusion of the word “birth,” after all, is about providing clarifying context, so the inclusion of the word “adoptive” should be similarly applied. (This is also why I now choose to write “birth mother” as two words, rather than one — I see it as a descriptor of the word “mother”, not as a fundamentally different role. Many people write “birthmother” as one word, and this is what I used to do. I’m not sure those options are perceived differently by people other than me.)

3. Do not use the word “birth mother” to describe someone that you know objects to that language. If possible, use the language that they prefer. If you’re not sure, “first mother” is diction commonly preferred by women who object to “birth mother.”

4. Do not use the word “birth mother” to describe an expectant mother who is considering adoption, or a mother who was considering adoption but ultimately chose to parent. Many adoption agencies do this, and it can be a manipulative way of using language to place someone in a role that may never, or at least does not yet, apply to them.

What other rules might you add? If you are a birth/first mother, what language do you prefer? And, if you’re an adoptee, what words do you use to describe the members of your family?

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Kellie November 29, 2012, 6:09 pm

    I am not a first mother or an adoptee. My daughter is a first mother. She prefers the term “natural mother”.
    I do not like the term birth mother for the reasons you stated, but I also have objections because adoptive parents tend to shorten the term to “BM” when referring to their child’s mother. It’s disrespectful and disgusting. I’ve tried to point out the obvious reasons why the term is offensive, but most refuse Or try to understand.

  • Monika November 30, 2012, 11:18 am

    I LOVE this! I am a birth mom. I don’t mind the term as a describer of my role in my daughter’s life, to differentiate between that of her adoptive mother’s role in her life. I too put a space in between “birth” and “mom”, just as I do with “adoptive” and “mom.” I DETEST its use by adoption agencies, facilitators, and lawyers because they use it to describe someone who is merely considering adoption and hasn’t made a decision for certain (no decision is made for certain until AFTER relinquishment documents are signed). As you pointed out, the term in that instance is coercive and causes a woman (or parent in general, especially if the biological father is involved in the decision-making process) to believe she has no choice in the matter.

    I shared this post on my blog’s Facebook page, and I will continue to share it all over. Sometimes I feel like my words are falling on deaf ears (in fact a comment of mine about the use of this term this morning on “Lifetime Adoption Staff”‘s Facebook wall got deleted). but perhaps this article will reach someone where my words can’t.

  • Monika November 30, 2012, 11:21 am

    Also, I used “relinquished for adoption” to describe my choice, despite the fact that I freely made my decision with absolutely no coercion (after my daughter was born, I didn’t contact an agency until then). I use “relinquished” as a term because though I placed my daughter, I relinquished my legal parental rights. (Just my personal preference for terminology – I have no argument with those who use “relinquished” because they felt they had no choice in their adoption choice.)

  • Greyson January 5, 2013, 10:54 pm

    Hi Gretchen,
    I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and diligence you have put into interrogating the use of “birth mother” and “natural mother” from the perspective of mothers who have relinquished their children to adoption.

    However, I’d like to challenge you to incorporate a less heterocentric worldview, and attempt to integrate the often very different nuances these words carry in queer and especially lesbian communities. In, for example, a two-mother family in which one parent gave birth to the couple’s child, “birth mother” often has quite the opposite connotation as it does in traditional adoptive situations — by which I mean birth or “natural” relationship is sometimes used to Other the (often adoptive) non-birth parent. (And, of course, may alternately be used in a completely factual non-disparaging way.)

    I find it quite fascinating that the same terms may be used in one case to glorify adoptive (implied middle class heterosexual) parents and disparage birth-giving parents who are not able to raise their children, yet flipped to conversely glorify the naturalness of birth mothering and disparage non-birth parents in a gay or queer family. In both situations the removal of the modifier in casual use (considering who really needs to know which mother gave birth versus adopted, in either situation) may be an ideal. I hope your future work will incorporate additional nuanced and facets of this terminology issue.

  • Gretchen January 22, 2013, 4:06 pm

    Greyson, thanks for your thoughtful comment. However, I’m not sure that the criticism you’ve brought up is really fair — this post focuses on the language we use in adoption, and doesn’t claim to be about anything else. Yes, in wholly different situations the diction might be applied differently, but I don’t think it’s heterocentric to say that those applications fall beyond the scope of this post. I’ve haven’t implied anything about the sexuality or family composition of either birth or adoptive parents — and I would hope my conclusions would be valid, regardless. I see no reason why they might not be, unless I am misunderstanding your argument.


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