The different names for “mother”…?

What are your thoughts regarding the different types of nomenclature applied to original/biological mothers, including terms such as “birth mother,” “first mother,” “real mother,” “natural mother,” and so forth?

7 thoughts on “The different names for “mother”…?

  1. I honestly, in previous years, have never felt too strongly opinionated on this matter. Although, I know that there are plenty of adoptees that have very strong opinions and insights to offer regarding this topic…and I hope that the other contributors to this blog will offer their opinions…

    I will say that although I am not particularly opinionated–or in other words, with this issue specifically, I do not feel emotionally-charged (oddly and uncharacteristically)–I do have my own personal practices that I apply.

    Generally, as one who reunited with my Korean parents in 2009, I most often refer to my Korean parents as, well, my “Korean parents.” I call my Korean father by either “Korean father” or “Appa,” and I call my Korean mother by either “Korean mother” or “Omma.”

    However, I honestly do at times employ the terms “biological” and/or “birth” mother/father when the context of adoption is not already understood by the person or people with whom I’m conversing. I, then, eventually switch to saying, “Korean” or “American” parents once the context is clear. Furthermore, with whom I am talking and the context of the interaction also often affects what term I might choose to use. Some may call this wishy-washy; I call it survival and stress management.

    I have to admit that “biological” sounds very cold and aloof to me. Because I am a deeply emotional person and feel a profound emotional connection to my Korean parents and family, I do not prefer the term “biological.” Furthermore, the term “birth” [mother/father/family] can carry other patronizing connotations with it, with which some feel very uncomfortable. I honestly have never felt very patronized or emotionally negative toward this term, but I understand why others do–particularly, I understand why the first/original mother/father would feel patronized by this term…

    Honestly, also, I rarely use the terms “real” or “natural” simply because, for me personally, psychologically and emotionally these terms feel too divisive and diminutive in either direction. I’ve actually heard “real” and “natural” used in the context of describing both adoptive and biological parents.

    In my own personal encounters with different people, I’ve heard them refer to my Korean parents as my “real” or “natural” parents as well as to my American parents as my “real” or “natural” parents.

    If forced into a corner and demanded to make a distinction (which is a whole other pesky & irritating issue that surrounds being an adoptee), I would have to honestly say that, in my case, I consider both sets of parents–both my Korean and my American parents–to be my “real” and “natural” parents. (I know that there are others who would take issue with this, and that’s understandable–the adoptee experience is so diverse and varied that we must consider and acknowledge the validity of each adoptee’s viewpoint and experience, and in particular when those experiences and viewpoints differ. Failure to do so dismisses the inherent complexities and realities of the adoption experience…)

    Of course, these relationships with my two sets of parents are complex and imperfect, laden with unresolved issues and dysfunction, but nonetheless, I personally consider all four of them as my parents–certainly and obviously, our relationships are characterized by different dynamics, histories, and roles. Yet, ultimately, I prefer to use none of the above identifiers, but rather simply to refer to them as my parents.

    But of course, it’s not that simple, and I often do feel compelled, or I am in some ways often required, or at least prodded and pried, to clarify and make distinctions to those addressing me.

    I make efforts to simply say in conversation my “American parents” and/or my “Korean parents”–that is what feels most “natural” and “real” to me…And honestly, I wish that was simply enough.

    But in adoption, rarely are things simple and rarely is one option enough…

  2. I think the reason for this nomenclature is to communicate relationships and therefore should be divorced from political correctness.

    While the original intent for changing existing nomenclature was to expand people’s consciousness and not limit particular groups by the shackles of role connotations, I get irritated when this good intent is utilized divisively for political correctness.

    And so, I tend to reflect the terminology that is comfortable to those I am speaking with, except in the case of limiting the potential of others. (such as police officer vs. policeman) For me, it is about communication: and that will differ with each person I encounter and their level of awareness of the subject of adoption.

    Yoonsblur, one set of nomenclature you didn’t mention was first mother and/or adopted/adoptive parents/mom/dad. I prefer these to real or natural as those have an unpleasant dichotomy inherent in their use.

    I also think that there is a certain amount of collocation involved with these terms – birth and biological, etc., sound more or less appropriate depending on context. There is an expectation of how our language should feel and sound, which adds to our own disconnection if we apply a term that is foreign to us.

    As an adoptee, I get weary of always being forced to be an educator when our relationships are so complicated to describe: and we are always forced to describe our obvious incongruous trans-racial selves. I also get weary of having to navigate a land mine field of tending other people’s emotions when I’ve spent a lifetime tending theirs and am only beginning to tend my own: we have enough tension in our lives to also have to be responsible for that. It’s also a matter of exigency: sometimes we want to talk about some more substantive topic and don’t want to get bogged down in splitting hairs over nomenclature.

    So call me irresponsible, lazy, or selfish, but as far as I am concerned I had two sets of parents and the way I referenced them TO them was our business, and the way I refer to them to others is whichever way feels comfortable to me at that moment and in that specific situation.

  3. girl4708, sounds like we approach this issue quite similarly, which I’m honestly kind of surprised by. (*smilewink*) Particularly, in the following statements we say practically the same thing but worded differently:

    girl4708: “So call me irresponsible, lazy, or selfish, but as far as I am concerned I had two sets of parents and the way I referenced them TO them was our business, and the way I refer to them to others is whichever way feels comfortable to me at that moment and in that specific situation.”

    Yoonsblur: “Furthermore, with whom I am talking and the context of the interaction also often affects what term I might choose to use. Some may call this wishy-washy; I call it survival and stress management.”

    Oh, and I did actually mention “first mother” in the original question. But I didn’t specifically address it in my response, however, perhaps inadvertently or subconsciously, because it’s honestly a term that I never use and that for some reason, emotionally, makes me uneasy. Maybe because of the negative connotations it holds in Asian culture in general when concubines and such were common practice…? And you had families that actually consisted of “first,” “second,” “third” mothers…I guess using the term “first mother” in the context of adoption implies, albeit perhaps unintentionally, hierarchical status, to which I am very sensitive and with which I am uncomfortable in the realm of adoption.

    But similar to you, I don’t use “real” or “natural,” because as I stated, I think they are “divisive and diminutive.”

    And I personally do not prefer “adoptive parents,” when referring to my, well, adoptive parents. I use it because it is about the only term that seems to be understood or available when clarification and explanation are required.

    Overall, this whole issue alludes to the problem of accurate descriptive language available to the adoption community, and how the very nature of adoption is so darn complicated that even figuring out how and what descriptives to apply to certain relationships can get so stinkin’ complicated! Gah.

  4. Oh, and I did actually mention “first mother” in the original question…Maybe because of the negative connotations it holds in Asian culture in general when concubines and such were common practice…?:

    Well, I didn’t go into detail about that but I wouldn’t use “first mother” in the company of Asians or the company of my family. Likewise, I would only use “adoptive” mother when speaking to distinguish my American mother in the context of a discussion where there might be confusion between the two mothers.

    Interestingly, Koreans don’t seem to understand the distinction between “foster” parents and “adoptive” parents. I am often asked about my “foster” family in America. Sometimes I worry that some families gave their children to adoption thinking they were placing their children in temporary foster care…

  5. Your last point girl4708 is what defines these terms for me; namely, how are my two sets of parents referenced in terms of context, and especially locally here? When I get into a discussion of my adoption, the differentiation for most people goes in the other direction. “So you don’t know your family?” Meaning my family here. “And where is your American family?” Meaning my adoptive family. There is no adjective “adoptive”, because in the local context (especially the Islamic one) there is the familial line, and then there is perhaps guardianship as a possible defining term outside of this. Nonetheless, such guardianship does not deny the child’s lineage; it is not necessarily a rupture.

    At the same time, the social contract of family here is so much a given, that you refer to most everyone you meet during the day familiarly in terms of such relationships: “my brother”, “my uncle”, “my mother”, “my son/daughter”, etc. So much so that my friends in my neighborhood invented a new familiar reference especially for me: “my original brother”. And this to me is the big difference: “family” on the adoptive side back in the States is defined in terms of the nuclear family, and this is not a universal concept (which makes your worry about non-knowledge of the concept of adoption on the supply side very real). And so “the different types of nomenclature applied to original/biological mothers” are created in order to divide, separate, alienate, distance.

    So to call someone a “birth” mother to me becomes offensive on some level. I agree that context is everything, and so “biological” becomes a term I often use, especially when referring to siblings. I refer more to my “adoptive parents” when I write about adoption now, but this doesn’t change our relationship, though they might find this use upsetting.

    I once wrote a poem for my adoptive mother on Mother’s Day; if I remember correctly, I stated: “Of mothers, I have two.” I think that sums it up.

  6. I prefer the term “real parents” to talk about my biological parents.

    My two sets of parents are dead. I have lived about equal number of years of my childhood with each set. They were all real to me at their time. After my adoptive parents passed away, I missed them badly. As the years pass, I miss my biological parents more than I miss my adoptive parents.

    I use the term “real parents” just like I use the term “real birth date”. My “real birth date” is the day I was born; my “real parents” are those who gave birth to me.
    My “adoptive parents” are those that were given to me by the adoption agency; my legal birth date is the one given to me by the adoption agency.
    It doesn’t mean that my adoptive parents were less parents than the biological.

    My use of these terms has varied over time.

    I’ve used the term “real parent” for the first time, when I was not adopted yet and knew nothing about adoption. I was around 7 years old , when my sister told me that our rich neighbord friend was adopted. I don’t remember how she explained it to me, but I remember feeling sorry for her thinking that her parents were not her real parents.

    I’ve use the term “American parents” two years later, (when I was still not adopted) at the orphanage, because that’s how the social workers told us about them.

    During the first months of my adoption, I called my parents “Mommy” and “Daddy”, because they introduced themseves as such, but in my heart, they were nothing more than “American parents” who were strangers to me. I don’t remember when exactly, but I came to consider and love them as my parents within the six months I lived in USA.

    During the two first years of my life in Canada, I’ve often told my mother about my childhood memory in Korea. I would always say “my mother” and “my father” to talk to her about my biological parents. She too would say “your mother” and “your father” to ask me questions about my biological parents. There was never any misunderstanding between us by not using an adjective to distinguish them.

    I would also use the same terms “mother” and “father” to talk to people about my adoptive parents. There couldn’t be any misunderstanding because I would never talk about my biological parents with them. Yet, children would ask me “Are you talking about your real parents or your adoptive parents?”

    Children, when not influenced by adults, naturally think of the biological parents as the “real parents”. It isn’t used as oppose to “not real”. I knew that.

    I also knew they were only curious about my past and wanted to know how my parents died. To the non-adopted children, not influenced by adult, when you’re adopted, it means your “real parents” are dead.
    I didn’t want to talk about my past with them, so I would answer them laughing, “I’m talking about my fake parents, not my real parents.” And it was a good way to shut them up.

    After two years, I rarely talked about my biological parents. But I’ve used the terms “first mother” and “first father” only when I needed to. I used it in a different meaning than the first mothers are using now that will please many adoptive parents. I used “first parents”, as a remarried person would use the term “first wife/husband”. It meant my biological parents were no longer my parents and it annoyed me whenever people said to me “your adoptive parents” when there was no reason to put an adjective to my only parents.

    Since I’ve been reunited with my biological family, I need to talk more about my biological parents than ever. I have used the terms “mother” and “father” in different situations when it was obvious which mother/father I was talking about, but it seems that people need me to say which parent.

    So I’ve used the terms “biological parents” and “adoptive parents” for a while.

    Now, with my husband, I use the terms “mother” and “father” to talk about my biological parents, and to talk about my adoptive parents, I use their names. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer the term “real parents” for my biological parents, but I only use with few of my adoptee friends.

    I have to say that I’m a French speaker, but I hang around only with English speaking adoptees, so I don’t know which terms are being used by other French speaking adoptees.

    In French, I’ve never heard the word “original mother”. I heard once the term “natural mother” in the media, but maybe it is used more than I think.

    I think that in French, the term “birth mother” comes from the English. I read once an adoptive mother’s blog discussing which term she should use to call the mother who gave birth to her child; she pointed out that the terms “first mother” and “natural mother” were used in English, but she wouldn’t use those terms because she would then feel like a “second mother” or unatural “mother”.

  7. I’m coming back to this item first because every day in the search terms used to get to this site is the phrase “names for mother” and I am intrigued by what people are looking for when they search on this (I have a feeling it is not what we are discussing).

    Second, because I had to translate something into French, basically condemning the current push in France to consider adoption as a “right” and I realized that “surrogate mother” comes out “mère de substitution. Both seem egregiously wrong to begin with. But then compared with each other, and seeing the cultural difference that language reflects, I’m hard-pressed to describe how obnoxious they are side by side.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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