Sunday, May 14, 2017

Why I stopped using the term "birth mother"

Photo taken at Museum Sisters of Mercy, Montreal 

Last fall, I was approached by CKUT McGill Campus and Community Radio about starting an adoptee-centric radio magazine, after they had heard an interview I had done with my friend Stefan on his radio show Free City Radio. I was unsure about accepting the offer, yet I also felt that I couldn’t turn down such an amazing opportunity. After thinking about it for a week, I invited my friend, filmmaker and adoption prevention activist Pascal Huynh to collaborate with me on what would soon become, Out of the Fog Radio

For us, Out of the Fog is not only about bringing greater understanding about adoption issues and family separation to people outside of the adoption community-- it’s also about empathy and vulnerability in storytelling. In our past episodes, we have covered topics such as adoptee gratefulness and reproductive justice, the 60s scoop and Indigenous child removal, mothers of adoption loss, infertility and creativity and the importance of relationships in social services

While Out of the Fog started as a platform to creatively disseminate important information about issues that are close to us and our communities, I quickly found myself being challenged personally by some of the content of our episodes, particularly the episode on mothers. As a politically-aware adoptee and feminist, it hadn’t dawned on me that I knew very little about the plight of mothers, until I did more research and interviewed guests for the episode. But even after the episode came out, I was repudiated a number of times by mothers on Facebook groups about using commonly-used terms and expressions like “birth mother” and “surrendering children to adoption”. I was alarmed and very embarrassed because I was trying to be “in solidarity” with them, yet here I was deeply offending them by using words that obscured their experiences as mothers having been forced to give up their children for adoption.

Up until that point, I was ignorant about the origins of these terms and how triggering it could be for mothers to be referred to as “birth mother” or “biological mother”. Yet, it is true that these terms are highly reductive because they focus only on their biological function, and by doing so, do not take into account how their experiences were shaped by gender, class and race. Moreover, “birth mother” is a very static term that insinuates a mother's parental role stops at birth, whereas she still may play an active role in her children or adult children’s lives. 

I understand the desire to distinguish between one’s family and one’s adoptive family, but there is an indelible power in language that should not be ignored. Whether you acknowledge it or not, your choice of words holds power and it affects people's interpretation and understanding of the issue. These terms are problematic because they do not convey what actually happened and what is still happening today: mothers and fathers are forced to give up their children, usually because they are young and unwed (which still happens in some countries) or because they lack the financial, psycho-social support or tools to raise their children.

I’m truly happy that I got called out on my use of “birth mother” because it forced me to look at how mothers of adoption loss do not get the recognition as mothers that they deserve. Since then, I no longer use these terms out of respect for both mothers and fathers. If I need to assign titles or make distinctions, I use "mother" or "Ethiopian mother" and "adoptive mother". In doing so, I'm stating the truth in a way that is recognizing Ethiopian mothers motherhood, even if they rarely have the power to an play active role in their adopted Western children or adult children’s lives. Still, their loss and grief is not widely acknowledged. I think partly because there is a pervasive idea that it is a “good thing” for children to be placed; that the mother made the “right choice” and that her children are better off. In fact, it’s almost seen as a heroic and selfless act that is done out of love. People tend to either commend or shame mothers for giving up their children (especially because we are extremely quick to judge women for being bad or unfit mothers), but one of the misconceptions is that children are given up out of love when it's really desperation and survival. Kat, a self-identified birth mother and PhD student, who appeared on our episode on mothers, describes how mothers are told to forget about their children or that they will forget, but that it’s a myth. The loss and grief that mothers experience is long-term, possibly lifelong and because of this, they tend to have higher risks of suicide, mental illness, higher instances of secondary infertility and to make matters worse, it’s difficult to find adequate counselling services. 

Hearing Kat's story and others similar to hers made me realize that my adoptee advocacy was lacking; how can I talk about reproductive rights and family preservation without learning from and partnering with those who are directly affected? It also made me reflect on the importance of creating more spaces for open discussion with mothers and fathers of adoption loss, because the more adoptees’ create alliances with mothers and fathers; the less shame, guilt and secrecy will exist. Similarly, the more we understand each other's struggles, the more empathy we create and hopefully, the more we can heal. 

Kassaye co-hosts Out of the Fog, a podcast and radio show on CKUT 90.3 FM. She is also co-editing Lions Roaring Far Home, an anthology by Ethiopian adoptees, which is set to come out towards the end of 2017. Besides writing and radio production, she mentors youth living in group homes.