The Word Birthmother


“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare


I’ve posted about language before. Here.  and Here.  I understand that  words can upset people. Some words are mean to obfuscate or insult or demean.

I got pregnant when I was 16. I kept my secret and I kept it well. Six weeks before my son was born, my mom took a guess at what was going on with me. She told my dad. Then my parents insisted that I tell my boyfriend. My sisters and brothers were kept in the dark. My boyfriend’s parents had no idea. I was hidden in a foster home in the Iowa countryside for eight weeks. Then I came home. A couple of weeks later I left for college.

Later, I told the man I married about my son. I didn’t tell my friends.

After each of my daughters was born, I slipped into an abyss of grief. Then I met a young woman who told me she was a birthmother. Until that moment, I believed myself to be an unwed mother. I loved the word, birthmother.

CUB’s Word Choice

Shortly thereafter my new friend took me to a Concerned United Birthparents meeting. Here is what CUB has to say about language:
The terms “birthmother” or “birthparent” were coined by CUB founders, including Lee Campbell, who wrote an article in a 2005 issue of the CUB Communicator describing its origin. It is a term that honors the connection between parent and child, and has never been intended as a degrading or perjorative term.
We are Concerned United Birthparents. We welcome those with adoption experiences to share with, inform and support each other. Whatever terminology you wish to use will be respected here. We ask that you do the same for others, and exercise tolerance when others do not use the words you like.
The #1 search query that leads people to CUB is “birth parents.” That’s what people are typing into the search engines.
From time to time, arguments will occur on the list over the terms “birthmother” or “birthparent.” Others may suggest the use of “first mother” “natural mother” or just plain “mother” with no prefix whatsoever. We respect the use of the terminology you feel comfortable with, and do not impose any particular terminology on anyone. At the same time, we request you extend the same respect and courtesy to anyone who does not use the terminology you prefer.

This is my sentiment as well, and the protocol I will follow on this blog. I moderate my comments, and while I enthusiastically welcome comments that evenhandedly make a case for one word or another, I will not post comments that demean the vocabulary of others. Let us use the words we chose to use, but let’s not allow our words to divide us.

5 thoughts on “The Word Birthmother

  1. maryanne

    Thank you:-) This my policy as well. I was one of the founding members of CUB so was involved in those discussions with Lee Campbell about what to call our new group. I am still a member, on the board of CUB, and use birthmother because it is the most commonly understood word today for a mother who surrendered a child.

    I am fine if others prefer other words. If someone refers to themselves as a first mother, natural mother, or other term, I would not correct them. I am not fine with being lectured on what word I should use, or being told a spurious “history” of the word “birthmother” that gives it magical evil powers to demean motherhood. All it means is “mother who surrendered a child” as opposed to “adoptive mother”, mother who adopted a child, when that differentiation needs to be made for clarity. Neither term is an insult, and we have much bigger issues to worry about to let words divide us.

  2. Cedar

    Maryanne is on one side of the debate. I am on the other. And I say everything here with respect for my fellow mothers. Please do not take it as an attack or an insult.

    It is true that CUB may have removed the space between “birth” and “mother” in the compound noun “birth mother” (another early form was hyphenated). But CUB was not the first to use the term “birth mother” or even “birth-mother.” I’m sorry Maryanne, this is not spurious (i.e. false) history.

    CUB may not have known at its inception that “birth terms” were already being used by the industry. This is not CUB’s fault. Members were likely not aware of its prior use, other than those members familiar with Baran, Pannor, and Sorosky’s use of the term in writings re open records (e.g. 1974 to 1976).

    But the term “birth mother” is now incorporated as part of the “Respectful Adoption Language” terminology set, formally defined in RAL, which was developed as a campaign by the adoption industry (baby broker Marietta Spencer, in specific), and it does not mean a mother. It means a woman who ceased to be a mother after the act of having given birth. In RAL, the adoptive parents are then the sole mother/father/parent from this point onwards.

    So, many of us who still consider ourselves to be mothers to the children we lost to adoption, do choose to use other terms, because we do still feel we are mothers.

    For anyone who is interested, Origins Canada has just compiled and published an information package detailing the history of the creation and definition “birth terms” from 1955 to 1979. It contains reprints of the actual articles showing that “birth mother” and “birth parent” began to be used in the mid-1950s. To obtain a copy, email Valerie Andrews at

    “Spurious” means false or fake. This is not “spurious history.” But only recently have natural mothers found and compiled evidence of the origin of this term. Ten years ago, we did not have it, and now we do. Natural mothers have began analyzing the industry in the same way it has analyzed us. This is one of our findings.

  3. Anonymous

    Much is explained here:

    Cedar is right. CUB did not coin this term. Pearl S. Buck did in 1955 and used it again in a magazine article in 1956. Until an earlier appearance of the term is found she is considered to have coined it. Mothers who have given birth but denied the right to parent are NOT birth things. I hope all those who do use this term, which is not reality-based, cease using it. Otherwise they are participating and aiding in the marginalization and oppression of all other MOTHERS.

  4. Ex-in-the-City

    This is a very sensitive topic. I thank you all for your responses. I am gathering my thoughts.
    While I wholeheartedly agree that we are not birth “things,” I continue to hope we will not let language divide us. And I must add that I do not consider myself aiding in the marginalization or oppression of all mothers. It is my sincerest intention to work toward the opposite of that.
    Thank you all again.

  5. Anonymous

    If we have much bigger worries to worry about than terms, then why are some so entrenched in defending the term “birthmother” so vehemently? In Canada, the Canadian Council of Natural Birthmothers changed their name to the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers…when they learned how this term is being used today. Why the resistance to change? What was acceptable in l976 is not acceptable by today’s standards. This term is used by today’s Adoption Industry to coerce young vulnerable pregnant women and groom them for adoption by labelling them this term well before birth, giving them a role to fulfill. Are you a “birthmother” when you are three months pregnant? The adoption industry would say so. An entire industry has sprung up around this…”Birthmother Packages”, Birthmother stationery, birthmother’s Day, Birthmother Jewelry and Gifts, Birthmother Entrustment Ceremonies and more…how can we as mothers of adoption separation be associated with this? It is quite obvious how this term is being used as a sales and marketing tool by the adoption industry to disenfranchise mothers. As a group, we must try to move forward as unfortunately this term has been sabotaged by the Adoption Industry, and it hurts mothers for us to continue to embrace it. At Origins Canada we have done a factual research study on the origins of this term, and it was not coined by Lee Campbell. At one time in the history of our movement this may have been an acceptable term and when the CUB founders embraced it, their intentions were good, just as the Civil Rights movement embraced earlier terms which at one time would have been useful for the movement but if used today would be harmful to them. This is the case with adoption terminology…we must move forward…if not for the mothers of yesteryear, then for the mothers of today. Valerie


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