Selfless. Courageous. Brave. Loving. Incredible.
These are some words that come up in the adoption community when we're speaking about the omniscient role of Birthmother. Many birthmothers admit to hearing them throughout their pregnancies. Most of them also admit that they have no idea what to say when someone throws these labels on them. How does one react, when a person unknowingly labels an individual, tears in their eyes, a smile on their face? What do these words even mean? Do we understand the enormity of their suggestion, and do we really feel as though they are appropriate to be said to a person based on little or no information?
Most birthmothers grow accustomed to the words and collective phrases that come along with relinquishing a child to adoption. There seems to be no right way to respond to them because while they appear to be compliments, for most, they aren't really an accurate depiction or definition of why adoption is the path one has taken, or more suitably, they serve to paint a broad stroke that may not match the person's actual intentions or individuality.
How do you deal with those who know about your adoption experience, but don't quite grasp the reality of it? When someone makes a casual comment about the experience, one that erases your personhood and negates your personal experience, how do you react? Being a birthmother in an adoption is not often like any of the labels that are circulated in the adoption culture.
Granted, there may be women out there that enjoy the aforementioned terms or phrases. At some point, a lot of birthmothers may find themselves relating to them, assuming they are compliments that you are required to accept. Birthmothers are often spoken of in reverent tones, hushed voices, and with words that take away from the reality of grief. When these compliments are spoken, it appears as though it is more for the person giving them, rather than the mother receiving them. Quoting misconceptions and bland stereotypes don't make anyone feel better, no matter their role.
When birthmothers are placed on a pedestal, there becomes an expectation of sorts. As in, these women are required to take these compliments, even if it doesn't really sum up their experience. What it then creates is this artificial version of what Birthmother-hood is, and the problem with that is we end up with more clichés and stereotypes. What's even more poignant about this situation is that while birthmothers are places on this pedestal, there is also this deep pit below, that's lined with all the negative labels that are associated with mother's who have relinquished. Sometimes it can feel as though there is no winning. Furthermore, it looks as though your experience is already spoken for, one way or the other. When it doesn't fit that norm, on either side, the story is written off, or taken out of the conversation.
Labels are unnecessary. There is no need to define these roles traditionally, or speak of them in revered tones, or even with disgust. Most certainly, no one needs to be told they are better than, or less than because of an action or inaction. These labels demean, isolate and silence important voices in the adoption constellation. All feelings and emotions, the good, the bad and the ugly are an incredibly real part of the adoption experience. Sometimes they are hard to stomach, even for the person who owns them. When someone is uncomfortable with a concept in adoption, perhaps one that had not been considered before, instead of reverting to archaic stereotypes in order to explain insecurities, deeper questions should be asked.
“How would I feel if I had written or felt this? How would I want someone to respond? Would I want to be labeled this way? What can I learn from this person?”
Labels are meant to compartmentalize things. It helps us to categorize where we believe people belong because that's what we've been told. Often labels are not an actual personal belief but a result of societal pressure that we accept what we are being told about a certain situation or individual. It's empowering to break free of that thinking, and place those antiquated ideals in the trash. Furthermore, in terms of communication and relationships, it allows a breakthrough to occur. When an individual is willing to reject a label, and instead listen to a story, it shows that there is one less barrier to over come. Trust is then able to be planted, and a genuine interest in one another will help fertilize this necessarily characteristic. Blockages that might remain had we just ignored or assumed, disappear, and it gives space for respect to blossom, and to have individuality become a magnificent part of the relationship itself. All of this inspires an environment where personal growth is welcomed, and embraced.
Stay away from the common labels. Get to know the story without the categories. Get to know the person without preconceived notions or feelings. Don't act like you are in a place where you can label someone, and that they should accept it. We all have different reasons for the experiences we have, and usually, none of them ever conform the societal “norms” we've learned to expect.
Credits: Danielle Barsley-Cervo
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Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of Adoption.com.