Naming

By now, you are probably aware of the ALS ice bucket challenge. If challenged, you have 24 hours to post a video of yourself having a bucket of ice water dumped over your head. Otherwise – so the challenge goes – you must make a $100 donation to the ALS Association. The video also includes a challenge to others you know to do the same.

Most members of my family have taken the ice bucket challenge in the last couple of weeks. I recently watched my daughter Skye’s video. In it, she challenges several people she knows, including “my mommy [name of birthmother].” My stomach tightened. “Mommy?” I am Skye’s “mommy.” But the discomfort lasted only a few seconds. Skye’s birthmother prefers that name, and it was sweet of Skye to use it.

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In my experience with fully open adoption that includes ongoing contact after the baby is born, we adults name ourselves. As the female adoptive parent, I am “mom” or “mama” or “mommy.” My child’s birthmother, in our family, is called by her first or given name. After all, wouldn’t it be confusing to an infant or toddler or even an older child to have two “mommies”? Amongst my friends who are same sex parents, they are named differently to their children. They are “Mama” and “Mommy,” or “Dad” and “Daddy,” or some other pair of names that distinguishes between the two.

My kids in fully open adoptions grew up with names for their birth parents that set them apart from the people who were raising them. They knew – or came to know – the differences in our parental roles. One was not better or worse. We were just different. As these children have matured, I now occasionally hear them refer to their birth parents as “my mother” or “my father.” They are no longer so young that the language confuses them. They understand who we are, what we do, and how we are related to them.

But I think about my friends and acquaintances who have experienced closed adoptions. Their experience with names is different than mine. I can imagine that if I placed a baby for adoption and didn’t know his or her adoptive parents or the child, I would always refer to myself as the child’s “mother.” And if I adopted a child and did not know or have contact with my child’s biological parents, I would consider myself his or her “mother” to the exclusion of other mothers. So, later on, if the adopted person reunited with his or her birthmother, wouldn’t it be natural for there to be a clashing of “mother”-ness? Wouldn’t there necessarily be tension between the ones claiming to be “mother”? And wouldn’t this tension put the adopted person in an uncomfortable position?

The problem, as I see it, is that society gives ONE name importance – the name “Mother.”

“Mother” incorporates both biology and day-to-day parenting in cases where a woman gives birth and raises her child. But in adoption, “mother” is divided into separate functions. In fully open adoption, we give names to the different roles we play in our child’s life. Done right, both types of mother – however they are named – are valued. In closed adoption, there is no clarity of roles or valuing beyond the all-encompassing “mother.”

In my own family, I have witnessed the ease with which Emily and K.J. have transitioned to calling both adoptive and biological mothers “mother,” depending on the situation. But there has never been any competition between mothers, and our roles have always been clear to our children who have lived this reality.

However, for Skye and Journey, who lost contact with their birthmothers for many years, the term “mother” is more loaded. Their birthmothers cherish that designation. For any number of reasons – denial, shame, etc. – they did not deal openly and directly with the grief that accompanies losing a child through adoption. By way of contrast, this grief is inescapable in any honest fully open adoption – as Emily’s and K.J.’s birthmothers will tell you. But grief, if it is acknowledged, can be dealt with. Grief and loss are part of life, and we find ways to reconcile ourselves to them and move on to find new ways of relating and loving.

I watch Skye and Journey wrestle in their own ways with the naming. Although I am “mom” to them, they sense the importance of using that designation for their birthmothers too. They want to please.

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I support them in this “naming.” I use the term “mother” with their birthmothers as well. Though Skye and Journey may not understand why the naming is important to their other mothers, I do. And it is up to me to release my exclusive claim on the name “mother” for the sake of these wonderful people who have made my family possible. In the end, it’s not the name you are called but who you love and how you love that matters anyway.

And, just so you know, I don’t miss the opportunity to take mother-daughter “Selfies” with Skye. Her other mother is so much better at that than I am!

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