Birthmothers, the New Concubines

Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham

“Our birthmother.” That is how they are referred to now.

They used to be called “expectant mothers” or just “pregnant.” If it was known she wasn’t married, she was an unwed mother. Or a girl in trouble. Or other, more unkind terms. But before relinquishing, she was still the mother. Not birthmother. Not a compound word with a very narrow definition, presuming relinquishment, presuming this is her role–to give birth, a breeder, nothing more.

Now they are “our birthmother.” Potential adoptive parents write open letters to them on websites, court them and woo them, tell them they will be a valued (if distant) member of their family once they provide them with a much-desired child.

And maybe that is true. Maybe the couple really will treat this woman as one of their own, as they raise her child as theirs. But there is no legal term in our society for their relationship. The child will have full legal status as their son or daughter, but the woman who “gave” them the child will have nothing. To relinquish, she has to give up any and all parental rights. No matter what promises may have been made, after she signs it’s all up to the adoptive parents’ wishes. My mother remembers the judge being very clear: “This child will no longer be yours. She will be someone else’s daughter.” Fifty-some years later, the law has not changed. But the terminology has. The way adoption is worked, has.

And adoption certainly is “worked.” When supply of newborns decreased in the 1970s, the adoption industry had to put a new spin on relinquishment  to stay in business. Since women could not be so easily shamed by single motherhood, they changed tactics. Potential suppliers (pregnant women) are now encouraged to “make an adoption plan.” She reads the “Dear Birthmother” letters and interviews hopeful adoptive parents. She is provided with medical care and possibly even housing.  She is promised this is her choice, and that she can have ongoing contact with her child in an open adoption. It would seem she has all the power, but she is being systematically conditioned to accept her role, her place. She doesn’t want to hurt the baby’s “real parents,” feels indebted to them, emotionally invested. She is soon convinced they are better than she is. She becomes “their birthmother.” It almost guarantees relinquishment.

It is similar to another societal arrangement: Concubinage. Being a concubine meant different things at different times and places – sometimes held in great esteem, sometimes barely more than a slave – but the term always meant “a lesser wife.” Not a second wife, a lesser wife. Inferior. One who did not and would never have full-fledged rights as spouse. She could live as part of the family and have the man’s children, but she herself would always be something less than.

Birthmother. Lesser mother. Imagine the introductions:

“This is our housekeeper, June, and this is our birthmother, Melissa.”

Words matter. They can imply ownership and power, or powerlessness. Birthmother. Concubine. Lesser mother. Lesser wife.

“Oh, but it’s not like that with our birthmother!”

Here’s the problem: She’s not yours. She is your son or daughter’s first mother, or biological mother, or natural mother, or even birth /separate word/ mother. But she isn’t your anything. She doesn’t belong to you. She did not sign an eternal, binding agreement to you. She does not have a contract with you. She carried, gave birth to, and gave up the child you now call your own. Honor that. Honor her by speaking with words that do not reduce her to the role of a human reproduction source, or a “two-legged womb,” a la The Handmaid’s Tale. The main character of that book did not even consider herself a concubine. She wasn’t a lesser wife. Unless she produced a child she wasn’t even a lesser mother. She was nothing. But when/if she did, she was hailed by all, before the child was quickly assimilated, and the handmaid was sent away, her duty done.

Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread

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