“Once Labeled”- The Grooming of a Birthmother


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“Once labeled a [birthmother], other elements of a [mother’s] character, experiences, knowledge, aspirations, slowly recede into the background, replaced by the language of symptom and syndrome. Inevitably, conversation about the person becomes dominated by the imagery of [adoption] and relationships with the [expectant mother] re-form around such representations.

To the extent that [this] label takes hold, the [expectant mother], through a process of surrender and increasing dependence, becomes the once alien identification….These are not value neutral terms, either. They serve to separate those who suffer these “ailments” from those who do not; a distinction that if not physical (as in hospitalization) is at least moral. Those who are labeled, in ways both subtle and brutish, are degraded–certainly in terms of social regard and status.” (Saleeby, 2009, p. 4)

 When people are labeled, they are degraded. They are separated from the group. They *become* the label. A woman is no longer “M., an expectant mother considering adoption.” She is a birthmother; no longer a mother, but something lesser, something less human not even deserving of a real label, but a manufactured one. She eventually surrenders to this label because it has become the dominant imagery she is associated with by others.  She assumes the role of birthmother because her own character, knowledge, aspirations–her identity–are swallowed up by the label.

The adoption industry understands the dynamics of and power behind labels. Calling an expectant mother a “birthmother” before she has terminated her parental rights is just one of the multiple methods they use to coerce an expectant woman to “voluntarily” part with her child. By calling an expectant mother a “birthmother” before she has even given birth and met her child, adoption counselors, social workers, and other industry advocates are grooming her, exerting subtle (but brutish) coercive persuasion to encourage her to surrender to the role of birthmother, to become the label they have created for her.

If any woman was labeled a “birthmother” by an adoption counselor, attorney, social worker, hopeful adoptive parents, their own parents, friends, or their religious community before she terminated her parental rights, then she experienced a form of adoption-related coercive persuasion. Further, any one who labels an expectant mother a “birthmother” before her rights have been terminated (voluntarily or by the courts) is participating in coercive persuasion, whether they recognize it or acknowledge it as such.

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Saleeby, D. (2009). Introduction: Power in the people. In Saleeby, D. (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (5th ed., pp. 1-23). Boston, MA: Pearson.

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5 thoughts on ““Once Labeled”- The Grooming of a Birthmother

  1. I was awake for my beloved son’s birth…but moments after I delivered him, the nurse held up a huge needle, and as she was injecting this into my left hip, she said, “honey, this will dry up your breast milk”. I had never signed or given verbal consent, but my rights were being sorely violated, just moments after my son was born. They never asked me if I wanted this injection; they just did this, because I was single, and it was assumed…

  2. Mary, I’m so very sorry that they did that to you. Hell, I’m sorry they did that to many of us. Without our consent and often without our even knowing. I want to know, do or did they truly not understand what the hell they were doing to us? Did they not give even one minutes thought to what the human being, girl, woman, mother in their “care” felt like? Or do they ever think about what we have felt like through the years from the monstrous violation(S) that were perpetrated against us? If they had the things done to them that were done to us, would they not think it was awful? Would they not feel forever violated? Would they not have extreme difficulty trusting ANY ONE? They were supposed to be a “helping”, “healing” profession. The medical community “feels like” devastation, to me. But then, so does the social service ‘community’, the religious ‘community’, and family?, well, in their eyes I was never a mother so what do I have to feel sad about, or struggle with, or have tough days for? Guess i’m not human. Not supposed to have feelings. Just a cy-borg (sp?), a robot, a walking baby machine that popped out a real live HUMAN baby for somebody else. I wonder how that happened?

    Hey! I’m a baby vending machine. Only worked for the one time, but, hey.

  3. Thanks for publishing this, thanks for letting people know we are not just “birth mothers.” I remember recoiling in horror when a clueless adoptive mother introduced me to her mother as someone “birth mother.” It was clear the woman did not want to know a “birth mother” because that might impact them. that is, if the daughter there wanted to meet that “other woman” who was her, ahem, Mother.

    Luckily we are no longer friends.

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