“Once Labeled”- The Grooming of a Birthmother


“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.



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.