Last week Julia Gillard made a national apology recognising the suffering of forced adoption in Australia. In response to Tony Abbott’s version of the apology, there was a huge outcry against his use of the term "birth mothers". What’s in a name here? What’s behind our intense interest in the labels for mothers?
We’re talking and writing about motherhood more than ever, yet we’re still stuck in a minefield of outdated language. So-called birth mothers, adoptive mothers, relinquishing mothers, surrogate mothers, single mothers, stay-at-home-mothers, working mothers, teen mothers, foster mothers, tiger mothers, lesbian mothers, and women-who-choose-not-to-be-mothers are currently being put into their places by labels that only make sense from the outside.
Labels are a kind of container. Since we’ve been using so many of them lately, we can only assume that it’s because we believe mothers need containing.
We know more and more about how crucial mothering is. We know that the quality of our attachment to our mothers determines to a large extent how we relate to other people for the rest of our lives. We know that the mothering we received has a huge influence on whether we can manage to mother well ourselves.
We also know that mothering has the most profound affect on our physical and mental health. But for what is arguably the most important relationship in all of our lives, there seems to be a definite lack of understanding that motherhood does not exist in a vacuum. We are all part of making the world that mothers live in. Biology is important, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that biology is created environmentally.
There is more and more evidence that babies are greatly affected by trauma in utero, and that even our DNA can be changed by childhood trauma. However, the vast majority of these biological factors are affected by the environment a mother finds herself in.
In other words, when mothers are stressed, subjected to violence, devalued or impoverished, children struggle. The fact that individual women often don’t have a great deal of control over these factors is something to which we often seem indifferent. We persist in the idea that there are good and bad mothers and we forget that there are good and bad environments in which to raise children.
What Tony Abbott did recently by referring to the women whose babies had been stolen from them as the “birth mothers”, was to simultaneously devalue both giving birth and mothering. He separated one kind of mothering and another, “adoptive” mothers from “birth” mothers, and helped to support a false history in the lives of the women, children and men who have been affected at every point of the forced adoption triangle.
In fact, children were born to one woman, taken from her and raised by another. All of these women are mothers, all have been affected by separation, and all of them have had to live with a divided history shaped by forces outside of their control. And the words we’re using don’t give an accurate or respectful picture of what it means to bear and to care for a child.
When I sit in classrooms with students and talk about the importance of bonding and attachment, inevitably someone in the class complains about “mother blaming”. When I sit with clients whose mothers have been abusive or neglectful, many of them talk about how she must have done her best or how she’s to blame for how hard their lives are now.
In a way they’re all making the same mistake as Abbott. They're imagining that because mothering is crucial, that each individual mother is solely responsible for how her children turn out, and that mothering begins and ends with the tasks we perform for children.
No one can ever just be a “birth mother”, because a woman who gives birth has an experience that lasts a lifetime. And that experience has been shaped by the world in which she lives and by how that world views motherhood. The women who lost their babies to state-sanctioned theft, and the women who were unknowingly part of a corrupt system of child removal, were all living in environments that determined their children’s welfare.
We need to remember what this apology is acknowledging. That mothers cannot mother without care and support, without consent, human rights, legal and social acknowledgement. If we really understand that to be the case, if we really get the idea that the quality and nature of mothering is a social responsibility, then our language will have to change to reflect that.
We don’t have the words yet to really speak about mothering. Our language still separates one woman from another in a way that prevents connections between women and that distorts the truth about raising children.
What words would we use for mothers if we truly acknowledged that mothering changes depending on whether partners, families, communities and cultures value it?
I suspect that if we were to see mothering in context, we might simply call all the women who helped us to grow up our mothers. Instead of labelling mothers as biological or adoptive, we might consider naming the reality of their social and economic situations.
We might refer instead to first mothers, heart mothers, unsupported mothers, mothers living with violence or disenfranchised mothers. What the apology has highlighted for all of us is the huge gulf between the importance of mothering and the lack of support for mothers. It’s no surprise then that we’ve reacted so strongly to the motherlode of labels.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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