My mother died in 2019. She had dementia. I’m an over-sharer, so pretty much anyone who ever crossed my path had to hear the stories of her gradual decline.
Imagine the confusion when, four years later, I introduce my mum (who is very much alive) to a friend of mine. I see them take a breath, assess the situation, and give me a suspicious sideways glance. “What did she just say? Did she just introduce this woman as her mum? Isn’t her mum dead?”
Recently, when viewing a house, I sympathised with the seller who had recently lost his aged mother. We bonded over our shared pain, discussed the agony of watching the gradual decline of someone who had once been the centre, the mission control of our younger years. “Do you know the area?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” I replied chirpily, “my mum has a caravan just up the road. Actually, she’s wondering what it might be like to move here permanently.” He gave me the look, the sideways glance that told me I had done it again: I had double mummed.
I saw it in the flicker of the eye, as he rapidly tried to process what I’d just said. Didn’t we just have a conversation about her mother’s illness? Isn’t her mum dead? Is she deluded? Maybe she’s in denial; maybe she’s lying to get a good deal on the house; maybe she’s a pathological liar desperately in need of attention and love?
The answer is actually much simpler than that: I’m adopted.
There is no satisfactory word for a birth mother. Birth mother. It sounds like something from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Birth is practical and clinical. In normal circumstances you don’t hear people say “when I gave birth to my son”, do you? They would say, “when I had my son” or “when my son was born”. Birth implies medical procedures, complications and interventions: birth control, birth plan, afterbirth. “Birth mum” makes me shudder; it will never do.
What about “first mum”? The Americans tend to use “first mom”. But what does that then make the adopter, exactly? Second mum? Second is not as good a word as first, is it? Does that make me the second choice? Second place? Second prize? Is that what I am: a consolation prize? Who wants to think of themselves as the consolation prize, the one that was awarded to the loser? No, I’d rather go with the line we were fed back in the 1970s, where adoptive parents were told to tell their children they were “chosen”.
Next, we have biological, or “bio mum”, as some like to say. Some, not me: “Oh haha, this is my bio mum.” I would never do that to my mum. Imagine how humiliating that would be for her – and me. Quite despite the fact that the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word biological is washing powder, biological mum sounds like something from a science-fiction series. Something grown in a laboratory up in space.
Then we come to real. Real! “Real” is a very contentious word to use with an adopted person. “Your real mum”, as opposed to the “made-up one” who brought you up; you know, the “fake one”.
Real is often the word children use. Children, for the record, are obsessed with adoption. Recently, when running some improvisation workshops for children I found there were three subjects that inevitably came up: superheroes, unicorns and adoption. As an adoption counsellor commented to me when I was grappling with my emotions around tracing my mum: “Put a group of children in a room and ask them to put their hands up if they would like to be adopted.”
Growing up, my friends would look horrified when I told them I was adopted. “So, who was your real mum?” they would gasp.
I have a really good relationship with my “real” mum. She has been patient, kind, and yes, before you ask, we are alike. But, there have been many bumps along the road; bumps that neither of us had predicted. Feelings that surface from a deep, deep place inside. Luckily we have a remarkable bond, and we have both weathered the storms; but I won’t call her my “birth”, “biological”, “first” or “real” mum. She is my mum and so was my mum; both are real, and both are a part of me.
So, what word should we use for these two states of motherhood?
For me it’s mum. Just mum. The double mum confusion just will have to remain.
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