Category Archives: Birth parent

What Kind of Woman Does This? (Burning Building Test)

When we first brought Tessa home, my grandma was quite disturbed in meeting Crystal, Tessa’s firstmom.

Now, I love my Grandma, and she was an amazing woman. Almost 90 years old, she had seen space shuttles and the internet replace horse and buggies and telegrams.

But she was stuck in an absolutely incorrect view of birth mothers.

She was both grateful to Crystal for making me a mom, and contemptuous of her for “giving up her child.” Indeed, most mothers — by birth or adoption — have trouble imagining the unimaginable. Grandma couldn’t get over, “what kind of woman does this?”

Here’s a post that helps explain what an act of love relinquishment can be. The bigger point of Abebech‘s post is that adoption should only take place when the mother absolutely can’t (or won’t, in rare cases) take care of a child. It’s called the “Burning Building Test,” and I use it when I teach classes to hopeful adoptive parents.

I was impressed, at the time, by an adoptive mother who had defended the mother of her child. Someone had said “I could never give up my baby,” to which she responded, “Could you if you were in a burning building?”

And she elaborated: relinquishing a child for adoption was like tossing your child to safety, from the window of a burning building. It was not an unloving act, the act of a woman pathologically unattached to her child, but a supreme act of love.

Yes, I thought, that’s a good way to explain it to people outside the adoption community, people who don’t get what it is our child’s mother would have to have done: a woman would be compelled to throw her child from a burning building, and I would be there to catch that child. She and I would recognize each other equally as mothers, and I would know that there was nothing else that she could do.

I explain why it’s right and necessary that adopting couples use an ethical agency, one that doesn’t pursue or coerce expectant mothers. One that helps fully explore the option of parenting. One that cares more about the adoption process than about the agency’s stats on placements. One that can balance the needs and rights of both adopting couples and expectant parents. One that is aware of the Burning Building Test.

Crystal says that our agency passed this test. And because of that, she and I have created a symbiotic (rather than adversarial) relationship that endures years later, with no end in sight.

That’s what kind of woman does this. One with boundless love for her child.

Prefixing Mothers

There is no consensus about ethnic titles. Is “African-American” an inclusive term, with the emphasis on “American”? Does “Mexican-American” create a divide just by using the “Mexican” prefix?

There is no consensus about adoption titles, either. Is the woman who gives birth but doesn’t parent a “birth mother”? A biological mother? Just a mother? Or is there some better term?

There is no definitive answer that ruffles no feathers. But let’s explore some commonly used titles.

  • Birth Parents: Not accurate for a father — he doesn’t give birth. Too limited for many mothers — they contribute much more than labor and delivery. There’s prenatal care, and a loving, painful decision to place a child. Still, it is an understood and widely used term, not heinous to most first parents I hear from, and I occasionally use it to be understood.
  • Biological Mother: limits my children’s first parents’ role to that of DNA providers. In fact, Crystal and Michele have much more significance than that to us. They made decisions during and after their pregnancies that show they are much more than egg donors. Just too clinical.
  • Natural Parents: could imply that adoptive mothers are the opposite — unnatural mothers. Possibly an emotionally charged term, and could make it difficult for the child who wants to claim both his mothers.
  • Real Mom: so who changed all those diapers and woke up in the middle of all those nights to sooth — Fake Mom?

I like first parent. It is clear. It honors the people who gave my children life. It does nothing to diminish my role in their lives — I’m their Mom. And I don’t believe it implies that I am second. Rather, it denotes that I am last. Roger may not have been my first love, but he was my last. Last is good.

No matter what your intentions, never abbreviate BM for birth mother. No one likes to be equated with excrement, no matter how innocent the intentions. Instead, if you are limited on keystrokes: bmom or bdad, fmom or fdad.

Please note that these terms are accurate only when referring to parents who have relinquished. Prior to relinquishment, a pregnant woman is simply an expectant mother (no matter what your agency tells you). Use of the term birth mother — even when prefixed with the word prospective — to describe a pregnant woman who might choose adoption is considered coercive. It’ s not until she legally surrenders her role as parent that she should have any prefixes attached to her title at all.

Excerpted from The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption.


Lori Holden's book coverLori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.