The “birth mother” has become a somewhat mythical creature in the United States. Some of the earliest birth mothers were enslaved Black women whose children were forcibly taken and sold to other plantations. At the same time, Native American mothers also became birth mothers as their children were involuntarily rounded up and sent to boarding schools to be assimilated into white American culture.

In the decades since, the birth mother has become a paradox. According to mainstream media depictions, she is both brave and lazy, selfless and selfish, loving and careless, a heroine and a villain. She is a drug-addicted, abusive lay-about who makes the ultimate sacrifice–relinquishing her child to give them a better life.

And when her children are adopted into their “forever home,” she disappears.

The term “birth mother*” is often used to refer to a woman whose biological child is adopted by another person, either voluntarily or forcibly. Often left out of happy adoption stories, villainized, or shamed into silence, these mothers are rarely given a platform. Now, three authors are aiming to change that.

The idea of the birth mother is the beating heart that connects three recent books: We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America by Roxanna Asgarian, which explores the murder of six Black children by their adoptive white parents; Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood by Gretchen Sisson, which spotlights mothers who relinquish their children through the private adoption industry; and Broken: Transforming Child Protective Services—Notes of a Former Case Worker by Jessica Pryce, which takes on the foster care system.

While the books examine foster care, adoption, and motherhood from different angles, they all surface and center the voices of the mothers who have (voluntarily or forcibly) relinquished their children. Their stories are at turns compelling, heartbreaking, rage-inducing, and sometimes—but rarely—hopeful. Together, they create a choral voice of pain and loss that cries out for a world in which their children could have remained theirs, and illuminate a path toward that world.

Read the full article about who gets to be a mother by Andrea Ruggirello at YES! Magazine.