An adoptive mother contemplates what it means to be a "real" mother.
“Now this is real,” I thought as a flexed my hand, stiffened by sewing on the patches to my daughter’s Brownie sash. My mind had gone back to the encounter I’d had on the train that morning when my seat mate noticed I was reading Adoptive Families magazine. She had all the usual questions of someone unfamiliar with adoption. Where were my two daughters from? How old were they when they arrived? How old are they now?
Then the conversation took another typical turn.
“I don’t know how anyone can give up a child,” she said. “Do you know why their real mothers gave them up?”
I’ve always met that question with a lighthearted response. “I feel pretty real,” I said, leaving the next move to her. Such queries, for me, provide an opportunity to educate people on a very misunderstood subject. Usually, when faced with this question, I try to discuss what it means to be a parent —not adoptive parent or a stepparent, but what it means to parent a child. As families have changed in the last few decades, society itself is struggling with that question.
“I mean the birth mothers,” she said. “Why would they give them up?” I decided to answer her question by educating her on the etiquette of adoption, using language more accurate than what she had used.
“I’m so glad they made adoption plans,” I said. “It was the answer to all my dreams. All I know is their birth mothers were very great women and I thank God for them everyday.” I went on to explain that today, birth parents do not “give up” their children, they make plans and carefully choose who will parent their children. I also explained that the girls’ adoption stories were theirs to share, not mine. I also explained that if the girls were with us, I’m sure they would share them because we are all very proud of our family history.
I’ve been a mother since 1991 when I brought Alexis home from Romania at the age of 14 months. Like many women in this decade, I became a mother on my own. At 39, with no marriage on the horizon and my career in place, I realized there is nothing as strong as the continuity of the generations. I knew I wanted children. But unlike many “Murphy Browns,” I wanted parenthood without pregnancy.
Adoption was, by far, my first choice for many reasons; the most important of which was the fact that pregnancy did not look fun. Delivery looked even less fun. Second, I had no special investment in my genetics or in the pregnancy experience. I knew that neither provided any guarantees because there are none in life or with children. I knew many parents who said that adoption considerably improved the gene pool and did, in fact, bring them the children they held in their dreams. I now know that to be true.
I also knew how deeply I could love a child when I met my nephew, Matthew, at two weeks old. He opened a door for me and showed me what I was missing. I also knew any child I adopted would be my own regardless of how she joined the family. Alexis’s sister joined us in 1993 when Brooks arrived at the age of five months. Three years younger, Brooks came from the Bolivian plains and had the golden glow and almond eyes of the descendants of the Inca.
I always had the feeling of a fairy tale coming true. I was amazed that I was able to have two such wonderful little girls. I was amazed that if I had called central casting and asked for the perfect child, Alexis would have come marching through the door ready to party. I was amazed at the differences in Brooks, my shy, little one who curls herself into my lap whenever she has the chance.
I was amazed at their beauty in both body and soul. And I was especially amazed when I hovered over them each night whispering our good night ritual and feeling them pull me down for a big hug. To this day, I always walk away with wonderment that dreams can really come true and that I was so very, very blessed.
Do people who birth their children have this much appreciation and thankfulness of the gift they’ve been given? Can their more traditional path to parenthood make them take having children for granted? Can they possibly love their children as much as I love mine?
Others have described “real” to me in terms of chores as if toiling over homework, diapers, sick children and soccer games somehow grants us an entitlement to be called Mom or Dad. All that, like the Brownie patches and birthday parties and Chuck E. Cheese’s, represent our patches in this troop called parenthood, to be sure.
But what few realize is that our paths to parenthood are not that different than our more traditional counterparts. While they grew a life within them, we grew a mountain of paperwork and researched the way we would build our families. We, too, went through our own medical procedures but also had extensive home studies. We rearranged our houses in middle-of-the-night nesting rituals. Our emotions rose and fell wildly as we waited; waited the long months for our assignments and then more months before a precious picture or shaky video turned into someone who could fill our aching, empty arms and hug us back.
Even so, it is not persevering through the similar stages of pregnancy or adoption that make us real. There is much more to it than that.
Real is a tiny hand in mine as we cross the street. Real is the whisper of breathing as Brooks naps in my arms. Real is as light as a baby’s touch. Real is lying in bed reading stories with small bodies on either side interrupting with so many questions you think the story will never end.
It’s planting flowers and jumping in puddles. It’s catching a running youngster as she jumps into your arms when you pick her up in the evening. It’s mastering rollerblading and ice skating. It’s listening to kids pound down the stairs on Christmas morning, their feety pajamas swishing along the bare floor toward their prizes.
Real is lifting a crying child into your arms and nursing a bloody knee. It’s secretly watching a two-year-old sing lullabies as she lovingly lines up her baby dolls and covers them for a nap. It’s passing on the family traditions as your child takes your place at your father’s side to become the official Thanksgiving turkey taster, her small hand reaching up to remind him she’s ready for her job. And real is letting go of the bicycle and little hands at the classroom door.
Real is, quite simply, the thrills all parents get from just being a parent and loving their children.
Finally, around midnight, the once-bare Brownie sash was festooned with patches: the Troop 1351 patch, the theatre, dancing and sleepover patches. As I turned it over and pictured it on Alexis, it didn’t surprise me to discover that my rare and feeble attempt at sewing had resulted in all the patches being affixed to the back of the sash.
“Typical,” I thought, shaking my head. “Well, it will just have to do.”
As I readied myself for best, my thoughts turned to my favorite passage from The Velveteen Rabbit.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day . . .
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
Real is also when you get lucky enough to have a child to love.
And, yes, it’s also taking all the patches off and sewing them back on the right way.