In Are You My Mother?, P.D. Eastman’s classic children’s book, a hatchling bird enters the world to find himself alone. Unbeknownst to him, his mother had flown off in search of food, leaving her egg in the nest. The baby bird embarks on an adventure to determine who his mother is, ruling out a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a cow in the process. Like Eastman’s baby bird, adoptees must also confront the issue of “Are you my mother?”
The question of who is one’s mother is not as easy to answer as one might think. In fact, the question begs the burning issue of nature versus nurture. Even the dictionary does not provide a definitive answer. Merriam-Webster gives two possible definitions: a mother is a female parent, and then goes on to advise that a parent may be one who brings forth offspring (i.e., nature) or a mother may be one who raises and cares for a child (i.e., nurture). In adoption lingo, the former mother might be referred to as the “tummy mother” and the latter as the adoptive mother.
Prolific American sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein, author of Stanger In A Strange Land, comes down strongly on the side of nurture when defining a mother. In his opinion, “Being a mother is an attitude, not a biological relation.” Heinlein’s thought is that giving birth alone does not make one a mother; delivering a baby is a biological function, but serving as a mother involves thought, love, and commitment. In this vein, a woman may tell her adopted child that he was born out of her heart and not her tummy (referring to a “tummy mommy”).
With as much divisiveness as exists in the United States today, do we really need another issue where lines are drawn? Is the question of who is one’s mother a bright line test with only one right answer? Must the answer be nurture to the exclusion of nature or vice versa? Does giving birth make a woman any more of a “real” mother than the mother who gets up for the two o’clock feedings? Does bathing and feeding a child on a regular basis make a woman more of “real” mother than one with only a biological connection?
Unfortunately, the mother issue is not an academic one. Adoptive children are forced to address who their “real” mother is at an early age. A seemingly innocuous school project like drawing a family tree raises the issue for adoptive children and so can checking themselves out in the mirror. A child may look nothing like his adoptive mother; perhaps he was adopted internationally or transracially. Does a “real” parent have to look like his offspring? Even biological parents do not always look the same as their children.
Mr. Heinlein makes a good point about mothers; one does not have to be biologically connected to a child to be his mother. Sadly, though, Heinlein misses the mark. It is science fiction to suggest that we can totally discount a biological parent of an adopted child. Like it or not, the child is a product of biology and will inherit characteristics and tendencies from a biological mother. It is a disservice to an adoptive child to conclude that the biological parent can simply be dismissed because she is not actively nurturing and raising her child. Those genes which are passed down from her are part and parcel of who that child is. And a biological mother actively cared for the child from inception to birth, perhaps restricting her activities (i.e., refraining from or cutting back on tobacco use/alcohol consumption, etc.) to put the child’s needs before her wants.
On the other hand, biological parents cannot downplay the critical role an adoptive mother serves in a child’s life. A mother with a legal and heart connection to her child will shape and mold the child she raises; she instills him with values and teaches him life skills. An adoptive mother will physically be there for her child as he develops and cheers him on as he reaches various milestones in life, i.e., learning to walk, starting school, choosing a career, etc. She will kiss his boo-boos and scare away the monster under his bed.
And what does it matter in the end who the “real” mother is? Life is not a competition about who the number one mother is and who should not be considered a part of the family. The key concern is the well-being of a child. If a child has loving parents who are his both biologically and through nurturing actions, then he is blessed. But an adopted child is also blessed as he has more than two parents in the picture rooting for him. He has parents who physically gave him life and also parents who have nurtured him through the life he was unselfishly given by the choice of adoption. In the adoption arena, less is not more. Cutting out women from being considered a mother because they are merely biologically connected or because they are mere nurturers of a child serves no beneficial purpose.
A better way to handle “mothers” is to realize that there are simply different kinds of mothers. Some give birth and are related biologically. Yea tummy mothers! Some are related legally and via a heart connection. Yea adoptive mothers! Each kind is a mother. And each kind is a “real” mother.
Actually, the correct answer to this confusing issue can be found in the beginner book Are You My Mother? The answer is yes. Yes, the bird who laid the egg from which the baby hatched was his mother. Why? Because there was a biological connection between them. And yes, the bird who returned to the nest to tend to the baby bird was his mother. Why? Because she cared for the baby and nurtured him. Perhaps, Mr. Heinlein, the focus should not be the attitude a mother has towards her child but the attitude that we have toward a mother who is birthing or raising him.