It was September of 2010 when my husband and I became parents for the first time. A young woman placed her son into my arms, and I went from being infertile and childless to being a naïve new mom. She was young, and alone, and she trusted me with the most important thing in her life.
During our two-week ICPC (Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children) wait, we were staying in a small apartment 11 hours from home, and my son’s birth mom had followed her family out to California, where they moved the day after she placed her son. She texted many times a day to check in and to connect with us, and I was walking a fine line as a new adoptive mom between acclimating to motherhood and keeping her abreast of everything. I wanted to please her, to make her proud of her decision, and to do whatever possible to keep her feeling good about her decision. TPR (Termination of Parental Rights) had already occurred, but I just wanted her to have as much peace in her heart as possible, and I felt much of that peace hinged on my aptitude as a parent. I needed her to know we were exceeding her expectations. Then, when my son was about a week old, my husband woke up with a shooting pain in his arm and an intense headache unlike anything he’d ever felt before, along with some sores on his hand. It was the morning of our newborn photo shoot, and I found myself going alone with our son while he went to Minor Med.
I got back to the apartment to find my husband with a fistful of prescription bottles. He had been diagnosed with shingles, and the outbreak was right on his hand, right where he’d been holding our son’s chin up for post-feed burpings. I freaked out and we quarantined him in the bedroom of that little apartment while I slept on the couch and took over the round-the-clock care of our son, only dodging into my husband’s room to quickly deliver medication, food, and drink. I could not tell his birth mother about the shingles. What would she think? Would she blame us if something happened? Would she regret her choice? Could she possibly understand that things happen and trust us to take care of it, even though we were virtual strangers and we had her son in our care? I kept it to myself and didn’t tell her until my son was 3 years old, which was right around the time I realized something: It’s OK to share the hard parts of parenting with my child’s birth family.
One of my favorite things to do now is to call my daughter’s birth mom and share the newest naughty thing our daughter has learned to do. “You know that scream your son does when he’s mad?” I say. “Well, she’s doing it now, too. She throws her arms around, falls to the floor, and screeches at the top of her lungs.” The text I get back says, “Welcome to my world!” or some other such sentiment that reminds me we’re in the same boat. We are raising siblings, miles apart, and we understand each other like no one else can. Our daughter eats like a horse despite being petite, and her birth mom always comments, “It feeds her attitude!” and gets a good laugh, knowing I have my hands full.
I have the same rapport with my son’s birth mother, and she gets some of the harder stuff, too. She hears that he’s learned to manipulate, and that he’s got a smart mouth that gets him in trouble because his intelligence is off the charts, too. But they also hear the amazing moments and get a call or text when I’m overwhelmed with gratitude during the sweetest moments. They also see the stuff in between. When I tell them the hard stuff, they know I’m not ungrateful; they just know I’m keeping it real and I’m sharing all of their child with them. Why would I do anything less?
Here’s the thing: Motherhood is a revolving door of hilarious, gross, terrifying, sweet, and awe-inspiring moments. No child is perfect, and no parents are perfect, either. Birth parents didn’t place their children with us because they expect perfection; they just expect our best. There was something about you, as an adoptive family, that made the birth family say, “They are what I cannot provide for my child in any other way at this time.” They trust us, and they cheer for us. At the same time, we hold a lot of power in our hands. It’s power that we should use, not to hold something over their heads, but to heal their hearts. Part of doing that means just being real. We are not Stepford Wives or those over-the-top Pinterest-perfect moms. We are ladies with ponytails, snot swipes at child-height on our pants, and yesterday’s makeup on. Ladies who sometimes read a magazine instead of watching our kids play on the playground. We forget things, and we fail our kids, and we fall asleep vowing that tomorrow we’ll keep our cool a little better than we did today.
But still, we realize there is another woman who would love to be in our shoes, watching their child play and grow and learn, and it makes us feel bad when we do anything that remotely sounds like whining about how hard motherhood is. We realize it might make us sound like we take the gift of motherhood for granted, or that we don’t appreciate the trust that was placed in us to be amazing mothers to another woman’s child. We teeter between telling all of the amazing things about motherhood (“rubbing it in”) and being honest about how hard it really is sometimes (“being ungrateful”), and the reality is, honesty lives somewhere between rubbing it in and being ungrateful. It exists in those in-between moments that aren’t cute enough to put on Facebook or to share in photos. It exists in those times before he wakes up seven times in the middle of the night saying his bones are growing too quickly and his muscles ache. It’s somewhere in there, and we owe it to our kids’ birth parents to share the good, the bad, and the stuff in between.
We all need support and a good sounding board, but adoptive moms also get shamed by random friends and family members when sharing the hard stuff. I know I’m not alone in hearing, “Well, you asked for this!” when sharing hardships with friends. Didn’t most mothers ask for this? Just because me “asking for this” came with a pile of paperwork instead of a protruding belly doesn’t mean I asked any more or less for this. Motherhood is hard, period, and there’s nothing shameful about admitting it. I still think it’s a fine line, and I think we owe our kids’ birth parents the respect of having other sounding boards and support systems for things we struggle with in our lives, just as they need their own sources of support.
Sharing some of the hard stuff is not the same as complaining to our kids’ birth families, it’s just sharing our reality with them—and that’s what they deserve. Our kids aren’t always angels, and we’re not always ahead of the game, but our imperfections make us perfect for each other. We exist on a wavelength apart from everyone else in our lives, sharing parenthood through a union that assures our kids stand a chance of feeling complete. We owe it to each other to be real, and to love and support each other through the hilarious, gross, terrifying, sweet and awe-inspiring moments—and everything in-between.