The Other Mother
"Mommy, why didn't I grow in your tummy?"
Questions like that have the ability to stop the rotation of the earth for just a moment. Tucked into the mundane business of an ordinary day comes a question that leaves you breathless and makes your mind spin for answers appropriate for an inquisitive little girl busy planning her fifth birthday party.
When we first decided to adopt our daughter someone asked us "Will you tell her she's adopted?"
That question left me dumbfounded and suppressing many sarcastic responses underneath a polite "yes, of course we will tell her".
The other option is that we could just keep it a big family secret, that everyone knows about, and hope she doesn't figure it out. I mean the fact that she looks completely different than her parents could simply be genetic coincidence right? Or maybe we could sit her down on her 18th birthday and with long drawn sober faces explain that her life has been a fraud. I knew we would tell her but I didn't know how.
Things have changed a bit in recent generations.
We knew this was new territory that we would need to navigate carefully but yet we had some time to figure it out as we moved forward. That buffer zone of time elapsed very quickly.
I resolved early on to create an atmosphere before I needed to give explanations.
Our strategy was to lay a solid foundation of love and security. A foundation strong enough to support all the hard things later on. A foundation that will support questions about identity, belonging, and purpose. The winds will come later in life, and may leave some marks, but the foundation will remain untouched. We are her family. She belongs. She is loved unconditionally and eternally. She was beautifully created and her life has purpose.
Even before she could talk I was giving her vocabulary. I was building those stones into our family structure. Words like "adopted", "coming home", and "forever family" have become as common in our vernacular as words like "born"or "stop chewing with your mouth open". We intentionally normalized adoption language and the concept of adoption long before our child could define those things. Our motive for that is to strip those words of their power to shame, divide, or alienate. It isn't her identity or a label and we aren't obnoxious about it. It's just a part of our life and her story.
We have surrounded our foundation of security with an atmosphere of normalization. Before she had any idea of what "adopted" meant, she recognized the word and associated it with being loved. Being a multi-racial family has added another element to that atmosphere as we intentionally normalize and celebrate our unique qualities and the diversity within our own home. From the children's books on our bookshelves to the wide variety of different shades and colouring of dolls in our home. Our positive normal includes a lot of different.
She loves to hear the story of her "coming home" day and will sometimes ask "Mom, can you tell me about the day you got the phone call and came to get me". I go on to describe all the inconsequential details about the day we got a phone call, quickly packed a diaper bag and drove into the big City. We met a beautiful 1 month old baby girl with wavy black hair and gorgeous black eyes and we fell instantly in love. The big sister and big brothers were so excited to meet her and we all loved her endlessly. That's a summary of the story she has been hearing for the past few years. It's always a happy story that leaves a little girl snuggled up and content in her Mommy or Daddy's arms.
She also loves to look through pages of her baby book which showcases her first year in our family, as well as a handful of photos acquired by others before she came home. In that first page filled with photos I did not take I included a photo of a woman with wavy black hair and dark eyes holding a new baby in a social services office. It is the only picture we have of the only visit that ever took place. As I glued that picture into place, unsure of the wisdom behind my action, I trusted that it was right. After all, this is her story not mine. I am just the memory keeper. I am the one that tucks away bits of information and gives dignity now to parts of the story that will hold many hard questions later.
Miss Cece knows this photo. I've never gone into details, pointed it out, or tried to explain. I follow a little girls lead. She is smart though. Almost too smart. Lately we have begun to build some information structure on top our foundation and inside our atmosphere of normalized vocabulary. Not too much too fast, but just enough to satisfy. Nothing too heavy for a young heart to carry. Simple answers to potentially gut wrenching questions.
A word I have hesitated to use until just this week is "birth mother". Maybe it creates some insecurity in my own heart. Maybe I'm afraid that she won't understand and that doubts and fears will creep like rock crushing roots into our carefully laid foundation.
The other day my little girl was sitting on my lap and we were reading through a children's encyclopaedia describing all different body systems, and organs. I turned the page and discovered a whole section on the development of a baby in the womb. Both of us captivated, we read through each little bit and discussed the pictures of a baby growing bigger and bigger inside the safety of it's mothers womb. It was both sweet and sad as I was reminded that I did not carry this one within the safety of my womb. She belonged to the other Mother then. Her first Mother. Her birth Mom.
These photos sparked questions. Questions I hadn't planned to answer that day. Questions about who's womb she grew in. She pieced it together by herself and ran to find her baby book. A quick reading time through a children's encyclopedia had turned into flipping through pages of her baby book and giving the woman with wavy black hair a name, and a title. Birth Mother. That's how important conversations happen with our children. Sacred and profound moments tucked into the monotony of an ordinary day.
My dearest daughter:
You grew in her womb and then you came home and you grew in our arms. Before our eyes you continue to grow and we love you more with each passing day. You have two Mother's. Both are real. The woman who carried you in her womb will forever be connected to you. There are things you share, and time you spent, that will remain between the two of you. Regardless of circumstances and heartaches (and my wishes that I could rewrite certain chapters of the story), there is a certain dignity and honour in position. I will always give that respect to your birth Mother, a woman I have never met in person. I thank her for the gift of life she gave you, and us.
I am your Mommy. Nothing will ever change that. I am not a pretend mom or an artificial imitation of one. We are family. Real family. We may not share genetics but we share our lives. You are no less my own beloved child than if I had carried you in my womb. I remember the day we brought you home as one of the best days of my life. I didn't know it then, but I was receiving a priceless gift. A tiny girl who would one day become my daughter. A daughter who is delightful, joy filled, and a ray of sunshine. A daughter who I am proud of and look forward to witnessing grow into a woman of character, strength, and secure confidence.
For a 5 year old little girl that's enough to chew on for now. She is satisfied and content.
As the years go on, little by little, more details of her story will be unwrapped. More questions will come and more answers will be carefully navigated. Some questions will be left unanswered simply because I don't know. We will be there with her, and for her, as she someday decides what she wants to do with the information she has.
Rarely a day goes by that I do not think about my children's biological families. I carry them in my heart and prayers. I feel the weight of their loss, as well as my children's. Even though they do not know it, and I can't fully explain it or understand it, they are a part of our family too.
What I know breaks me to the core but I keep it tucked away as important pieces of a puzzle that she will someday be empowered to put together. The picture that it creates may have some very dark corners but I trust that it will be a beautiful display of redemption and God's grace.
That is how we tell our daughter she is adopted.