Written for Mother’s Day 2009

Just over a year ago, we adopted a baby. Already parents to three children, our family grew in a new way: we became an adoptive family.

Mother’s Day is not a holiday I have ever observed (beyond sending a card to my mother, stepmother and mother-in-law). I dislike the holiday’s marketing aspect, including the sense that “mom” does a job and deserves a day of pampering for her trouble. Being a mother, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, is not a job (although it involves a lot of work); it’s a relationship.

It’s my second Mother’s Day since Saskia was born, and with her arrival, the holiday got more complex, because she brought another mother into our fold, her birth mother, Caroline.

The English language doesn’t possess satisfying words for “mother” in our situation. Caroline, as the woman who gave birth to Saskia, is her mother. Biology tells us so. I stood by Caroline’s hospital bed while she pushed Saskia out into the world. Giving birth is one critical way we define mothers, it being the one thing only a mother can do. But to say giving birth describes motherhood is incomplete. Caroline isn’t raising Saskia. In terms of all those things mothers do—hold you when you’re upset, kiss you countless times a day, smile at you for no apparent reason, feed you, wipe your nose and bottom, take you to the pediatrician—I am it. Saskia is too small to appreciate how two women share mothering her. The language surrounding adoption offers some words to qualify mother, such as birth mother, or first mother, or adoptive mother. At the same time, these qualifiers sound like apologies, as if there’s something murky or not quite certain about mother, herself. Add to the mix that each situation is unique and that each definition is dependent upon the mothers and the child.

Qualifiers may be helpful to Saskia as she navigates her identity as an adopted child—and if that’s the case, I’ll be very glad for them—and yet it’s also possible that she’ll choose her own words to name her reality.

After Saskia was born, Lucien, my second child, then nine, said to Caroline, “I can see you on the floor, playing a game, eating chocolate with us. You’ll be like the fun aunt.” This appealed to Caroline at the time, the idea that she’d have a role to play and would occupy a special spot in Saskia’s family. We haven’t reached games and chocolate, yet. As Mother’s Day approaches, I’m aware that Caroline revisits her decision about Saskia’s adoption—struggles with having ceded that plain-old, unqualified mother—far more often than I do.

After an extended and heart-stopping legal odyssey, and once the finalization of Saskia’s adoption occurred, relief slowly seeped into my body. If the relief had been dye, my color would have changed because it saturated me. I was exceedingly grateful to move past any need to worry that our family constellation could be changed by the birth father’s protestations. Saskia was ten months when the adoption was made legal. Cherished baby of the family, Saskia had been our daughter for what seemed practically forever (from birth).

Whether Caroline’s second-guessing her decision or reassuring herself that she did the right thing, whether she’s reminding herself that Saskia’s happy in order to feel more settled about the decision, I can’t say. Part of motherhood—her motherhood—is going to have to do with how she makes peace with her decision. I can’t make her make peace. I can’t force the “fun aunt” role upon her nor any other. For my part, what I hold as part of my peace is that in adoption, the sense of loss is greater for the mother ceding the baby and the baby having to grow into the complexity of having felt rejected by—to whatever degree, less, we hope with an open adoption, even barely at all—a mother than for the adoptive parents, because as adoptive parents, we gained a daughter. We gained this murkiness, too, these losses and our job—my job as Saskia’s mother and Caroline’s chosen mother for her daughter—is to be willing to hold this, whatever this will be. Mine’s not to judge or force my will. At the same time, mine is to somehow remain as open as possible while respecting boundaries and while remaining certain—not apologetic—that as Saskia’s adoptive mother, I’m Saskia’s mother.

So, this week when making cards to send to my mother, stepmother, mother-in-law and two sisters, I also made a card for Caroline (and sent some chocolates, too). I didn’t say much—there’s so much and nothing to say—but I couldn’t let the day go without telling her how appreciative I am. On the second mother’s day as an adoptive mother, that’s where I am.

From Sarah Buttenweiser of Standing in the Shadows.

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Note from Design Mom: for the duration of my pregnancy, I’ll be posting advice, memories and stories about pregnancy, childbirth, adoption and growing a family on Wednesdays. You can find them all by clicking here. I’d love to hear your story or memory or advice, feel free to submit it to gabrielle@designmom.com.