My Relationship to Motherhood

I told this story of my relationship to motherhood at last weekend’s Mother’s Day edition of Story Sessions at City Winery, Chicago.  

You know those little girls who play with baby dolls and start prepping for motherhood from the time they are still in diapers themselves?  Yeah, that was not me.  At 34, married three years, I was literally bargaining with my husband in six month increments: “Six more months, sweetie.  I promise.  We can talk about making babies in six months.”

I was never really interested in mothering.  Or kids.  Or mothering kids.  No thank you.  Full disclosure, I had a great life and when the reality of having children started to become more tangible, it freaked me the freak out.  I worried I was not capable of taking care of another human that depended on me for everything.

And I was really not interested in the labor of motherhood.  The cooking, the cleaning, the wiping, the folding, the putting away-ing.  Ugh.  Nope.  I was a feminist.  Evolved.  Hell, Betty Friedan spoke at my college graduation.  I had plans, people.

Then one day I got a call at the office.  Was I Sheila?  Was Donna my mother?  Yes, and yes.  My Mom was sitting in an emergency room in Biloxi, Mississippi, alone.  My Dad was on his way, but they wanted her to hear a familiar voice until he got there.  They believed she had experienced a stroke, she wasn’t herself, they were going to hand the phone to her.

“Mom?  Mom?  It’s Sheila.  Dad is on his way.   I’m right here.”  The single word my Mom spoke, on loop, was taunting in its inaccuracy.  “Okay.  Oookkaaaaayyyyy.  Ookkaayy.”  Except, she wasn’t okay.  She would never be okay again.  It wasn’t a stroke she had, but a brain tumor that had started bleeding inside her head while she played a slot machine, cigarette to her left, Pepsi to her right.  (mimic pulling a slot) Ca-ching.

My Mom had right sided paralysis the last year of her life and required total care – bathing, eating, dressing, toileting.  The whole shebang.  I got real responsible, real quick.

And welcome to one of the great revelations of my life:  I was, in fact, capable of caring for another human being.  And by caring, I don’t mean in a purely emotional way, but in a mom kind of way – in that sticky, messy, repetitive, smelly, nagging, occasionally oppressive, frosting on a cupcake kind of way.  There is a gift in knowing that it was my dying Mom who taught me that lesson.

Motherhood no longer seemed so daunting to me.  A couple of months later, I was pregnant.

In the early hours of my labor with Donna.  We went to the local mall as it was cool.  I kept making Mary Tyler Dad take these photos of me with prophetic messages at Kohl's.  Sort of breaks my heart when I look at them now, but that's motherhood for you.
Me, in early labor with Donna, expecting great things.

Our first child was a girl.  Our beautiful Donna, named for my mom who had died a few months earlier.  She was perfect.  So sweet.  So easy.  So considerate of her older, rookie parents.  Motherhood was a dream, potent and primitive in those early days.  I felt so damn happy, I barely recognized myself.  Folding her little onesies regularly made me weep.  Mashing sweet potatoes and peas into ice cube trays so Donna would have lunch at her sitter’s the next day gave me this ridiculous sense of pride.

Then, at 20 months old, my little girl, my baby, was diagnosed with her own brain tumor.  Like grandmother, like granddaughter.  Word to the wise, if your name is Donna and I love you, get yourself an MRI, stat.

Overnight, I became a Cancer Mom, which is like mothering on steroids.  A couple of years after that, I became a Grieving Mom, which really and truly, is light years away from being just a mom.

After Donna died, caring for my infant son, born in the midst of our girl’s third relapse, was what kept me anchored.  The responsibility of doing for him what I had done for my mom and daughter gave me a purpose and function that I needed desperately in those early days of grief.

I taught myself how to cook in those months.  Growing up on a steady diet of meat, potatoes, canned vegetables, and Kraft Dinner ensured I had a lot to learn.  Honestly, the cooking was a distraction from my sorrow.  Recipes made sense and were orderly.  In the kitchen, I could control the outcome.

I never bargained for any of it.  The things I imagined would be difficult about motherhood were the things I pined for, the things that kept me sane, the things that were easy.  Mundane labor was my lifeline.  I fought the idea of motherhood, never realizing what a blessing it was, how fleeting it was, underestimating its power and my capacity.

Fast forward a few more years, and I became an Adoptive Mom.  Another in my growing list of qualifiers to motherhood.  My husband and I, probably too old and too sad to make more babies the traditional way, chose to grow our little broken family through adoption.

We thought of it as a kind of sacred pact.  We agreed, with the total sincerity and earnestness that Lake Shore Liberals are lousy with, to raise another woman’s child as our own.  I think, because of our grief, we believed we could more easily empathize with the loss a Birth Mother would feel.

My naivete astounds.

It turns out that no matter how well acquainted you are with grief and loss, when you grapple with the reality that another mother gave her child to you, well hells bells.  That right there will mess with you.

As I cared for my youngest, knowing full well it would be my last time at the baby rodeo, the simple tasks of motherhood that had previously brought me joy or solace, instead woke the beast of my Catholic guilt.  With every diaper change, every bottle, every bath in the kitchen sink, my immense gratitude that I got to care for this little bundle was tempered with the reality that another mother did not.

Another mother, because of some pretty sucky life circumstances, couldn’t change that diaper, couldn’t warm that bottle, couldn’t rinse the soap off the chubbiest baby bum I had ever seen.

In retrospect, sometimes I think about my pre-baby days and wonder if I had an unconscious inkling of what lay ahead and just kept putting motherhood off, unable, in some cosmic way, to deal with the enormity of what was to be for me.

So, um, yeah, Happy Mother’s Day, folks!  For me, this day is an endurance event.  24 hours chock full of feeling all the feelings.  My annual ode to perseverance.  So, lift your glasses with me, let us toast to motherhood, with all its qualifiers, all its joys, all its sorrows, all its losses, all its bounties, and all its labors.  Here’s to the mothers.  I salute you.

The “Letting Go” of Parenthood Starts Early

My youngest started at a new preschool last week.  I have all the feelings about this — a sense of triumph and seeing that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel coupled with that awareness of how quickly our kiddos grow up and out.  He is our last, so we just had our last first day of preschool complete with photos and excitement, and in his second week, more than a few tears (his and mine).

His very first cubbie!
His very first cubbie!

Separation anxiety, albeit mild, has found its way into our lives this past week.  While our guy sailed through his first week of being away from home, the second week kind of snuck up on him and when we walked into his classroom, the tears and clinging started.  “Don’t leave me!” he wailed, as he clung to my hand.  His first task after walking into his class environment is to wash his hands (thank you, teachers!).  He would do so only if I held his hand through the process.  There was no chance of his letting go, his grip was tight.

But I did let go, because it was time.  Letting go is what parenting is all about, isn’t it?  It starts early and childhood becomes a series of events where we let go of them, literally and metaphorically, then, catch our breath and hope for the best.

I know I am biased about this, my perspective different than many of my parent friends.  When we buried our daughter, that was the ultimate “letting go.”  These other milestones with our sons are but a whisper to the roar of watching dirt being shoveled over our daughter’s casket.  And there has yet to be a milestone, a mark of letting go with my boys, that I have not celebrated, even when there are tears.

The crazy part of me has a bit of a thrill when watching my boy cry out for me.  I don’t know if it is because he is adopted or because we know he is our last child, but I take nothing from him for granted.  Every kiss, every, “I love you,” is a gift.  When he cries out, “Mama!” as I see him through the small window on the other side of the door, my heart breaks just as it fills to hear that word — it is such a prestigious and wondrous thing to be a mother, his mama.

My boy’s pleading call of “Mama!” is everything to me right now.  It is my role, my identity, my job.  When I hear it I transform into that sobbing Sally Field winning her Oscar and shouting out “And I can’t deny the fact that you like me!  Right now you like me!”  If I were to swap out the word “like” for “need” that could be me, standing on the other side of the door watching my boy try and cope as I let him go, humbled and honored that he needs me, certain there is nothing greater I will ever experience than being needed by my little ones.

And so, I let them go.  Because it is what they need.



Being a Real Mom

Earlier today a stranger on Facebook accused me of not being my youngest son’s “real” mom, my youngest son being adopted.  I deleted the post immediately.  I didn’t engage the stranger, didn’t argue the point, and won’t tolerate that nonsense.

I’ve been exposed to Internet hate before.  It’s anonymous and angry and the rule is that you’re supposed to ignore it.  For the most part, I do, but don’t kid yourselves.  If you are repeatedly the target of hate, even anonymous and virtual hate, it can have a negative and potentially harmful impact on you.

I’ve written about controversial issues in the past. Guns.  Abortion.  Politics. Adoption. And, yes, adoption is controversial.  I didn’t realize that before I became a part of the adoption community.  I was naive enough to write about our family’s wish to adopt, not thinking anything of it, full of hope and good intentions.

The Internet schooled me.

That schooling took a toll on me, despite my best efforts for it not to have an impact. For the record, after coming to adoption, I more fully appreciate the nuances and complicated nature of adoption. It’s not a black and white issue and there is tremendous pain and loss attached to it from everyone involved.

I’ve witnessed pain experienced from every side of the adoption triad — birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees.  I get it.  I’ve lived it.  And you just need to believe me on this front, as I will never, ever publicly reveal details about my personal experience with adoption, as they would hurt my child.

A real mother does not intentionally hurt her child.

A real mother anticipates her child’s needs.

A real mother protects her child from needless pain and conflict.


There are times I am vulnerable enough to give in to the burden of the labels I carry.  It is terrifying to be a Cancer Mom.  It is complicated to be an adoptive mom.  It is relentless to be a grieving mom.  I am all of those things.

Somedays I would give anything to be none of those things.  Somedays I celebrate how being those things has shaped me in profound ways.

Because I have seen a child from birth to death, lowering her body into the ground with my own arms, I know I have strength.  Because I have stood in line at the Walgreen’s, trying to fill the prescriptions of my son’s Birth Mother while she sat in a room, holding the child she had just birthed, and signed form after form confirming her choice to place that child in the hands of another, I have humility.  Because I wake up each and every day bearing the weight of grief and loss of a child, but still manage to dress the kids and pack the lunches and fold the laundry, I have resolve.

Those experiences, painful and hard as they might be, give me perspective, something many people blissfully pass through this life without.  I rely on that perspective to cope with things like the Internet hate of strangers, or, at times, even the ill will of someone I know personally.

When someone suggests, because my youngest came to me through adoption, that I am not his “real” mom, I know better.  The hate in those words, the intent behind them — to undermine and intimidate, give me pause, to be sure, but armed with my life’s experiences and perspective, I know enough to reject them.

I am a real mom to all of my children.

These words I write tonight are as much for me as they are for those women sitting at home reading them, who came to motherhood through a different means and have had their status called into question.  You are a real mother.  People use the premise of “real” motherhood to hurt and belittle and diminish, but they are not true.

I’ve had enough of remaining silent on this issue, holding my tongue in favor of being diplomatic, empathic, sensitive, or thinking it was what my son needed.  What my son needs is a mom. That happens to be me, not through biology, but through love and care and connection.

And me being “Mom” in no way lessens the role my son’s First Mother had.  One is not better or worse, more or less significant.  The roles are separate, different, and necessarily dependent on one another.

I am as real as it gets.  I bleed, I poop, I feel.  I care for all my children — those I gave birth to and the one that grew in another woman’s womb. They are all mine and I love them each the best I can — with confidence, with compassion, with certainty.

People can try to diminish that love, but they will fail because they come from a place of ignorance and hate.  This real mom knows better.