On Nontraditional Motherhood

I have a daughter who lives in Latvia.  She is sassy and spunky and so much like me.

I recently got to share the story of how we became a family at Listen to Your Mother: Pittsburgh.  It was an amazing experience that was uplifting and encouraging in ways that I am unable to fully put into words even today.  I’m THRILLED to share the video of my performance with you now:

Sunshine is still sassy and opinionated and one of the brightest spots in my life.  I am so proud to have her for a daughter.  I can’t believe it’s only been three years since we met.  Sunshine told me it feels like we have been family forever.

It does, my girl.  It does.

Today, she watched my video.  She knew the story, but not how I told it.  I wanted her to see it before anyone else did.  She told me that she loved it and all the things I said were true, and maybe she cried a little bit.

And she told me that she watched it with her mom.

What?

Here I was, telling the story of how I am a mother to this girl, and she watches it with the woman whose past behavior—and present struggles— led to Sunshine needing me in the first place.  How would she feel hearing me say that I am like a mother to her daughter?

Her mom said she liked it a lot.  She wanted to see a picture of the tattoo with her daughter’s name.  She thought I should straighten my hair and it would make me prettier.

I couldn’t help but laugh.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Such is the surreal life I live.   My daughter’s mother is thankful for me.  My daughter’s mother is glad I am part of her daughter’s life.

I am glad she is currently able to be there, too.  I am thankful she knows how much I love her daughter.  My daughter.

In the last three years, my definition of what it means to be mother and daughter and family has changed.  It is more nuanced and not as straightforward as I once thought.

The thing is, Sunshine had a family before me.  She has a mother.  Their relationship is complicated and will never look like what she had hoped for in her younger years.  But it’s still her mom.  It’s still the woman who gave her life and carried her history and instilled so things into Sunshine that I love.

And so where does this leave me?  Am I second-best, or not so needed, or the consolation prize?  No.  Not at all.  I have no name, but I have a place.  A treasured spot.  I am needed and wanted and loved.

I am family.

So is her mother.

It’s really that simple.

Family—at least family as I know it now— is messy and complicated and not something that needs to fit into the lines that other people make.  Family is about loving the ones who have become a part of your tribe with everything you have, regardless of your title or your role or the fact that others might have a more traditional position than you do.  It doesn’t make your part any less needed.

In fact, I can’t really claim any of my children as wholly mine.  While I have a biological son, his father and I divorced when he was a baby, so I have never had a period in my life when I possessed the sole place my child called home.  Little Man has another life in another state, one that I am privy to only through his stories and my occasional interactions there.  The same is true of the ones I love in Latvia.  Someday, perhaps, there will be more children I call my own. Stepchildren.  Adopted children.  They will all say the same of me—I will not ever be their only home.

But what I can be is a safe home, a loving home, a fun home, a comfortable home, a joy-filled home.  I can be the home they come back to again and again because it is one of the places where the love of their tribe lives.

I am part of their family.  Maybe a big part of it.  But not the only.  Never the only part.

This is a phenomenon that everyone can relate to on some level.  Kids grow up, get married, and start families of their own.  Relationships with parents change, and spouses become integrated into a family circle.  The phrase “I’m going home for the holidays” becomes part of people’s vernacular in the college years, and is the natural course of life.

It’s just that most people get eighteen (or more) years to build and grow toward that time.

I am parenting children who are already there.  I am parenting children with many homes.  Some of those homes were filled with trauma and terror.  Some of those homes were places they can never return to, and must heal from.  But it doesn’t mean it was any less home, or the people in it any less connected to them, or the experiences there any less part of what made them who they are.

There are moments when loyalties can feel divided, and feelings can get hurt.  It is a hard thing, sometimes, knowing that I am not the only mother-figure in my children’s lives.  We live in a culture where second place is the first loser, and sometimes it aches knowing that I don’t hold that only spot on top of the podium.  Sometimes that feeling is within myself, a longing to be the only influence on children who have to manage more than I would wish for them.  Sometimes it’s in others perceptions: “Oh, so she’s not your REAL daughter” or “does he miss having a whole family with, like, a mom and a dad?” or even “you’re so nice, to care for children who aren’t even yours.”

It feels sometimes like I am a half-mother, a fake-mother, a stand-in-mother, a mother-who-will-do.  And I get it.  Before I entered this world, I thought adoption/hosting/fostering was about becoming a “new” family and “moving on” from the old.  Visitations and connections to the past were scary thoughts and something dangerous that needed to be avoided.

But who of us can forget the things that shape us?  Who can pretend that a mother—no matter how wonderful or incompetent or absent—did not exist?  This would be like asking someone, “How long after marrying your wife did you stop loving and thinking about your mom?”

It’s the same for these ones I love.  There is mom, and there is me.  And there is love.

I am not second.  I am not a consolation prize.

I am also not better.  I am not the winner.

Love isn’t about subtracting the past and moving on.  It’s about multiplying and processing experiences to form healthy attachments.

Love isn’t a transfer from one person to another.  It’s a creation of connections that aren’t easily explained.

Love isn’t a competition.  It’s a compilation.

And honestly, it really does feel like the best kind of love.

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