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Naming

February 3, 2012

In September 2009, I met my birth parents for the first time at our home in The City that Loves You Back. My youngest son was just over three months old, and I was still in a sleepless fog, exhausted and on emotional overdrive. I stood at the front door waiting for their rental car to pull up, narrating the moment to myself in whispers: “You are about to meet your birthparents. You are about to see their faces. You are about to hold them. Here they are.” There were hugs, no tears, as my children buzzed around us, interrupting gazes. I needed time to stop so I could catch my breath. I needed everyone else to disappear but them. But time didn’t stop and everyone else was still there, so I shifted into Gospel Martha mode–kitchen to patio, patio to kitchen, cooking, serving, cleaning.  My seven-year-old son played Mary, working the crowd in his soft shy way, completely unaware of the moment, yet totally aware. At one point in the evening, I brushed past him with a tray of dirty dishes, headed into the house. He followed me inside. “Isn’t it neat?” he beamed. “Now you have two mothers!” I caught myself from snapping a reply, a guttural, reflexive kick rising deep inside. “What do you mean?” I asked, forcing a smile. “I only have one mom. Grandma.” He eyed the woman out on the patio, holding the baby who looked so much like me when I was that age, then glanced back at me. “Okay,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s just, there are two.”

When I was a kid, I shook my head at the ignorance of those girls in my grade who asked, “Who is your real mother?”  I see myself now, hands on hips in that pink-tiled bathroom in my elementary school, begging for clarification about what makes someone a mother. None of us knew then what it took to be a mother, how exactly a baby came to be inside a mother, or even how it came out. So what makes a mother real? I demanded to know. How is it that this woman who has cared for me since I was not even a month old, this woman I call Mom, this woman I love as Mom, how is it that she is not real?  I see those girls still, shrugging their shoulders, unable to answer my question and yet so sure, so confident, that my mother was less real than theirs because I was adopted. I was never ashamed of being adopted, never really cared, but at that moment, all I wanted was to have grown inside my mother, just like those girls, because it would have been simpler that way, because no one would have doubted that she was my mother.

Years later, a graduate student in women’s studies classes, I started to say things like, You become a mother when you nurture a child, not when you give birth to it. A father is not a father simply because his genes are a part of your DNA. A father is a father when he teaches you how to throw a softball, to get a broken key out of an iced door lock, to build a snow fort, or to pack your luggage so that you don’t have to ask anyone else to carry it for you. “What then,” one of my classmates queried, “do you call the person who brought you into the world but didn’t raise you? What do you call the people responsible for your life but who aren’t in it?”  We were all about labels then. We understood the significance of naming, the impact of language. I thought for a moment. I thought for a week. I thought for months, and years. What do I call them?

For a while after, I said, birth woman and birth man.  

When I was young, I said, the woman who had me. When I wrote her a letter that I tucked under my mattress, I addressed it, “Dear Lady.” I called him, the man.  I called the other ones, Mom and Dad.

It doesn’t matter.  It does.  It doesn’t.  It does.

I just forced myself to get through Nancy Newton Verrier’s The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child (1993)I’ve picked up this book and put it down several times over the last few years. It’s canonical reading in the world of adoption literature, but I resist it.  I don’t dismiss it, not entirely, but I resist it for myself. Here, in a nutshell, is Verrier’s theory, in her own words: “all adoptees suffer a primal wound as a result of their separation from their first mother.”  The adoptive mother Verrier refers to as “substitute mother.”

I get it. Labels give order to our world. They shape our psychologies and guide our actions.  There is a real mother and there is someone else. There is a birth mother and there is an adoptive mother.  There is the woman who pushed me into the world and there is the woman who caught me.

I think, if adoption teaches us anything, though, it’s that life, and love, are bigger than the smallness of our human understanding. There are no words that can adequately hold the enormous experience of our various roles in the adoption experience. We bumble along with mere adequacies. It’s not the mothers who become substitutes. It’s our words for them.

When I gave birth to my second child, I wondered how in the world I could ever love a child as much as I loved my firstborn. Here’s what happened:  My love grew even bigger. It grew beyond what I could have imagined. Eventually it grew to include a third child, too.

There is room in my heart for all sorts of mothers and fathers, whatever I, you, we call them. That’s what it comes down to. Right now, the people who accept it all without any confusion, who accept it just as it is, are my young children. I follow their lead.  Yes, I follow my oldest son out of the kitchen into the darkening evening.  There I find my birth mother–I call her that now because it is easier, because people know what I mean, because nothing else fits my own heart as well–I find her holding the baby, bouncing the baby, shushing the baby, who looks just like me.

Many states away is another mother. Many states away is the mother. The year before, she had blessed this journey with courage, love, and grace. Late in the evening, after my birth parents had left for their hotel, I called her to tell her everything. I couldn’t stop smiling. When she picked up the phone, the first words out of my mouth were, “Oh, Mom.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Grandma Jo permalink
    February 24, 2012 7:07 am

    I’m sure your mom was glad to hear every detail of your meeting your birth parents, but the words that affected her the most were, “Oh Mom”.

  2. Arline Eberhardt permalink
    February 4, 2012 1:38 pm

    I just shed a bucket of tears! Have no personal experience, but felt your pain and joy; what a beautiful writing and thanks for sharing.

  3. Katherine permalink
    February 3, 2012 5:12 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I am mother – the real mother – of a beautiful 6 month old girl who is adopted. I’ve been there since the moment she was born. I loved your words of “There is the woman who pushed me into the world and there is the woman who caught me.” I’m here – catching her – loving her – and worrying each day “what if she doesn’t feel like I’m her real mother..?”
    So thank you for giving me a glimpse of what I hope her perspective might be many years to come.

    • May 1, 2012 7:20 pm

      I am an adult adoptee and have two very real mothers- who play two totally different parts in my life- My own adoptive mom had the same concerns as you – I feel they are both very real in their own right.
      Enjoy your baby.

      • Katherine permalink
        May 3, 2012 1:50 am

        Thank you. Thank you.

  4. February 3, 2012 4:15 pm

    Wow, Jenny! Powerful and written with such clarity that I can see the little girls in the school bathroom and the anxiety as you stand on the doorstep waiting. I can see the sweet innocence of your little boy reminding you to face what he sees and bring a sense of order to your origin. Most of all I can picture your face as you listen to the phone ringing and hear the sound of your mother’s voice answering. Thanks for this sharing.

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