Motherhood, Cleaved

art statue child mother
Photo by Skitterphoto on

cleave1split or sever (something), especially along a natural line or grain.“the large ax his father used to cleave wood for the fire”

cleave2stick fast to.“Rose’s mouth was dry, her tongue cleaving to the roof of her mouth”
adhere strongly to (a particular pursuit or belief).“part of why we cleave to sports is that excellence is so measurable”

Mother’s Day dawned with an excited giggle near my ears.

“Mommy! Mommy!”

I opened my eyes to the sight of two nearly identical faces peering over mine. My eyes crusty from too little sleep and sticky from burrowing under the comforter battling an unusually cold stretch for May, I stretched my arms out for a hug. Instead, I found two handmade cards thrust into my face.

I lingered over them, the stick figures mimicking our family. Two heads with blonde hair, three with black. One plump and the rest emaciated. The lettering alternating between block and cursive, the mis-spellings achingly adorable. Happy Mother’s Day both proclaimed with hearts strewn around the border.

We hugged for a long time before my youngest, the one born to me, toddled in. All through the morning, my timeline on social media was flooded with Mother’s Day wishes. “Be sensitive to those without mothers, those longing to be mothers and those who lost children” exhorted one friend. I debated between a like and a cry reaction on Facebook and settled for a simple like.

In the years past, I have dutifully forwarded, shared and written treatises on why it is important for us to be cognizant of and sensitive to the pain of others. I should know, having trod that painful path myself.

This year I feel insulated. I watch, hear, agree and move on. My mind harkens back to the days when family tiptoed around me. Dinner with friends would start with a toast to moms and I would withdraw into a shell. In my thirties and desperate to be a mother, I was thick in the middle of infertility treatments, each menstrual cycle a roller coaster ending with a thud that left me bruised and battered. I soldiered on, battle-weary but adamant that I would be a mother.

Pulling on a blouse one day, my eyes fell on the purple and blue streaks on my abdomen from the hormone shots and it hit me that I could do it no longer. I gave up on medicine and focused my research on adoption instead. Domestic? International? Foster? The questions were many and my husband and I were limited by our status as permanent residents. Neither wholly accepted nor rejected, we settled on domestic private adoption with an attorney facilitating the process.

When motherhood finally found me at the age of 35, when I went from being childless to the mom of twin toddlers in a week, I embraced all of it. My shiny new iPhone captured my children’s first few days in all glory. I clicked as they napped, ate, drooled and crawled. I shot videos of them babbling and sent it to everyone on my contact list.

I mastered the art of the selfie so I would be in those pictures with my children. “My children!” I captioned lingering long enough on the exclamation as if it would convey the miracle that Motherhood was for me. I soaked it all in, the trappings, the joy, the social sanction and most of all the sorority of mothers worldwide.

I was perplexed when the first Mother’s Day a few months into legally being anointed Mother, I felt like a fraud. I grieved on what should have been a day of celebration. I felt walled in, able to see, unable to participate. I remembered my twins first mother, their other mother and ached for her.

The last image I had of her in my head was of the night we had dinner as a family, a day after we officially became parents of her children.  Us, and she with her father and brothers. The conversation was slow, stilted. We centered the conversation on our children hoping that would keep the deep sorrow that permeated the air from swallowing us whole.

I agonized over sending a wish her way. She was a mother and would be one all her life. My children were living proof of that. Was it a day of celebration or mourning? I hesitated as I typed a wish out to her that Mother’s Day. Was I being insensitive? If I did not mark the occasion, would that mean I was usurping her of the title of mom? I dithered and sent out the email. I heard from her days later, simply thanking me and hoping my day was good. I strained to read the scant text, parsing word usage for hidden meanings.

I learned to fake it until one day I made it. I remember the cards, the flowers, the chocolate and most of all chubby hands and arms entangled with mine one Mother’s Day morning and I knew I belonged. I had left my infertile world behind. I claimed my seat at the table even as I acknowledged what was a day of joy for me was a day that the other mother of my children mourned.

Our relationship warmed but I did not dare to ask her, really ask her how she was doing. Did the pictures I send reassure her? Did they remind her of all that she was missing? Was I sharing or was I gloating? There was no rule book, no cues to be had from cold clinical words on my screen.

Motherhood for me has been fraught with questions. Each day I mother my children, I compartmentalize, I strive to be the mother I should be to my children. I smother them with physical love, I oil their bodies, the sesame scent pungent, reminiscent of my childhood. I feel my mother as I mother my children, my fingers massaging the skin, yearning for my touch to tell them when words seem insufficient.

I feed them by hand, the texture of food just right, the temperature warm enough. I feed them pongal as I was once fed. I am generous with the ghee as my mother instructs me over the phone.  I pause as they swallow, adding enough love to the food to heal the fissures that came from being separated from their mother. I worry I am not doing enough to tell them, show them that this life I lead is one I craved for. They were without agency in this decision that changed their lives but what agency I have, I am dedicating it to making sure they remain whole.

Late in the night, I message their mother to check in on her. I read her blog searching for signs she is happy, she is at peace with her decision. Her happiness is central to mine. I realize happiness may be too much to ask, so I settle for peace. The kind of peace that comes from knowing that despite her decision to place her children, they are not lost to her. They belong to her as much as they belong to me.

“Aren’t you afraid your children will leave you when they are old enough? What will you do if they move back to their birth family?” These questions eventually come when I speak about our adoption to people we meet socially.

I fall silent trying to understand what the word leave means in this context. Can I make them understand that there is no real leaving, that she is family as much as my children are? I usually deflect, changing topics or answering in monosyllables. To very few friends, I explain that I am not insecure, that I view my children (all of my children) as being fellow travelers on my journey in this life. They will all leave eventually I tell them.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m really so secure in my capacity to love them or am I guarding my heart, steeling for the eventual separation? I turn to my youngest, a child born from me for answers. My love for her takes a different timbre, it is subdued, it is mind speak, it is soul binding. I quit work after she was born spending an enormous number of hours just physically cuddling her. I know her smell, I know her the way I know myself. The chocolate brown of her skin, the thick, frizzy strands of her hair, the liquid brown pools of her irises, all the little things you know without having to look when you belong.

Often in the adoptive community, there is discussion surrounding positive adoption language. Some claim qualifying a child with adopted is unnecessary. I find myself nodding as I think all of three children are mine in a way they will never be another person’s. The adult adoptees claim that the word adopted defines their experience and therefore removing it erases their history. I find myself nodding and relating to my cleaved motherhood.

To talk about the dichotomy in the adoption world is like offering yourself up as a target. The law deems the adopted child “as if” born to you and erases all of their birth histories. In the days following the adoption, I struggled with the fact that to receive their amended birth certificates, I would have to send in their original birth certificates. The ones with the name of their mother as their mother. I made copies for my records before mailing them in and getting spanking new ones with my husband and I in them as parents as if they were born to us. Birth parents relinquish their rights in perpetuity, therefore, ensuring that the child is a blank slate upon which a new life is written.

On the other hand, adoptees grow up with a burning need to figure out their identity, all parts of their heritage. They are torn between owing allegiance to the people who raise them and to the people who brought them into the world never being really told that it is okay to embrace both families.

As a mother who has trouble subscribing to any particular view, I am torn. I want my older children to know the uncomplicated love that my youngest knows and understands but I also feel that it is impossible when you are pulled in many ways.

In my conversation with other adoptive parents, the idea that parents can love many children, therefore, children can love two sets of parents is brought up. In principle, I agree but it is not the same my heart says. There is something inimitable about being cocooned inside another person’s body that marks you and them for life. That bond between a baby and the mother cannot be supplanted. It can be supplemented, supported and approximated even but never replaced.

They are young, still in the process of growing their vocabulary when it comes to expressing adoption grief. I see it in the way the air stills when we talk about their birth family. I see it in the way they claim cards and gifts from their great-grandparents. I see it in the wistfulness when they send messages to their mom. I see it in the way they eye me with my youngest.

“You don’t know me from your heart” my oldest child hurled at me one day as we argued about chores. I stopped, struck by her choice of words. I went mute because it hit too close to home. I turned and left and took the time to figure out how to answer. Later that night, I sat on her bed, my ears on her chest, listening to her heart. I promised to listen to her heart and invited her to listen to mine. We finally talked about what was frustrating her and annoying me. The issue was resolved but I walked away with something greater, an understanding that sometimes, it takes a little more listening and hearing to understand what my twins say.

The twins and I recently had DNA tests done. We sat in the study, the children flanking me as I described how they were part German, part Native American and, part English. I showed them a map that showed which parts of the world their ancestors came from. They oohed and aahed at the pretty colors on the map. When it came to mine, it was one solid yellow block. South Asian 99.9% it read.

Long after that night, we touch upon the concept of race at odd times. They ask. “Where did our German ancestors come from?” “Your mother’s father’s side,” I say. We go back and forth, tracing genealogy and talking about immigration. They take pride in having Native American ancestry. They reach for the picture of their mother and uncles from our last trip to their birthplace from their shelf and notice the similarities.

As much as it is inviting to redefine family as one based on love, to focus on our shared history and experiences, the loss of children to adoption impacts generations. I mourn the loss of parts of their birth family who are unaware of their existence. My heart aches for the missed connections, the lost ties.

It brings me back to Mother’s Day and all of its associated connotations. It makes me question what makes a mother. It makes me focus inward and accept the dichotomy so I can then move forward. By accepting there is a difference in the way I connect with my child by birth and my children by adoption, I can attempt to understand how their mother feels. I can try to understand how my children view adoption and the pull they have toward their birth families. It helps me understand why the example of a parent loving many children is not the same as an adopted child loving two sets of parents.

From understanding comes acceptance and progress. It helps me celebrate mothering as an ongoing action as against a one-time incidence of giving birth. It helps me accept that my motherhood is cleaved and that it is okay.

This piece first appeared as part of the anthology I Am Strength published by Blind Faith Books.

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Author. Parent.

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I am an anti-adoption activist, but I found this article compelling; you wrote some interesting things. You have an emerging understanding that it is impossible to discuss ‘adoption grief’ without the vocabulary to do so. The lack of vocabulary is an intentional attempt to prevent adopted people from expressing outrage over violations of their constitutional right to equal protection and about being denied protection under 14th amendment when their identifying documents are withheld to ensure they can never leave and return to their own families as legal kin since their birth records are falsified to indicate they are the offspring of the people who adopted them. The inability to express outrage at the injustice of adoption begins with the redefinition of kinship terms. We assign new meanings to words and render them speechless to express the truths of their profound loss. We tell them parents are people who raise children so that parents who don’t raise children become back burner extended family at best and non entities at worst. We don’t want anyone to understand the gravity of their loss, and so, convince them that love makes a family like Orwell said slavery means freedom. When they mean mother, they have to say birth mother or egg donor. When mean care giver, they have to say mother and in this way they did not loose a mother, they gained one.
    Redefining the academic definition of words is just a clever way of lying without taking responsibility for it. String enough wrong words together and you have yourself a nice little lie. These lies start not with people who adopt but with the government. States have an economic interest in promoting adoption of children born to poor families. It costs the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in welfare benefits to raise one child to adulthood either within their own family or within a foster family. States view adoption as a means to artificially end inter-generational poverty. Adoption recycles poor children with the hope they will turn into wealthy productive adults. A strong economy is built on a healthy work force. The best and brightest minds of the country often delay childbirth until they complete their education, are married and have stable jobs and a home to raise children. Most women are on their way to being infertile by the time they have achieved the goals their parents and society set for them. I was one of those women. I too had the shots in my abdomen. I had a son who died the day he was born. Those without educational goals are less likely to delay childbirth and so result in a strain on the economy in the immediate through welfare and foster care payments and in the long term by reducing the college educated work force. Transferring the children of the poor to be as if born to the wealthy is social engineering at its finest and the government has no qualms with sacrificing the freedoms and liberties of the children it recycles. And so it is that the government falsifies the identifying documents of poor children it recycles. Open adoption and telling a child about their “birth parents” does not combat the governments lies. People who adopt pat themselves on the back for telling ‘their children’ who ‘their birth parents’ are, but what good is telling the child the truth with words if they lie to the world on paper by putting their names on those children’s birth certificates? This communicates to the child that the truth is private and the lie is public. There is no way out, you will be who I tell you to be. Adoption is a hostile and violent attack of the individual’s mind, challenging what they know to be true through the redefinition of words like mother and father from being simply individuals who have reproduced, to being care givers. If care givers are parents then parents are not parents anymore if they don’t raise their children and then their children are not members of their own families anymore but are members of the family that raised them instead. Guardianship and foster care provides care without legally severing the minor’s rights as kin within their own families. Parents can lose their rights without their sons and daughter’s losing their rights. I have reunited families for free for over 20 years. Interest in heritage is actually a desire to be acknowledged by the specific people who made them and their other immediate family. DNA does not make a mother, reproduction makes a mother. The son or daughter of a parent who has a twin shares as much DNA with the parent’s twin as they do with the parent, but they want to find their parent and won’t settle for an uncle just because the amount of dna is just like the amount shared with the parent. It matters who actually made you – that is your God, your creator and the one whose job it is to shepherd you through life’s trials and prepare you to continue their life in your body after they die. Giving birth is no longer a tell tale sign of who the mother is. It’s more redefinition of terms to prevent people from telling the world their mother abandoned them. (I reunite donor offspring as well as adopted people). Contemplate the redefinition of terms that you maybe unwittingly participate in and examine what impact that has on an adopted child’s ability to express ‘adoption grief’.

    Many people who adopt don’t know that revision of the birth certificate is optional in most states. For the adult adopted person, being able to use their original birth certificate is almost as good as never having been adopted but having had a guardian because they can still function as a legal member of their own family without invalidating their adoption. The downside is that adopted children with an unrevised birth certificate don’t have a protected right to return to their family if it is ever safe and possible to be raised by them which they would have if they had a guardian rather than having been adopted. I checked your state Indiana allows people to adopt children without revising the birth certificate. Yes, it is very rare and they likely did not tell you it was optional. You seem very caring about the feelings of the girls you adopted. Consider re-instating their birth certificates. It won’t change the legal force of your adoption at all nor will it give parental rights to her parents who were originally named. It will however reinstate her identity and ability to prove kinship in her own family as an adult. She will use her adoption certificate to show her current legal name and will show her birth certificate to establish identity, the same as everyone else does. It won’t impact your ability to register her in school or get her a passport. Your adoption decree trumps the names of the parents on the birth certificate, it’s like a custody order would be in a divorce case. Consider it. Its rare but can be done.

    • Thank you for writing. Your comment has a lot for me to chew on, understand and do. Give me some time to think this through and re-read my piece to understand the things that need changing. I will definitely look at the birth certificate option. I am in PA.

      • I apologize I will look up Pennsylvania for you. Thanks for replying. I’ve about fallen out of my chair! Please join the search co op on facebook and you can cheer people on when they get reunited or offer to help if it seems there is a search that is near to you physically or emotionally. We are step child offshoot of an anti adoption group on facebook as many members there help financially with gifts of dna tests etc. Thanks again for writing back.

  2. With a usable copy of the original birth certificate for identification purposes an adopted person could access their relatives vital records just like a non-adopted person could (just don’t mention being adopted). Their relatives could access their vital records, including marriages, any birth certificates of kids they might have. Also armed with both their birth certificate and adoption decree the adopted adult could access the vital records of the adoptive family as well for geneological purposes but also for handling an adopted person’s final affairs – they would indeed be able to obtain vital records of either family with the ability to prove kinship to both. Adoptive parents and grandparents can obtain vital records for an adopted son or daughter, it would make no difference that it was an original certificate. You’d just need your decree to demonstrate an adoption occurred. This is the truly all the way truthful way to tell the truth, with words and on paper. I’m looking in to Pennsylvania for you.

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