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.
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.