Who’s Her Mommy? An Adoptive Mother Responds

This guest post is by Deborah Brennan, an adoptive mother and owner of Labours Of Love Designs.

The tie that links mother and child is of such pure and immaculate strength as to be never violated — Washington Irving

Becoming a mother is one of life’s most complex experiences.  It is also the most long lived – for once you have earned the title, it is yours forever.  I have encountered this miracle three times – once by giving birth, once by miscarriage and once by adoption.

Each began with the same hope, anticipation and fear.  I wondered – what kind of mother would I be?  How would I ever succeed in nurturing a baby to adulthood without one or both of us failing miserably?  The answer to this universal question unfolds over a lifetime and is influenced by events, people and changing attitudes.

Yes my forays into motherhood began similarly – yet have had such dissimilar characteristics.  They have woven their emotional threads over the last sixteen years of my life, into a tapestry that is not yet finished, but has revealed truths I never dreamed of discovering.  I am grateful for all of them, including the ones of loss. Sometimes the experience of unimaginable pain is the one that unearths the very best in us.

Hoping For An Open Adoption

I was 38 when our son Daniel was born after 34 hours of excruciating labour.  My husband and I agreed that a sibling for him was essential, and the clock was ticking  — loudly.  When the chances of another pregnancy for me became remote, we focused our efforts on adoption – domestic adoption and when the Children’s Aid Society ignored my phone calls – more specifically private adoption.  We were also hoping for an open adoption.  All that was presented to us by the professionals were obstacles – for which I had no time or patience.

Against my very conservative judgement and after a very proactive “campaign” we were contacted by a potential birthmother through an ad that we had placed in a college newspaper.  It was nothing short of extraordinary.  I will never forget the first time we spoke. Artrina was a young woman of sixteen – a girl really – facing a decision that came too soon in her life – a decision that no woman should ever have to make.

I think before we even met – the mother in me, the one that had a five-year-old son became a mother to Artrina, regardless of what the outcome would be, of her journey to motherhood.  I felt empathy and compassion for her, as the next four and a half months led her more closely to this impossible decision.

During that time we saw each other several times and spoke on the phone.  As her due date approached I went on the hospital tour with Artrina and made sure that her social worker was being attentive to her needs.  Still, I did not assume that she would place her baby with our family.

Becoming An Adoptive Mother

Somehow I managed to remain detached from the life growing inside of her.  After all, this life was hers to love and nurture.  I almost felt like an intrusion, and unnatural interference in her experience.  Those feelings intensified on the day that Artrina gave birth to her tiny perfect baby girl, September 14th, 1999.  I was so privileged to be present to witness this miracle.  It was surreal to watch the event that could give Daniel a sibling and change our lives forever, but from a totally different perspective.

I was beyond happy – ecstatic would be the right adjective, but again – in the midst of Artrina’s family members I felt I did not belong.  I was a spectator, a stranger, about to take one of their family members away.  They were kind and gracious, but they had the right to feel the opposite.

The emotion that day was only surpassed by the night – (three days after Diana’s birth) that we brought Artrina’s baby girl home.  In the hospital I asked for privacy, and my husband, Dave, and I had a few minutes alone with Artrina.  I cannot adequately describe those moments of watching this young mother holding her child.  It was heart breaking.  I told her that if she needed more time that she had it.

Diana could be in foster care instead of coming home with us.  At this point, my thoughts were with our son as well.  I needed to protect his readiness to welcome a new sister home.  Artrina told me that she was sure she wanted us to take her baby home.  I replied, “How can you be so sure?”

And as the three of us sat holding the fate of this beautiful life in our hands and hearts – so filled with emotion – she answered “because I know I will see her again.”  We stood; we embraced and wept as Artrina handed her baby to me.  She walked out of the room with her mom on one side and social worker on the other and did not look back.

A Birthmother’s Pain

At that very moment my internal pledge to Artrina was cast.  I would be the best mother I could possibly be to her daughter, and I would honour our commitment to openness.  It was September 17th, 1999, which would have been my mother’s 80th birthday, had she lived to be a grandma to this little girl.  It was an overwhelming moment of profound joy and sadness.

We walked out of the hospital room feeling as though we were kidnapping this baby.  What a contrast it was to the homecoming of our son.  I certainly did not look as though I had recently given birth.  The feelings persisted as we drove home in the same van in which Daniel had come home.

Our little guy met us at the door, overjoyed to welcome his baby sister.  I kept thinking about Artrina and what she must be feeling – unbearable pain, loss, grief.  That night I slept with Diana nestled on my chest.  My heart was bursting with happiness for our family, but at the same time breaking for Artrina.

She was in my thoughts every day as I cared for Diana.  She was with me as I fed, bathed, changed, cuddled and kissed her.  When Diana was 5 months old we held an entrustment ceremony, where we more formally expressed our commitment as a family to Diana and to our promise of openness.  The wounds were opened again – a heartwrenching example of the reality of a birthmother’s pain.

Those first moments, days and months with Diana was the beginning of my internal dialogue that questioned my place as her mother.  Perhaps it was because I had given birth to Daniel that this weighed so heavily on my mind.  Who was Diana’s mommy?

Diana’s Birthmother Becomes A Mother Again

We didn’t see Artrina too much in the first three years and when we did, I could see her pain, a hesitation to be physically close to Diana, in fact a kind of indifference in her interaction with her.  Artrina moved away for a few years, making it more difficult to connect and I became frustrated and some what angry – my thought was that she really didn’t care much and that she was reneging on her openness commitment.

In fact it was the total opposite.  Once I got over myself and realized that I was the one who needed to “get it” I finally understood that Artrina was protecting herself from the agony of being separated from her child over and over again, because that’s what it felt like every time she saw her.  It was a constant reminder (as if she needed one) of her decision.

As life moved forward, and Diana got older (and we all got older) it very slowly became more comfortable to spend time together. Artrina became a mother again to a son and this time she is experiencing the things that she did not with Diana.  Diana has another brother now and he is a part of our family too.

Who Is Diana’s Mother?

It is a joy to see them all together, and satisfying to realize where we have come in our journey in  eleven years.  Many on the outside looking in will never understand our relationship – we two mothers and Diana.  They question what roles we all play – who is Diana’s mother?

Is she: The one that gave her life and carried her, gave birth to her and then made the agonizing choice to have others parent her? Or the one that embraced her cared for her and fell in love with her without hesitation.

Is she: The one that cried for her in solitude, and kept her in her heart every single day, trying to move forward in her life – never forgetting her precious baby? Or the one that read to her kissed her boo boos and received all the compliments about her – all the while feeling unworthy to accept them?

Is she: The one that loves her from afar, that tries to say and do “the right thing” – and still – still has to say goodbye every time she leaves her – again….. ? Or the one that gets to experience the everyday joys and frustrations of mothering an incredible girl – that gets to be a part of the stages of life for a girl that requires so much of a mother’s attention.

Is she: The one who is now a young woman, a mother again, the one who will no doubt have many more years of being a mother than I? The answer of course —- is that WE are Diana’s mothers.  I truly feel it is impossible to be one fully – without the other.

I see myself as the “Mother in a leading role”, but always relying on the “supportive role of Artrina”.  She can provide the pieces I never can.  The health of their relationship is paramount to me personally.  It comforts me to believe and hope that they will always be there for one another.

So this multi-dimensional “being a mother” experience,  it continues every day for me.  I think it is surely the most profound human relationship of any that we will experience.  In adoption, as mothers – there are always two of us – no matter what, present or absent, together or apart — and we must never deny that to ourselves, or our children.

Deborah Brennan is the mother of two, by birth and by open adoption, author of Labours of Love- Canadians Talk About Adoption and owner of Labours of Love Designs an online adoption greeting card and gift company. As VP of the Adoption Council of Canada, she believes every child needs a mommy, and sometimes even two!

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