Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Ties That Bind: Motherless Mothering

2002, NY. The miracle of my own pregnancy. “I am sorry I was born and caused you so much pain.” The scribbling in my old dusty notebook brought back an old familiar pain, long forgotten and buried in the rubble of my foster sister’s basement. As an introspective young girl and a bit of a loner, I filled notebook after notebook with endless internal observation. My private thoughts were not entirely meant to be private. Someday I hoped to hand them to my mother, who I was taken from at 5 and saw sporadically through my elementary school years. I never had that chance. In 2004, holding my own newborn daughter in my arms, I was told my mother died years before and did not want me notified. In my daughter’s big blue eyes, I found a solace that notebook never brought me. Motherhood closed the door on most of the past, but not all.

The day I found out I was pregnant with my mini me, I sat in my car crying alone before I called anyone with the news. Fear, excitement, nervousness washed over me. What would she look like, a relative? I knew none. I never even saw a baby photo of myself: What mysteries would my genes bring? Would I know how to be a mother? I never really saw one for very long.

Before having my daughter, I envied my friends families with their normal family struggles and battles. Their photos on the wall. Their smiling parents at games, graduations, their shared expressions, their family fights, and their tangled emotions. I was envious but just carefully observed. Now, with this new person growing inside me I had the chance to see myself in someone else. I had the chance to undo the past and bring a loved person into the world.


Anytime the umbilical cord is snapped, unnaturally broken, or tethered, the child on the other end suffers. The world seems so large and life feels so alone. As a foster child, the disconnect and mystery surrounding my young life appeared in every friendship, relationship, failure, success, happiness, or sadness.

At age 5 I was taken from my mother, after being found tied to a radiator in a musty basement, abused and burnt. My mother had supervised visits until I was 10, when she disappeared forever. My father was a name on my first birth certificate, but he never arrived on the scene. I was adopted, but within 2 years my adoptive parents died. Everything was temporary, even last names. My emotional connection to the scary and somewhat pathetic mother I saw in my dreams kept me my own prisoner until I became a mother myself.
              You name the parenting book, I read it. Carefully I studied myself and my failures. I improved myself as much as possible in those 9 months. I let go of bits of the past. It was exciting, but somewhere in the back of my mind I heard an old familiar voice telling me I did not deserve this gift, the gift of a daughter. Luckily I tuned that out most of the time. This new being inside me would be safe, loved, valued, able to be herself, able to grow into herself, and have pride in where she came from; that I knew. I did not know much else!
Like most new mothers, the emergency room visits for ear infections and the unknowns of infancy frightened me. She sheltered me (or kept me too busy) to worry too much about the outside world falling apart and  a war that was raging all around at the time, to worry that I was not sleeping or eating, or to worry that I was not cultivating too many adult friendships. She was my focus. The day she left for preschool, I cried in the parking lot and then volunteered to be in the class more than the teachers. To say I was needy was an understatement. But, what her teachers did not know was that this little chubby girl, with her crooked ponytail was all I had…she was my lifeline in many ways.
                When asked how being in foster care or being adopted can impact motherhood later on, I have so much to say. Not having a familial connection, or having one that is filled with mystery and yes, pain, makes parenting harder and easier. It is easier for me to love, because I know what it is like to truly not have love. Something unconditional and safe was all I wanted, and as a mother, I got it. When life throws us challenges and me and my mini me have some type of frustration it is so easy for me to look at her, take a breath and reconcile. It is easy because every single day, good and bad, I know how lucky I am to have her. Being abused, discarded, and thrown away taught me the value of positive parenting. It taught me incredible coping skills. It taught me a resiliency I see others lack.
Being a mother and a former foster child gave me the gift of appreciation but it also makes me more sensitive, needy, emotional, and yes connected to my girl more than most. The regular trials of parenthood, like surgeries and bruised knees, hit my soul like nothing else. I still remember seeing her little chubby legs at 4 in a hospital bed and the fear that rocked my body. She went to the hospital because of a never ending virus. My intuition told me something else was wrong. Against the will of her pediatrician I walked in the emergency room. Thankfully.

After some blood work, one doctor asked me for any history of childhood cancer in my family. CANCER!!! It was the first time since being a mother I was downright angry at my own mother. I had no answers, no nothing, no history, no one to call, and here was my beautiful child and a doctor is talking about cancer. I just started to get hysterical. Luckily, about 20 minutes later, we figured out her white cell count was so high because her little appendix was about to burst.

I laid in the hospital bed with her that night when they wheeled her out, only leaving the bed to throw up in the bathroom. My nerves were shot and the night seemed so long. When she woke up, she told me she knew I would be right there so she wasn’t scared. It was the first time I realized that even though I did not have the answers, or any history to defend us both, just being there was all she needed from me. That I could do!

At other ages and obstacles my past creeped in. At one of her Christmas concerts, I felt overwhelmed when another student’s grandparent approached me gushing over her grandchild. And I felt anger. Anger that my daughter would not have that from me. She does have her dad’s parents who are so wonderful to her, but I was angry I had no one to share this moment with; the moment you see a beautiful angel in a red velvet dress sing about Santa. Those innocent moments that fly by way too fast. And I remember myself as a first grader at my own Christmas concert looking out in the crowd to see if maybe my own mother showed up. She never did, but it was those moments I felt it most.

My girl sometimes reminds me of what I missed, but those things do not seem missing anymore. There are moments I have been angry. Angry that my past almost seemed erased. Angry that maybe I did not have anything full to give my own daughter. Those moments always pass, because my girl knows instinctively when I have those moments. She reaches for me when I do.

It happens when we celebrate her birthday. There is a different pride for former foster children when our own children celebrate the day they were born. I never wanted to think about my birthday when I was a child. It reminded me that there was a woman out there, who was tied to me and now was going about her life without me. It was very painful. But, what pride there is in sharing birth stories with my child. What pride to see her blow out candles, knowing she has "normal" birthdays. She is not up in her bed the night before her birthday, sick to her stomach wondering if some abusive woman or absent man is remembering that she was born. Nope. Having my own child makes me victorious over birthdays!
Now that my daughter is 12 years old and becoming her own person, I let go as much as I can, though it is a challenge. I let her go away for most summers, so she can see her dad’s family and I let her go to the usual growing groups of friends. Seeing her feel safe to explore the world, safe to come to me, safe to build herself up, safe to try new hobbies, safe to love, and safe to be proud of her family, feels like success to someone who never felt that safe. In every one of my girl’s milestones, I see myself, the little girl I wanted to be growing up. The girl jumping on trampolines, the girl giggling, the girl so carefree, the girl who could run out in the world and look back to see her mother. I am always there…and sometimes I catch myself staring at her, studying her almost.

All of her changing features enthrall me almost daily. I feel a twinge of memory to my own crooked smile; a connection I do not have to anyone else. Somewhere in the back of my head, I look for things in her that give me a glimpse of a family I never knew. Are her hands my mother’s? Are her science hobbies something in her genes? I’ll never know, but I wander.
Her skin and eyes are always new and always familiar to me.
A lot of things did not turn out the way I expected on that chilly January day in 2003 when my daughter was born. But, we weathered the ups and downs together, the heartbreaks, and the triumphs. I held her little hand and tried to make the best choices, as much as a human being can with our limited future scope and naivety.
When the world seems harsh and cold or failures seem eminent, I have the internal warmth of motherhood. I will never feel entirely defeated by anything or anyone as long as my daughter is healthy, happy, and safe. In some ways it is simply called being a mother. But former foster children who raise safe, happy children feel a different internal light. Having my own daughter reaffirmed my worth and rebuilt my history. That makes up for any other loss, because I learned to love myself by finding out that unconditional love exists. Being able to give and feel it is a victory over the enemies of a broken childhood.
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