From October 2015

Adopting Motherhood

From the editors: this piece was submitted by Erin X. To continue the conversation with Erin, leave a comment!

I always wanted to be a mom. I was changing my siblings’ diapers and rocking them to sleep by the time I was nine, and it suited me. I have had friends who did not feel that way about children at all, but when it happened to them they said “oh yeah, I was meant to do this,” and I felt pangs of envy that became stronger in my mid-thirties.

When the idea of adoption entered my radar, I felt an internal struggle that I couldn’t quite explain. I had to challenge my own assumptions about marriage; I had just figured that it would happen for me someday, and then I could have children. In the span of a few months, random conversations about the possibility of adopting a child on my own started to creep into my consciousness. One of my high school students told me that she wished we could go back in time, and I could adopt her. Friends at a poker party mentioned some friends of theirs who had recently adopted a baby, and I found myself hungry to learn about the process. I began to yield to the possibility and believe that someone might give me a baby even though I was not a celebrity with lots of money, and that maybe I could raise a child by myself.

As I began to feel confidence in the idea, I noticed outside resistance from well-meaning friends and family. Some asked, how will you afford it? how can you do it alone? how will you ever find a boyfriend if you adopt a kid by yourself? Do you think you could love a baby that wasn’t really yours? It was hard to explain to them that I was not asking for their advice or blessing, I was just sharing my plans. In retrospect, I know that there were supportive voices as well, but all of the questions made me feel like I was not enough, but I wanted it so much that I moved forward in spite of my fears.

Little Big Man came to me through foster care weeks after he was born, and I had only been licensed for a month. I am grateful that I was so naïve about the complexity of “legal risk” because I may not have had the courage to adopt through foster care if I knew. Essentially, I was agreeing to raise him, but the courts could give him back to his biological parents at any time. In the first eighteen months of his life, I was able to live in the moment in a way that I have not done before or since. In my memory, our early months together are suspended in time. Not everyone likes the demands of a newborn, but I relished every moment. People often asked me how I could risk the loss of a baby that was not really mine, but I knew somewhere in my soul that he was worth it. Our life together had value no matter what would happen next. He and I talk now about how he did not grow in my tummy, but I was waiting to be his mama the whole time.

Although I experienced great joy with Little Big Man, I did find the challenge of caring for a baby who had been exposed to drugs in utero daunting. The frequent trips to the doctor’s office and occasional hospital stays took their toll in those early days. When he was almost 2-years-old, I started to imagine him having a sibling. I desperately wanted another baby, but a part of me wondered if it was fair to expect Little Big Man to go through the risky process with me. I thought about it for a long time, and it was watching the way he loved other children that made me willing to try. He was about to turn three at the time, and I told him that we might take care of a baby who needed our love. He was all for it. As much as everyone loved my sweet boy, many expressed wonder that I would risk my heart again to adopt another child, and many questioned my ability to “handle” two children. However, they stood by me when I had a baby placed with me only to be reunited with birth relatives a few months later. In my weakest moments Little Big Man provided solace that I never imagined such a tiny creature could contain, and I began to heal. In spite of the grief I experienced, my heart and my home were still open two years later when Baby came along.

The road has been rockier for me and Baby, and I am facing my demons about that. He joined our party when he was two, after time with his abusive biological family and a temporary foster home, and he is still not my legal child a year and a half later. I imagined that I would love my children the same, and although I am deeply connected to both of my boys, so much that I sometimes wonder where I end and they begin, the time that Baby and I were not able to share has made the bonding process slower and more unsure, but we are making progress. The sensation I had the other day when he told me, “I love you too much, Mama,” gave me such hope for our future. He has suffered so much at the hands of the people who were supposed to protect him, and I stand awed in the face of what he has survived.

In the car this afternoon Baby was talking about a stuffed animal his biological mother gave him at a recent court-mandated visit. He asked me, “Mama, why did my ‘new mother’ give me a stuffy?” Before I could answer with a catch in my throat, Little Big Man said, “No, that was your old mother. Erin is your new mother,” and I had trouble seeing the road through my tears. The truth is that I am not enough. It is in my lack, in my inadequacy, that I am reshaped by my children into the mother that they need me to be.
ErinErin holds a Master’s Degree in Communication from Northern Illinois University and has been teaching since 1995, including Northern Illinois University, Springfield Technical Community College, and Westfield State University. She is the mother of two energetic boys adopted through the Department of Children and Families.



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I Just Want Love with a Person: Interview with Maggie

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Maggie is an award-winning high school math teacher and Zumba instructor in Massachusetts. Maggie is not her real name because as a high school teacher she likes to keep herself off the internet. Maggie is the name she uses when she is out; her friends dubbed her Maggie because she is magnetic.

MS: How old are you?

Maggie: I’m going to be 42 on Monday.

MS: Do you want kids?

Maggie: Yes, I think so, I don’t know. I love kids.

MS: You said a fast “yes” and then “I think so,”  and then “I don’t know…”

Maggie: I think I would love to have kids and be a good mother and then I took it back because I don’t know if I’m going to have them. I still would want them. Or I would want someone else’s kids. Yeah, I want to be with kids. I would rather be with kids than not. That’s my answer. (Laughs)

I don’t know if I’m going to have them.

MS: You would rather be with kids even if they are someone else’s kids and you got into a relationship with that person…

Maggie: or foster or adoption…

MS: So, do you think about adoption?

Maggie: I don’t think I’m strong enough to do adoption yet. If I felt that strongly about it I think I would have already started looking into it. Now, it’s just thinking about mentoring, Big Brother, Big Sister, fostering.

MS: Do you have a plan to foster or is it just in the back of your head?

Maggie: No plan, it’s just a possibility.

MS: Do you feel any sense of urgency when it comes to getting kids into your life?

Maggie: No, I might have thought that in the past, like six or seven years ago.

MS: Why do you think it doesn’t feel as urgent now that you are turning 42? Why is it less urgent now that you are older?

Maggie: Maybe because you have no control over having your own children, and I thought I did before, and I’m just realizing I don’t.

MS: What are your reservations about fostering?

Maggie: Committing 100% of my life to it and not being able to afford it, but I think they help you. But I would love it. I would want an older kid. Not under 5. Older than 5.

MS:  Why?

Maggie:  I think that part of raising children sucks. (laughs) It appears to from every single person I know. It just seems really hard until they can do things on their own and function with other people.

MS:  Not that the teenage years are easy.

Maggie: No, but I love them. I am with them all day and I love them.

MS: Does being a teacher scratch the mom itch at all?

Maggie: You definitely get to give all of your love to kids. Maybe you don’t get all the love back.

Someone told me: don’t have kids to have love. That’s not really fair to the kid. I am 50/50 on that because that is unconditional love.

MS: Do you think that’s a part of why you want to have a kid?

Maggie: I thought it was, but

I think I really just want love with a person and not a kid. I would like to have kids but I think I really want love more. Love.

MS: Do you think there will be a point, if you have not met anybody, that you will take action and try to foster a kid or adopt a kid or are you just not going to think about that until you have to think about that? Read more

Why My Dog Calls Me Lady, Not Mama

Have I completely undermined my ethos by asking you to imagine my dog calls me anything? Here’s the deal.
I became a dog person in my early 30s when my then-boyfriend now-husband introduced his puppy to me. When I moved to New Mexico a year later, I adopted my own pup, Maddie, with the idea that she’d be my companion. She was special in that way a needy border collie can be–loving, attentive, but a bit of a pain in the ass at times with her clingy affection. I called her my baby, and in our pretend conversations–hey, we lived alone, and I’m a chatterbox–she called me Mama.

That was when I still toyed with the notion that Neal and I might have kids together. Many women will tell you that once you’ve adapted life around your dog’s schedule, it isn’t that much of a stretch to adapt to a kid’s schedule. It seemed like we were rehearsing for parenthood.

Two years ago, Maddie died suddenly, and I’m not ashamed to say that I miss her every single day. What I wouldn’t give to have her tripping me up with her anticipation of where I’d move next. Losing her was the end of an era for me, not just because she was part of my great graduate school-living-across-the-country adventure. Not just because she was there when Neal and I got married. Not just because she gave me comfort when I wrestled with the decision about having kids.

I lost her and at about the same time, lost the impetus to have kids. Health issues unrelated to fertility caused us to say no to kids. The dogs would be the creatures to receive our parental affection.

A month after losing Maddie, we adopted a malnourished Siberian husky, Oskar. He’s stop-you-in-your-tracks handsome. He requires a lot of exercise and leadership, and I’ve enjoyed providing both to him. I’ve helped him build his strength and learn to be a good pack member.

But when we started to have pretend conversations, when he first needed a way to address me, I couldn’t bear to have him call me Mama. I’m not a Mama, and even though there are days when I would give up whatever is precious to me that day to have a kid, most days I am just fine with my decision.

A dog has got to call his human something, though. So Oskar calls me Lady with Thumbs, Keeper of the Kibble, Warden of the Door, Scolder of Bears. These are the things I imagine he admires in me. He’s not clingy the way Maddie was; he’s a cool customer, this one. He knows I’m not his Mama.

When outsiders refer to me as Mama in reference to my dogs, I feel an agitation I never used to. The possibility of becoming a mother is gone, by my choice. I don’t pretend that the care I give my dogs compares to the care a mother gives her children. I don’t pretend that the responsibilities are in any way equal. I don’t want to be perceived, as I fear I sometimes am, as a woman who believes she knows about motherhood because she cares for dogs. And my heart can’t take pretending these precious pups, with me too short a time, are my children.

So I am Lady. And I’m happy in this role. I think Oskar agrees.

Why MotherShould? Making the Decision

I was taken off guard when my friends started announcing that they were pregnant.  Before they got married off, we discussed guys all the time, in detail, but we didn’t have any conversations about babies. I was not privy to any deliberations. Suddenly, my friends were just pregnant, as if it were a foregone conclusion that after you get married, you procreate and that’s that. It never felt like a foregone conclusion for me, so with each baby shower, I felt more and more frustrated and a little bit angry. Why did the proliferation of babies make me mad? I felt abandoned and left out, but mostly I felt troubled that I didn’t feel any urge to have a child.

The common wisdom is that people who are not sure about whether or not they should have kids, should not have kids. A person, really a woman, needs to really, really want kids to be a mother, preferably from the moment they are little girls. (Fathers, on the other hand, can decide at any moment.) A fence sitter might feel inclined to keep it to herself for fear that revealing her indecisiveness might actually put her in the not-a-mother camp whether or not she’s ready to make that decision. Essentially, indecision tends to equal not ready for motherhood.

In my thirties, I came out of the closet as indecisive and started asking the people around me: why have kids? Here are the answers I got:

  • “Don’t have kids.” –my friend from first grade who has two rambunctious boys. How can she tell me not to have kids if she decided to have two? Is she doubting my ability to mother because of my uncertainty?
  • “You have good boobs, don’t have kids and ruin them. Mine are like half-filled pastry bags now.” –a friend of a friend tells me in complete seriousness. After she doles out this advice, she has a second kid, presumably because here boobs are already ruined.
  • “Your life is full enough that you don’t need to have kids.” —a friend from graduate school. Another friend thinks I can’t hack motherhood?
  • “You really have to have kids, Catherine. Don’t worry. You will like them so much more than you like other people’s kids.” —my cousin who swore she would not have kids so she and her husband could travel the world; she has three.

The advice I got was always short on evidence.

This site is the forum I wanted in my mid-thirties when I was trying to figure out if I wanted to have a kid. I didn’t want advice so much as I wanted a glimpse backstage to see what makes motherhood so challenging and so joyous and how childfree women experienced life in a world where women are expected to be mothers or to at least want to be mothers.

I believe our culture is moving toward making motherhood a choice rather than a foregone conclusion, particularly as more and more women wait until they are over the “high-risk” age of 35 to have their first child or opt not to have children at all, as fertility treatments become more advanced, and as single motherhood by choice becomes more socially acceptable.

Although I’ve made my choice—one and done!—I’m still hungry for the stories, the particulars of what happens backstage, of women who choose from the array of options available to us now.

Why MotherShould? When the Decision is Made

Not long after she returned from maternity leave, Catherine mentioned to me her craving, pre-pregnancy, for resources that would have helped her make a decision about having kids. I agreed. Smart women who have, for whatever reason, waited until they are aging primates (my former doctor’s description of me when I talked to her about having kids. I was 35.) to consider or start trying to have kids lacked good resources.

I remembered being in my mid-20s, standing in my Hudson River-town library, feeling as furtive as I had when I’d read Judy Blume’s Forever in sixth grade. I perused the shelves looking for information about not having kids. I don’t mean information about birth control or abortion. I mean information about how to get pushy in-laws to lay off, how to function in a world that, to my eyes, privileges mothers and questions breeding-age women who deliberately don’t have kids.

As Catherine and I continued the conversation about resources for women choosing–or choosing not–to have kids, as well as resources for women on all points of that spectrum, we hatched the idea for a clearinghouse, a place where women could share our sometimes difficult stories sans judgement, sans advice, as a way to provide other women with resources to help them in their own decisions.

I am child free, but there are times I consider myself childless. In my work with MotherShould?, I’ll explore the ever-shifting way I identify, and I’ll also strive to find resources to help all women figuring out how they feel about becoming a parent. To steal from Sylvia Plath, I want us–me and Catherine, you, and all of the MotherShould? community– to melt the wall that all-too-often divides women without kids, for whatever reason, from those with kids.