How many mothers?
Jamie and Teenasia were getting ready to play house the other day and were deciding on roles.
“I will be the mom,” Jamie announced.
“But I wanted to be the mom,” Teenasia said.
“Maybe we can both be moms,” Jamie suggested. Teenasia considered this, then turned to my husband Bill who was standing nearby.
“Dad, can we have two moms?” Teenasia asked.
“Sure,” Bill said. “You have two moms in real life.” Teenasia nodded in agreement, satisfied with this answer, and the girls went off to play.
I am one of Teenasia’s two mothers. In her six years, Teenasia has been in foster care three separate times—23 months total-- with our family. She calls both her biological mother and me “Mom,” and if she is referring to one of us in conversation, the context is almost always clear enough that she does not need to differentiate further than an occasional “my” in front of “mom” when she’s not talking about me. Because she lived with our family from ages 1 to 2, and her biological father was given custody of her at that point, T does not have a memory of living with her biological mother. Right now, T visits her once a week for four hours.
On a day-to-day basis, I rarely think about being one of two mothers to Teenasia. Instead, like most mothers, I am focused on getting the lunches made, the shoes found, and the homework checked all while having three conversations at once.
It’s not during the busy times that I think of being one of two mothers. It’s during the quiet. Ironically, it’s when I’m not actively mothering — when the kids are in bed, when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I’m on a run — that I think most about being Mom #2.
Many mothers are one of two moms. I join stepmothers, grandmothers raising their grandchildren, mothers in same-sex partnerships and thousands of other foster and adoptive mothers in not being the one and only. Sharing the stage takes practice, and I certainly don’t have it down yet. There are many times I think of how much easier — for both Teenasia and me-- it would be if I were the only mom T had.
But I am so clearly not the one and only, and it seems to me that the most healthy approach for both T and me is to embrace this hand we’ve been dealt. As long as we have it, let’s play it well. To me, that means being as matter-of-fact as possible. Just because Teenasia’s situation with two mothers is unusual doesn’t mean she has to feel odd or uncomfortable about it. There is plenty of drama in foster care without me escalating it. Teenasia will tell me things about her biological family and look closely at me for a reaction. While I know I need to teach Teenasia that parts of her experience were not acceptable, I also need to make sure I don’t make her feel that the mother she was born to is not deserving of respect.
Teenasia is part of this other mother. She carries this other mother in every cell of her body. Sometimes, when she smiles or laughs in a certain way, I see her other mother so clearly that it takes my breath away. I know that by valuing this other mother, I value Teenasia as my child. Yet, the juxtaposition is that even as I value her as a “mother,” I know she does not have the wherewithal to add the “-ing” to that word. And that is the balance I must learn to live with.
Teenasia’s mother has had a life I cannot even imagine. I have had advantages she cannot even dream of. We are so different from each other, yet the one thing we have in common is the most important of all — we both love Teenasia. We live out that love differently, as we are able. I think about the other mother in the quiet. And I wonder when she thinks of me.