When I undress each night, I am reminded of the lives of my children. It’s no secret that the mother’s body is a physical testimony to the life she’s brought into the world, and my body is no different. Over the last two years I’ve watched my hips widen and seen stretch marks form like little rivers and tributaries across my lower back and down my thighs. Now, I bear a thin pink line across my pelvis. The unevenness of the incision, the way it arcs slightly upward above my right hip, reminds me of the urgency of my youngest daughter’s emergency extraction from my body.
I am not alone in the mirror, though. I’m also reminded of my son’s birth mother: the woman who contracted and pushed but has no child. Her body has stretched and groaned. When she looks in the mirror, the weight of him is on her body, but he is no longer there.
Although I’ve since given birth to two baby girls, we started our family with an adoption through foster care, and my son came to us at nine weeks old. It was a foggy, September morning when I got the phone call from our social worker. “There’s a baby boy,” she said. My first instinct was “yes!” This is what we signed up for. This is what we wanted. In just two short hours, I would meet my son, but my excitement and my joy were also tempered by reality: in the hours before, another mother had said good-bye.
That same morning that I was milling about my house, making coffee, checking email, and planning a trip to Target, not knowing that I was on the brink of motherhood, another woman across town was opening her door to those who would take her baby away. She was answering questions and putting three onesies in a plastic bag. Maybe she cried as they took him. Maybe she tried to be strong. She had done this before. She had opened the door to these people before. She had lost too many times. I always wonder if she buckled him into the car seat, fastening him in for the last time—the same seat he was sitting in when we arrived to retrieve him.
As we entered the room where he was waiting, one of the social workers briefly looked up from her paperwork and said, “There’s your baby. You can pick him up.” He was a perfect 10-pound baby in a much too big onesie, crying in a car seat that belonged to the County. I bent down and unbuckled him, praying that he would stop crying in my arms, but he didn’t. In that moment I was a stranger, and he wanted his mommy.
In those first few weeks and months of motherhood, my body grew tired under the weight of this growing boy, exhausted from sleepless nights and early mornings. I wore him in a baby carrier, napped him in a sling. My back ached and my arms grew stronger. As with so many other mothers, my body became less my own as we became mother and son.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She was still my son’s mother, but as he and I became a more bonded unit, her bond was dissolving. For every moment I spent becoming a mother, in those same ways she was becoming un-mothered, detached from her son. While her memory faded away in his tiny mind, I know that his memory didn’t fade in hers.
When I was getting up in the night, she was not. Perhaps she was waking anyway, phantom cries urging her from her sleep only to remember that her little boy wasn’t in the crib next to her.
I made bottle after bottle, feeding him day and night, while her breasts lightened as her milk dried up.
When I went to the grocery store, a babbling baby boy bounced in the cart, waved at strangers, and blew kisses to me while I shopped. But she shopped alone. What happened when she encountered acquaintances, people who wondered where her baby went? What did she say?
My son is old enough now to ask about her, his “tummy mommy,” the woman who looks like him. A few months ago, I was making dinner and my son was sitting on the kitchen counter, chatting with me as I chopped carrots.
“What was her name?” he asked casually. “The mommy who couldn’t keep me? What was her name?”
I told him. I told him she wanted to keep him—I knew she did.
“Who is her little boy now?” he asked. “Since I’m your little boy.”
“Well, in a lot of ways, you are still her little boy. You grew in her tummy, and you’ll always be a part of her, but she doesn’t get to have a little boy now.”
My son looked at me, his brown eyes serious, “That’s very sad for her.”
“It is.” I said.
My son’s mother wasn’t fit to care for him; she wasn’t safe for a lot of reasons, but she was his mother. She was his mother in many ways that I will not ever be. Because of this, I am his mother in so many ways that she will never be. Her value, her significance, her experience—these things are not lost on me.
In signing up for foster care, I was prepared to parent another woman’s child until he went back to her or legally became mine, but it never occurred to me how connected I would feel to that woman. When my son was a baby, it seemed as though my life was a split screen: I couldn’t help but imagine her on the other side of whatever I was doing. As we moved about living our parallel lives, joined together by this one small child—such a significant link for two women whose paths never actually crossed.
I’ve only seen pictures of this woman, but her reflection stares back at me in the mirror. We are two halves of one whole story: she carried him first, and I carry him now. Together, we have made a beautiful boy.