“Goodbye! I love you! You’re my favorite boy in the world,” I called as my son hopped out of the van on Thursday morning. He adjusted his backpack and flipped up the hood on his sweatshirt because he’s almost six now and knows what looks cool.
“Love you too, favorite mom in the world—“ then he paused and took a step back to the van and peered his face in through the open door. “Actually, second favorite.” He smirked a little, and I pretended to be shocked. “Just kidding,” he said. “Well, maybe I’m not. You know, because I have two moms.”
“Yes, you do.” I said. I smiled because I knew where he was going with this, and I never want him to feel like he can’t say what he’s about to say.
“I mean I don’t remember the first one, but she might have been my favorite, you know? But for now, I guess you can be the first favorite since you’re like my mom mom.”
“Totally,” I said.
He laughed again and hollered goodbye as he trotted over to meet his friends at the playground.
Five years ago, I held this same boy on my hip and reheated a cup of coffee in the little kitchen of our tiny yellow house by the beach. We were two months shy of his first birthday, and I still didn’t know if we would spend it together. From the bay window, I could see our social worker pull up and parallel park on the street in front of our house. I pulled my coffee from the microwave and walked to the porch to greet her.
The social worker visited about every four weeks back then. We had twice weekly visits with the biological parents in effort to reunify the family. According to the County workers, reunification was the preferred plan. Families should stay together. Parents should be with their children. They should fight for their children. The original biological family is the first choice. I supported that; I signed up for that.
“So we’re still moving towards reunification,” the social worker started as soon as she sat down. Not one for warm greetings, she opened a manila folder and shuffled some paper work around.
I nodded and bounced the baby on my lap.
“We don’t know what will happen with the next court date, of course, but as of right now I can’t see a reason why he couldn’t be back home in the next six months.”
Home. A place in which he had never lived. Not one day. Not one night. Not one minute.
As the social worker spoke, she settled into the couch in my living room. She shifted a throw pillow behind her to ease the pain in her back that, understandably, came from her very pregnant belly. She rubbed her stomach as she spoke. “We really haven’t heard from extended family, but it’s important to exhaust all of our options before we begin considering adoption—should the reunification fail. I know you’ve expressed interest, but you can see why that’s the last resort.”
“Of course,” I said.
At this point, Mason turned around and began chewing on the beads of my necklace. He was teething hard, and just the night before I spent hours pacing the living room, bouncing him in effort to console him back to sleep. When he finally drifted off, the sleep was fitful. We spent the remainder of the night on the couch where the social worker was now sitting.
I remember hearing the Parable of the Workers in the book of Matthew in Sunday School. At the end of the story, Jesus says, “So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
The story itself is challenging, and as adults it causes us to confront our own biases and understanding about judgment and fairness, but the complexity of the story was lost on me as a child. My Sunday school teacher gave some illustration about humility, and ultimately I left class thinking that I needed to let other kids cut in line at the drinking fountain. Whether this interpretation is accurate or not, the association stuck with me and has continued to reverberate in my mind, especially during our foster care years. My whole understanding of fair was confronted, and I’ve continually wrestled with these ideas.
On Christmas Eve, I held my raging five-year-old boy on my lap in an upstairs bedroom of my parents’ house. Travel, late nights, anticipation, and frustration had gotten the best of both of us. Sometimes feelings are far too big for little bodies, and my son could not fight all that was roaring inside of him. He screamed and growled, and when he finally calmed his body, he turned his tear-filled eyes toward mine. I wiped his cheeks with my thumbs and hoped we could now have a more measured conversation about why we can only open one present on Christmas Eve … but this fit was so much bigger than toys or Santa or who got the bigger candy cane.
My son took a deep breath and placed one hand on my shoulder. With the other hand, he gently picked up my necklace. Carefully, he stroked each of the three heart charms and traced the initials inside of them. He found the one with his initials and began inching it around the chain. When the heart reached the nape of my neck, he dropped it. He centered the initials of his sisters at my chest and calmly said, “You are not my mother.”
I caught my breath and stared into his deep chocolate eyes. I felt the tears welling up inside me, and I fought the urge to let them flow. This isn’t about me, but also, it was.
You don’t know what you’re talking about, I wanted to say. Don’t you understand what a mother is?
It’s Christmas Eve, I wanted to say. You should be dreaming of sleigh bells and praying for snow! Why can’t you be like other kids? Why do we have to do this now? Why do we have to do this at all.
He turned his face away from mine, and moisture filled my eyes. Whether the time feels right or not, the weight of adoption hangs heavy in the air around us. It fills our home, and this time it was nearly suffocating. The pain that consumed him now rushed inside of me. I couldn’t stop it for either of us. All I’ve ever wanted was to protect him from these feelings, to jump in front of them and stretch my arms wide. For years I’ve tried to stand guard, to protect him for the sadness of his own story, to arch my body over any of the parts that are scary or confusing, to fling myself in front of heartache. But I am too small, and the truth is too big. I cannot stand in front of this, and as I sat there watching the tears roll down his cheeks, and felt the tears stream down mine, I knew that I should stop trying.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said instead. “I love you.”
Mason’s adoption had been finalized for nearly four years. We had been the last resort, but adoption is the business of last resorts. As Mason tapped the initials on my necklace, I realized that he knew what I’ve always known … maybe he’s always known too but just hadn’t admitted it out loud: I’m not the first choice mom. I knew this in my head, but now I felt it profoundly. I was picked last for this position, and even though it often seems like I was the one who came out on top because I got to keep the baby, we both knew I wasn’t at the front of the list. In the absolutely tonally inappropriate words of Ricky Bobby, “If you’re not first, you’re last,” or at least that’s how I felt.
Since Christmas Eve, Mason and I have had this conversation about my role as his mother many many times. Sometimes he’s angry. Sometimes he’s sad. Sometimes he’s more neutral. Every once in awhile the sentiment comes out in a joke.
The birth mother or “tummy mommy,” as my kids refer to her, is a regular point of conversation in our home and always has been. My husband and I have worked for adoption discussions to be commonplace rather than taboo, but I can see why some parents would ban these conversations altogether. In those moments of hard conversation when Mason is working out the challenging details of his life, I want to open myself like an umbrella over top the conversation and catch all the confusion and frustration as it rains down so that it never hits him. But I can’t be that mom no matter how hard I try. There’s a space inside of him that I cannot and will not ever fill, and while I would love for him to never feel that void, we cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. No, my place is no longer in front of his pain. My job is to help him feel the weight of the loss alongside the joy of belonging. We’re past the time for shielding him from what he already knows; this is the part where I step back and let him tell his story.
Still, in between all of those moments of heartache and anger, Mason also declares me the best. The clouds clear and the sun shines bright. He writes me love notes and sticks them to my bathroom mirror. He makes me necklaces during art class at school. He’s affectionate and funny and cuddly … and then … well, the wind changes and the clouds blow in.
The more the pendulum swings, the more I realize he’s just a little boy with a complicated story trying to find a way to hold all of his feelings inside of his heart.
Stepping to the back of the line when you’re thirsty is difficult, but if I’ve learned anything lately, it’s that I am not defined by my place at the front—being here at all is a privilege—and I’m not the only one entitled to a drink.
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