I’m about to turn 45 years old, hold advanced degrees, own a financial services/insurance business, and am a community volunteer. And I am mother (“step”mother, “adoptive” mother, and “foster” mother) to a 33 year old “step” daughter, a 4 year old” adopted” son/former foster child, and to any of the foster children placed in our home on a temporary, long-term or respite basis. These are all labels placed upon me. I think I’m simply a mother.
As a “step/foster/adoptive” mother, I’m surprised when some see me as a different kind of mother because I haven’t given birth, the children aren’t genetically mine or don’t live with me long-term. “The commonest fallacy among women,” said Sydney J. Harris, “is that simply having children makes one a mother — which is as absurd as believing that having a piano makes one a musician.”
Yet the assimilation into playgroups, schools, events, community, and recreational activities can be challenging. There’s either a reaction or assumption: that something is “wrong” with the children, that I’m a wonderful person for taking them in as some service project, or “it’s not the same” as having a child — complete with “what if’s” and “aren’t you afraid’s” and well-intended questions reflecting some innate human fear of the unknown, as if anyone can predict the challenges that one might face in life just because of genetics.
No, I never was the excited mommy-to-be with nine luxurious months to ready for an arrival. When I had a baby, I had 4 hours notice, and it was 2 years before I could adopt him permanently. I was his third “mommy.” When others discuss their length of labor, my “2 years, 4 hours” meets with laughter — but no understanding of what it is to rock a child to sleep every night for two years, not knowing if he might be returned to his birth family the next day. I’d trade that for 36 hours of physical labor, no epidural, and a C-section.
People ask about the birth family, their voices dropping to whispers as they expect something secretive or horrific, assuming drugs, or that they were very young, or worse. They’re a married couple in their twenties who loved him very much, fought to keep him, and did everything the system asked of them. Yes, they had issues. His birth mother freed him first, recognizing that they couldn’t care for him if they couldn’t take care of themselves. She also saw the direction the system was taking, and if the system terminated rights, they’d never see him again. People ask “How could she do that?” as if she didn’t love him enough. Make no mistake. She wanted her son. She loves him dearly. She was devastated, will never forget him, and her heart will never be complete again. I wrote her and told her how much I admired her. She’d been a birth mother by circumstance. But she’d become a mother in the fullest sense when she put his best interests before hers. She carries my letter in her wallet.
Because our son was “voluntarily freed”, his birth family is entitled to 2 visits a year. We choose to treat them as extended family, to love them because our son does, because they were mommy and daddy for 3 ½ years of his life (we were, simultaneously, for 2½). They’ve shared copies of his baby pictures, sonogram, and full genealogy. They send cards for every occasion and bear gifts at visits. They’re proud of him. When they visit, they laugh. When they leave, they cry. It’s a wonderful, painful thing for us all.
This is unusual. The goal of a foster parent is to be a permanent parent for a temporary period of time in a child’s life, and to reunite a child with the family, or be a temporary haven for a family who needs temporary help. People seem to think there’s something “different” about mothering someone else’s children. There is, but not the way they think. So what’s a “foster” mother do that’s different?
My job is to manage differences. I’m a white, middle class, professional female. For some in the system, that’s as foreign as it gets. On any given day, with an hour’s notice, a foster mother may welcome a child of different religion, culture, heritage, skin color, economic or educational background into her family and home. Some happen into the system through trauma, some by circumstance.
A foster mother nurtures, counsels, cooks, cleans, tutors, holds, and loves a child. She may have to deal with police, social service workers, counselors, doctors, and natural family members who may be ill, angry, depressed, battling addictions, or simply be wonderful people in need of support. Foster children may lie, steal, cheat, act up or melt down. So may birth children.
My job is to manage grief and loss. These children come in having lost everything and everyone they knew. Every child that enters a foster home understands the temporary nature of change in their lives. They don’t trust anything or anyone as permanent. We repeatedly experience loss — children placed with us temporarily (overnight to 3 years) are gone but never forgotten. We assimilate them into our home and family, lavish them with love, nurture their needs, feed, clothe, educate, work with their teachers and counselors and doctors, share joys and sorrows, tears and triumphs, play time and chore time. And one day they will not return home, removed by a system which will either return them to relatives or move them to another home. We’ll continue to think about them and wonder where they are and how they’re doing. It’s likely we’ll never hear from them again. The loss felt by foster mothers when these children we love leave, the emotional and economic struggles of fostering, the impact of these children in transition on our nuclear and extended family, and the indefinable place we hold in our foster children’s lives is unlike anything else.
Still, I’ll experience more parenting issues and problems than most birth parents will ever have to experience: the side effects of physical, mental or emotional abuse, trauma, medical issues, psychiatric issues, fears, and insecurities — because it is not your average childhood fear of the dark when rape or physical abuse, neglect or starvation are shadowing a young history. I am their mother, and I am not. But that is fitting because they are children who, in many cases, have lost their childhood. They are children, and they are not.
My job is to manage relationships. No matter what’s happened, they still love their mothers and fathers, and the job of a foster mother is often to form a relationship — a kinship — with those parents. Not all children are victims, or removed from their families. Some have loving families, but have medical, emotional, or other issues that are exhausting to deal with 24/7. Wonderful families need a break sometimes. Foster parents must supervise mandated visits, establish written and oral communication with birth parents, share information, and model parenting skills. We hope for learning to trust, and building a family that we all know is temporary.
My job is to manage paperwork. There are never-ending counseling considerations, continuing education training classes, evaluation of methods, home inspections, progress reports, financial reports, and paperwork. Anyone can give birth without having to undergo this. For a foster mother, the paperwork and system are a second job. (The “paycheck” is always delayed and doesn’t cover the groceries, clothes, medication, diapers, toys, toothbrushes, holidays — and we front funds because the child arrives with a garbage bag of clothes that don’t fit or aren’t fit to wear.) Every foster mom has a drawer full of new toothbrushes in her bathroom.
The existing definitions of motherhood are inadequate, noun-or-adjective understandings that don’t embody a less traditional understanding. Merriam-webster.com defines motherhood as “noun: 1. the state of being a mother; maternity. 2. the qualities or spirit of a mother. 3. mothers collectively; adj: 4. having or relating to an inherent worthiness, justness, or goodness that is obvious or unarguable: legislation pushed through on a motherhood basis.” Free dictionary.com defines foster-mother as “a woman who is a foster parent and raises another’s child”.
How do you comprehensively define motherhood in a world that simultaneously devalues it and puts it on a pedestal? Culturally we either put mothers up on a pedestal of Sentimental Sainthood (Mother Theresa, the Madonna figure, Mother’s Day) or the opposite (wicked stepmothers, Mommie Dearest, Oedipus). That dichotomy mirrors some of what I experience — somehow a natural birth mother is a sentimental figure and a non-birth mother is one who can never embody the true essence of a healthy relationship and the spiritual qualities of love and nurturing in a pure sense.
Motherhood shouldn’t be defined as a noun. It’s too active and diverse to be captured as a defined person, place, thing, concept or idea. Motherhood is more than a job, or action, or act of doing something. Motherhood isn’t definable as a state of being, but as a way of being, a way that women think about themselves, families, children, and the world. Motherhood embodies more than immediate family, it involves relationships and responsibility. A mother, after all, gives birth to more than children… to ideas, beliefs, ethics, morals, education, emotions, healing; a mother puts others first and herself last. We mother our elderly parents, and our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren, we nurture ideas, and ambitions and hopes and dreams. We care for and heal, we tend and grow.
This way of being isn’t a quantifiable experience, but a qualitative one, one that we share on many levels. Motherhood isn’t the result of giving birth. Motherhood isn’t an act or an action. It’s the experience that results from nurturing a relationship with a child. A mother knows that creating, and then managing, a family is a lot of work: more work than giving birth, feeding, clothing, sheltering, educating, paying bills, maintaining a career. Giving birth to and caring for your family is the beginning of being a mother.
Upon the adoption of my now 4-year-old former foster son, my “step”daughter gave me a ring engraved with the quote: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Maybe we need to define motherhood as a journey that is experienced.
Bio: Cara-Leigh Battaglia serves on the Board of Directors of the Motherhood Foundation, Inc. She lives in upstate New York with her family and can be reached at CLBattaglia@hotmail.com.