The other day my daughter shared some letters she had written to each member of her family, including one to her birth mother, who is dead, and one to me. The letter to me was heartfelt and said how much she loved me. The letter to her birth mother, which she wanted me to read, said that my daughter would always love her birth mother the most. I told her it was OK that her birth mother has first place in her heart, and that she wasn’t hurting my feelings. I wasn’t lying.
My son does something similar. He’ll come up to me and say that I’m the most beautiful mommy ever. Then he’ll pause and look at me carefully while saying, “Except for my first mommy.” I always hug him after he says that and thank him. The other day I went a little further and asked him if he felt guilty about saying that. He nodded, and I said, “Then you need to understand how mothers work. I’m fine being your second choice as a mommy. The important thing is that you know you’re my first choice.” That made sense to both of us.
I’ve been pondering my non-reaction to this for days. Wouldn’t it be more natural to feel a little hurt or sad, then to talk myself out of that ignoble reaction? I’ve known a lot of adoptive mothers who have privately expressed their profound disappointment at what their children have said, and I completely understand them. But I didn’t feel anything other than the sensation I get when I know my children are breaking new emotional ground and really need my full focus and compassion — that I’ve been shoved out on a stage for the most important ad-libbed performance of my life.
You’d think it would be weirder, but now that I think of it, I’ve had it happen twice now. My biological daughter’s first loyalty is to the adoptive parents who’ve had her since the day she was born, and to the other relatives who’ve cared for her throughout her life. My adoptive children feel they owe their first loyalty to the mother who was taken from them.
Part of it, too, is the fact that I know how important I am to them. I make them feel safe, I care for them, I encourage them, and make them laugh. All mothers do that, and many kids take it for granted. My kids don’t. They know what it is like to lose the person who loved them unconditionally, and made them the center of the universe. They know what it means to fend for themselves. They know what it means not to be special to someone. I’ve given that back to them, and they love me profoundly. There is nothing half-hearted or restrained or ambivalent about the way they feel about me.
I don’t know how other adoptive mothers feel about this, but I want everyone to love my children, to cheer them on, and to feel protective of them. They need to know that there is a host of people out there who wish them well, who’ll take care of them, and who won’t forget them. That means encouraging my children to love other people, and meaning it. It means accepting and valuing insight from the others who know and care for them.
Parenting has been incredibly difficult, and in many ways it’s been the worst experience of my life. I am highly conscious of all the ways I let my children down. I fail publicly at skills other parents seem to have mastered. I let a lot of things slide — a LOT. But in this area, I know with 100% certainty I’ve got it right.