To hear a child that you have come to love as your own say these words to you is devastating! You quickly realize that you have been living in a state of denial, convincing yourself that, although you did not birth the children, they think of you as their real mother. It is a rude awakening that hurts to one’s very soul, but you also come to understand that, for a child who has lost a beloved parent, there is a need to hold on to that person, even if they can no longer remember that parent’s face.
I thought that because they were all under the age of six, and as there were no pictures of my sister to show her children, that her children would come to accept me as their authentic mother. In hindsight, it was the wrong way to go. I should have done all that I could do to keep her memory alive, because out of sight does not mean out of mind. It just doesn’t, especially with children who are hurting and do not understand why the first parent had to leave them.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that they were happy to have another mommy, but the oldest two, ages 5 and 6, simply could not just forget that there had been another woman who had held them, laughed with them, played with them, bathe them, and cared for them when they were sick. And, I should not have expected them to play along with my need to be seen as their “real” mother, performing a part that I had wanted to play for so long, but one that had been up to that point biologically denied to me until I gave birth years after adopting them.
I had gotten rid of all her clothes and things, practically erasing her from their lives. I never thought to ask them if they wanted to keep any reminders of her, believing that it was in everybody’s best interests to pretend that I was the only mother that they ever had. But, children in their honesty, tend to set us straight!
I had finally brought the children to live with me in Atlanta where I had been working and saving money to buy us a house. The children had lived with my mother for over three years, and I saw them intermittently over the years, always at Christmas and on holidays. But, now they lived with me full time, and they were accustomed to me always been the nice and undemanding of them. Whenever I was home with them, I did not discipline them, so, everything was always wonderful and they could ask for anything, toys or games, and I bought them, mainly because I felt guilty about living apart from them, even as I knew that this was the best scenario for us all.
They were ages 8-13 when I took physical custody of them again, and, they were not happy to leave Mama and come live with me. My mother had no rules and they were able to do whatever they wanted, including stay outside until nearly 11:00PM on school nights. They ate a lot of sandwiches, the same as my sister and me, as my mother did not cook, and vegetables were not in their diet at all.
Then, suddenly, in the space of a day, they are faced with a schedule, rules, a curfew, and expectations of doing homework. I gave teachers the right to discipline them, and they were appalled! I knew that they hated this new life, but I explained how as their mother, it was my job to see that they were socialized correctly and would grow to be wonderful adults.
But, the very worst aspects of this new life for them were having to eat vegetables and doing chores. They hated vegetables! That is not an exaggeration. One day when we were having collard greens for dinner, one of them said, “We are going to turn green!” I assured them that they would not turn green, and that as their mother, it was my job to keep them healthy.
As for chores, everyone had to make their beds and help keep the house clean. I did not have boy chores and girl chores, because I wanted my boys to know how to cook and my girls to know how to mow the grass, so that they would be well-rounded. But, I did not expect the neighborhood kids to tease the boys about washing dishes or the taunt the girls for taking out the garbage. One day, when I came home and the house was still a mess, I asked everyone to get busy, and the youngest girl said, “You are a fanatic about cleaning!” I told her that as their mother, my job was to teach them cleanliness, and if they did not do their chores, there would be some real consequences.
Well, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the oldest girl. As I started to tell her, now 13 years old, what I wanted her to do, she acted as though she did not hear me. So, I said, I am your mother, and I just gave you an order, and if you do not obey me, you will get a whipping. And she screamed in front of her younger siblings, “You are not my mother!” To hear her say that stopped me in my tracks, and I had to walk away from her, because she had in one sentence shattered the illusion that I had been living for nearly seven years.
You are not my mother! I could not get those words out of my head. What do you do, and what do you say? I was in so much shock and, yes, pain. I just went to my room, needing to be alone. She was right. I was not their biological mother. I had not given birth to them. I had spent three years separated from them, leaving them in my mother’s care, and, in that time, I seemed to have lost the connections needed for them to continue to think of me as their mommy as they had when I first adopted them. But, I knew that this was a critical moment for us all, and that I could not leave those words unaddressed. So, I prayed for the right words to say, and God heard my cry.
I went back in the room, and I saw that everybody was somewhat on edge, but no one had actually moved to do any of the work that I had assigned to them. So, I said to my oldest daughter in front of her siblings, “I might not be your biological mother, but I am the closest that you will ever have to one, so you are going to do what I say! I could not love you more if you had come from my womb. I know this is hard for everyone, but do not ever say that to me again! Now, come get this whipping!”
Over the years, she and I have had our “moments,” and some of them were really bad, but we managed to get past them and form a mutual love. She started wanting to know if I would try to find a picture of her mother, but I never did, and that has been painful. As they have aged and had their own children, and, I cannot believe it, grandchildren, they have come to understand the sacrifices made for them.
Today, two of them introduce me as their mother and two of them introduce me as the aunt who raised them. It’s okay now. I understand and I love them all as mine own. But, I let go of the illusion, for the words of John 8:32 are true, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” It set us all free! But, hallelujah, all of their children call me some version of Grandmother: Granny Gina, Grandma, Maw, and Grandmother Gina.
It was hard for all of us that day when the words no adoptive parent wants to hear were spoken, but thankfully nobody else ever felt the need to utter those painful words. But, I needed to hear them, for I learned that we cannot live an illusion. Children need to know both of the women who have loved them. I would recommend to anyone raising nieces and nephews to keep the memory of the first parent alive, with pictures and sharing your own memories of their parent.
That’s what I learned to do. And I would tell them how much they were like her when they displayed the positive aspects of my sister, leaving the negative reproductions untouched. For example, the oldest boy had to be escorted home nearly every day because of his tendency to get into fights when bullied. I told him that his mother was the same way, never backing down to bullies. I also started reminding them of how much she had loved them, and that they were always her pride and joy, and that I loved them, too.
If you have children, take lots of pictures of yourself and some pictures with you and the children, so that if something happens to you, they can hold on to their memories of you. Spend time with them and create memories that will last them a lifetime and help them remember the good and the bad times, but, most importantly, how much you loved them. Selfies are great, if you have a smartphone, for marking important moments.
Even if you are not wealthy, spend the money on a few good photos of the family together. It will help both the children and the persons who end up parenting them. It will keep the illusions away, and maybe, just maybe, no one will ever be hurt by those five very powerful words: You are not my mother!