It’s rare to talk to people in doctors’ waiting rooms, but old magazines and boredom prompt conversations, even in these days of smart phones.
“You know what would be good for you to make?” an older woman said to her daughter, who had accompanied her to an audiologist’s appointment. “That coffee cake. You know, the one from the yellow cake mix where you add cinnamon and nuts. That’s what you can make for Mother’s Day.”
“Um,” I interjected. “Isn’t your daughter a mother too? Because if she is, I’m not sure it’s fair to ask her to bake. It’s her special day too.”
I had no business butting in, but they took my comment in stride. But their conversation highlights some of the complications of Mother’s Day, which may be the most overrated holiday of the year.
Just so you know, not everyone loves Mother’s Day. It brings up sadness and a deep sense of loss for people whose mothers or children have died. It stirs up a sense of hurt and regret among moms who are ignored by their children, who don’t bother to acknowledge them with a card, call or even a text.
It’s hard for single women who want a family, but haven’t found the right partner. It’s hard for women who have given up children for adoption. It’s tough for women who are trying to conceive or whose names are languishing on adoption waiting lists, a potent reminder that they’re childless.
I dreaded Mother’s Day during my 10-year struggle with infertility. In fact, I suffered my first migraine at age 30 as I hacked away at an old bush in my front yard to release some of my frustration one Mother’s Day. As lights flashed in my right eye and temporarily blinded me, I thought I was suffering from a stroke. It turned out to be an optical migraine, one of many I’d suffer over the years due to stress, overexertion or simply catching the sunlight the wrong way.
I suffered two miscarriages within about 18 months, so my quest for motherhood felt possible and yet unattainable. With six sisters and two sisters-in-law starting families around the same time, I sat through 23 pregnancy announcements – some more graciously than others.
When relatives and friends told me they were pregnant, I often burst into tears. I was genuinely happy for them, but sad for me and my husband. We wanted a family too. Why we were having such a hard time having a baby?
Making the situation worse were insensitive comments from relatives. One of the worst was my mother-in-law, who noted offhandedly one Christmas morning: “Every time we even talked about getting pregnant, I just got pregnant.” I guess it’s no wonder I began to dread Christmas at her house.
The disappointment involved in the infertility process is crushing. Hopped up on hormones that make you nutty and produce seven eggs (I once thought I’d need an Easter basket to haul around my ovaries on an assignment in New York City), each cycle begins with hope and ends in devastation. I became so frustrated and disgusted that I took four years off.
One of the problems is advancement in fertility treatments makes it hard to give up the quest of a biological child, making couples who opt out feel like quitters or failures. My gynecologist, a young mother with four children, the youngest of whom is adopted, made me laugh one day when she noted, “You wouldn’t believe how many people won’t consider adoption because they only want a biological child. And these are not exactly stellar gene pools that we are working with. In fact, anything but.”
My life began to change one Mother’s Day at my parents’ house. As people mingled in the backyard, I walked down the driveway and burst into tears. My sister Joanne followed me and encouraged me to adopt a child, telling me that it would be a shame if I didn’t because I’d make a great mother.
Other people had encouraged me to adopt, but I thought we’d be giving up on having a biological child if we took that route. I now realize that adoption doesn’t close doors, it opens them. I contacted Catholic Family Services the following week, and we began the arduous adoption process.
The adoption process is grueling and impossible to complete unless you’re fully committed. But it’s crucial, and the process actually reinforces your decision. I often wonder how many biological parents would pass if put to the test before having children. I do know there’d be a lot fewer children in foster care if everyone had to be screened the way adoptive parents are.
I was lucky. Twenty years ago, about 50 children were adopted through Catholic Family Services in Connecticut each year. Today, an average of only 5 babies are adopted through CFS every year. Times have changed, and it’s a lot more acceptable for single girls and women to keep their babies. But the desire to keep your baby doesn’t always translate into happily ever after.
At the same time adoption rates are at an all-time low, a record number of children are in foster care in Connecticut. At any given time, about 4,000 children are in foster care, primarily due to abuse or neglect. Parents who might have given their children a shot at a better life opted to keep them at birth, only to have them taken away and put in foster homes. I’m not sure what the solution is, but this is a tragedy for the children, who are without their parents or a permanent home.
I underwent my last two fertility treatments after we got on the adoption waiting list. The day I learned the second treatment failed, I came into the kitchen and saw the red light blinking on my answering machine. I pressed the button, and it was my adoption counselor telling me about a newborn boy whose birth mom had picked us to be his parents.
We drove out to the northeast corner of Connecticut on a glorious October day in 1997, to see him – a perfect little guy with blue eyes and golden curls. As we drove home, I told my husband that I couldn’t get the baby’s face out of my mind. And that’s been true for the past 20 years. My baby is now a college sophomore, but he’s always in the back of my mind and always will be.
About three years later, we adopted our daughter at six days old. She shares space in the back of my mind (well, the front too, she’s almost 17 and doesn’t drive yet) with her brother. Raising children is difficult, but without question the biggest joy of my life. And in a very weird way, I feel I was destined to be their mother.
Do I wish that I had adopted earlier? Well, yes and no. If I had, I would have spared myself years of frustration and sadness, but I wouldn’t have either of my children. And quite honestly, I can’t imagine life without either of them.
I don’t believe biology makes a mother. Love – opening your heart and caring for your child more than you ever thought possible – makes a great mom. Putting your child’s needs before your own and being there – that’s my definition of motherhood.
When my kids were young and people learned they were adopted, they’d often tell me my kids were lucky. “Are you kidding me?” I’d say. “I’m the lucky one.” And I am. These kids made me a mother, fulfilling a dream that I spent years chasing. I try never, ever to forget that.