Both of my children are adopted. Our first-born is now our second child, and our second child is the first-born. It’s okay if you need to re-read the last sentence. When you give birth to children, this kind of thing is impossible; the rules are fixed. With adoption, there are no formulas. Birth order in an adopted family is based on when the child is birthed into your family.
Let me explain. Our youngest was adopted first. The second day after the birth, my husband and I went to the hospital to get our first-born child. The birth mother chose us to be the adoptive parents after viewing a group of portfolios she was given by the adoption agency. I suppose, for precision’s sake, we could call her the birth-to-the-second-day-mother, which would make me the third-day-on-mother, but I ‘ll talk more about names in a moment.
When we arrived at the obstetrics ward, we met not only the birth mother but her mother and grandmother as well. No one could speak. Our nervous smiles held back the wild joy we felt; their smiles held back a fierce pain. When that young woman placed her baby in my arms, the pronouns all changed, and every one of us began to cry. We stood in a circle, each struck dumb in different ways. Only the social worker could speak, so she offered a prayer.
Normally, even in adoptive families, people do not upset the chronological birth order, but we did. The first child was three when we adopted the second who was five. Some things are more important than birth order, like love.
We were living in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, when we found out about our second child. We had to travel the full length of Japan to an orphanage in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture. We never met the birth mother.
From the beginning, both children knew that they were adopted. We were careful to use the proper terms and explain that they had a birth mother and a birth father, but now we were their mommy and daddy, and we loved them very much.
What are we three mothers involved in these children’s lives to call ourselves? Birth mother fits the other two women, but then what am I, the “after birth mother” (too messy), or the “life mother” (more appropriate for a goddess), or simply “mother” (what I generally use.)
The word that has been raising its hand and waving it wildly in order to get our attention is that four-letter word, “real,” as in, “Will the real mother, please stand up.” If by this term we mean the woman who carried the child and gave birth, no small gift, then I am not the real mother. Each of us can have only one of those. The two women who gave life to my children are real mothers who physically sheltered and nurtured them nine months, and then willingly went through the pain of childbirth knowing they would release these beautiful babies to strangers. They were, and are, much more than mere incubators of my joy. Only those who are real can pay such a price. I love and appreciate these mothers though one I have never met one and the other only once for a few minutes.
It is difficult for our language to accommodate the idea that children can have two real mothers. In the plainest use of language, it is contradictory. Two parallel lines can never intersect, something we’ve known since Euclid. In an Euclidean grammar, the lines are clearly drawn: there can be only one real mother, and the other must be the birth mother or the adoptive mother, depending on who claims the title of “real.”
There is a geometry besides Euclid’s, however, where these parallel lines do not exist. In elliptical geometry, all lines on a sphere eventually meet. I choose to use a grammar based on that, so I can say without hesitation that there can be two real mothers–the one who gave birth and the one who adopted.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.
But the Skin Horse only smiled.
(from The Velveteen Rabbit)