I am not a mother yet…or am I?

Mothers Day Series: Guest Post #1
Tonia is the author of two books of poetry, Beauty for Ashes and Some Bright Morning.  Her nonfiction is included also in the 2009 anthology, Idol Musings. Tonia was adopted by her dad as a toddler and has grown up to do respite care for friends who are foster parents.  She lives in Minnesota with her twin sister.

Mother’s Day has always been about celebrating my mother - who is amazing and strong - and who has overcome tremendous odds. My mother gives me compassion for teenagers who make mistakes. My mother reminds me daily that we are not defined by our circumstances, but by how we choose to react to them. My mother carried and delivered my twin sister and me at barely sixteen years old. She reminds me that no life - however unplanned - is an accident.

My parents have always been constants in my life. My mom has been here for me, from day one. My dad started dating my mom when they were teenagers. They married as soon as they were both of age, and my dad adopted both my twin sister and me. We were three years old. He was eighteen. I have vague memories of the adoption itself. Sitting in a big white room with a big brown desk. Listening to a man say my first name and my new last name. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t understand what was happening - or why - for years afterward, the courthouse in our hometown was a landmark we always recognized and called out when visiting. My sister and I didn’t officially know we were adopted until we were eleven years old. We always just assumed our dad was our dad. Essentially, he was.

It wasn’t always easy. There were difficult times, as there are in every family. However, even before I found out I was adopted, certain things had me feeling like an outsider. One instance when I was about seven years old sticks in my mind. My dad had asked me if I wanted to go fishing with him. Just me. My sister wasn’t a fan of fishing, and my two younger brothers were too little to come. I said yes. I was so excited. Then, at the last minute, Dad decided to bring my little brothers, too. I internalized that. I remember feeling that he must have brought my little brothers because he liked them more than he liked me. Because he would rather spend time with them, than with me. I know, today, that wasn’t the case at all. He likely needed to keep the little boys busy and figured they would like being outside. However, even at seven, I sensed there was something different about the way we related as father and daughter. At eleven, I felt my confused feelings were confirmed. That my dad must like my little brothers more than my sister and me, because they were biologically his, and we were not. It took until I was twenty, to realize the error in my thinking. To know that my father didn’t adopt us because he had to, but because he chose to.

Two years later, my sister and I began doing respite for family friends, who were foster parents. For the first time, I got an idea about what being a mother might really entail. We regularly stayed overnight - and occasionally - for a week at a time, while the parents had to travel out of state for family emergencies. We were responsible for four kids. Three biological sisters - ages eleven, eight and five - and two-year-old little boy. Anyone who has had experience with children who have been through trauma knows that trauma often manifests itself in heartbreaking ways in the girls’ behavior. We often felt frustrated and at loose ends when we dealt with the rages, the self-destructive behavior, and the inappropriateness. Our mother put things into perspective for us one night, when things were especially chaotic. Our mom, who has always been a picture of strength and steadfastness told us, with sympathy in her voice, “Well, remember, they’re just little girls.”

She was right, of course.

I worked at a summer camp in the coming years, and occasionally had girls in my cabin, who were in foster care, or were adopted. My heart went out the most to these kids. I loved all the kids, but the thirteen-year-old who spent much of her life in an orphanage overseas had a special place in my heart. She reacted swiftly and completely inappropriately to a comment by a younger girl - grabbing her physically. There were swift consequences. Afterward, I pulled her aside - this muscular girl - taller than I was - and told her to come and talk to me. She sat down with me and I asked her to explain what had happened. She did, and I let her know - clearly - that if someone was teasing her, she needed to tell an adult so that we could deal with it. Later in the week, this same girl calmly called my attention to something she didn’t like. Those moments made it all worthwhile.

Today, I’m thirty. I have no children of my own…but in a way…I am still a mother. Because these are all children that I’ve had the chance to mother - to love and nurture and protect. I’ve had the chance to teach them to be nice, kind people, which - according to my mother - is the most important thing about being a mother. There are necessary things. The making meals, the cleaning up, the doing laundry, and the disciplining. However, there are other moments. Moments when I’ve gotten to teach a five-year-old to hug gently. Moments when I’ve helped an eight-year-old figure out ways to cope with stress that didn’t involve harming herself. Moments that I’ve been able to sit down with a thirteen-year-old and hear her out, and explain that she can trust the adults in her world to handle when things go wrong.

The time invested is really what matters. It’s why today, we are still in touch with two of the girls we took care of years ago. Today, the oldest is a mother herself. The next oldest is a teenager, still trying to find her way. Yet she is still willing to reach out to us when she needs someone.

Mother’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on all of this, and so much more.

Today, I look forward to a new respite opportunity. I look forward to getting to know new kids - because though I am not a mother yet - I can be that person my mother has always been to me. A presence in their lives to remind them to be strong, to set the bar high, yet not to forget that they are just little kids. To try, above all else, to teach them to be kind to one another, because it is the most important thing. Someone to remind them that - no matter what the circumstances - they were meant to be in this world.