Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Daughter's Other Mother

Many people, family and friends included, don’t understand the nature of the relationship we have chosen to enter into with the woman who brought our daughter into this world. And how could they? There aren’t words to describe it. The English language doesn’t quite have a word for the relationship between a biological mother and an adoptive parent. If the language doesn’t exist, how can others understand? And yet, just because the words don’t exist doesn’t mean the relationship doesn’t exist. Just because the words don’t exist doesn’t mean the relationship is not real.

Nikki gave birth to Maya. She cared for herself, her body and her baby for nine months during the pregnancy. She rushed Maya to the emergency room days before Christmas when Maya was just barely one month old, only to be told that her baby had a flu. She rushed her again to the ER the day before Christmas and, after being transported in a helicopter to the nearest large hospital, was made to understand that her baby would require multiple injections of insulin daily for the rest of her life. Maya was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was just a month old and Nikki was 19.

I know Type 1 diabetes. My son Trent was diagnosed when he was barely four years old and I was in my late thirties. I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of Type 1 diabetes; only the kind that my grandmother had: Type 2. She used to sneak sweets all the time and died of bone cancer in the end anyway. At first I assumed that Trent’s life would be like that: sneaking sweets that weren’t good for him. I didn’t understand that with Type 1 diabetes, because his pancreas produced no insulin at all to convert those candies into energy, he would have to inject insulin for the rest of his life. I didn’t understand at first that it wasn’t a mere misdemeanor to sneak sweets, but in fact could be a death sentence if the sugar in his blood remained above a certain level and damaged his organs. I was an “educated” lawyer and had never heard of Type 1 diabetes before Trent’s diagnosis. I was too numbed by the vast quantities of information I had to absorb to have any feelings at first. When I finally thawed out, I couldn’t believe that my beautiful, happy, innocent first-born would have to be injected by syringes with stinging insulin each and every day to stay alive.

I can’t imagine what Nikki must have thought or felt when her newborn baby girl was diagnosed with Type 1. We, in middle class society, have a tendency to think poorer people don’t have strong minds or capacity to feel subtle emotions, as though they are less than fully human. Like hapless, long-eared puppies. If I had not known Nikki so well, I might have thought she didn’t understand what was happening or that she didn’t feel the appropriate fear and sadness. But I know Nikki. She is very smart. And she loves her daughter keenly. She surely understood the severity of the diagnosis. And, from what I read in the disclosure files provided to me before the adoption (the social workers’ judgments aside), Nikki took on her new role as pancreas with aplomb. She pricked her infant daughter’s pudgy toes to draw blood sometimes more than six times a day to obtain a glucose reading. And she stuck the baby several times a day with a syringe to inject insulin and adjust the glucose levels. Moreover, she stuck the baby two more times each day with a whopping needle full of Luvenox to break down the blood clot that had swelled around where they inserted an IV into the baby’s leg in the helicopter. I have no doubt that, had diabetes not struck, Nikki would have been a loving and competent mother to her daughter, given a little support.

The visiting nurse assigned to Maya’s case did not understand how difficult diabetes is to manage. She mistook Nikki’s insecurity for bad attitude. And, as she hopped into her car driving from one home visit to another, she did not appreciate how much effort and precious money it took a 19 year old girl to bundle a baby and take several buses across town to get to doctor’s appointments. The only thing she understood was that, without proper care, Maya could die. She certainly didn’t want any baby dying on her watch. So she blamed Nikki for every mistake and for every high blood sugar number. Nikki never had a chance. She was reported to CPS for medical neglect and her daughter was taken from her.

I only had the verbal reports from the social workers at first: that Maya was near death and in a dangerous diabetic condition when they took her; that the mother did not understand how to care for her and was not competent. I would only really know the truth when I got to know Nikki and when, just prior to adoption, I read the files. When Maya was taken from her mother, her blood sugar was 232. Normal blood sugars are between 70 and 120, but a person with Type 1 diabetes sees 232 on the glucometer often. No matter how hard a person may try, he is never as good as a working pancreas. The social workers didn’t know that. I know that. My son has had Type 1 diabetes for more than 8 years. If they took him away from me every time his blood sugar was over 232, I would have lost him hundreds of times in the last 8 years.

Still, I can’t just give Maya back. I love her. So what do I do?

To start, I don’t deny that Nikki will always be Maya’s mother. She carried her in her womb. She gave birth to her. Most importantly, she loves her. Isn’t that the essence of what motherhood is? She is not merely a “birth” mother as the adoption industry would have you believe. She didn’t just give birth and then toss away all interest and concern like an old winter coat. She’s not just a “biological” mother, passing on pertinent biological traits and nothing more. Maya inherits not just her beauty from her mother. She has also inherited that hearty laugh and coy smile from Nikki. She has inherited her mother’s intelligence and her love of music, giving her the ability to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and her ABCs from start to finish in perfect pitch. Nor is Nikki merely Maya’s “first mother” as politically correct liberals would have it. She was not only Maya’s first mother; she remains her mother.

This is not to denigrate my role and relationship with Maya. I, too, am Maya’s mother. I am the Mommy she runs to when I walk in the front door. I am the Mommy she emulates when she types on the V-tech computer Nikki bought her for her second birthday. I am the Mommy she refers to when she says “Mommy hold Maya” as she cuddles alongside me in bed. And I am the Mommy she cries for when she is hurt. I am not just an “adoptive” mother like some wet nurse in an old fable. I can’t just give Maya back like an attitude I’ve chosen to try on for a while, as experimental teens are want to do. I am her mother. Maya recognizes that. And Nikki recognizes that. I have no need to prove it to anyone else.

The truth is this: Maya has two mothers. It would be easier if she didn’t. Certainly it would have been easier for Nikki not to ever have me enter her life. Still, I think she recognizes that I am better equipped at this time in our lives to parent Maya. Certainly it would be easier for me not to have to deal with Nikki. That is the most typical scenario for mothers (setting aside lesbian couples raising children and step-mothers). Certainly it would be easier for Maya not to have such a complex family life. But I hope it will make her more complete, more rich, more full. To Maya, I am her Mommy. Nikki is her Mama Nikki, her other mom. We as parents can love more than one child. I believe that Maya can also love two mothers.

So what is the difference between Nikki and me? What has Nikki lost? What do I gain? I am Maya’s parent. I get the privilege of parenting her on a daily basis. I get the privilege of watching her master her world daily. I get to watch her wander the living room singing in her high pitched voice. I get to see her try on her Mommy’s high heels and fall over laughing. I get to see her pick up the cell phone, flip it open and say “Hello? Can you hear me?” I get to hear her insist, “Maya do it!” as she takes away the glucometer and tries to place in it the tiny rectangular strip. I get the privilege of watching her in wonder as she remains perfectly still while I prick her finger with the lancet, squeeze it, and drip blood onto the testing strip.

It is only my relationship with Nikki that has no words to describe it. I have come to calling her and her family my “baby in-laws.” My relationship with Nikki was born of a legal event: my adoption of her daughter. Our families are forever tied to each other through Maya. I am committed to making our relationship work for the sake of our family in the same way that I am committed to making the relationship with my husband’s family work. Others may not understand it. It is hard to describe to someone not in a similar position. I have come to accept that outsiders cannot understand. And they have no incentive to understand. Nikki and I have come to terms with our relationship. Of course, we have an incentive to make things work. We are Maya’s mothers.


  1. michelle,this is beautiful!

  2. Michelle,
    I hope you keep a copy of this in a book for Maya (and for Nikki, too). What a wonderful gift to give her when she is old enough to question why she has two mothers when her friends have one.....she will understand how doubly blessed she is! :)

    Beth, who is slinking off to delete her poorly written blog in shame ;)

  3. this is beautiful...
    but then again you are a beautiful person.. inside and out..

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Michelle. Thank you for shining a light on all of the misunderstanding that can come from this diagnosis and these kinds of relationships.

  5. Awesome!! Well written.

    I can only imagine it takes just the right two mothers to make it work.

  6. The right two mothers, perhaps. And a lot of honesty and mutual respect and with the sole desire to do what's truly in the "best interests of the child," as we lawyers tend to say!

  7. I agree. It takes two honest and respectful mom's. And that's the right kind. :-)