Sunday, June 14, 2009
What If She Wants To Go Live With Her Mother?
I never refer to Maya's mother as her birthmother or biological mother or first mother. In my eyes, Nikki is Maya's mother. Not exactly in the same way that I am Maya's mother. But her mother nonetheless. "Maya's other mother," I sometimes say. I worry that people will think I don't think of myself as Maya's mother. Which is far from true. I KNOW I am Maya's mother. And Maya knows that. And Nikki knows that. But I can't refer to Nikki as a "birthmother" because I don't refer to myself as an "adoptive mother." And I can't refer to her as a "first mother" because I don't refer to myself as Maya's second or third mother. (Maya had a foster mother before she came to me. One who loved Maya so dearly that she was able to move easily to our home and love us completely because she had known so much love in her life.) I know that this is unusual even in open adoptions. But I have nothing but great respect and awe for Maya's other mother. And I can't take away from her the title and honor of being Maya's mother. She has been through enough hurt in her life. I don't feel right stripping her of one of her greatest accomplishments. So, often, I will tell Maya to run and give her mother a big hug and a kiss when we arrive at her home. Or I ask Maya if she wants to talk to her Mommy on the phone. Maya always knows who I am talking about. She is not confused. I will sometimes refer to Nikki as "Mommy Nikki" or "Mama Nikki." Even though I don't refer to myself as "Mommy Michelle." Being one of two mothers does sometimes require clarification.
Nikki is very good about recognizing me as Maya's mother. When I once went to a family birthday party and an in-law introduced me to a distant relative as Maya's step mother, I told Nikki about it after the party. She was adamant that I should have put the woman straight right there and then and told her I am not a step mother, that I am Maya's mother. She also tells Maya that she has to go ask her mother if she wants to eat a treat. Nikki and I also laugh about when we are out in public and people see us together and try to figure out the relationships. We are hesitant to say we are both Maya's mother because we don't want to lead people to believe that we are a lesbian couple. Usually, we let them assume what they want to. Once, when we were at my green grocer, the checker (who knew me) asked, in reference to Maya, "She's your daughter, right?" I nodded proudly. Maya was in Nikki's arms. I set more fruit and vegetables on the counter. The checker rang them up and bagged them. Then she looked at Nikki quizzically, obviously recognizing that Maya looked very much like her. Raising her chin towards Nikki, she asked, "She's your daughter too?" I thought and quickly said yes, that Nikki was my daughter. It was much easier to make her believe that I was Nikki's mother than to explain everything as I unloaded my bananas and tomatoes on the counter. Nikki and I had a good laugh in the car.
People are very curious about Maya because she is a little darker than me. Her biological father is black and his family is from Cuba. Nikki is one quarter Japanese, one quarter white, one quarter black and one quarter Native American. Maya is absolutely gorgeous with ringlets of curls on her head and bright dark eyes that sparkle and a smile that steals your heart. The supermarket is a place where women chat and ask questions indiscriminately. "She has such curly hair. And yours is so straight. Does her father have curly hair?" "Yes, he has lots of curls," I respond. I know that the woman is really asking if my husband is black or if the baby is adopted. But since that is not what she asked, I answered truthfully. My husband, Maya's only father, does in fact have very curly hair. Curls so beautiful that when he was a child people would say, "What gorgeous curls and what a shame on a boy." Another woman had the nerve to ask if Maya was my grand daughter. When I said she was my daughter, she dug her hole even deeper. "How wonderful that God made it possible for you to have a child so late in life." Admittedly I was 47 and Maya was only 2. But I had often been told I looked much younger than my years because I never wore make-up. And there is nothing in my relationship with Maya that says grandmother. She calls me Mommy. And I reprimand her for touching the candy in the check-out lane. It is true that I am a couple of years older than Maya's biological grandmother. But still.
My own mother does not think it is the best idea for me to continue a relationship with Nikki and her family. But Tim and I knew they loved her dearly when Maya's great grandmother and grandmother gave me a photo album of all of Maya's ancestors and living relatives on her mother's side -- with name and address and relationship written on the back of each one of them. They made the album with the belief that they would never see Maya again. If I had taken Maya from them, this would have enabled her to find them one day. I also knew how much they loved her when her great grandmother gave me a gold locket that was hers to give Maya when she got older. They asked if they could send her cards and presents from time to time. They were honest with themselves in what must have been one of the most difficult decisions of their lives: They admitted that they felt incapable of raising a child with diabetes who would require insulin injections for the rest of her life. Tim and I realized we could not remove a baby from a family that loved her so much. So, after one of our initial meetings and discussing how we could go forward, I hugged Maya's grandmother -- her Mima -- and asked, "We can make this work, right? We can have Maya feel that we are one big family who love her, right?" And through her tears and tight hug, Mima agreed. My commitment to Nikki's family was that I would not take Maya from them. They trusted me. Almost two years later, we are one large family created through adoption.
So, despite my mother's concerns, I continue to maintain a relationship with Maya's family. My mother asks me, "What if she runs away to go live with her mother?" Given the economic disparities of our families, I tell my mother that I think Maya might like the comforts of our life better than the harshness of her mother's life. But it is my husband who has more thoughtful answer to that question. "What better place to run away than to her mother, where she is loved as much as she is here?" (He always has such a sensible approach to problems.) Still concerned, my mother wonders. "What if Maya rejects you and doesn't want any part of you when she grows up?" My only response to that, perhaps naively, is: "If that happens, then I haven't done too good a job, have I?" Lastly, my mother (and others) ask, "Aren't you afraid her mother will come and take Maya or try to kidnap her?" I think my best approach to prevent that is to give her as much contact with her daughter as she wants, I tell them. And to be as good to her as I am to my other family members. So that she has a relationship with me and will not want to hurt me. I know that it feels odd and discomforting to others in the abstract. One relative said that it crossed her mind, when she first met Nikki at Maya's second birthday party, that Nikki could just grab her and run. (She added that she quickly realized how silly that was when she got to know Nikki.)
Nikki and I have become close. I am not her mother. But I am, in some way, like an elder aunt or sister that she can talk to. She confides in me about her boyfriends. And I chide her when I think she needs to do something differently. And I press a $20 bill into her hand when she has no money on her, much as my elder brothers press money into my hand when they know things are tight in my family. I want her to know that Maya is in a family that cares for her well, so I keep her apprised of Maya's progress. And I send her photos, and paintings by Maya, and curls from her first haircut. But I don't mince words when Maya misbehaves or wears me out, pretending that it is all milk and honey. And I admit to my shortcomings readily. I hope that through being real with Nikki, with my faults and strengths, that she can see her way to having a good relationship with a man and raising children herself one day. And I hope that she knows she can come to me for help when she needs it; and that I will help if I am able to.
If Maya wants to go live with her mother some day, as long as it is not in anger towards me, I will have fostered the relationship between them that I hope for.