When will I start feeling like my adopted sons’ mother?

Will my identity change when I sign the adoption papers? The day they come home? A month from now? Or will I always be just some nice woman who would die for these children but never quite feels entitled to be their mother?

Photo: Wendy Litner

I’m standing in Old Navy, trying to buy clothes for my sons. I met them for the first time last week. My husband and I arranged to see them at a park with their foster mother and three Children’s Aid workers, who instructed us not to approach the boys or talk to them. That didn’t stop me, though, from getting down on my knees right there in the wood chips and crying their names the moment I saw their faces.

In the few weeks since we’d been told about them, I hadn’t let myself imagine what the boys might look like. I was terrified that even picturing them was too real and would result in too much disappointment should another adoptive family be chosen. Seeing my hope crystallize as two very real children, playing together on a metal car structure, was emotional and awkward—I was torn between wanting to scoop them up and worrying about doing the wrong thing. By the end of our one-hour visit, however, my husband and I were chasing the boys and taking them down the slide, because they were very busy toddlers and we were going to be their parents. Eventually.

Just not yet. Not that day. On that day, we were just “a nice man and a nice woman” who happened to be at the park. Of course, nothing about that hour together just happened; it was the result of many years of pain, many rounds of failed fertility treatments, many visits with social workers, many home inspections, many police checks, many hours of adoption training and many piles of tedious, repetitive and intrusive paperwork.

I try to remember how tall the boys seemed that day as I hold up two different sizes of pants at the store, when a saleswoman approaches and asks, “What size is your son wearing now?”

I look at the size 2T and 3T pants in my hands and feel my cheeks flush with shame: I don’t know what sizes my sons are wearing. I feel the saleswoman looking at me, and I am certain she knows the truth: I am not really a mother, just someone pretending to be one. I open my mouth to speak but instead of answering, I drop the clothes and make a swift exit from the store.

It’s ridiculous that I would die for these boys, but I don’t know what size of pants they wear. I don’t know their favourite food, songs or TV shows. Do they watch TV? I don’t really know them at all. Sitting on the streetcar with tears in my eyes, I wonder when I will actually feel like their mother. Will my identity change when I sign the papers? The day they come home? A month from now? A year? Or will I always be just some nice woman who would die for these children but never quite feels entitled to be their mother?

Over the next few weeks, when we visit with the boys at their foster home, there are genuine flashes, a few heartbeats, where I feel like their mom. I wipe their noses with my bare hands, and that felt maternal, but then I’d catch myself—a proper mom would have had a tissue in the first place. After a few supervised visits, my husband and I are allowed to take the boys out in the community for a few hours. It’s just the four of us with no social workers present, like a normal family. I hold the boys, feel them nestle their heads so perfectly between my neck and shoulders, and I think: This, here, is motherhood. But then, of course, our time together would end—my husband and I would take them back to the foster home, leaving us childless again and facing a long drive home.

While battling infertility, I had thought the hardest part was the uncertainty—not knowing whether I would ever get the chance to mother. That anxiety, I soon realized, is nothing compared to the primal pain of dropping my children off at their foster home and kissing them goodbye. My boys lived with incredibly kind and generous people who have dedicated their lives to loving children, but I wanted to be the one to love them. I wanted to be the one to put on the bandages and change their diapers. We had missed so much time already, and I couldn’t bear the thought of missing one minute more. I’d also thought that once I became a mother, I’d no longer grieve the experience of being pregnant, but as I rock one of the boys to sleep during an overnight visit, what was once an amorphous grief becomes sharp and pointy. I don’t just wish I got to carry a baby, but these babies. My body aches to have carried these boys before they were born.

hallway filled with many little shoes lined up against the wallWhat it‘s like to foster 115 kids

My loss, while painful, is secondary to the loss experienced by my boys and their birth parents, and I become consumed by the grief of all the people involved in the four of us coming together. My husband and I completed 27 hours of mandatory adoption training, during which the instructor said that “adoption is a tragedy, but a necessary one.” I nodded along at the time, certain I understood. But I didn’t. I didn’t get it until I looked into the eyes of my boys’ dear foster mother, whom I came to love as much as they did. I saw in her eyes the fortitude it takes to wholeheartedly love and nurture children for uncertain bursts of time. I saw the grace it takes to kiss these much-loved children goodbye. My boys left their birth family and all the history that comes with one, and now they would be leaving their loving foster family. It was all just so much loss for two little boys.

Our kids came to us with a history we can’t know. I don’t know the beginning of their story. I know the bits and pieces that were recorded in a file by a social worker, but I wasn’t there for their first breaths, their first steps or their first words, or for the many other milestones that followed. I didn’t choose their names, and I don’t know if they have any significance. The part of their story I do know is not for me to tell. It belongs to the boys, who will choose if, when and with whom they would like to share it.

I think about this as my husband and I drive out to their foster home for the last time, to bring them home for good. My hands tremble in my lap and I fight back tears, not wanting to upset the boys when we see them. On the drive, we listen to the “transition day playlist” I prepared for the occasion, including Rilo Kiley’s “Science vs. Romance” (an homage to our failed fertility treatments) and Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” (an homage to my late mother, who loved dancing to this song). As I sing along, the story I will tell the boys catches in my throat. What I can share with them is my and my husband’s story, and how our four lives have now merged and set off on a new trajectory. I can tell them that almost two years ago to the day, when I was finding out our last round of in vitro fertilization didn’t work, when I was crying on the bathroom floor like a child, certain I’d never get to be a mother, my sons were being born.

Though it’s been two months since the boys came home, most evenings I turn to my husband in disbelief and inform him that there are children sleeping in a bedroom upstairs. It seems impossible. But then every morning my incredulity at becoming a mother meets with the demands of mothering. There are diapers to change and meals to cook and songs to sing and slides to slide and baths to draw and pyjamas to wrangle kids into. And every night, as we turn on the night light and look up at stars on the ceiling, there are wishes to be made: We kiss the tops of their heads and we send  out a thanks to all the people who tucked the boys in before we could.

Read more:
4 things I wish I’d known about foster parenting 
What you need to know about adoption in Canada

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