I was 12 hours into labor when the nursing staff change of shift occurred. The induction process had been grueling with minimal progress. I vowed that I would show myself grace during this process and had been successful thus far. I listened intently as the nurses exchanged my medical information to one another at my bedside, often deferring to me for information. I obliged, content in feeling a part of the process.
“Do you know your blood type?” the nurse asked.
“Yes, B +.” I replied.
She turned back to her colleague and whispered, “Her blood type is B+, dad’s is O- and the real mom’s is O+.”
The real mom, the real mom, the real mom…it echoed.
The legitimacy of my motherhood being a question triggered shame deep in my bones. Outwardly, these women were preparing for the safety of both my son and I incase of an emergency (an act I surely don’t diminish). Unwittingly, they were exchanging what they believed to be a secret…one that I hadn’t asked them to keep.
The recognition that she wasn’t referring to me as the real mother took no time at all. It wasn’t the first time someone had made such a reference.
I wanted to disprove her claim, but the words to negate it were seemingly stuck. Holding them back felt like a fire boiling the tears behind my eyes, and simultaneously acted as a wall prohibiting them from escaping. It wasn’t shock that stopped the words from flowing. It was fear; fear that my speaking up would cause discomfort for a person who had zero ill- intent. Fear that I couldn’t get through the words, “But I am the real mom,” without melting into a puddle or having the next contraction. Fear that not only would I have to find the words to justify my realness, but that someday my son would be the one fielding this question. If I couldn’t answer it, how could I teach him to?
Two days after my greatest love was born, one of the obstetricians came to do her rounds. “So, did he get your dimples?” she asked. Having already had this conversation with her more than once, my vow to remain in grace was being tested. I anticipated these questions from strangers, but not from my medical team.
“No. I used an egg donor,” I said.
“Oh my gosh, I forgot again,” she replied. “You know…you could have just said ‘no.'”
There it was again. The insinuation our story should be a secret. The shame washed over me. Shame that was not mine to own. Our realness had triggered her discomfort. Her discomfort triggered my shame. I wanted out of this vicious cycle. By one-month postpartum, there had been three occasions in which someone had referred to our egg donor as the “real mom.” By that third time I was tired of not knowing how to respond. I reached out to a confidant who many times over was my saving grace in this process. She was a little over a month ahead of me in her “real mom/ egg donor recipient” status and validated that I was not alone. She had been practicing her response; bravely asking people how they defined the word “mother” in retort. It was a peaceful, raw and honest way of asking people to look at the question they were asking.
One question lingered in my mind, “What does it mean to be real?”
As a self-admitted lover of words, I am often torn by the importance of our language and the opposing danger of labels. Processing the legitimacy of parenthood for donor recipients and parents who have adopted their children is a very intense part of development into parenthood. The language we use to describe the varying parts of these processes is crucial. It is with this in mind that I decided to answer what it means for us to be real.
My realness as a mother is not defined by DNA, nor by labels created with strung together syllables. It is in the series of actions strung together with love. Real is in the heaviness beneath my eyes from very little sleep. Real is the scar permanently tattooed on my body from my baby’s birthday — the “realest” day of my life.
Real is housed in my worry as I listen to the cold that has taken up residence in his tiny chest. Real is the air underneath my feet as I rush to answer his cry. Real is tucked inside the notes of the lullabies I sing to him; the same ones my mother sang to me.
Real breathes with each forward and backward rock of the chair that lulls him softly into sleep. Real rouses life between us during our morning snuggles, and survives the space he closes as he burrows his head into my chest before reconciling into day.
My motherhood is not determined by the box checked defining his ancestry as different than mine. It will endure in our determination to provide that information to him when he desires it. His realness as my son is present in my persistence to do right by the choice we made to give him life.
Real is not in the absence of dimples on his beautiful chubby cheeks, but in the million kisses I have laid on them and the countless ones to come. Real is in the fear of the day someone asks him if I am his “real mom,” or who he looks more like, or the insinuation that our bond is anything other than real. Real is in being the first to hold his hand to forge connection with our egg donor, should he so choose. I will be his cheerleader, his fire starter and his biggest champion when that day comes.
So please pardon the woman who looks away briefly, takes a deep breath and fumbles over her words before sharing the sentiment, “No actually, she is the beauty and joy that came from a difficult adoption process,” or, “Yes, his eyes are the deepest blue I have ever seen, but no they come from a uniqueness not born from me.” It is not to shame, and it is certainly not meant to cause discomfort. It is however to ensure that the tiny ears and the wide-eyed child carefully watching soaks up every ounce of pride and unconditional acceptance their (very real) mama has for exactly who they are — and how they came to be.