C (at bedtime): Daddy, I don’t have a mother.
It’s here. Mother’s Day has happened every year since the twins were born, just as it happened in the years before. But, it is apparently a bigger deal in kindergarten than it was in preschool. The twins have been abuzz for weeks about all of the art that they have been preparing for their end-of-year open house, but that excitement has recently been eclipsed by preparations for Mother’s Day. They’ve been talking about Sunday all week. This will be their sixth Mother’s Day, but it will be the first with any real awareness. For the twins, that means an awareness that Mother’s Day is a bit more complicated for them because, of course, they don’t have a mother.
During our introduction to the surrogacy process, one of the center’s staff talked to us about some of the situations that we might face in building a family together, alternately framing it as raising kids in a home headed by “two dads” and as raising so-called “motherless” kids. Job One would be to talk to those closest to us to make sure that the people most important to the kids knew how to handle it. You know, prepare those people, if the subject comes up, to emphasize that families come in all shapes and sizes, that some kids have a mom and a dad, some have two moms, some have two dads, some moms and dads live with their kids, some live in a different house, some kids have a dad and a mom in one house and a mom and another dad in another house, some kids only have one parent, and some even, hopefully for only the shortest of times, have no parents, no mom, no dad, at all. Focus on the positive. “You, Cory and Fisher, are lucky to have two parents who love you and care for you. Dang, I want to be you! Lucky!” With a little forethought, the folks closest to us would be able to handle any questions without skipping a beat. No, it would be people just one or two steps further away that would probably prove more challenging.
I remember taking all of this in back then, but doing so more as an intellectual exercise, than as an emotional or real one. The apparent “motherless” nature of our family didn’t really hit me until one night, when the kids were about three, after they had gone to bed, I drove back to the office to get something that I had forgotten. On the way, I heard the tail end of an NPR interview with Rosanne Cash. She had released a CD called “The List” (recordings of songs selected from a list of country essentials given to her by her father) and a memoir called “Composed.” I sat in the parking lot to hear the interview to its end, at which point Teri Gross asked Cash to choose a final song to end the interview. Cash chose “Motherless Children.” It was haunting in any circumstance but particularly so that night, for me. Whether because of my mood or thoughts that day, I couldn’t get out of the car. “Father will do the best he can, but there’s so many things he don’t understand. Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone.”
Of course, that song is written about children born to a mother who later dies. Cash had been dealing with the deaths of her mother (and father). The song was certainly not written with Cory and Fisher, children born without a mother at all, in mind. But, it didn’t matter, at that moment, on that night. I felt incredibly sad sitting there in my car, both sad that Cory and Fisher would grow up without a mother and worried that at points in their lives as they grew up, they might feel sad about that themselves. I also worried that they wouldn’t tell me about any sadness that they might be feeling, out of fear that it might hurt me or Papa. And, by not telling us, they would deprive us, deprive me, of the opportunity to work it through. Whatever the issue is, even the nature of their family and their births, I wanted us, I want us, to be able to work it through, as best we can, together, whenever possible.
As I sat there while Cash sang the interview segment out, “motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone,” a message popped up on my phone, a simple message from a work colleague and good friend. “What are you doing?” I responded that I was sitting in the parking lot worrying about whether Cory and Fisher might miss having a mother and wondering how the circumstances of their births would play out between us over time. (Not the typical response that anyone gives to a “how’s it going” ping.) After a longish moment, she responded that I should get over it, that Cory and Fisher were the luckiest kids in the world, to have been born to two parents who had thought it all through beforehand, who had prepared so thoroughly to have them, and who loved them to pieces. I smiled. And snapped out of it. Some people don’t need to be sensitized to the issue to be sensible about it.
Nevertheless, I have been apprehensive (sometimes apprehensive, other times eager, to be honest) for the day when the “mother” issue would make its way into the twins’ awareness. And, that staff member back at the surrogacy center was right. The people one or two steps away would cause the first ripples. Mother’s Day is a bigger deal in kindergarten than it is in preschool. Or kindergartners are just that much more aware and curious and opinionated than are preschoolers.
C (in the dark at bedtime): Daddy, I don’t have a mother.
D: That’s right, Cory.
C: I have a Daddy and a Papa.
C (upbeat): So many people ask me all the time how I got born if I don’t have a mother.
D: They do?
C: Uh huh.
D: Who asks you?
C: Avish and Daisy. Bella and Vivek and Maria. And Dani.
D: What do you tell them when they ask you that?
C: I just say that my Daddy and my Papa wanted me to get born. So they made it happen.
D: That seems like a perfectly good answer. And, it’s very true.
C: But, Maria says that only girls can have a baby in their tummy.
D: Well, that’s true, too.
C: I told her that Papa and Daddy’s friend Amber helped them to get me born. But, she’s not my mother. She’s just a friend.
D (fighting the urge to give more information or argument or consideration than is really needed): That’s right.
C: And they just say that I can’t be alive if I don’t have a mother.
D: Well, Cory, are they right? (Pause.) Are you alive?
C: Uh huh.
D: So, they can’t be right, silly. You are alive, and you have two fathers. Daddy and Papa.
F (feeling Daddy’s neck in the dark): Daddy, are you wearing…oh, yah, there it is!
D: I love this necklace, Fisher. Thanks for giving it to me.
F: You’re welcome, Daddy. (Pause.) I made that necklace for you for er, eh, uh, Mother’s Day. You are my daddy, but I made that necklace for you.
D (hugging them both close): Thank you, Fisher.
C: Daddy, I’m making a heart lock for Mother’s Day. You could choose gold or silver, and I chose gold. And, you open it up so it has two hearts, and…
D (quietly, squeezing her): Shhhh! Cory, it sounds beautiful, but don’t give all the secrets away. You…
C: I am going to give that lock to Papa because Fisher gave his heart necklace to you.
D: That’s a great idea. I think Papa will really love it, but don’t give all the secrets away before you give it to him, okay?
C: Okay, Daddy.
D (singing a German song turned lullaby, returning the night back into every other night): Und wir rannten durch die Strassen…
My friend’s no-nonsense message snapped me out of that funk two years ago. Still, occasional misgivings and worries creep in. They are the expected things, similar to what I felt that night, have our kids been shortchanged in some way, that neither parent is female or carried them in her womb for nine months, will they think or feel or miss or…, will they not think or not feel or not be…
We can’t control every person, every kindergartner, with whom our kids interact. Some of those people will say insensitive things, either intentionally or without the slightest forethought. And, the twins will feel what they feel. So, whenever such questions creep in to my head, from whatever random direction (Rosanne Cash on NPR?), I’ve told myself: Michael, just do what comes naturally. Touch them incessantly, praise them appropriately, discipline them consistently, listen to them genuinely, love them fiercely, cuddle and kiss them repeatedly. You do all of that, and it’s all gonna be okay. Ain’t no thang. Deprived of something? Hell no. Luckiest kids alive. Now, get over it because…
…“mother” is also — is more importantly — a verb.