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“Motherless” Children

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.
D: Lucky!
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.

Pause.

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.

Long pause.

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.

In Mourning

Cory wakes up first, but Fisher’s the one in for a tough morning. She entertains Daddy while he scrambles morning eggs.

F (from the other room): Daddy, I need to go potty!
D: Okay, Fisher, take care of it.

Daddy makes the eggs, sets the table, and starts making the lunches. Cory is walking meticulously through her school worksheets, teaching them to a very, very attentive Daddy. Daddy sits down to help Cory with her eggs. (It is part of the current deal: if Daddy helps, Cory will eat her eggs without sassafras.)

D: Wait, where’s Fisher?
C: I don’t know.

Daddy gets up. The door to Daddy’s and Papa’s bedroom is closed. Daddy opens it to find Fisher sitting in the middle of the bed, his starred scarf wrapped about his head, his black blanket wrapped around his body, and a remote in each hand…bawling.

F (through heavy tears): Daddy, it isn’t there anymore!
D (moving toward him): What? Why are you crying, Fisher? What’s wrong?
F: Netflix isn’t there anymore!
D: What? Yes, it is.
F: No, it isn’t! See!
D (taking the AppleTV remote): Yes, it is, but Fisher, you aren’t supposed to be in here trying to watch TV during the week.
F (bawling): No, it isn’t there, Daddy, and now we can’t watch our favorite friends anymore!

Daddy confirms the boy’s discovery. Netflix has disappeared as an option. Fisher’s eventually gets control of his tears, but he wears his starred scarf and sad face all through the morning. “Now, we can’t watch Spiderman and his friends.” “And the Avengers are gone.” “And Ghostbusters.” “Daddy, we can only watch Disney now.” “Daddy, can you please fix it?” When Daddy picks them up from school, the first thing after “Hi, Daddy” from Fisher is “Daddy, did you fix the Netflix?”

There’s a commercial for Netflix in there, waiting to be shot…but the on-screen Daddy would probably have, um, fixed the TV to get the Netflix option back…

Sliding Through Life

D (at bedtime): Cory, what was your favorite part of the weekend?
C: I liked when Uncle Pierce and Uncle Jen and Auntie Ann-nuh and Auntie Glenn came over and just played with us on the trampoline, and Uncle Pierce drew pictures with us, and I liked when Papa’s friend let us pet a little chick, and…
D (letting the Jen-Glenn gender-bending slide): Okay, Cory, remember to pick just a couple of things…
F: That chick was such a little cutie!
C: …, and I liked playing tennis, and I liked when Papa let us have a cupcake, and…
D: Cory…
C (hurrying): …and I like whatever Daddy and Fisher like.
D: Thanks, Cory. Fisher, what was your favorite part of the weekend?
F: Um, I liked when Papa let us have that cupcake, and I liked petting that cutie little chick, and I liked…
D: Fisher, only a couple…
F: …and I liked sliding down the slide with Pierce and Laird because Pierce and Laird are my friends, and…
D: Fisher…
F: …Daddy, do you slide down the slide with your friends?
D (smiling): Well, no.
F: Why not?
D: Well, big people don’t slide down slides as much as kids do.
F: Why not?
D: Well, people get busy, and they think that they have too many other, more important things to do.
F: Oh. Like work?
D: Like work or…
F: Like looking at their phones?
D (smiling): Well, sometimes looking at their phones is work.
F: Oh. I think that you should just slide down the slide with your friends next time, Daddy. It’s so fun!
D: Okay, Fisher. So, my favorite part of…
F: No, wait! (Hurrying.) And, I like whatever Daddy and Cory like! Okay. Now, it’s your turn.
D: Glad you got that in, Fisher. So, my favorite part of the weekend was singing “Happy Birthday” to Papa because I think Papa liked hearing us sing that song for him.
F: I like that, too, Daddy!

Daddy and Fisher pause to let Cory chime in. All they hear is her deep breaths, in and out.

Once Bitten but Not Twice Shy

Daddy and the kids come home. The dogs bark in greeting and then (unsuccessfully) pressure for a treat before returning to their comfort zones. Five minutes pass before it dawns on Daddy that “the dogs” meant only Kohl and Quincy this time. Where’s Boston?

D: Boston Dog?
C: Daddy, I’ll find him.
F (trying to lower his voice): Boston Cheekbiter, come!
D/C/F: Boston! Boston? Boston!?
C (from their room): Daddy, I found him! He’s in my room. But, come! Look!
F (arriving before Daddy): Cory, what is that? Oh, oh, that’s the uh, er, eh…

Daddy arrives to find Boston cowering in the corner with a vent cover accidentally hooked to the rabies notice that dangles from his collar. What the…? He is panting, and his legs are shaking.

D (kneeling down): Guys, he must have fallen asleep on the vent and then his collar got caught on the cover!
F (puzzled): But, how did it get there?
D (taking his collar, and the vent cover with it, off): See, his bone-charm went through it and then got caught. He pulled that vent cover right up, guys.
D/C/F (petting a very relieved Boston): Poor Boston!

A couple of weeks later, the temperature in the house hits 85 degrees. The dogs are panting and drinking everything in sight, including all the water in the toilet bowls (blech!). On goes the AC to get it down to bearable before the kids come home. The top of any vent is transformed into heaven. Too enticing for even a once-bitten dog. And, he is not twice shy.

Sure, the first time a dog adds a vent cover to his collar, stopping to snap a picture’d be just wrong. He could’ve been sitting there for hours with legs shaking, tail tucked, ears flattened, mouth foaming. No, the fix definitely comes first.

But, on a second time? When he couldn’t have been like that for more than twenty minutes? And even the other dogs are laughing at him? Come on, capture the moment and then fix it, right?

Difficult and Forbidden

F (from the back seat): Emma took care of me when I was a baby.
D: Yes, she did. She took good care of you.
F: She took care of me when I was a baby in my crib. (Pause.) Daddy, guess which one I like better: my crib or my er, eh, uh bunk bed?
D: Ummmm, your bunk bed.
F: No, my crib!
D: Why?
F: Oh, I wanna have my crib back!
D: Why, Fisher? Cribs are nice, but they are for babies, and you aren’t a baby anymore.
F: Because then I can climb in and out of my crib.
D: Hello. You get to climb up to your bunk bed and back down every day. And it’s way higher.
F: No. There’s a ladder.
D: Right, you climb the ladder.
F: No. The ladder is just like walking. It’s not climbing, Daddy! I like to climb better than I like to walk.

Difficulty apparently required. Huh. Later that afternoon, Daddy pulls Fisher off as he scales the netting around the trampoline. Still later…

D: Fisher, which do you like better: climbing the netting on the trampoline or climbing a wall, like the one at Grandpa’s for Easter?
F: Um…climbing the netting on the trampoline.
D: You aren’t supposed to climb that netting, Fisher. It’s not safe. (Pause.) Besides, why do you like to climb it better than a whole big tall wall?
F (sly grin, wide eyes): Because I’m not sus-posed to.

Difficulty and the thrill of the forbidden apparently required. Can’t be long before he’s found on the roof…