"Finding My Inner Mom"

For years, I felt ambivalence about becoming a parent, and worry that I wouldn’t be a “perfect” mother. In an open letter to my daughter, I look back on that moment of calm and utter clarity when we met.

An adoptive mother looks back on the moment she met her daughter

I didn’t really know I wanted to be a mom until I met you. Not until the aunties placed you in my arms and your chicken soup smell invaded my nostrils and every part of you was focused on me, on what came next. The office is filled with other families, edgy laughter, cooing and coaxing. Where we stand, in the middle of the chaos, it is peaceful. There are no shooting stars or gasps of wonder. Just a mom and dad and daughter, in the heart of Guangzhou, beginning our life as a family.

It took me a few decades to realize that I could step out of my comfort zone and become a parent, so I apologize for the delay. (But, as we like to say, if I hadn’t been a late bloomer, you wouldn’t be my daughter.) My college roommate had just sent her second child to our alma mater. Your dad and I had been together so long we finished each other’s sentences and actually enjoyed grocery shopping together. And your Grandma Betty, much to Dad’s chagrin, had taken to referring to our cats and dog as her grand-pets.

Oh, sure, I acted confident before we arrived at the White Swan on the Pearl River delta that warm November night. After years of diversity trainings, paperwork, and home study updates, I was prepared for anything. But deep down, I was a little scared. I wasn’t a naturally maternal person like most moms I knew. I didn’t list the names of my three to five future children in my seventh grade social studies Life Project assignment, like other girls in my class. I’d always thought being the perfect mom took a certain kind of person. Either you had to be really good at driving carpools and cooking three squares a day or smell super nice and have excellent sewing skills. Or you had to be extra smart and hire someone to do all that stuff for your family.

As I look down at your slender fingers peeking out from soft, yellow knit sleeves, I suddenly know that being a mother isn’t about other mothers. And it isn’t just about me. It’s about us. Real motherhood isn’t about making the perfect Halloween costume (well, we’ll have to discuss that in the future). It isn’t even making sure you have all your vegetable servings or clean sheets or regular baths (unless your feet are all Hobbity).

It’s about this bond that is forming right before my eyes as I carefully shift you to my hip. It’s how I feel about the times when I can’t be with you, like the first 13 months of your life. Or the day after we meet, when I return to the hotel breakfast table and find your dad smiling with pride as you munch on bacon and French toast after more than a year of only congee and rice formula. Or when Dad and I come home from a date and Grandma and Grandma Great smugly tell us how you took your first steps right here in the living room, from one set of hands to the other. And it’s that first time (and every time) you tearfully recount a playground injustice and my response will never be quite satisfactory, but hopefully the hug will help.

The truth is, I don’t want to be like those other moms, because you aren’t their daughter.

As we prepare to step into the elevator, you look from me to Dad and back. There’s wisdom in your gaze, like maybe you’re OK with not getting a textbook mom. Without a word, you say, “Good, you’re here. Let’s get started.”

SUZANNE O’BRIEN writes about the health benefits of spending time in nature and stories that celebrate life and its imperfections. Most recently, her work has been featured in Dreamers magazine and the REI Co-op Journal.

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