My younger daughter was baptized on Pentecost Sunday in 2008. It happened also to be Mother’s Day that Sunday. My mother, my father and my daughters’ godparents all came to town for the big event, as did my baby’s mother. That is to say, her first, natural, birth or biological mother -- the one who carried her six weeks shy of 40, then nearly died before an emergency c-section saved her -- came to town to celebrate the baptism and her own very first Mother’s Day.
We hired a hospitality student from the university to cater brunch. I wrote a special open adoption liturgy to be performed before the baptism. Grandparents and godparents brought gifts. The baby wore the christening gown my mother had made for her sister two years earlier.
It was all terribly lovely.
It was all lovely except for the unscripted piece, that is.
We were in the church when my rector turned to my partner and me and asked:
“Do you commit yourselves today to the first family of your child? Do you promise to support and uphold them in their endeavors, keeping them in your prayers and seeking their well being in all things?”
“We do,” we said.
He turned to our daughter’s mother and asked:
“Do you, commit yourself today to the adoptive family of your child? Do you promise to support and uphold them as they practice the daily work of parenting, keeping them in your prayers and seeking their well being in all things?”
“I do,” she declared firmly.
My daughter squirmed in my arms. The silk dress was slippery.
Then her mother, dry-eyed and calm only a moment before, let out a wail of the most primal pain I could have conjured in my worst nightmares.
My daughter took a nosedive towards the stone floor of the church. I barely caught her and held her tight in my left arm, while simultaneously thrusting out my right to catch her mother and hold her up, while she sobbed inconsolably.
“What the hell have I done?” I asked myself.
How could I have dragged this poor woman into this public place and asked her to say “I do” to giving her baby away to strangers? What an ass I was.
In a moment, things had quieted down, my daughter’s mother was in the arms of my own mother, the baby was baptized, presented to the congregation and the peace was passed.
I think every single member of my church hugged my daughter’s mother that morning, smiled and welcomed her to the parish.
Afterwards, at the brunch, gifts for the baby and gifts for the mothers were opened, bagels were schmeared with flavored cream cheese, and all was…lovely.
Later I pondered the whole to-do at the church. My daughter’s mother had apologized to me profusely for the “scene.” I had apologized profusely for the same. We both felt like we had messed up.
She had seen the “script” ahead of time and had said she wanted to be there. I had wanted her to feel 100% included in our family and the adoption to be not just about passing a child from one parent to others, but about becoming mothers together, sharing parenthood of a child we all loved with our whole hearts. We all had the best of intentions.
If that moment of break down in the church wasn’t exactly “lovely” here is what I have decided it was: absolutely theologically, spiritually and liturgically appropriate.
Religious-minded people often praise adoption as some kind of uncomplicated good thing. Conservatives are convinced it rescues babies from abortion. (This is highly debatable to say the very least.) Progressives often assume it rescues them from unliveably terrible lives elsewhere. But the fact is, whatever else adoption may be, it is always, always, about grief. It can also about great joy, but it is always, without exception, about grief.
I had wanted to ceremonialize the joy, the love, the moment of making a family across blood -- family with child and family with mother -- but what sneaked in was the other truth about adoption -- the truth that it is not a joy to a mother when she cannot raise her own child. And our daughter’s mother couldn’t and can’t raise her child alone. For reasons that are not mine to share, she simply could never be a mother independent of a great deal of help -- the kind of help adoption alone could offer her in her particular circumstances, in our particular society. But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter one whit whether she could or couldn’t do it herself. All that matters is that on a very real level -- open adoption or not -- she lost her baby the day she signed the adoption papers. And if she had not wailed primally about it before the baptism several months later, I am glad our family -- extended to the church congregation that day -- was able to give her a safe place to let that grief be heard.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Mother’s Day. It seems like too little too late, from a culture that really despises mothers and blames them for every ill in society. It seems like a slap in the face to women who find themselves unable to be mothers, women who are the “wrong” kind of mothers, women who are unrecognized as mothers while doing the work of mothers, women who have lost children tragically.
But Mother’s Day of 2008 will always be a sacred day in my memory. It was lovely, but it was also raw and painful. And that’s motherhood, isn’t it?
More from parenting