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Actually, you don’t have to give birth to be a mother

When people hear that my mom died of cancer, they’re quick to bless my heart while flashing me awkward smiles that I assume are meant to be encouraging. They say things like, “Oh, you poor thing” and “You’re going to be OK,” but what they don’t understand is that all I hear amid their sympathetic babble is “I feel sorry for you.”

But why? Why do people assume that I’m a lost puppy that’s been left to fend for herself? Losing my mom sucked, obviously, but I’m OK. I’m more than OK because despite losing the person that gave me life, I had a line of people standing behind me ready to pick up the pieces and glue them back together. Where my mom left off, the rest of my family picked up. And not just family — people with no legal or biological ties to me whatsoever have stepped up in ways that I can’t even begin to explain.

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In fact, while shopping for Mother’s Day cards this year, I made a list of everyone that I needed to thank, but the list got so long that my card budget burst at its seams. My dad and I always celebrate Mr. Mother’s Day, but he’s not the only one that deserves my accolades…

I’ve got my grandma to thank for loving me without fail, for letting me move in with her while I finished my degree and for packing the perfect lunch for me throughout my last year of college, despite my crappy attitude.

I’ve got my best friend’s parents to thank for letting me constantly raid their pantry and sleep over every weekend and for treating me like an extension of their own family ever since the day we met.

I’ve got my “stepmom” to thank for being in my cheering section for years when I played sports and for being my kids’ grandma even though she has no legal or biological relationship to us and isn’t actually my stepmom at all.

Then there are my aunts, coaches, teachers, coworkers and so many other people in my life that have mothered me in some way — so many people who deserve the recognition and the gratitude that every mother merits.

Along the way, these people have redefined what being a mother means to me.

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A mother is a person that puts another person’s needs above her own, a person that picks you up when you’d rather just sulk, and a person that pushes you and prays for you and hurts for you. A mother has a soft heart and a strong will, and a mother is a person that loves you at your most unlovable.

For me, a mother was my dad trying to learn how to do his daughter’s hair. It was my high school best friend’s mom who took me prom dress shopping because she knew that my single dad might not know how to navigate through formal wear. It was my aunts who live out of state and offered to foot the bill for an expensive flight just so we could spend some time together. And it was my best friend on the phone with me talking me through my labor at 2 a.m. because I had no idea what was happening to my body.

A mother can be a stepmom and an adoptive mom and a foster mom. But she can also be that family friend who has helped to support you for so long that you forgot you aren’t actually related.

Being a mother is about so much more than growing a baby for nine months — it’s about unconditional love and support, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. It’s about encouragement and honesty and selflessness.

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There are a million different ways to be a mother, but not all of them begin with giving birth. So please, don’t pity me when you think about the fact that I’ve lost my mother, because I’ve got a roster full of people who have all — at one point or another — been the best mothers that a girl could ever hope for.

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