I am a Real Mother
A few weeks ago I heard an interview between Terri Gross and Jennifer Gilmore on NPR discussing Gilmore’s new novel, The Mothers. The novel is based on Gilmore’s experience as she and her husband navigated an open, domestic adoption. After a series of incredibly cruel and emotionally abusive relationships with potential birth parents, Gilmore and her husband eventually adopted a son earlier this year. The interview was grueling. At one point, the interviewer asked Gilmore if she would recommend “open adoption” to anyone listening. Though Gilmore answered yes, it was not the unequivocal “yes” that I would give.
Open adoption is the standard in the US (and has been since it pioneered approximately 30 years ago in California). The degree of openness, however, is determined by those involved, or, in some cases, by an adoption lawyer, a facilitator, or state legislation. In my case, the degree of openness was determined by the adoptive parents (myself and my husband) and our daughter’s birth mother. We keep in touch with various members of our daughter’s birth family; we have visited and talk regularly on the phone. I would most definitely recommend open adoption to anyone considering this road to parenthood.
The interview with Gilmore got me thinking about my own journey to parenthood: the infertility investigations and treatments; the failed pregnancies; the disappointments; the fears; and finally, the joy of holding my daughter. And then I started thinking about all the reproductive comments I had received since I married at twenty. Two months before the wedding, I went to the doctor to ask for contraceptive advice. I was told that “the pill” was the way to go. After I was examined, I was given a clean bill of health and a packet of pills. After two months and shortly before my wedding day, I decided the pill gave me blinding headaches and asked the doctor for a different pill. I tried two other versions and experienced serious side effects with them too. I then asked the doctor for a different form of contraceptive. He explained that there was nothing better. When I refused to try yet another pill, he sent me away with the comment that he would see me in three months—either pregnant or asking to go back on the pill. He was wrong. I never returned.
Someone told me about the “safe period” and so I tried mapping out my particular “safe” times to have sex based on menstruation and basal temperatures. When I rotated to the obstetric portion of my nursing training, I suddenly realized that for years I had been having sex during the most fertile time of my cycle. We began using condoms.
At that time in Britain, my childlessness was considered quite an anomaly. Friends occasionally commented that childless women were basically too selfish to have children. My brother, father of three, told me that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the self-sacrifice required to be a parent. Others suggested I would never be fulfilled as a woman because I had never experienced motherhood. Interestingly, no one commented that my husband was an “unfulfilled man” because he was not a father.
One good friend told me that no matter how proficient I was as a midwife I could never truly help the women I took care of because I had never gone through pregnancy, labor and delivery. When I explained that I had never experienced a heart attack and yet could take care of and understand the symptoms of someone who had, my friend (recently delivered of her second baby) replied “it’s not the same. Motherhood is about becoming a real woman by bringing life into the world; a heart attack is about almost dying.” Others tried leaving their babies with me to see if somehow that might help develop some kind of “maternal” feeling that would generate a desire for pregnancy and motherhood.
The truth was I did want to become a mother, just not right away. Nevertheless, I was told by two different men that I had a problem. The first young man, a student at a local Bible college where my husband taught, told me I had a “spirit of infertility” because of sin. I needed to repent. Another slightly older Pentecostal minister visiting my mother offered to pray for me and “cast out the evil spirit that was preventing pregnancy.” Again, my body seemed to be the focus of attention. No one suggested my husband might have a “low sperm count spirit,” or “a spirit of premature ejaculation,” or “a spirit of impotency.”
Indeed, the California medical community also seemed to think that my body was the problem. After thirteen years of marriage and several “suspected” pregnancies (I missed a period or started having breast changes), I finally went to an infertility specialist. I was examined, underwent exploratory surgery, and took fertility drugs. The doctor never asked to see my husband. “There’s nothing wrong,” was the conclusion.
Re-marriage started the ball rolling again and the clock ticking. I was thirty-nine. Colleagues at work suggested IVF; drinking Robitussin everyday (apparently someone claimed it “cured” infertility); buying a younger woman’s eggs; having sex every other day; more surgery, more medical investigations, more tests. No one mentioned adoption. Everyone assumed I wanted to experience the whole gamut of motherhood—pregnancy, labor, delivery, breast-feeding, weaning—everything to make me finally feel like a “real woman.” When a colleague at the Birth Center where I worked had an abortion for an unplanned pregnancy, other nurses were horrified that I was assigned to take care of her and apologized profusely for the pain I must feel. But I didn’t feel any pain. My desire to be a parent had nothing to do with any decision anyone else made about terminating or continuing a pregnancy. Another colleague– only thirty-three but facing premature menopause–tried IVF. We were all devastated when, at a cost of $25,000, it failed. We were ecstatic when the next round of IVF resulted in twins—it seemed just!
By this time I had returned to school to pursue a Ph.D. in history, and only worked weekends at the Birth Center. Unexpectedly, I was pregnant and elated. I had another early miscarriage and began to re-think parenthood. I was 43. A successful pregnancy was unlikely given my past history. I slowly began to realize that what I wanted most was to be a parent, and that I didn’t necessarily need to be pregnant. It took three more years to convince my husband that biological parenting was only a part of the experience—the early part. What really counted (for me) was the part after birth. Once we started the open adoption process, it took almost exactly 44 weeks (just 4 weeks longer than an average pregnancy) to become parents. Our daughter is everything I ever imagined. Parenting is the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done.
Yet the reproductive comments continue—“is she yours?” “Is she adopted?” “Where is she from?” “Are you her grandmother?” Or, “when you have your own baby, it’s really different.” Or, “having a baby is much harder than just adopting.” Perhaps the most common question comes from family members: “Do you still hear from her ‘real’ mother?” I honestly thought raising a child made me a real mother. Apparently not. For members of my family (and presumably everyone who looks at me and my daughter as unlikely to be biologically connected) I’m still not a “real” mother because I didn’t conceive, gestate and deliver my daughter.
Does that mean I’m just acting a role? Would I be a ‘real’ mother if I had chosen parenthood any other way? If I had bought another woman’s eggs and then fertilized them in a petri dish before implanting them in my uterus, would that have made me more of a ‘real’ mother? What if I had donated my eggs and, after fertilization, implanted them in another woman’s uterus? Would I be a ‘real’ mother then? Or would the surrogate be the ‘real’ mother?
Fortunately, the most important person in my life knows I’m her ‘real’ mother. My daughter knows she didn’t grow inside my body. My daughter knows she has a birth mother who chose me to be the real mother because she couldn’t. My daughter knows what her birth mother looks like; she knows the sound of her birth mother’s voice. But most of all, my daughter knows I’m her mother. This is open adoption—being open to talking about adoption as normal, being open to calling me a ‘real’ mother.
 Jennifer Gilmore, The Mothers (Scribner, 2013).
 Kathleen Silber, director of the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, California, was one of the pioneers of open adoption. See, http://www.adoptionhelp.com
 One of the best books I read during the open adoption process was Kathleen Silber and Phyllis Speedlin, Dear Birthmother (Cornona Publishing, 1991).