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.[1] 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).[2] 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.[3]

oral-contraceptives-largeThe 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.

cc20fd8af082d7cd7404f4d041b79b04One 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.

download (1)Now my friends would call constantly asking if I was pregnant yet. “How is your womb?” my good friend would ask. “Empty,” I would reply. It all got very old and only ended when I divorced.

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.

download (2)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.

[1] Jennifer Gilmore, The Mothers (Scribner, 2013).
[2] Kathleen Silber, director of the Independent Adoption Center in Pleasant Hill, California, was one of the pioneers of open adoption. See, www.adoptionhelp.com
[3] One of the best books I read during the open adoption process was Kathleen Silber and Phyllis Speedlin, Dear Birthmother (Cornona Publishing, 1991).

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I spent years being told that men cannot be midwives because they don’t give birth, and that only biological mothers should be labor nurses. When I pointed out that my best preceptor in midwifery school was a man, and that I was a kick-ass labor nurse for ten years before that despite having had two sections without labor, the speakers usually stopped talking.

I never answered questions from patients about my births or pregnancies, because it wasn’t about me, it was about them. Their labor was the important one. Their birth was why we were both there. That distinction is one that escapes a lot of nurses, that nursing is not about us, it’s not about what we get from it, but it’s about the patients. It’s about these people who place their trust in us to make decisions and assessments. It’s why I don’t ever take care of people I know. I don’t have to have labored to know where to press on a laboring woman’s back. I don’t have to have had a vaginal birth to know how to repair a perineum. I don’t have to be my patients to delight with them in their transition to motherhood.

My wife is my children’s second mother. She could not be more so if she had carried either or both of them. But to everyone outside, she’s the interloper, the second best, the one they’ll take if they can’t get me. To our kids, she’s just their mom. I think it’s hard to feel that from the outside, when essentialist thinking is so pervasive in our culture. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

Alisa Frye

Sandra – well written! It makes me think of my younger years too. I was married at 19, and was ‘sure’ I didn’t want children. A co-worker once told me “It’s not a real marriage unless you have children”!. I could hardly believe she said that… What about all those married people who either choose not to, or for some reason can’t and never do have kids – I guess they’re all just faking it! As you know, we DID have kids after waiting 13 years! You were a wonderful friend through my pregnancy with Rachel, and a great nurse (who came to be with me even though you were getting married in the next couple days!) Not being a mother at that time didn’t affect your compassion or ability to be the exceptional person that you are. Miss & Love you!

Walter Sobchak


Walter Sobchak

Or to clarify, there seem to be some awfully smug, snippy people out there just itching to remind women that no matter what else they do, all that really matters is their uterus. And I think that if anyone told my wife that her ability to reproduce was affected by being “sinful” or having evil spirits, I might just put the boots to them.

Nora L Pratt

Very well written and is almost my life to a “T”… except for the “remarriage” and “adoption” – People can be so cruel.. I’ve always wondered about my regret of not adopting. This has relieved me in that I now know the cruel comments would not have subsided and I truly don’t know if I would have had the strength to push through them… too exhausted! We went through 20 years of trying… Surgeries, IVF – I just couldn’t…

It takes a wonderful woman, with a remarkable amount of courage to give their child over to another to raise them. And it takes and equally remarkable person (woman/man) to raise that child… and yes, they are the “Real Parent” here… You are a REAL mother… make no mistake.


What is it about motherhood that leads even many feminists into these essentialist definitions? Maybe it’s that we want to recognize the body work and intimate care involved in mothering a child, but pregnancy and nursing is hardly the end of all that! Maybe it’s that so many women give up so much to become mothers that they are unwilling to recognize other forms of mothering children beyond their own experience?

I love this post, and think you’ve said so much of what I’ve thought about this myself. I too heard that interview with Gilmore, and thought that it was fascinating.

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