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Mother's Day: What does it take to be a 'real' mom?

I attribute my role as Mom to events that have nothing to do with pregnancy or an official seal on my adopted daughter’s birth certificate.

By Melissa Hart / May 7, 2010

Eugene, Ore.

I noticed the Hawaiian woman at the local playground right away – admired her gleaming black braids and her orange-plaid rubber boots that she had paired with a blue wool skirt. I admired the three little girls who cavorted in her wake with the same braids and high cheekbones. My own beautiful 3-year-old daughter attracted the other mom’s attention.

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She walked over to me as I pushed my child on the swing. “Where is her mother?” she asked.

My husband and I adopted Maia from the foster-care system two years ago, and I’ve grown used to people looking from our daughter to me and then to him as they attempt to figure out how two obvious WASPs managed to produce a gorgeous little Latina.

“I’m her mother,” I told the woman.

She frowned in confusion. “I mean her real mother.”

By “real,” I knew she meant the woman who had given birth to Maia and – unable to care for her – had relinquished her at birth. In the one photo we have of Maia’s biological mom, originally from Central America, I recognize my daughter’s high forehead, her snub nose, and adorable buckteeth.

In a maternal lineup, anyone could tell who shared my daughter’s genes and who was about as far from a Latina as a British-German mutt could get. Still, I narrowed my eyes at the woman on the playground.

“I’m her real mother,” I said.

She walked away smiling an apology, but the question continued to bother me. Every night, Maia and I crowd into our green easy chair to read her favorite book, P.D. Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” The plot’s simple – a mother bird flies off in search of an earthworm for her not-yet-hatched baby. When the youngster breaks out of his shell, he finds himself alone. He leaps out of the nest and walks off to search for his materfamilias.

“Are you my mother?”

Our feathered protagonist walks up to a hen who answers indignantly in the negative.

The baby propositions a cat, a dog, a cow, and a jumbo jet before a bulldozer scoops him up and returns him to the nest. Suddenly, an adult bird flies up; she’s identical to him, only larger and sporting a red kerchief.

“You are my mother!” the baby bird cries, and she puts her wing around him.

I loved this book, too, as a child, but now it reminds me of a DVD that my husband and I had to watch at least twice during our two-year adoption process. In it, a group of Latino, Asian, and African-American adopted teens sit around a room and talk with a sociologist about the difficulties of growing up in a household with Anglo parents who looked vastly different from them.

Previous to bringing Maia home, I’d sat in the adoption agency and sympathized with these young people who felt denied of their racial heritage by well-meaning but obtuse white parents. Now, I feel otherwise. My husband and I are committed to honoring Maia’s South American culture, and we’re planning a trip there next year. I’m teaching her Spanish. But parenting a child means more than sharing DNA or teaching her to fry plantains.