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.
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.
To be somebody’s mother means to perform every day a variety of small tasks – some maddening, some terrifying, and some just plain weird –in the service of a child. While my daughter’s final birth certificate does list my name, I attribute my role as Mom to events that have nothing to do with pregnancy or an official seal.
I’m thinking of the time Maia squirmed out of my husband’s arms and hit her head on the hardwood floor. Sick with fear, we rushed her to the emergency room, where she proceeded to high-five all the doctors and nurses until they told us to go home and chill out.
I’m thinking of the numerous potty-training debacles during camping and hiking trips last year – most notably those involving a luckless tide pool and, separately, a sand dune.
I’m thinking of the time Maia choked on a piece of tofu and turned a faint shade of blue until her daddy hung her upside down and the food flew out. Afterward, I clutched her to my chest, sobbing. Then I knew that this little girl was truly my daughter.
But did she see me as her mother, or did she – like the woman at the park – find our physical differences confusing?
We left the mother pushing her three little girls on the merry-go-round and walked home. I made Maia her favorite macaroni and cheese, then read Eastman’s book to her again in the green chair.
“Why is that big bird the little bird’s mother?” I asked my daughter after the final page.
Maia scrunched her eyes in thought. “She bring him a worm,” she concluded.
“And who is your mother?” I pressed on.
She snorted at my ignorance. “Who’s my mother?” she scoffed and pointed an indignant finger at my chest. “You are.”
I kissed her good night, secure in our bond. But I wondered about public perception. If other strangers questioned our relationship as openly as the woman at the park, how might that affect Maia? I had to concede that outside forces were mostly beyond my control – all I could do was commit over and over to my child.
The next week, I took her to the doctor’s office for a checkup and an elderly couple in the waiting room admired her.
“You’re a cutie,” the man said. “Where do you get that curly hair?”
He nudged his wife and smiled. “Oh, I see,” he said. “From your mommy.”
I glowed with happiness. Not because the man assumed or didn’t assume a genetic connection between Maia and me. No, I beamed because the man had referred to me as Mommy.