Because I'm the non-biological mother of a son with my ex-partner, and the non-biological mother of a daughter with my wife (thank you, Canada!), my kids have multiple parents and "spare" mothers. The "primary" mother -- as seen by society -- is an important designation. Believe me: Whether inadvertently, as we sort out our roles, or as a purposeful weapon, the role of primary mother is a powerful tool. But why does there have to be a primary mother? Answering this for myself required taking an honest look at my own experience of two mothers, one adoptive, one biological. What makes a mother "primary"? What makes a mother real?
I always knew I was adopted from Northern Ireland. My whole family is from there -- both my adoptive family and my biological family, actually. My adoptive parents told me, from a very young age, that I was special, and that they had "chosen" me out of all the other babies who were out there. Wow! From a football field of babies, they chose perfect me, red hair and all! I was the chosen one. And in the eyes of the law, I had one mother.
My adoptive family immigrated to the United States, and I grew up in the U.S., but my adoptive father traveled back to Northern Ireland frequently and, interestingly, kept tabs on my biological mother. My adoptive father knew when my biological mother married and remarried, when she had children, and even a bit about my biological father as well. (He was a redhead.) Thus, in the background of my adoptive life, I always knew a little about my other mother: She had me very young, at the same time that her own mother had another baby, and apparently there wasn't room for two (two babies or two mothers) in that house.
Whenever I thought about my other mother, my biological mother, I couldn't picture her face, but she was, of course, perfect: always loving, always happy, and eager to give me everything I wanted. As I scratched and clawed my way through adolescence with my adoptive mother, I always had a perfect daydream alternative. My adoptive mother was primary in experience and in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of my imagination, I made her into the other mother and reestablished the fantasy of my biological mother as the primary caretaker of my hopes and dreams.
As an adult I met and eventually developed a relationship my biological "other" mother, the woman I'd idealized who'd given birth to me. In her I met the many faces of myself that didn't quite match the mother who raised me. I met my biology, my temperament, and found a deep sense of cellular connectedness. But with this new experience of my biological mother, I didn't lose love for my adoptive mother. And as I matured past the storm of adolescence, I became closer with the mother who raised me. Now with two real and reasonable alternatives, the question was even more profound: Who was real? Who was primary?
I tried to consider them equal, but, honestly, sometimes equality in my heart felt disloyal, especially to my adoptive mother, who had put so much work into my care and was considerably older than my biological mother. Could they really share equal space?
And so began the difficult jockeying of trying to conceptualize the roles of, and build relationships with, four adults -- two mothers and two fathers -- though it was the relationships with these mothers who were responsible for me, literally and metaphorically, that were particularly difficult. Lord knows I didn't make it easy! The mother who raised me was my mom in both my everyday life and in society's eyes, and I never wanted her to feel threatened or less revered. But the mother who gave birth to me was my cellular refuge, and I could never discount the power and awe that her presence provided. In my heart and my head they always held unsteady positions, and rarely if ever were they equal.
Recently, my adoptive mother passed, and my other mother attended her funeral with me. My biological mother sat beside me and held my hand and comforted me as I grieved the loss of my dear adoptive mother. And she did so without jockeying, without judgment, with only compassion, loyalty and grace. And although I lost such an important part of me when my adoptive mother died, I also gained something critically important: the clear conceptualization, for the first time, of who is my mother. Only with one gone did the confusion inside me cease.
This is only my experience. I dearly hope that the confusion was only my experience as well. I hope, for the sake of my son and my daughter, that society and the psyche can learn to hold the idea of many mothers.