"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day.
When you're 9 years old and a girl, I suppose being an emotional wreck is to be expected.
Ah, hell. When you're 37 years old and a girl, I suppose being an emotional wreck is to be expected.
Sometimes, though, it's hard to know which 9-year-old wrecks are created by I Stubbed My Toe and That's a Great Excuse to Let Go of the Emotional Mess Smoldering Inside Me... and which wrecks are real.
Yeah, yeah, I've been a mama for a while now, so I know they're all real. But the real real ones are those that will haunt my daughter into adulthood. The ones that have serious potential for me, the mama, to Royally Screw It Up.
The other night, our 9-year-old daughter Aden missed her birth mom. Aden and our son, Ian, 11, share a birth mom, so it was a natural conversation for the three of us to have together, and soon, Ian was snuggled up, all ears. There I sat, on the ground in the hallway next to the piles and piles of dirty laundry with two kids missing their birth mom and asking questions.
I genuinely love moments like that. It's epically, gigantically important to me to talk to my kids about birth parents and adoption and forever families and love, and I'm grateful for every opportunity they give me.
But I almost Royally Screwed It Up. Especially when Ian kept asking about his "real mom."
Now, I don't always know where kids pick up their terminology, but I can tell you that we've never referred to our kids' birth moms as their "real" moms. Mostly because I don't want to be... what? The fake mom? The pretend mom? The long-term sub?
I'm the Real Mom. That's me. My title. Real Mom.
And she's the birth mom or the biological mom. I cherish her. I'm grateful to her. I cry for her and I honor her.
But I'm the Real Mom.
Every adoptive mom I know thinks about how she'll respond to "real momness." Whether the question comes from a stranger at the grocery store. "Are those kids your own?" "Why, yes. Yes, they are." Or from my child.
So, I felt very prepared for Ian's "real mom" reference. I could finally use the clever responses I've honed over the years! Hooray!
"Real mom? Real mom?" I said to Ian. "Who wiped your poopy bottom? Huh? Who works with you on homework? Who feeds you and kisses your owies and makes you bathe? Sorry, pal. I'm your real mom and you're stuck with me."
I smiled and winked. And Ian smiled back, because he understood. That kind of easy, breezy answer was just what he wanted. He needed to know that I am content and confident in my real momness, and that's what he got.
But Aden continued to cry. My light answer failed to soothe her. Because kids are different. They grow at different rates and they have different needs. My snappy, clever response was neither snappy nor clever when held to the light of her need to be heard. It didn't dry the tears or diminish her pain.
And that's when I realized that this mom, real or not, was too hasty.
I was too quick to talk about my own selfish need to be real. And too slow to listen to my daughter's real sense of loss.
Sometimes, I wish for a word that can describe the plummeting of my heart or the way my gut can turn itself upside down when I'm ashamed of myself. Other times, I'm glad there's no word for that.
I slowed down, and I shut up.
I listened to Aden talk about her hurt and her pain. Which everyone knows is not my best thing. I like to fix things quickly with rubber cement and paper clips and lighthearted quips, not lay them all out on the table to discuss.
As I listened, though, I reevaluated what I thought about being real and my selfish desire to grab that title for myself.
And then I told the truth as far and as best as I understood it in that moment, which is different than the one I've been reciting in my head all these years.
I told Aden the truth that all of us are real. And that there's room in the real pool for more than just one mama.
Your birth mom is your real mom, Aden. She grew you inside of her own flesh and she gave you the gift of life, which is something I couldn't do for you. Nothing will change that or take it away from you or her. That's real life. Her story will always be part of yours. And stories are things we get to keep forever.
And I'm your real mom, too, baby girl. I get to love you and parent you every day.
You know what else is real, Miss Aden? Holding the loss and love of your first real mom alongside the love you have for me, your real mom, in your heart. Because it's not an either/or. It's a both/and. Love and loss. Pain and joy.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real. When you are real, you don't mind being hurt.
Sending love today to my kids' other real moms,
Beth Woolsey is the writer and humorist behind the Five Kids Is A Lot of Kids blog. This article was originally published there. Beth is described by readers as "optimistic, authentic, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, [capturing] the mom experience with all its pathos and humor."
Quotes are from the beloved children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. Interestingly, the book's alternative title was How Toys Become Real. The artwork above is by the original Velveteen Rabbit illustrator, Sir William Nicholson.