Mother's Day III

Like many adoptive parents, not until I’d adopted a baby did I learn there’s such a thing as “Birthmother’s Day.” That day falls the day before Mother’s Day, the Saturday, and was designated a day to honor birthmothers. I learned about it through a friend of my mother’s, because she sent me an essay by a birthmother about it, along with a note saying she always acknowledged her children’s (twins) birthmother that day with a gift.

Saskia was still an infant at the time. We were very nearly paralyzed with fear because her birthfather had declared he planned to contest our adoption—and we’d heard nothing more since right after she was born. The legal deadline for him to do something was nearing. That period, it was like waiting for King Kong’s shoe to drop.

The whole notion of honoring the birthmother—birthmother itself a term many dispute; some favor first mother, or simply mother—made me cry. Everything made me cry that spring. Of course I wanted to honor Saskia’s birthmother, her first mother, her/our Caroline. I was—and remain—in awe of the trust she placed in us to raise her daughter, our daughter (and sister to three brothers). I don’t have adequate words for how it felt at times to hold that tender wee-bit, buttery soft-skinned baby and realize someone else allowed me to be holding her. That on some level, her presence in our lives is even more precious than the boys I gave birth to, it is the case, not in a more or less love for any one child way, but because the awe I feel is somehow endless, humbling, and almost beyond my grasp.

I was teary even though Mother’s Day has never been a deal in my household. Other than the preschool and early elementary years when teachers assure a sweet something comes home, nothing Mother’s Day-ish happens at my house (and to be clear, that’s absolutely fine by me). That said I’ve always sent cards to my mother, stepmother, and mother-in-law, just because. As sisters had babies, I sent them cards, too. For me, Mother’s Day only began to require thought when Saskia arrived and I had another mother to consider.

From the start—even having read about this Birthmother’s Day—I simply sent a gift and card to Caroline for Mother’s Day. Something about the distinction, this one-day line between birthmother and mother of the same child never sat right with me. I pushed that whole notion out of my mind, bought some nice chocolates and wrote on a pretty card and popped the package in the mail to Caroline.

Going into our third Mother’s Day season since Saskia’s birth, I notice that Caroline’s thinking more about Saskia just now, as happens around Christmas and Saskia’s birthday, too. Holidays are markers. Caroline called early this week and we made a time for a visit. The day I sent out cards to all the other mothers, I got a little gift to send Caroline along with her card. I have pretty much never felt more inadequate—lame, as they say—than sending Mother’s Day gifts to Saskia’s mother. There’s an irreconcilable set of imbalances: you gave us a baby, the best and most precious gift we’ll ever receive, and we send chocolate? Adding to my personal queasiness, when I mention having gotten a gift that morning for Caroline, people think I’m the nice one for sending her something.

Of Birthmother’s Day, some birthmothers experience that designation—that day before Mother’s Day—as a kind of ghetto, a day to mark the loss of the child, the loss of “real” motherhood. Much as I wish giving birth to any child could be considered at least a form of real motherhood, I see as I couldn’t have before the layers of potential complexity for those words to coexist—real, motherhood—seamlessly in adoption and how difficult, sometimes impossible, creating something that feels real for all is, too.


After the story of a Russian boy adopted and then sent back to Russia by the adoptive parents unable to care for him was in the news, this week, a couple filed a lawsuit against their adoption agency. The couple argued that the agency failed to disclose the extent of the boy’s health issues, and demanded compensation in order to care for him (he requires residential treatment, likely for his entire life). Particulars aside, stories like these are harrowing—and heartbreaking for all.

Many dynamics of international adoption seem very different from ours, especially on Mother’s Day or Birthmother’s Day, when the questions for adoptive mother and child might arise about a woman who matters so deeply and is at once completely unknown.

One thing that’s changed for me over the last two years is an increased tenderness about less visible mothers. I’m sure to be thinking about the children in my life whose paths to my world include international adoption on Mother’s Day. I’ll be thinking about those very distant mothers, whether known or unknown to their children’s American families. Not unlike the chocolates in the mail, my questions, my thanks, my concerns all fall short. So, I will sit with falling short. That’s what I’ll do.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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