Published on July 26th, 2022 | by Allison Grace Myers1
Not My Newborn’s Mother
The first time I held my son, I was not yet his mother. I rocked him in my arms, but he was not mine. I was careful to avoid falling in love.
His mother had asked me and my husband to come to the hospital to meet her baby. Three days later, after signing the adoption paperwork, she would be considered his birth mom, or biological mom, or first mom. But in that moment, when she asked if I wanted to hold him, handing him to me over the rails of her hospital bed, she was simply his mom. I had no title at all.
I stared at his scrunched-up face, his fluttering eyelids, the pitch-black hair sitting on top of his head like a toupee. His tiny body was burrito-wrapped in the same blue-and-pink striped hospital blanket I had seen in so many friends’ birth announcements. What right did I have to hold this wondrous, just-born human in my arms?
None. I had no right. It was a gift, unearned.
I didn’t know if I would look back on this as the moment I met my son, or if it would become the memory of cradling someone else’s son in my arms—kissing his brand-new forehead, whispering congratulations, and then placing him back in the arms of his mother, never seeing either of them again.
It could have gone either way, and I didn’t let myself forget that. Even as I gazed into his perfect face, I was worried about overstepping any boundaries. When I felt myself veering toward love, toward terror, toward any visceral maternal emotion that I could not claim as my own—not yet—I yanked myself back.
Of course, not all mothers feel an immediate, all-consuming adoration as soon as their newborn is placed in their arms. For many, the memory of first meeting their baby is, like mine, complicated. But most mothers know what they are supposed to feel in that moment. Was it wrong for me to already love this child, who was not yet mine?
Was it wrong not to?
Our son’s mother had selected us as potential adoptive parents a few weeks prior. My husband and I met her in a conference room at the adoption agency—we all laughed nervously about how much it felt like an awkward Match.com date—and talked about her hopes for her child’s future, and for her own. Making an adoption plan was an incredibly difficult and grief-filled decision, but she had spent months thinking through her options, and she truly felt it was the choice she wanted to make.
In Texas, a mother cannot place a child for adoption until at least 48 hours after birth. The social worker kept reminding us—the expectant mother, my husband, and myself—that her plan was hypothetical. Until and unless she decided to sign the relinquishment papers, she had absolutely every right to change her mind.
His mother requested that we stay in the hospital until she made her decision. She wanted to spend most of that time alone with her baby, but whenever she needed a break, she wanted him to be with us instead of sending him to the nursery. The hospital staff offered us an empty room on the maternity ward.
We camped out there—an absurdist staycation—answering emails from anxious family members, notifying our jobs that we may (or may not) be taking parental leave, watching re-runs of The Office on the television mounted to the wall.
Nurses starting a new shift would enter our room to check on their “patient” and would startle at the sight of us: two fully clothed adults working on their laptops, no postpartum mother in bed, no baby in sight.
For an hour or two at a time—whenever his mother requested that a nurse bring the baby to our room—we started getting to know him. We discovered the rhythm he liked to be rocked, learned the angle he liked his bottle held, memorized the shape of the birthmark that bloomed in the space between his eyes.
When he was not in my arms, I did not allow myself to admit how my body ached for him.
It was not my place, I told myself, to wish I could hold him forever.
The Saturday morning that we became parents, my husband and I were walking to brunch. Our social worker had suggested it: get some fresh air, relieve some tension, get yourselves something to eat. The only restaurant we could find in walking distance from the hospital was a popular brunch spot without tables available. We sat at the bar, ordered pancakes and coffee, attempted to make small talk with the waitress.
When she casually asked about our weekend plans, I had to restrain myself from bursting into tears.
“Not sure yet,” I said. An hour later, the social worker entered the hospital room where we were waiting, carrying the baby in her arms. His mother had signed the paperwork placing him for adoption. He would become our son.
All the emotion I’d been suppressing erupted. I had fantasized about this moment for three years; I had been holding my breath for three days. I cried, finally, but the tears were complicated. My joy was anchored by grief.
This happiest moment of my life was only possible because, down the hall, another mother was experiencing the greatest sorrow of hers. I cried for all that his mother was losing in that moment, as we were gaining so much. And I cried for what this child in my arms was losing, too.
My son, as he grows older, will likely feel conflicted about the way he entered our family. He might sometimes think of being adopted with sadness or anger or even regret. And that is okay, I tell myself. That is as it should be.
As someone who was raised by my biological family, I will never know what it feels like to be adopted. But I can certainly understand that tangled mix of gratitude and grief, fully intertwined.
My son is a year old now, no longer a baby, not quite a toddler. He demands to know the word for everything. All day long, he points and says, “This.” Butterfly, I say.
This. This? This!
A dead cricket. Clouds. Your puppy dog.
I know it’s an important stage of development—naming what we see, putting words to the mystery surrounding us. But sometimes I wonder if I am wrong to state so definitively what things are.
Maybe I am misinterpreting his “this” as a question in need of an answer. Maybe I should accept it as a declaration, a celebration.
I think of myself standing next to that hospital bed, cradling his blanket-wrapped body in my arms, staring at the tiny nose and tiny ears, the impossibly thick black helmet of hair, the impossibly perfect face. Was that my son? Was I his mother? Who were we to each other? Sometimes, I catch myself trying to revise this moment, inject it with more magic, as if I could feel my soul expanding—as if I gazed into his face and just knew he was mine. But, no.
He is my son, now and forever, and he is also the son of the mother who gave birth to him, who gave him life, who loves him fiercely still.
Both are true at the same time. But only one was true in that moment.
Holding him for the first time, there were no words to define who we were to each other, no definition of my role, no name for that strange, heartbreaking, beautiful experience. This. This. This. Just stare in wonder. Just hold him in appreciation. Just let him be, whoever he is, whoever he will become.