Motherhood always starts with a birth story.
Because no matter if you pull your baby out of a birthing pool with your own two hands, receive her from the arms of a social worker outside the hospital nursery, or pull him – screaming – from the arms of the orphanage worker who brought him halfway across the province and met you in a stuffy civil affairs room thick with the smell of stale smoke and fear, motherhood always starts in a monumental moment.
And you never feel ready. But in that monumental moment, a mother is born.
Cora came on a cold Beijing night. After waiting out part of my labor in a hot shower, we called our doctor and I couldn’t speak through the contractions so she told us to get to the hospital as fast as we could. Jacob and I loaded up in an old jeep, borrowed from a friend, with our nurse friend Joan. (It comforted me to think that if the baby came faster than we thought and I happened to have her on the side of a road somewhere between our village and Beijing, I’d be accompanied by a nurse.) Joan massaged my back as Jacob sped towards the hospital. 45 minutes and too many excruciating bumps to count later, we were there. The night passed in a blur of sleeplessness, monitors, and talk of heart-rates and meconium. After a few tense moments when they discussed an emergency C-section, and another few tense moments when I shouted at all the nurses to speak English instead of Chinese, Cora was born. “It’s a girl,” the doctor shouted. “What beautiful double eyelids,” the nurses murmured. “I’m so glad I’m not pregnant anymore,” I sighed.
And in that moment, our daughter was born. But to be perfectly honest, it isn’t when I feel like I fully became her mother.
That came later… weeks later, actually, when I was sore and bleeding from feeding her; when every two hours I would literally bite down on something to keep from crying out in pain. It came from the round-the-clock care of a newborn, and meeting the never-ending needs that I had no idea how to meet. From the tears and the frustration and the fears and the uncertainty and the utter exhaustion. Somehow, from all of that, I walked through and came out the other side beginning to really feel like her mama.
Alea came on a warm Zhengzhou morning. Bundled in a thick pink snowsuit and groggy from a just-awakened morning nap, the orphanage worker thrust her into my arms at the bidding of an agency representative. Alea’s expression was stoic and calm – shocked to her core, I’m sure. She didn’t make eye contact, but she grabbed onto my necklace and wouldn’t let go. When we weren’t looking at her, she’d steal glances at us. But the instant we turned our eyes towards her, she’d look back at my necklace. We signed papers and took pictures and stared at each other in shock. We couldn’t believe that just like that we had another daughter. The only person who seemed unfazed by it all was Cora, who just kept cooing “Hi Sissy” as if getting a new sibling on the first floor of a stuffy Chinese government building was the most normal thing in the world.
And in that moment, our daughter joined our family. But to be perfectly honest, it isn’t when I feel like I fully became her mother.
That came later… weeks later, actually, when her mouth was sore and festering with a terrible virus that covered every surface of her mouth with painful ulcers. I felt utterly ill-equipped to take care of her. I’m not sure how we stayed out of the hospital… she didn’t eat solid foods for 4 days, and she’d only suck down the bare minimum of liquid requirements in a bottle slathered with Orajel. She’d cry out inconsolably every 30-40 minutes around the clock; it was like having a newborn for whom you have no comfort tricks. She didn’t trust me, and it seemed like I was always coming at her with some sort of syringe filled with medicine that I quite literally had to shove down her throat. She’d gurgle and spit out her medicine, and I’d clamp her jaws shut like our pediatrician had shown me while she clawed to get out from under me. My arms bled from her razor-sharp fingernails, and I cried as I worried about all the damage I was unintentionally doing to our fledgling attachment. But somehow, from the tears and the frustration and the fears and the uncertainty and the utter exhaustion… somehow, from all of that, I walked through and came out the other side beginning to really feel like her mama. And though I feared it would have the opposite effect, improbably her illness seemed to help her understand I was her mama, too. She’d cling to me moments after she fought me off, and she wanted me more than anyone else for the first time in our journey together.
In the thick of those days, my good friend Anne wrote me a note and in it she said something that settled deep in my heart and hasn’t left it. She said, “Don’t lose hope! God is doing a deep healing right now… And he is taking you through the labor pains your heart needs, too. He is making you a family, and in his great plan that process always requires pain and all-in sacrifice.”
And maybe that’s why motherhood always starts with a birth story. It always starts with pain and suffering and agony and this nearly-consuming fear that screams out of your most primal places that “I can’t do this” even as you’re DOING IT. And it doesn’t matter how you come into motherhood. It may not be physical labor – to be honest, I’m finding the “labor” of bringing Alea into my heart is much more all-consuming, exhausting, and painful than it was for Cora. I had an epidural when I gave birth to Cora, but there is no epidural for the labor of an adoption.
A few weeks before we traveled to meet Alea, I saw this post on my friend Tara Livesay’s blog. She featured a quote from Brene Brown that stopped my cold. “Faith isn’t an epidural. It is a midwife who stands next to me saying, ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt.’”
Push, it’s supposed to hurt.
Making a family out of brokenness and tragedy isn’t for the faint of heart. It isn’t cute and pretty. It isn’t about what outfit the child is going to wear to their consulate appointment or when to get them their first haircut. Sure it can be beautiful in the midst of the pain, but it is supposed to hurt and you just keep pushing.
Some families come home with little ones who immediately need to be checked into hospitals for major cardiac surgeries. (And some of us wonder how they do it.) Some families come home with little ones who kick and claw and scream and fight to get away from them. (And some of us wonder how they do it.) Some families come home with little ones who get mouth viruses and won’t eat or drink. (I realize in the scheme of things, our little trial seems laughable.) Whatever the path our journeys take us on, one thing is a constant… Bringing a child into your family requires a lot of pushing through the pain; a lot of leaning into the pain and letting it do its work. It requires labor. It’s hard. It’s messy. It hurts like hell. You always think you can’t do it until you just do. (We are all capable of so much more than we think.) It hurts, you push and you push some more.
But after labor, a family is born.