How My Adopted Son Is Discovering What 'Mother' Means

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Stacey Gagnon

He’s 4 years old, and he just had his first Mother’s Day.

I think I’m like most mothers. I’ve often worried that I’m not enough, that I don’t measure up, that I fall short often. Many a day, I’ve carried guilt packed with inadequacy, torn between work and home, career and family. I’ve bought the lie that I have fallen short in the motherhood arena.

Admittedly my cooking would never grace the pages of a cookbook. In fact, my children will write that their favorite meal cooked by their mother is called “Ramen Surprise.” This culinary delight would be most appreciated by those under the age of 18 and possibly any adults who have lost their sense of taste. I’ve been known to skip pages in a bedtime storybook, mainly because if I have to read Red Fish Blue Fish in its entirety more than twice a week, I start feeling a bit manic. I actually start to hear the words marching through my head and whispering to me during the day. It only becomes a problem when, in my job as a nurse, I say them out loud to my patients in a singsong voice:

I do not like this one so well.all he does is yell, yell, yell.I will not have this one about.when he comes in I put him out.This one is quiet as a mouse.I like to have him in the house.

There are many days that I realize I haven’t unpacked my children’s backpack for a couple of days, and this means I’m winging it. When I say “winging it,” it means I am counting on my children to remind me of field trips and crazy hair day. Mostly this does not work out so well, unless it’s crazy hair day and they go to school without their hair combed. I’ve also shamelessly thanked God they had school when it rained for the third day in a row. Yes, I’ve carried these inadequacies, and I’ve worried I fall so short. If I scroll through Facebook and Pinterest, I can’t help but compare, and with six children, I cannot keep up.

This year was Israel’s first Mother’s Day, and the magnitude of this was not lost on me. And lately I haven’t felt so inadequate. Israel is teaching me what a mother looks like. My son was labeled malformed at birth with legs that don’t work, but God created him with a heart that does—and it beats for me. I’m his center, and at the moment I wake him or walk in the door, his eyes light up and his arms reach for me. And I start to see how a mother is defined.

Through Israel, I have realized that being a mom is not a job of perfection or a destination to reach. He is slowly teaching me what a mother looks like. It’s truly a beautiful thing, because Israel has no basis for defining a mother. What does a mother look like to an orphan? What does she smell like, or feel like? How does a mother touch?

Stacey Gagnon

Israel sat for four years, and no one covered him when he was cold in his crib, kissed a boo-boo, or wiped a tear. And so he learned to be cold, tearless, and quiet. He learned to have no expectations of love or care. Israel did not smell home-baked cookies, mommy’s perfume, or outside air. The smell of the orphanage was antiseptic and old urine. His body was fear-laced sweat and hypervigilance. He was not allowed outside. His breath smelled of decaying teeth that were covered with a brown film. Food was liquid brought onto the unit in a tin cup delivered with efficiency and cleanliness. There were no special treats, birthday cakes, or popsicles on a summer day.

Stacey Gagnon

There was no silly, laughing mommy to chase him around the rooms, tickle his belly, or peek-a-boo. He learned that this world was a hard and cold place. Love was not free; favor was earned. Do you see how he has taught me that being a mother is simple? To Israel, I kiss his boo-boos, wipe his tears, and keep him warm. I’m the touch of a mother, and it’s gentle and loving.

I’m the eyes of a mother who watches for danger and protects him from hurts. I have a mother’s lips that smile and speak encouraging words when the climb seems too hard. I’m the mommy smell that is laundry soap and outside air. I own the mother’s heart that beats with love for a little boy. All of these are bestowed without earning favor, because a mother loves for who the child is, not who they will be. It’s not so hard, this mother’s love.

Stacey Gagnon

Because you’ve never had a mother, it does not mean that you cannot define what a mother is. Every night I tuck Israel into his bed, and it’s become the same routine. He pats his pillow and says, “Mommy, night, night?” And I lie beside him with his face close to mine. And then he always asks, “Israel’s mommy?” and his tiny fingers stroke my cheeks. And his questioning eyes bore into my soul. A question of security, a boy defining what a mother is. He wraps his arms around my neck, and I hold this tiny, 4-year-old boy close, and I smell the baby bath soap and the sweet scent of his breath.

I hear him ask again: “Israel’s mommy?” Yes, my beautiful boy, I’m Israel’s mommy, and I’m enough.

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