Why I Feel Deep Love And Empathy For My Daughter's Birth Mom

by Hannah Heath Johnson
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Hannah Heath Johnson

When this picture was taken, my daughter’s birth mother was feeling the first pains of labor. We were on a spring break trip, having a great time. It’s easy for me to believe that my daughter, Elliana’s, story started when my phone rang around midnight that Saturday night. But, the truth is, when my daughter was making her entrance into the world, I was sitting outside Ted Drewes on a chilly Saint Louis night, eating custard, completely unaware of her. She was a dream in my heart and a prayer on my lips, but another mother felt the pains of her arrival. Another mother labored.

I hear the phrase “real mom” sometimes when it comes to adoption, often in reference to the biological parents (“His real mom was allergic to nuts,” etc.), or sometimes in regard to adoptive parents, to affirm their permanence. (“You’re her real mom”). But, which is it? Who’s the real mother?

Here’s what I know: 11 months before Elliana was born, I gave birth to a child I only knew in the eight months I carried him and for a few hours in the delivery room. I didn’t get to bring him home from the hospital. I don’t get to watch him grow on this earth or tuck him in at night. But I felt every one of his movements; he knew the rise and fall of my voice and the rhythm of my heartbeat. I saw his precious face. I held him in my arms.

Courtesy of Hannah Heath Johnson

Am I any less his “real mom” because he’s not with me now?

I can answer that question unequivocally, completely, finally: my motherhood was real. It was viscerally, painfully, beautifully real. I was his mother. I am his mother. A moment will never come when I don’t know exactly how old my son would be, what new stage he would be entering. Right now, my eyes do not land on a toddler around 20 months old without my chest tightening, without a piercing ache in my spirit.

I have no doubt that Elliana will always be hovering in her birth mother’s heart and mind, that she will know, at any point in the future, how old Elliana is, what stage she is in, what she, herself, is missing. I know Elliana will never be any further away than her next breath. Her motherhood was real. So real.

But then, what about me? I’m the one who arrived when Elliana was 15 hours old. I’m the one who finagled all the wires hooked up to her so I could hold her skin to skin in the NICU. I’m the one who sang over her and prayed over her and held her tight and told her, even as I knew she was listening for a different voice, for the rhythm of a different heart –“Mama’s here.” I’m the one who set my alarm to feed her every three hours when she was a newborn, who obsessed over her every sound when she was sleeping. I’m the one she reaches for, the one who can make her giggle. (And I will admit, the first time I used a “nose Frida” on her, I did tell my husband, “Okay, I am the real mama now.”)

But, who is it? Who’s the real mom? Is it her birth mother? Is it me?

The answer, of course, is easy. Yes. She is. I am. We both are. Elliana’s birth mother carried her for 40 weeks. She felt her movements, she gave her life. She made a way for her, chose a future for her. Her motherhood was real.

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After my son, Duke Elliot, was born, I came home from the hospital with several brochures that helpfully reminded me, “Your body doesn’t know your baby died.” (Yeah, thanks. Roger that.) It takes my breath away to remember the shock and pain of the first weeks without him, as my heart broke and my spirit reeled and my body screamed for my baby. In our first days home with Elliana, my thoughts kept returning to her birth mother. I knew she was recovering from delivery without her baby in her arms, that her body was doing all the things mine did after Duke Elliot was born. The circumstances that separated us from our children were different, but the ache is the same.

My heart is linked to Elliana’s birth mother’s deeply, permanently. I have a running dialogue with her in my head, and the main refrain is simply: Do you see this baby? Do you see how happy she is, how much she is treasured? When Elliana hits new milestones, as her little personality continues to grow, some part of my heart is always calling out to her first mother: Do you see how much we love her? It’s almost ridiculous, really, how we make fools of ourselves over this baby girl. She has a veritable entourage. But do you, see, Mama, how happy she is? Look at her smile. Listen to her laugh. She is the happiest baby in the world.

In September, a court finalized Elliana’s adoption, and my husband and I were listed on her birth certificates as her legal parents. We are her forever family, the only home she will ever know. A judge said what my heart already knows: I am the real mother. But even so, I know, and will always know, that I’m not the only one.

There is another, who knew her first and loved her first, and some part of my heart is always calling out to this other mother.

Your baby is so loved. My baby is so loved. Our baby is so loved.

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