It was Saturday afternoon, and I was driving to a baby shower. I had taken the girls to the mall the night before to find dresses for the homecoming dance. They each had a friend with them, and by the time we bought the dresses, bought smoothies for them and their friends at the mall, stopped at a high school basketball game that their friend was playing at, and then went through McDonald’s drive thru on the way home, I was just thinking about all the aspects of this season of life. I was angry at myself for saying yes when the girls asked for smoothies…why didn’t I say no? I could have said no. It was $16 to buy four smoothies, and not that that’s huge, but I had already spent enough money on things this week.
Anyway, I dropped the girls’ friend off at her house, and then decided to stop at CVS to buy a card for the baby shower. Like almost every other wedding or baby shower I had been invited to that year, I did not make time to buy a gift in advance. I used to do that. I used to make every single wedding and shower that I was invited to. But now I only made a few of them, and now I just get a card and give cash. It’s like figuring out someone’s registry and making a decision about which gift to buy might push me over the edge of my emotions (how is that even true? But it totally is). So this whole year, I’ve just given cards and money.
I walked to the card section in CVS and picked up a few baby shower cards…cards that were in a section called “For the mother-to-be.” I paused. I stood there and stared at those words: “For the mother-to-be.” Even though I had bought cards for a handful of other baby showers that year, on this day, it felt like a slap in the face. For the first time, I felt the loss that I never had the regular transition into motherhood. I wasn’t grieving the fact that I was never pregnant. I grieved that I never had a clear milestone like a baby shower to help me know I was becoming a mom. No one gave me a card that said, “Congratulations! You’re a mom!”
The night the girls moved into my house, they were complaining to their case manager about having to change schools. I was sitting at my kitchen counter, trying to give them a little space. (Fourteen-year-old Gabby had made it clear that evening that she wasn’t happy about being pulled out of the home she was in to come to my home—a place she didn’t know.) But they were sitting together in the bedroom with the door open, and I could hear their conversation. The girls were telling the case manager that they didn’t want to go to a different school…what about their friends? What about all their stuff that was still in their lockers there? The case manager was tired. Nothing about this evening had gone smoothly. She sighed and said, “Come on, guys. You each have your own bedroom here. This isn’t going to be forever.”
I listened from the kitchen. Her words were This isn’t going to be forever. But that was my first day of motherhood. And I didn’t even know it.
We all thought it was going to be for only 3-6 months. We thought their mom would be able to take them back before the end of the year and that they would soon go to stay with another relative until then.
But three weeks after the girls arrived at my house, we were sitting together on a bench at a restaurant. Gabby told Anna and me that someone had texted her to let her know that their mom’s situation was going to be so much longer than we expected—years instead of months.
I looked at Gabby. She had been angry about some things at school earlier that day, but now her face was somber and still. The reality that she wouldn’t be able to live with her mom for a long time visibly weighed on her. I said, “Oh, honey, I could just cry for you.”
Anna looked at me and matter-of-factly explained, “The case manager said if this happened, then we’d have to be adopted.”
I don’t remember what we said after that. Probably the food came, and we went on with our dinner. All I remember is that at that point, only 3 weeks in, I still felt like their big sister instead of their mom.
I had never been a mom before. And I was only 13 years older than Gabby and 14 years older than Anna.
Old Letters & Photos
I got to the baby shower late, and when I slipped in the room, the ladies had begun praying for our friend and her baby that was due in a month. I’m not sure why, but it hit me there again, as we were praying, that I never had this. I mean, I certainly had several friends praying for me when I first got my foster parent license. I had so many friends who emailed me the first few weeks when the girls moved to my home. One friend bought the girls a hair dryer; another friend brought them t-shirts back from Florida. Another friend gave the girls a gift card to Bath and Body Works; one sent me a sweet card with $25 and another handed me a check for $200. A few of my friends took time out of their busy schedules to come to my house and eat dinner with us, to get to know the girls and to encourage me. My family members gave them generous gifts on their birthdays and Christmas.
It’s not that I didn’t have support.
But I never had a formal transition to being a mother. And I never had the pleasure of loving an infant who doesn’t talk back to you yet.
My heart was heavy from the back-talk and teenage attitudes. Gossip and drama and spilled nail polish on my carpet. Dishes in my sink and bath towels on the floor. Gatorade bottles in the car and missing homework assignments to make up. Arguments and slammed doors, yelling and tears.
A few weeks ago, their mom asked me to retrieve some boxes of the girls’ old photos and mementos so that I could keep them safe. It was important to me to save these photos from getting lost and to bring them to my house.
I went through the boxes and found letters and drawings the girls had made when they were about 7 or 8 years old. I just sat in my laundry room at 10PM reading them. Gabby got out of the shower and found me in there sitting on the floor, with those old papers in my lap. She saw that look on my face, the one I make when something is so precious, and I just don’t know how to handle it. The things the girls wrote in those letters to their mom were so sweet—lots and lots of I love you’s and hearts. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it’s so different from what naturally flows out of their hearts now as teenagers…it caught me off guard.
From the box, I also pulled out the photos from their childhood. I looked at their childish features, the expressions in their eyes, the way they hugged their mom so tightly. It’s a little window into their world that I didn’t get to be a part of.
Sometimes when we’re driving, we pass their old elementary school. And I just wish that I’d had the opportunity to know the girls then. But that would have been changing their journey, and I still believe that every piece of their life story is important—that God had reasons for it all.
Sometimes—at church or at Walmart or wherever—I’ll see a little girl about 4 years old who has thin, blonde hair, and is jumping around with tons of energy. It will pierce my heart to think that Gabby may have looked like that when she was little. Tears come to my eyes, and I almost can’t breathe. My heart is homesick that I never got to carry her around on my hip. Is homesick the right word? It’s just that in some moments, my heart longs for an opportunity that is no longer possible.
And whenever I see a Mexican toddler, a sweet girl with olive skin, dark hair, dark eyes and round cheeks, I think, That was my Anna. Anna was seriously the cutest baby ever. How is it even fair that I never had the chance to cuddle her and hear her toddler giggles?
The girls often get annoyed with me now when I try to kiss their cheeks or foreheads. But one day I got out my calculator and learned that they lived over 5,000 days without me. So I think that means I should be able to get in about 5,000 kisses for every day that I missed. However, they are not on board with this proposal! Lol
The truth is that I still struggle with feeling secure in my role as mom to Gabby and Anna. I won’t go into all the reasons behind that. But I want a million things for us… a million cuddles, a million memories, to have taught them a million lessons over their lifetime. I want to make up for the time I missed with them, but… of course, they just want to hang out with their friends (typical teenagers).
A few months ago, Gabby overheard me tell my friend that I may never want to have any more kids after this. Everything about teenagers these days is just difficult. I realized that when I said this, it hurt Gabby’s feelings. I tried to tell her that it’s not her fault that I feel this way; it’s just that everyone agrees that parenting teenagers is hard, and I’m overwhelmed by all the crud teenagers face in this generation. Another time I blurted out that the good thing about toddlers is that they love you so much and don’t have all the mood swings. (Toddlers will run to you to give you a hug; the only reason a teenager will run to you is to ask for cash.) Then I winced and realized maybe this sounded wrong too. So I told Gabby that even though I wished I had known her earlier in her life, I really like the life stage she’s in right now. It’s exciting to help her make decisions and be a part of preparing her for adulthood.
I remind myself that God has seen fit to give me THIS TIME of their lives for us to be together. May God give me the strength to keep my head above water, may He give Gabby and Anna the peace that passes understanding, and may He give all of us more love than we could ever imagine.
Mary is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building & Believing.
Mary works at Brookville Road Community Church, where she leads children's ministry and women's ministry. She is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building & Believing.