“If you had asked my 6-year-old self if I was ready to have and take care of a baby, I’d have answered with a resounding yes! The fun of making a baby was light-years away in my thought process, but the daily care of one was something I had fully planned out and was deeply confident I could handle. The place of my first little home was also planned out. It was nestled within the lilac bushes of our yard, and the clothes and bottles needed currently belonged to my favorite doll, Celina. I was sure of the fact she would happily share when my dreams became reality.
Being the youngest child, and the only girl, I prayed for a sibling and got excited when my parents briefly considered fostering, but that wasn’t in the cards for our family. And neither was another child. I traded in Celina for real babies when I reached an appropriate age for babysitting and in high school, I was even a nanny for triplet girls for a couple of years. None of those babies were mine, nor did we live in the lilac bush house, but each baby strengthened my desires and spurred on my dreams.
Fast forward to my early thirties, and I was as far off track from my 6-year-old-mom dreams as is humanly possible. No man on the horizon, working at a job I passionately hated, loving my nieces and nephews, and going home to an empty apartment – that, in an amazing act of coming full circle, was attached to the house I grew up in, and whose living room windows overlooked the lilac bush where my dreamt-of babies and I should have been thriving.
My heart yearned for the title of ‘mom,’ I knew I had the love to give, and I began to research adoption. Knowing my own limitations, fostering was not something I would consider as a single woman, and adoption became my plan. One of my older brothers went with me to the initial meeting with an adoption agency, and when asked, I gave a country I’d like to consider adopting from and gender of choice. I dreamed. I saved. I told a few safe friends.
I put myself through night school, left my hated job, and was loving my new life as a self-employed massage therapist. And then, my life took a very unexpected turn. I was given an opportunity to live in Costa Rica for over a year, loving on people in a small community outside of San Jose – introducing safe touch through massage, teaching English as a second language, and serving in a small church there. Without reservation, I spent the money I had saved for adopting to whole-heartedly invest in the people I’d been called to live with. And I hoped and prayed maybe I could stay there forever, marry and finally have a baby. Preferably one with beautiful dark skin. My friends would see pictures of the kids I hung out with daily, and tease me about not being able to move back home without a little one in tow.
It became clear God was calling me back to the States, and I moved back home to NH. Unsure of what life would look like, jobless, living in a bedroom of my pastor’s house, and though it had all been in jest, secretly heartbroken at the fact I hadn’t brought a baby back with me. I was in my mid-30’s, and it was not lost on me my biological clock had not stopped ticking.
At 35, I fell in love with a tall and handsome soldier, and at 36, I walked down the aisle to my husband, as ‘At Last’ by Etta James played over the loudspeakers. He stood at the front of a white tent in the open field next to the lilac bush I had made into my dream house at 6. I said, ‘I do’ to him. And to his tall and handsome 13-year-old son.
I was a mom at last.
And that’s when I learned the harsh reality of labels. And when the word ‘just’ became my nemesis. Not a real mom. ‘Just’ a step-mom. Even when I heard a public speaker use the word ‘s’mom’ to describe her own journey as a step-mom, because in her words, ‘just like a s’more, who doesn’t want more than one mom?’ It wasn’t lost on me I still wasn’t a real mom.
At 14, my giant of a stepson came to live with us full time. I did all the mom things I’d dreamed of — cooking for him, cleaning up after him, helping with Spanish homework, teaching him to drive, listening, giving advice, and loving him more deeply than he’ll ever know. I was the one who got to take him to get his license, pin a corsage on him for prom, and tell him his first girlfriend was dead to me when she broke his heart.
I also did a lot of other mom things I hadn’t dreamt of and wasn’t proud of… yelling, getting my feelings hurt, expecting more of him than was fair, wanting him to act his height instead of his age.
We’d have a good day, and I’d relax into thinking, ‘I’m finally a mom.’ We’d have a bad day, and I’d sob at my demotion back to ‘just a stepmom.’ My mom friends would assure me their bad days didn’t make them any less a mom, but my head and heart couldn’t hear that. All I’d let myself hear, again and again, was ‘just.’ It was different for them. They’d had their kids since conception. They shared their DNA. They weren’t ‘just a stepmom.’ They were real moms.
The doctors confirmed my husband and I wouldn’t be able to have children, and I had to let my dreams of carrying and birthing a baby go. Even though I’d heard the words and seen the tests, I’d be heartbroken each month when my body would confirm I hadn’t somehow miraculously conceived.
No longer scared of the things I had been as a single woman, I broached the subject of foster care, and after long conversations, fervent prayers and So Much Paperwork, my husband and I began the classes needed to get licensed. We turned our spare bedroom into a peaceful nursery and prayed over the future little ones who would someday sleep in our crib.
After a year and a half, we were licensed and then matched with our first placement about 6 weeks later. He was almost 15 months old but developmentally closer to 12 months. The first night, after changing him into pajamas, I rocked him while giving him a bottle. Tears streamed down my cheeks, as my heart realized the fulfillment of a 35-year-old dream. In that sacred moment, I. Was. His. Mama. He was my baby.
But by the next day, ‘just’ crept back into my head and heart’s vocabulary. Just a foster mom.
Every day of the 6 months we had him, I loved being his mom. But it was always with the caveat he wasn’t mine, biologically or permanently, and I was ‘just his foster mom.’
When he came to us, he didn’t know how to cuddle. He was rigid and visibly uncomfortable with physical touch. But every day I would rock him as he thrashed, quietly chanting, ‘Mamas snuggle their babies. Mamas cuddle their boys.’
Sometimes the pain and frustration of his constant fighting my gift of touch slightly changed the mantra’s tone, but it was always the same words.
This. Is. What. Mamas. Do.
And one day, months in, he quieted for a tiny moment as we rocked, and each day after that, those moments grew in length. He learned to snuggle for an entire song, and then to relax into me for six songs.
When he came, he hated having his hands touched, but as he got more comfortable with touch, he’d let me hold his hand, sometimes even reach for mine. And then came the day I got him out of his crib, and he laid his head on my shoulder and patted my back with his tiny hand.
I got a necklace with the word ‘believe’ on it right around the time he came to us. Each time I wore it, I’d pray for his forever mom. 3 weeks ago, I placed that beloved child into the arms of his forever mama and placed the necklace into her hand. I told her I’d prayed for her each time I wore it and asked if she’d let me pray for her right then. In the parking lot of our local mall, I wrapped my arms around the woman who was taking away a piece of my heart, and I prayed over her. Then I kissed his little face, sobbed my way back to our car, and drove away with a shredded heart. That night, we had an empty nursery, but she held a little boy who knew how to cuddle.
Have you heard the starfish story? Google it, and many results will come up. Genders and ages of the characters change in each retelling, but the story remains the same. My favorite version is about an old man out walking on the beach after a storm. He sees a young woman in the distance, who looks like she’s dancing, but as he gets closer he sees she is picking up stranded starfish and gently throwing them back into the ocean. He silently scoffs and then asks her why she’s even trying – there are just too many to save to make a difference. She picks up her next one and looks at the old man as she gently throws the starfish into the waves. ‘It made a difference for that one.’
As I continue on this mothering journey, I’ve decided I need to be done with the word ‘just.’ To ignore the way it dismisses how I am a mom to whatever children are sent my way, by putting ‘step’ or ‘foster’ in front of it. I’m claiming ‘Starfish Mom’ instead.
Here’s what I know about being a Starfish Mom:
They love, raise, cherish and give daily of themselves to their step-sons, knowing any Mother/Son dances at a future wedding, will rightfully be danced by another woman.
They feed, change and rock their foster babies – and teach them to snuggle, knowing future cuddles will be with another woman.
They have a complicated relationship with Mother’s Day, and when they lie awake late at night, they mourn the babies they dreamt of carrying in their empty wombs.
They worry about the children who sleep under their roof and readily claim ownership when bio/permanent moms aren’t present.
They make a conscious choice to be quiet at school meetings and doctor appointments so bio/permanent moms can speak first.
A Starfish Mom looks at her childhood dreams of being a mom, looks at her reality and how different it is, and opens up her heart anyway.
I am a Starfish Mom.
I proudly pick up pictures of the sons God has given me, and ask the world (along with my head and heart) to stop adding ‘just’ to titles – and I softly say, ‘I made a difference to that one.'”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lindsay Jones Hansen. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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