I had three mothers and I needed them all. I’m dedicating this Mother’s Day reflection to all you mamas out there who fill so many roles and wear so many hats in meeting your children’s needs — and you’re each just one mother! You are mistresses of the bob-and-weave, performing complex multi-tasking maneuvers to cover the many bases required of moms.
My three mothers divvied up the territory, though certainly not by design. It just sorta worked out that way.
Liz, My Birthmother
Throughout my childhood, I was matter-of-fact about the idea of having another mother out there somewhere. I remember fantasizing only once or twice that she was really one of my mother’s friends, someone I’d known all along. When my father asked me, soon after my mother died, if I wanted to find my birthmother, my interest blossomed from its dormancy.
Since mine was an independent, open adoption (one of the first ever), there was virtually no “search” required. My birthmother’s name was right there in the San Francisco white pages. I don’t really remember what Liz and I talked about during that first phone call. I was floating through an unreal place, and our mundane chit-chat felt surreal in juxtaposition. The bottom line was the setting of our blind date.
Liz spotted me immediately as I walked into the restaurant. She had brought me a gardenia. We hugged awkwardly, and then talked — a lot. The content of that conversation faded quickly from memory. It was beside the point. The point was to gaze at this woman and catch glimpses of my own face reflected back, not as in a mirror but ethereally, like through a lake, or through enchanted eyes. That was an incredible high, a genealogical fix that would overshadow the negative aspects of our relationship in subsequent years. It was the heady rush of connection that would keep me coming back.
She showed me pictures. When I looked at a snap of my birthfather it was the first time in my life I had ever seen my own features on someone else: the freckles, the orb cheeks, the sheer Scottishness. Then there came shots of my half-sister and -brother who’d come shortly after her marriage, which had come shortly after me. Alongside pictures of Ted and Liz (yes, she named her second daughter after herself) were pictures of me that Mom and Dad had sent her over the years.
Her story unspooled: she’d been dating my birthfather, had gotten pregnant, and marriage wasn’t on the menu. (He had recently left a marriage, and a son.) They weren’t teenagers — she was 21, he was 28. She moved in with him in Santa Barbara, but with no plans for the future. One day she poured out her story to a neighbor, who was named Marcy. Marcy happened to have a dear friend who was hoping to adopt, and could she tell her about Liz? Sure, why not.
Liz didn’t think much of it until Marcy showed up on her doorstep with Bee and her husband, Bob. They all hit it off, and soon made arrangements with a lawyer who was one of the pioneers of open adoption. Liz moved up to San Francisco, near Bee and Bob. Liz and Bee chatted, they shopped together for baby clothes, they had lunch at Blums. Liz came to feel that “I was carrying you for Bee and Bob.”
“After you were born, I held you once and you spit up on me, and I gave you back to Dr. Norris,” Liz told me during one of our first talks, “and that was that. I never did believe in ownership of children.”
Bee, My Adoptive Mother
For me, the modifier “adoptive” is unnecessary. When I say “mother” or “mom” I mean Bee. She was a dark-haired Canadian beauty who was bottle blonde for all the years I can remember her. Her gorgeous face bore the lines and weight of her struggles in life, to get out, to move up, to be more, to get more, and mostly in the sun.
She had married young to get away from home, and had a son, Brian, from that marriage. She left the marriage and the son when Brian was nine, and went to the Carribean with a girlfriend. It was in Jamaica that she met my future adoptive father, Robert, a wealthy Jewish corporate executive who was quite the uncatchable cad until he met Bee, who captivated him and landed him for good. Brian came to live with them when he was eleven, and I came along a year or so later.
Being adopted by Bee and Bob enrolled me in an interesting, if somewhat unconventional, childhood (which included becoming a championship waterskier, but that’s a different story!). Bee was a charismatic, energetic, powerfully attractive woman with exquisite taste in everything, and a keen business sense. Around the time of my adoption, at five days old, she was overseeing the construction of our custom home in Tiburon, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. On the heels of that project, she opened a crafts gallery called Many Hands. She wasn’t home much, but there was always some caring housekeeper around to attend to me and do the cooking.
I see myself, maybe six years old in my snappy pageboy haircut, and Mom in her silk capri pants, dancing the twist together by the wet bar in the living room. (It could be a scene lifted right out of an early season of Mad Men.) Oh, how I watched my mother so hard, tried to keep in step, tried to swivel my boyish hips the way Mom swiveled her curvy ones, grinding my little foot into the parquet floor — “It’s just like putting out a cigarette, Sweetface” — and shimmying my knobby shoulders back and forth in earnest concentration.
From a childhood of few memories, here’s another one that stands out as an emblem of our not-very-connected relationship:
“Mommy!?” I call into darkness that separates my room from hers.
“I don’t feel good,” I tell my mother when she finally arrives, so silky and smelling of exotic night creams.
“Well, come on in the bathroom,” she says, “and we’ll see what we can do. Is it your tummy?”
“Uh huh,” I answer, lying. All I want is to sleep in her bed. But I can’t bring myself to ask. (“Big five-year-old girls don’t sleep with their mums!”)
“Okay, well, come over here, sweetface, and we’ll see if we can’t make you feel better.”
She takes my hand and together we go over to the toilet and then my mother sticks her finger down my throat. When I don’t vomit, she gives me two St. Joseph’s aspirin, and sends me back to my own bed.
So many things took my mother away from me — her projects, her work, her social recreation. Was she escaping her own terror of a child and its needs? And was it her ancient absence, the days and nights of care by hired hands, that shaped my own strained experience of motherhood once my babies came along? I certainly did have a vague sense that underlying much of what I did as a mother was a mute flailing to be whatever my own mother was not.
This set me up into a bind, though, since I don’t remember a time when my attention wasn’t trained on my mother’s cues for exactly how to be. In the face of Mom’s inescapable will, any native impulse in me withered before budding. This was not a particularly malicious or even conscious act on my mother’s part but rather a simple consequence of her nature, in the same way a firestorm sucks oxygen from a building.
Had my mom not died when I was 21, I don’t think I would have felt freed to pursue the growth, healing, and acceptance with which I have been blessed. The paradox there is, I would so very much love to have a day with Bee now. Now I could appreciate her, and have the wherewithal to tell her why. She modeled grit and savvy for me, at a time when women’s lib was a novelty. She knew how to have fun. She sought out beauty and found pleasure in life. What a great grandmother she would have made for Ian and Eve. And what a great friend she might have been at this point in my life.
Edie, My Allomother
Edie is the one of my three mothers who wasn’t actually my mother. Nor a mother at all. And yet, the most maternal of all.
Around the time I was born, Edie followed her brother Robert’s lead and left the harsh winters of Chicago in favor of spectacular Marin County, California. She built her house right next door to Mom and Dad, and it was my safe haven. Edie was apparently the only one concerned about whether my home was a healthy place for a little girl to be growing up. Single and childless, she devoted herself to providing me what a little girl needed.
When all was mishegoss, as Edie would say, I always knew I could go next door to her place, where I had a room and my special things. She was always there for me, a constant presence, a predictable rock. Edie was usually outside, watering the dichondra or pruning the camelias or applying foul-smelling food to her grateful plants. She always wore her “uniform”—-a blue denim skirt and shirt with blue Keds and bobby socks. Her short wavy black hair never changed over the years, except for the steady march of grey. Her only make-up was pale loose powder and what looked to me like red greasepaint from a little tin pot. It performed double duty as rouge and lipstick, applied with her pinky finger.
Edie wove a comforting routine for me that I could enter whenever I wished by slipping through the bamboo trees and walking the stepping stones down the iceplant hillside to Edie’s House. Together we would drive to the post office, where I helped dial the combination on box 257, then walk across the street to the Embee, where Stan the butcher would give me three slices of salami just to see me smile, and then drive to the nursery where I would get bored while Edie perused the succulents. Then we would sometimes stop by Claire’s for ginger snaps, or Irma’s to sit and watch the fish in her little pond. It was solid, it was loving, it was just the kind of predictable rhythm I now instruct parents to provide for their young children.
I would nap on the living room sofa while Edie cooked for me, her sounds from the kitchen slipping into my unconscious to comfort me — the calming sounds of a tending person puttering, the clack-clack of a spoon against the smooth, shiny sides of a metal bowl. Small, careful movements made with extreme watchfulness, quiet out of respect for my sleep.
Edie taught me basic life skills that were tedious to teach a young child: how to pee in a public restroom without sitting down, how to cut my toenails straight across so they wouldn’t ingrow, how to properly eat an artichoke. The only one of her family who had had the audacity to wonder about the inner workings of heart, soul, and psyche — she’d even been through analysis, for God’s sake — Edie used to chant to me like a mantra, “Relationships are very complicated.”
Missing My Three Mothers
Mom died first, at 56, of ovarian cancer. I was 21. Edie died next, at the more reasonable age of 84, of metastatic breast cancer that she chose not to treat. I was 35, with 3-month-old Eve in the front-carrier for much of the time I spent tending to Edie’s final week at home with hospice.
Liz — in a sort of fitting circularity of completion, having been my first mother — was the last of my three mothers to die. Just three years ago this week. She was 78. And in her final weeks we shared an intimacy and authenticity that I hadn’t enjoyed with the others. This says as much, or more, about me as it does about them.
By the spring of Liz’ passing, I had done decades of painstaking (and sometimes painful) inner work and dedicated inquiry… delving into and making sense of… choking on and finally digesting… the “complicated relationships” I had had with my three mothers, and how they had shaped me. This enabled me to finally release my grievances of what I couldn’t get from them, and instead embrace the bounty of what I did.
Each of my three mothers offered me precious dimensions of themselves to the full extent of their capacities. There was a healing grace in stepping back to see how they’ve become woven into the conscious self-creation that is me — a grown woman, a mother myself, a self-actualized human.
A human who would give anything for the opportunity to give them all a Mother’s Day hug, kiss, and my heartfelt thanks.
About Marcy Axness
I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the
Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption
expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak on
prenatal, child and parent development and I have a private
practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans,
earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. As a gift to
Mothering readers I’m offering a unique 7-step parenting tool, a
“Quick-Start Guide to Shifting Your Child’s Perplexing, Stuck Behaviors.”