Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Bit of Mush: On Family

I'm adopted. To be clear, I was not orphaned, my parents did not give me up as a baby, nor am I now on an endless quest to find my real family. My birth mother died when I was seven, my father remarried, and my stepmom adopted me. The tale is slightly less linear than that progression, however, and I am about to bore you with its rendition. Read on, if you're in the mood for a bit of mush.

Eight years, seven months, and five days after my dad remarried, my stepmom adopted me. Give or take a couple days.

I had a mom, true, but by the time my stepmom stepped in, she was more conceptual than concrete. Plus, I had plenty of room in my heart and family for more mothers. To a younger me, there was no conservation of motherhood: each child gets one, and only one, mother; to get a new mother, you must forfeit your old one; that made no sense to me. What did make sense was that I had a mother, who could effectively no longer do her job, and now I had another mother. Not a replacement mother or a stand-in mother. An unequivocal mother. Someone there to mother me. Seems so simple. Nothing ever is that simple.

For the years between my parents' marriage and my adoption, I feared (quite rationally, considering my history), that something would happen to my father and my birth mother's family would take me away. I started calling my stepmom, "Mom," instead of [name redacted] somewhere in eighth grade. I don't remember the exact moment because for me it was such a natural progression. The truth of the matter is, I had never found "stepmom" to be a useful label to describe our situation. She wasn't an extra mom or separated from me by any "steps." She was, and is, "mom." I recognize that this mental exercise confuses people. We have several categories and labels in our society, all referents to the nuclear family. If you are not the nuclear family, you are something "other" and must be defined in relation to the nuclear family. Thus "mom" vs. "stepmom," "dad" vs. "step-dad," not to mention the endless permutations wrought by new family structures.

I was seventeen when I asked my mom to adopt me. We were in the car, driving back from shul (I had astonished my parents after my Bat Mitzvah by asking them to drive me to shul for services every Saturday morning), and I asked my mom, point blank, why she had never adopted me. A reconstruction:

Me: Mom, how come you never adopted me?
Mom: Um, well, uh... I always wanted to, but at the time your father thought it would be too difficult for you and your sister and too difficult for your family and friends. But I always wanted to.
Me: Well, I think it's about time [or something equally insolent].
Mom: [smiling] I think that's an excellent idea. Let's talk to your father. I guess this means I'll have to adopt your sister, too. We'll ask her, as well.

So, my mom asked my sister, and we all asked my dad, and he drew up the papers (being a gifted lawyer), and five months later, we all stood in front of a family court judge, who pronounced us mother, daughter, and daughter, and then we had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. I share this story with you now because I'm home for Passover, chilling out at my parents' condo, basking in the smell of my mom's matzo ball soup, and realized how unfathomably lucky I got. Don't get me wrong, my mom's a nutcase (now you see, it runs in the family), but she's my nutcase. I'll never understand why she took us all on, especially because we were completely unhinged at the time, but I'm eternally grateful for whatever misfire convinced her to marry my dad. And now that she's bound to us legally, she's stuck with us forever.

Thank God.


orieyenta said...

A wonderful post Harley. Thanks for sharing.

Chag Sameach to you and your family.

Leah said...

I'm crying into my lunch right now. What a great story, thanks for sharing it!

Happy Passover!

Claire said...

Yay for mommies! Yeah I must admit that made me tear up just a bit. . .

gg said...

sweet story. :)