Mother’s Day gets a lot of attention in a child’s world. For two weeks, my daughter Penny’s class has been working on their cards and gifts during free time. In music class, they sing mother songs. (M is for…) We never go to church on the big day, but I suspect both Sunday school and the sermon are dedicated to you-know-who.
I adopted Penny. She was six when she was taken away from her “real” mom five years ago. For her, Mother’s Day is that terrible time of year when she is told again and again that nobody ever loves you as much as Mom. But does her mommy love her?
Penny listens to the special messages her classmates write in their cards, and she thinks about how her mommy used to hug and tickle her. She thinks about her mommy’s special nickname for her and how she would let her drink pop for breakfast. She remembers how much mommy loved to watch “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”
Penny also remembers when her daddy died, and how mommy cried and stayed in bed for weeks afterwards. She remembers the new boyfriend moving in and beating up mommy. Penny still worries about her.
But the worst memory is of mommy sleeping one afternoon while Penny was watching SpongeBob with her sister. It was the last day Penny ever saw her mother. Mommy was still sleeping when the police came to the door and took the kids to McDonald’s. Then she went to her grandma’s house for a year and then she came to live with me.
(Here's a question for all the teachers and well meaning adults who think Penny should no longer feel like she's been punched in the gut when asked about her mom: if someone suddenly took your kid away at six years old, how long do you think it would take her to “get over” you?)
Penny “attached” to me fairly quickly. Attachment is the adoption term for a child’s ability to form a significant emotional bond with her caretaker. Some children, those with “attachment disorder” never attach. They are unable to love or trust any adult. These are children who have experienced serious abuse or neglect in their early years.
Penny is loving and affectionate towards me. She was loved and taken care of well enough as an infant and toddler to be able to love and trust me. I am so grateful for this.
But Penny would never, under any circumstance, refer to me as her mom. Mom is the woman who lives in Penny’s heart as the sad, loving soul who went away. I am her “Aunt.”
I feel Penny’s love and respect for me (most of the time. she is a pre-teen after all) and so it truly does not bother me that she calls me Caroline. It feels right. And I can usually bite my tongue on Mother’s Day when the cards and gifts she makes in class never find their way to my hands. Usually.
But last Mother’s Day, my hormones or the stars or who-knows-what put me over the edge and I said to Penny, “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to give me a card today.”
“You’re NOT my mother.”
“Well, I am the one who takes care of you, watches your soccer games, helps you with your homework, plays Uno with you, makes sure you dress warmly in the winter and eat your vegetables…”
She stomped off into her bedroom and made me a card. “Happy Aunt’s Day! Thank you for all you do for me.”
Let me tell you, a card given under duress does not bring any cheer to the recipient. I felt petty and terrible.
Penny’s much older sister Sally started called her adoptive mother “mom” right away. This sister was old enough at the time to understand that their mother was making bad choices. The living room meth lab, abusive boyfriends and disinterest in enrolling the kids in school were signs of bad mothering and Sally was eager to get away.
Penny was too little to make the connection between her mother and the bad things that happened. When Penny wanted a puppy, her mommy bought her a puppy. Good mom! And Snowflake was a very cute puppy who died a few days later and then was left on the porch for months afterwards while worms crawled out of its mouth and eye sockets. Penny thinks this was very sad, but she does not consider her mom’s role in this traumatic memory. I am not sure if she ever will. I’m not even sure if I want her to.