My children have never known what it is like to not have three sets of grandparents. "How did we get so lucky?" my son has said.
I too have never known what life is like without three sets of grandparents: my mom's parents (who were happily married for a bazillion years) my dad's father and step-mother, and my dad's mother and step-father.
I was in elementary school when my peers were old enough to reason that I wasn't endowed with extra grandparents through magic. It was their questions that would later trigger the quickening of my heartbeat when my son uttered the phrase "real mom."
"How do you have three sets of grandparents?" They'd ask.
"My dad's parents are divorced and re-married."
"Then you don't have three sets of grandparents. Your dad's mom and dad are his real parents."
You couldn't tell me my grandpa in Arizona and my grandma in Pennsylvania weren't "real." I could see them and touch them; they felt real. My love for them was real. It finally hit me that "real" meant "biologically related."
My next realization hit me in the stomach like a well-placed punch. I'm not real. I was not biologically related to anyone I consciously knew and recognized as family. People also told me that my biological parents weren't real because they didn't raise me. As SooJung Jo wrote in her memoir, "I was just as related to everyone as I was to no one."
To me, conflicting messages about "real parents" ring reminiscent of old legal terms for children of extra-marital birth--nullius filius (child of no one) and nullius populi (child of everyone). An "illegitimate child" is "not accepted by the law as rightful."
We may think we have moved past the stigma of illegitimacy, but it seems we've only re-packaged it. Because, although the "real parent" concept in adoption intends to support the emotional need of adults to feel successful as parents, we continue to lose sight of whether our adult reasoning leaves room for the adopted child to feel real.
Flash forward a few decades. The responsibility now rests on my shoulders to explain adoption to my children. As Nicole Chung expressed in her beautiful Motherlode piece, I too worry that answering my little boys' questions about adoption gives them fears too big to hold. "Before I told her about my adoption, she never had reason to even consider what it would be like to be given up, or given to others," Chung wrote of her biological daughter. "Now she does."
At too young an age my son knows that every child's absolute worst fear--losing a parent, living without the care of a parent--isn't something simply safely explored in displacement through his favorite fairytales. You would think that being a children's therapist or having 30 years of a lived adoption experience would make it easier to explain adoption to my children. Yet the weight of my "unrealness" in our political and social environment sometimes suffocates me.
Working against me is a purity culture that condemns extra-marital sex and childbearing; a rape-culture that blames my mother for my conception and let my father off the hook; a culture of classism that questions the competence of impoverished parents; a racist and hetero-cis-normative culture that teaches my children to "other" families that do not look like theirs; an adoption culture that undervalues my connection to my roots; the fetishization of adoption in popular media; and a Christian Evangelical culture that hails one set of their grandparents as their mother's saviors and their other grandparent as someone their mother was "saved from."
I am tasked with offering developmentally appropriate reasoning as to why my sons will not lose me while taking care not to indict their Grammie for surrendering me or their grandparents for adopting me. I must emphatically embrace my own realness. I must give my children a voice in their hearts that pushes back messages of "unrealness" and leaves space for anyone they love to be real.
Above all, I must give them the confidence to always know that they too are real.
"I don't know." This was my son's answer to my haphazard response to his question. "You call them both 'mom,' but Nanny grew you and took care of you. That's just like you grew me and take care of me."
"Well, Nanny didn't grow me, remember?" I replied. "Grammie grew me and Nanny took care of me when I was growing up. Now Grammie and Nanny and Daddy's mom all look out for me and they all help take care of you."
"Oh," he donned a satisfied look. "I guess they're all real moms then."