We walked down the street holding hands, my 5-year-old daughter kicking her foot back in forth in a manner that looked uncomfortable. We weren’t rushing to be anywhere; we weren’t out for a leisurely stroll either. What’s going on? Why are you walking that way? I asked. I‘m trying to crack my foot, replied my daughter. After some back and forth about this not being the most helpful way to walk and wondering aloud if I should call the doctor for some advice, my daughter commented, I bet the teenage girl who had me cracks her foot. Startled, I responded to the wise truth of what Z was raising, You know, that’s really interesting. Maybe she does.
The comment opened again the whole arena of my daughter’s DNA and to whom she is genetically connected. As an adopted child, she is not of my blood, a fact my father (may his memory be for blessing) once forgot when insisting I had to be wrong about his youngest grandchild’s blood type. We argued back and forth until I finally exclaimed, “Dad, she doesn’t share the same genes!” I could feel the shock through the phone lines in how much that comment startled him. That truth had evaporated from his being. He had forgotten where she came from because it didn’t matter.
I often offer a prayer of gratitude for the girl who brought my child into the world and exhibited the courage and fortitude to gift her to me. In some wondrous, challenging, holy alignment of stars and circumstance, this amazing being whom I’ve been privileged to nourish and nurture for six years (give or take six days), found her way to me, and I to her. Smart, funny, joyful, in love with Judaism, and animals and the world, she is of me. And yet, she isn’t.
As we neared home, I asked, Z, what did you say again? What did you call the lady in whose belly you grew? She replied with grace and confidence, “My pretend mommy; you’re my real mommy, Mama.” Pretend. What is pretend? One definition is to make believe; to create a place of imagination or alternative narrative and story line. Even over the summer when my daughter referred to the young girl who birthed her as her real mom — this followed a conversation with a friend (also 5) who insisted that a mom is someone who grows you in her body — she never carried the story further. While I started thinking again about how the title “mom” is assigned, I assured her, as I always do, that I am and will always be her mommy. That’s right, Mama, no matter how big I am, I will always be your baby.
Some urge me to emphasize to Z that the person who carried her for nine months as her mother — introducing qualifiers like birth mother, biological mother or belly/tummy mommy. Of course, her role as creator and host until my child was ready to emerge into the world should be honored. Without her, there would be no Z. Yet, the dictionary also offers the following definition of pretend: “To cause or attempt to cause (what is not so) to seem so.” Yes, my daughter came to be from another woman. Yes, that teen made the “motherly” choice to provide for this child in a way she could not. She also made the brave decision to remain anonymous to me and to my child. The mothering that takes place in Z’s life is ongoing from me, her mother. She is of me, yet she is not.
Days pass and we return to Z’s comment. What did you mean by “pretend mommy”? Pretend. I wasn’t born yet. Right now, the mommy is the one who clothes and feeds you, cheers on your amazing skill on the monkey bars (even as she holds her breath, praying you don’t fall), reads to you, challenges you to be you and makes sure you brush your teeth even when you insist it’s boring. Right now, the one who birthed life is a mommy but not “my mommy.”
One day last year, my daughter told a Jewish friend that he was from Egypt. The friend was sure he had never been. My daughter insisted, with conviction, we all came out of Egypt. All of us emerge from somewhere, from some place of borders and limits, an Egypt/Mitzrayim. Life is complicated; we constantly strive to align the story of our past with the story of our future.
The Torah reminds us that Nisan, the time at which we escaped from Egypt into an unknown future, is to be the first of the months “hahodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim, rishon hu lachem l’hodshei hashanah” (Ex. 12:2). It is with this proclamation that we begin to mark time by the moon. The moon waxes and wanes, sometimes visible to the eye and sometimes not. Sometimes appearing surprisingly during the day; sometimes hidden from sight in the night. Yet, the moon remains a steady presence. The potential for growth and light is always present.
Yesterday was my daughter’s sixth birthday. Today marks six years since I learned of her existence and she began to make her way to me. Five days later, I was her mommy. It is a divine journey still in the making. Blessed be the creator of life and of Z.
Rabbi Lisa Gelber
January 14, 2016/4 Shevat 5776