I board the plane wearing my comfiest clothes, which today means Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pajama pants and a hoodie. The woman next to me with the small daughter tries to strike up conversation with me: "So, are you a college student?" It bothers me, even though I know that looking young is supposed to be a good thing, and that at least part of her assumption is due to my cartoon pants. "Not even a little bit! I've got a kid of my own!" I laugh (as though college students are never mothers). She apologizes, explaining that I look young, and I smile and let the conversation die. Because honestly, as a birth mom, sometimes I feel like a fraud when talking to other mothers. And getting into conversation with other women with kids completely stresses me out.
I don't tell this woman that my kid doesn't live with me. I don't tell her that I placed him for adoption with a gay couple. I don't tell her that I only see my son about once a month, and even that is quite a lot by open adoption standards. For a moment, I live in the lie-by-omission, letting us be equals for the length of a plane ride.
I never know how much or how little to say to other mothers about my little boy, especially those I don't know well. Sometimes they see the picture of my son on my cell phone wallpaper and ask me about it, and I respond honestly. (The question is generally, "Who is that?" or, "Is that your nephew?" Never, "Is that your son?" I'm not sure what it is about me that screams, "Couldn't possibly be trusted to raise a small human! Clearly not a mom!") Sometimes they mention their own kid and I just say something like, "Yeah, mine's about a year older than yours," letting their follow-up questions dictate how much or little I say about my own situation. Sometimes I spill the whole story. Sometimes I say nothing at all.
The fact that I am not raising my child makes me automatically feel inferior to the women who are, even if I don't know anything about them. No woman has ever acted superior to me because of my birth mother status, by the way; this is purely in my own head. If anything, I get the opposite reaction: "Oh my God, I could never do that! You're so brave/strong/selfless." Which is, actually, another reason I hesitate to tell the whole story: I don't love being "inspiration porn." It makes me feel like an alien. The way I see it, literally every single woman who gets pregnant is called upon by her circumstances to be strong, no matter what decision she makes; every mother does what she thinks is best for her children, just like I did. I want to relate to other mothers, not feel separate from them.
Telling them that I'm a mother but not a birth mother gives me the solidarity I crave, but it also makes me feel like a fraud. It gives me access to the world I gave up when I relinquished my son, this secret sisterhood of moms, at the same time as reminding me that I don't belong.
Of course, sometimes other women with children claim solidarity with me in a way that rubs me the wrong way and feels false. "The first time I dropped my kid off at school, I cried all day," they say when I tell them how painful it was to say goodbye to my son for the first time. I can't say, "That's not remotely analogous to relinquishing custody of your child permanently, actually!" I just have to smile and nod, because it's not a contest, and I know they're trying to relate to me, and I'm sure their experience must be very hard in its own way.
So I hesitate, and I stress. Telling them that I'm a mother but not a birth mother gives me the solidarity I crave, but it also makes me feel like a fraud. It gives me access to the world I gave up when I relinquished my son, this secret sisterhood of moms, at the same time as reminding me that I don't belong. But pretending I don't have a child at all feels wrong too, like another lie-by-omission. If ever I am asked, "Do you have kids?" I never deny it. It's just a question of how complete of a "yes" I give them.
When my son and I are out in public together, I feel like I'm wearing an even bigger "fraud" sign on my forehead. Something as simple as a request to play with water balloons can make my heart pound with insecurity; as I wait in line for the water fountain, I know that my clumsy fingers and long fingernails will make me fumble with the neck of the water balloon and possibly ruin everything, revealing me for the fraud that I am. A "real" mom would know how to tie off a water balloon without breaking it. A "real" mom would've done this a million times before. A "real" mom is gonna see me screw this up and know that I'm faking it — or, worse, just think I'm a bad mom. But, maybe that's not so far from the experience of other mothers after all.
Just like any other mother, I want what's best for my kid. I want to create a better world for him to live in. I want to be someone he can be proud of. I want him to like me and I melt when he hugs me. I want him to be healthy and strong. I want him to grow up feeling empowered and free. I want him to know how deeply, how passionately, how ridiculously much he is loved. And just like any other mother, I doubt my ability to give my son everything I want to give him. I feel inadequate and like I'm never doing enough. I feel powerless to protect him from the world, and I know that all I can do is just let him know how much I love him. Just like any other mother.
So maybe I'm not such a fraud after all.