Parenting

Jeremy Pawlowski, Lauren Lee/Stocksy

I Gave Birth For The First Time This Year, But I Was Already A Mother

Four years earlier, not long after her biological mother died, I started dating Amaia's father. As I tell her often, I fell in love with her first, her dad second.

After I gave birth to Julian — tiny and pink and breathtaking — I felt both dazed and euphoric. We lay in the hospital bed and I stared at his inexplicably long fingernails and the downy fur along his back. Occasionally we dozed and he tried to latch, and I watched Friends reruns on the monitor beside the bed. I wasn’t allowed any visitors except my husband, Andrew, who alternated between the hospital and visiting our 8-year-old daughter, who was at home nearby. I felt overcome with love and gratitude for our community; friends and family who couldn’t be there and who, because of Covid, wouldn’t even be able to meet Julian in the near future. But they texted and called and exalted all the usual praises and excitement. You did it! He's here! You're a mom!

The last one struck a nerve. It was well intentioned, but felt like an insult to myself and my daughter, to whom I did not give birth.

Four years earlier, not long after her biological mother died, I started dating Amaia's father. As I tell her often, I fell in love with her first, her dad second. I’d watched her transform from a bubbling, exuberant toddler to a long-limbed kid, with deadpan wit and excellent style (which she recently referred to as iconic). Our first couple years together were thrilling, but I had also struggled to navigate my role. Over time we had become a cohesive family unit: I quizzed Amaia on her weekly spelling tests while Andrew cooked dinner; we argued about who should win the Great British Baking Show (Amaia always rooted for the underdog). After she learned how to read, we’d get into bed and read alongside each other; usually, she’d grab my arm and drape it across her blanket. Most nights, she’d close her eyes and insist she was “just taking a little break” and I could tell she was asleep by her long, easy breaths.

When we told Amaia I was pregnant, she gasped with excitement but later confessed that she’d already known. “I saw it on your phone,” she said. “You had some app open and it said you were 65 weeks pregnant!” Despite the fact that Amaia had often begged for a sibling, I worried about the inevitable change and the disruption to the stability we’d created. During pregnancy, I had become less available to her in all the obvious ways. She slept in a loft bed and by the third trimester I could no longer climb up to snuggle and read with her before she went to sleep. She complained that I was always tired and never wanted to do anything fun. (“You’re really pulling the pregnancy card a lot,” she said.) More than anything, I feared that having a biological child would fundamentally change our relationship, that it would unearth something irrefutable about me as a mother. That there would be some clear difference between my relationship with a biological child or one I had known since infancy. Or maybe I feared something else — that she would always long for some connection I couldn’t offer her.

People kept asking, How do you feel? As if I'd arrived on the other side of some expanse. The same as I did before? More tired?
But that wasn't entirely accurate, what I mostly felt was relief.

When we got home from the hospital, Amaia ran to the door and proudly showed the spread she’d made with our family friend, including a glossy chocolate cake with a candle in the center that read 0. Amaia was beaming. I was exhausted and sore and so happy to be home with her.

As is always the case, the early days with Julian were a blur. We never slept and then we did, in fits and starts. He was easy and then inconsolable. I was in a blissful haze and then frantically Googling why is baby's poop so liquidy or is my newborn breathing normally? People kept asking, How do you feel? As if I'd arrived on the other side of some expanse. The same as I did before? More tired?

Rob & Julia Campbell, Maria Manco/Stocksy

But that wasn't entirely accurate, what I mostly felt was relief. That giving birth to Julian and the early days of his infancy were magical and tiring and totally mundane and fundamentally no different from the parenting I had been doing with Amaia for years.

It occurred to me then that my most challenging “postpartum” period was not after I gave birth but in the months after becoming a parent for the first time. Three years ago, over Thanksgiving, Andrew and Amaia flew to Seattle to see his family, and it was the first time in months that Amaia and I would be apart. I would meet them there a few days later, but when I drove them to the airport and when we pulled up to the departures curb, Amaia twisted in her car seat, away from the door. Andrew tried gently to coax her out but she didn’t want to go. Her jaw was firm and set the way it always was right before she cried. And I felt suddenly the crushing weight of it — not only that I loved this child but that indeed she loved me, relied on me, longed for me when we weren’t together. It was not that different from the feeling of the first night we were home with Julian. I was in charge? Where were the nurses coming in and checking on us? The ones who’d expertly swaddled him, checking his vitals and confidently performed the myriad of tasks that now seemed so daunting.

It occurred to me then that my most challenging “postpartum” period was not after I gave birth but in the months after becoming a parent for the first time.

The first time Amaia got sick when we lived together, I could barely focus at work, texting Andrew constantly to see if her fever had subsided. She hated Tylenol, and I tried everything to get her to take it, mixing the liquid into a smoothie, mashing a chewable into mint-flavored ice cream. That night, I slept beside her in bed, feeling the warmth radiating off of her little body. It was the same feeling I had the first time Julian spiked a fever; the tug of sorrow and helplessness, the seed of panic that a cold could bloom into something devastating.

Not long before Julian was born, Amaia and I were walking down the street toward our apartment. It was early October, and in-person school had just begun. We talked through the plan for when I would go into labor; I’d try to stay at home as long as possible, but eventually Andrew and I would go to the hospital and our friend Mae would come over to stay with her. We would Facetime as soon as the baby was born and I would come home whenever the doctors said it was OK.

“Do you wish this wasn’t your first time giving birth?” she asked and then she paused. “Do you wish you’d given birth to me?”

“It’s a tricky question,” I said. And then I told her what was true: I wish I had known her for her entire life, I wish I had been there for those early days; when she had dimpled knees and so much hair on her tiny head that it looked like a wig. I wish I could’ve witnessed the first time she laughed or the gleeful shock Andrew describes when she was in the bath for the first time. But I didn’t wish that her other mom hadn’t given birth to her or that they hadn’t had those years together.

“Do you wish this wasn’t your first time giving birth?” she asked and then she paused. “Do you wish you’d given birth to me?”

When Julian was 7 days old, I took Amaia to a friend’s backyard to celebrate Halloween, in lieu of trick or treating. Another parent, one I hardly knew, asked about my labor and I shared that it was shockingly fast, that I barely had time to go to the hospital.

“My first!” I said, “I wasn’t prepared at all.” And then to clarify — I was dropping off my 8-year-old child, after all — I nodded toward my daughter, “I didn’t give birth to Amaia.”

Amaia was several feet away, but I saw her look up. She was in a vinyl costume we’d gotten from Target a couple weeks earlier. It was a character from a movie she loved and it looked nothing like the package — the wig stringy and cobalt blue, impossible to part. She complained on the way over that we’d forgotten to safety-pin the back and now it was too loose, her costume was ruined. It had been a hard week and we were all exhausted and on edge. We were cramped in a modest two bedroom apartment and each time Julian woke up shrieking, Amaia woke up too. She spent most of her days staring at her remote classroom on a screen, watching as her teacher froze and unfroze while trying to explain complicated word problems or different parts of speech. She missed the playfulness of interacting with her friends, eating lunch together in the cafeteria and furtively trading desserts like they were running an underground market.

Amaia looked at me, then back down toward her pizza. “So, yeah, I was expecting a very different sort of labor.”

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Later that night, Amaia and I watched TV while she sorted through candy she had received despite not trick or treating. I was replaying the earlier interaction in my mind, regretful that I’d felt the need to clarify that I wasn’t Amaia’s birth mom in front of her.

“Honey,” I said, “you know that you’re just as much my child as Julian, right?” She stared at a pile of miniature Hershey bars. “You’re both my children and I love you. And that’s it.”

She climbed onto the couch and leaned her head against me.

“OK?” I said.

She nodded tearfully and I could feel something inside of her softening.

“OK,” she said. “I love you too.”

At nearly 10 months, Julian is transfixed by his sister. He squeals with delight when she dances for him, moving her limbs in big exaggerated gestures. She calls his name in a singsong-y voice and he lights up. My heart swells when I hear her say my brother in a voice both sweet and proprietary. She wants to introduce him to everyone: her teachers, her counselors at camp, our neighbors. Come meet my brother, she exclaims. Watch how he laughs! She likes to tell the story of how as a newborn, whenever he was inconsolable, after we tried everything else, we’d eventually hand him over to Amaia. She’d shush him and bounce him gently in her arms and he would quiet.

I wanted to be able to say my daughter and for both of us to feel the heft of permanency behind it.

Long before I was even pregnant with Julian, I began the process of legally adopting Amaia. The desire started out for logistical reasons; I wanted to be able to put her on my health insurance or to sign a consent form for a school trip. But of course there was another component too — it was a way to formalize our relationship. I wanted to be able to say my daughter and for both of us to feel the heft of permanency behind it.

The process was lengthy but the adoption itself was uneventful, anti-climactic. Our court date was earlier this summer, and when we picked Amaia up from camp in the middle of the day, she was annoyed, displeased to be missing out on play rehearsal. It was a virtual hearing, just 10 minutes long. We sat on the steps outside Borough Hall and I held my laptop out in front of us. Our lawyer had technical difficulties and her camera wouldn’t turn on. We were all small boxes on the screen. Afterward, we took some pictures and then her dad and I walked her back to camp. When I picked her up later, I brought bubble tea and a pack of gummy worms. It was exciting and celebratory to be sure, but more than that I felt a pervading sense of calm. I had two children and now they would both be recognized as such, not just by me but officially.

Last weekend we were driving back to the city after a weekend away. It was a Sunday afternoon and we were stuck in terrible traffic. Julian had been crying and then quieted before erupting into laughter. In the rearview mirror, I could see Amaia holding his hand, hiding her face behind a sweater and then reappearing into view. I thought back to the days just before Julian’s birth, the uneasiness we’d all felt about how our new family configuration would work. I’d worried that Amaia would feel slighted or displaced, but here we were; somehow all anchored by the tiny addition to our family. Behind me, they were both grinning, their faces beatific and bright.