I felt like an impostor.
No one had ever called me “mom” before, and I had no swollen belly, no stretch marks, and no attempts at breastfeeding to prove that I was a new mom. But the hospital attendant insisted that I sit in the wheelchair with this stranger-baby while he pushed the two of us through the hospital corridors from maternity ward to exit. “Hospital policy, ma’am,” he said. “Moms and babies ride in the chair.” My husband jogged ahead to retrieve our car, awkwardly balancing the new car seat in one arm and a diaper bag full of diapers and formula in the other. This new practice of carrying baby gear must have felt as strange to him as my effortless trip through the halls of the hospital.
I cried the whole way. Maybe the orderly thought it was some kind of post-partum hormonal bout of tears. Maybe he thought it was new-mom exhaustion or fear of taking care of a baby for the first time. It was neither. It was guilt. I felt like I had stolen someone else’s child and had requisitioned the title of “mother” without earning it.
I sat in the back seat of our car next to the baby because I didn’t know what else to do. After fiddling with the car seat a bit, I forced my restless fingers to be still. I’d spent five years trying to have a baby, and suddenly I was riding in the backseat of a car with a child someone else had carried and given birth to. I wasn’t sure how to move from negative pregnancy tests and temperature charts to feeding schedules and swaddling techniques. My preparation had consisted of mountains of paperwork, not newborn care classes. I had never had a baby bump, but now I had a baby.
As the weeks and months spun out from that first awkward day, I kept trying on the name “Mommy” when addressing this baby who was suddenly my son. It felt strange to my lips, a foreign word that rolled around oddly in my mouth and sounded so impossible to me that I could only whisper it at first. The things that most mothers talk about—the sleeplessness, the exhaustion, the need for adult conversation—I felt that I couldn’t express those things aloud to anyone. I had sought out adoption after years of infertility. I didn’t think I had earned the right to complain, so I didn’t. I gritted my teeth and tried to be thankful for the exhaustion that came with this label of mother I had so long coveted. I was thankful for it, but I was also exhausted. Even when my son grew and had birthdays, I feared that other people didn’t see me fully as his mother. More like a babysitter, maybe, but not a mother. It was a long time before I realized it didn’t matter what others thought, and the only person really struggling to believe I was really a mother was me.
It was a night when my three-year-old son vomited all night long, and I laid next to him in his twin sized bed, holding a trashcan and patting his back while the contents of his stomach emptied over and over again. He clung to me fearfully, whispering that he was afraid he would never feel good again. While he slept, I listened to his heartbeat as his chest rose and fell rhythmically with his breathing, his little body curled against mine.
“This is motherhood,” I whispered to myself, every molecule of my being acutely focused on my son. This unfettered loving, this hyper-focused caring, this generous comforting, this cleaning up of vomit, this watchful sleeplessness, this worry in the pit of my stomach even though I know it’s just a stomach bug. This is motherhood. Of all the places in the world I could be right now, I would choose this cramped corner of this tiny bed with this feverish little boy vomiting on me. Over and over, I would choose this.
I am a mother because I was entrusted with this child.
The next day, while I washed sheets and disinfected bathrooms, I kept a close eye on my son. Motherhood didn’t start in my body, but somehow it was innately there in me. As I reflected over that long night, I was washed in the relief of knowing I had nothing to prove to anyone, especially to myself. It didn’t matter how my son came to be my son. He is my son, and I am his mother. I found my mothering self in the nooks and crannies of my days with an infant, a toddler, a preschooler, an elementary student. In the changing of diapers, in the cleaning of messes, in packing lunches and washing clothes, in the nourishing with food and prayer and stories and songs—I found the mother that God had called and equipped me to be. She was there all along. And she loved her son fiercely. Her son.
Nearly four years after that long night of recognition, we added another son to our family. This time, I was ready for the wheelchair ride. I rejected the feeling of impostor syndrome, and I knew that in time I would find the confidence to mother the new baby in my arms. No, my children didn’t come to me the regular way babies come to a mother. But I watch them play, I witness their growth, and I see tiny glimmers of the men they’ll one day be. I love, correct, teach, feed, care, comfort, and enjoy these kids of mine. I find a little joy in the normal feelings of inadequacy because inadequacy isn’t the same thing as impostor. Feeling inadequate is the most normal thread of mothering in the world.
Motherhood is sanctifying work, but it is a beautiful gift. And in the everyday, lovely, gritty, exhausting, wonderful work of mothering, I have learned to embrace the realness of my family.
I am a real mom.
Glenna Marshall is a pastor’s wife, adoptive mom, infertility veteran, musician, and writer. She writes to connect the difficult and challenging circumstances in life to the truths found in the Word of God. Glenna enjoys music, coffee, and reading when she’s not writing and parenting.