Mother in the Middle
By Rachel Beanland
We’re updating our will. For the second time in nine years, I’ll tell an attorney I barely know that—should something happen to Kevin and me—we want my little sister to raise our children.
It’s such a big thing to ask of you, especially since there are now three children who, overnight, would lose everything if we were gone. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, to love someone else’s kids. As an adoptive mother, I’ve been raising other people’s children since the day I became a parent. So I know it can be done.
Before I became a mother, I assumed it would be easy to choose another set of parents for our children. I have three siblings, Kevin has two—between us there is an army of people who would cherish our kids. What I failed to understand was how inferior any situation seems that doesn’t place us squarely in the middle of all our children’s most important moments.
Surely, there is no man who will place Clementine’s pajamas on his head and say in a very silly tone, “Clementine, I don’t know why you’ve been wearing my hat to bed!” After Gabriel finishes a practice spelling test, putting his pencil down with an achingly sweet glance around for reassurance, will anyone remember to marvel at the fact that he remembered the u in l-a-u-g-h? What if no one understands that when Florence stands beside the dishwasher and grunts, what she really wants is the pacifier we keep in the small bowl beside the sink?
Sometimes I worry I haven’t been transparent enough about our decision. I wonder whether I could have done more to prepare you. I know that, in the aftermath of whatever tragedy befalls us, in between balancing your own grief with the children’s, you’ll figure out Florence’s bedtime routine, that Clementine needs a new pair of ballet tights, that Gabriel’s lacrosse practices are on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
But will you know what I wanted for them? Would it matter if I had told you?
Pretty please, try to raise the kids to be Democrats. At the very least, teach them to be liberal on the social issues—the issues that require compassion for their fellow man and an understanding that people come into the world with different privileges that, sometimes, no amount of hard work can overcome.
Don’t ever sever the threads that connect them to the places they were born or the people who loved them first. Help them understand the choices their first mothers made, and help them see that people don’t fit neatly into boxes. We’re all just doing the best that we possibly can.
Don’t teach them to blindly believe. Doubt means they’re thinking, and I would rather raise thinkers than believers. If they find faith, great. In fact, I hope they do. Just give them the background to question the universe without sounding like idiots.
Don’t talk about dieting in front of the girls. The world will be tough enough on their bodies without them hearing it at home.
When they start learning to drive, teach the kids to drive stick shift, even if it means learning it yourself. You never know where life will take you, and who wants to be the person who can’t drive the getaway car?
Buy a house without a basement. No good can come of teenagers in basements. When the girls have their periods, put them on the pill. I don’t care if you have to tell them it’s to clear up their skin or to regulate their cycle. You can tell them it’s the elixir of life. Just insist upon it. Teach them that sex is a normal part of a healthy life. It’s not something to be ashamed of, just something to be considered carefully. As tempting as it will be to advocate abstinence, have the trickier conversation—advocate good judgment.
Should the girls ever face an unwanted pregnancy, help them understand that being adopted doesn’t mean they owe the world anything. Their mothers made the best decisions within the framework of their own set of circumstances and they must too. Their bodies are theirs and theirs alone.
Take the kids out for ethnic food. Let them eat green curry that burns their nose and injera with wat that stains their fingers. Let there be no sushi roll they won’t devour.
Raise the girls to believe they can be mathematicians like their father. Raise Gabriel to know his way around the kitchen.
When the mean girls in middle school get to be too much, tell Clementine and Florence all the things Mom told us—that they’re jealous, that they’re insecure, that the girls’ words can’t hurt them. Then take them shopping. Although it doesn’t cure much, it is the antidote to middle school melodrama.
Take trips. And not just to the beach, which will be easy. Take trips to the places that are difficult to get to but that show the kids life is different the further they go from their doorstep. Their lives turned out differently because they were adopted but remind them that everyone has a story to tell. Never let their passports expire. Raise them to believe that the next adventure is always around the corner.
If one of them is gay, be the parent who embarrasses them at the LGBT gala in your rainbow-colored tulle. Plaster your car in gay pride bumper stickers if you have to but make sure they know that nothing could ever change the way you feel about them. Support equality for all people before you know whether our three people will ever need your advocacy.
Limit screen time but not to the point where the kids grow up under a rock. When you’re young, pop culture knowledge is a form of currency and they should recognize the difference between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Clementine likes it when, in the car, we sing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” at the top of our lungs.
Let the kids dress themselves. Watch Gabriel though—he’ll try to wear the same outfit three days in a row. Teach them to eschew name brands, except for those early years of high school, when a label can elevate a kid’s spirit and go a little way towards making up for feeling misunderstood.
Don’t let Clementine look around one day and realize she’s the only black person in her homeroom, in her dance class, in her Girl Scout troop. Show Florence there is beauty in being ethnically and racially indefinable. Make Gabriel stick with Spanish in high school, so that one day—if he wants to—he can say “Estoy de vuelta” in the language of his country of origin.
Teach the kids to play a sport that wakes up their body and to practice a form of artistic expression that wakes up their soul. Don’t let them be quitters but teach them to recognize the times in life when it’s better to quit than to press forward without passion.
Tell the kids their mother never smoked a single cigarette, and that they shouldn’t either. When they’re much, much older, tell them that their mother wishes she’d smoked a little more weed.
Tell them to call their grandmother. She’s been through a lot. Tell them stories about their grandfather. He would have loved watching them grow up. Don’t let them lose touch with Kevin’s family despite the distance and the degrees of separation.
The life insurance will mean that money’s never tight. But make the kids work during the summers anyway. It makes them scrappy. Plus, summer romances that blossom behind the ice cream counter, at the ticket booth, or in the lifeguard shack are the best kind.
Kevin wants to dance to Lincoln Durham’s “Clementine” at Clementine’s wedding. It’s a song they both know the words to by heart. When the song gets to the part where Durham sings, “Clementine, don’t you cry for me,” tell Garret to whisper in her ear that her father wishes he could be there. For Florence, who’s younger, tell Garret to make his own memories, to pick their own song.
Tell the girls to keep their guard up—that despite what the movies will tell them, they can’t really have it all. They can be wicked smart, driven, beautiful and maternal, but life will always be about recognizing their priorities and making choices. Some years, their careers will soar. Other years, they’ll be covered in spit-up and drool. Rarely will they feel like they’re doing everything well. At least, I never do.
Here’s my big request. When you and Garret have children one day, you have to promise to love everyone the same. I’m not talking about a deep down kind of love. I’m talking about the love that shows. I’m asking you to tally everything. To track the money you spend on Chanukah presents, the days you spend visiting each child after they leave home, the parents’ weekends, the father-daughter dances, the birthday parties, the wedding budgets, the baby gifts—the thousands of ways we show our children throughout their lives that they are loved.
I’m not a perfect mother. I regularly forget to send the kids to school with a snack, I return library books late, I let the laundry pile up so high that the children wander out of their rooms, half naked, asking where all their pants are. There are days when I yell, days when I deafly listen to the retelling of schoolyard woes, days when I let the television substitute for my engagement.
My children already have two mothers. You’ll be their third. If something should happen to me, and you become the mother who sees them through puberty and orthodontics and their first date, the person who mothers them into adulthood, then I will become the mother in the middle. Not the mother who gave them life, and not the mother who propelled them out into the world.
Rachel Beanland is a writer who lives in Lexington, Virginia with her husband and three children.
Photo by: Tamara Hattersley Photography