On a First Name Basis with My First Grader
By Jennifer D. Munro
Although Ben is my first and only child, I am his twelfth mother. By the time Ben became my son, I’d missed out on so much already: not only the maternal bonding provided by pregnancy, childbirth, and breast feeding, but Ben’s first breath, first word (which might have been “ma”), first step, first day of kindergarten, and, not-so-endearing, his first cuss. But not being able to name my own child turned out to be the most surprising deprivation, a profound loss that I hadn’t fully considered.
Ben was one of the ten thousand available children in our state’s foster care system. I realized that, although I didn’t choose his name, I could live with a Ben. I could grow fond of a Ben. I could love a Ben. Unexpectedly, though, what turned out to be the problem was not our child’s name, but mine.
When Ben moved in with us six weeks after we met and two weeks after he turned six, I realized there was one more unexpected loss to mourn: It had taken me so long to mother, but I would never be called “Mom.” My husband Patrick and I were Ben’s parents now, planning to adopt him out of foster care when the requi- site six-month waiting period passed. His forever family who would usher him into adulthood. But Ben didn’t call us Mom and Dad. He called us Pat and Jen.
I’m not sure how many of his eleven other mothers he called “Mom,” but I know it’s what he called the single mother who had fostered him for the previous three years—the one who loved him but gave him up because she said he was an active boy who needed an active, two-parent family. We deciphered the coded language later: He was too difficult for one person to manage. He needed a dad who could step in when he punched Mom.
Fathers had been less integral for him. There were father figures in his past, but they didn’t parent. They carried impact for the wrong reasons. One “stepdad” of sorts is in jail for using a tire iron to murder (with no motive) a disabled man. He wasn’t patient around a toddler, either, but he wasn’t the only one among the “stepdads” who insisted that his girlfriend’s children call him Daddy (though the relationships they forged were decidedly un-father-like). Ben’s biological father had always been a distant figure. When I had the chance to ask him if Ben had been named after a family member, hoping to share that history with Ben someday, he replied, “Well, I had said God damn it, if it’s a boy, I get to name it. So at the hospital, it was a boy, but I hadn’t thought about it at all, so I just sort of came up with Benny right there.”
After three years of living with a single foster mother, Ben craved a live-in, microwave-dinner-cooking, piggy-back-giving, shaving-in-the-mirror father. Ben’s complete focus on my husband verified what his foster mother had told us about Ben wanting a dad. Mothers, however, were impermanent, throwaway items, like plastic utensils. In fact, they were apparently interchangeable. Since he would rarely see her again, Ben needed to transition away from calling his last foster mother “Mommy.” She suggested he call her Aunty Jennifer; we shared the same first name. His first foster mother, who had parented him from fourteen months to two-and-a-half years, was also named Jennifer. No wonder the state had a shortage of foster families, since being named Jennifer was apparently one of the licensing requirements. Ben had blown through a lot of homes one summer between the two long-term Jennifers, and I don’t know how many he called “Mom” or “Jennifer” or some of the other profane names he used on me, which was probably one reason that he was so frequently sent packing.
Why should he bestow yet one more stranger with those honored parental titles when every Mom and Dad in the past had either hurt or deserted him? Jennifers didn’t exactly have a stellar track record, either, but I fully expected from the start to be Jennifer to him forever. Mom and Dad would have to be earned and would have to be Ben’s choice. No matter how much we wanted it, asking or demanding it would set it even farther out of reach, since he was diagnosed as an Oppositional Defiant Child (I’m told there are some kids who aren’t), which meant that the more we insisted on something, the happier it made him to deny us. So be it. We wouldn’t ask.
I reconciled myself to being Jennifer and worked on other things. When I picked Ben up from school every day at first, he greeted me with, “What’d you bring me?” After a month or two of coaching him, he upgraded to: “Hi, Jen! What’d you bring me?” and then added, “Thanks,” for whatever snack I’d brought along with the skateboard or bike or scooter. Sometimes after “thanks,” he scowled and complained that’s not what he wanted; after we’d made even more progress, he didn’t throw the unwanted item back at me.
* * *
I preferred Jennifer to the other things he called me the first year. His most common refrain was, “I’m going kill you, you fucking bitch.” (He launched such vulgar threats before he knew about prepositions.) He called my slender husband “You fat bitch.” Pat and I found humor where we could and laughed about that one when Ben was out of earshot. But his spitting on me, trying to punch me (he never succeeded, either because I was too quick or he knew better, deep down, than to really try), peeing on the carpet, breaking things, manipulating, stealing, and pathologically lying, all weren’t so funny.
With Ben’s many disturbing behaviors, we needed to create a safe circle of love as well as authority—firm, even uncomfortably strict, parental authority. Why should Ben listen to rules set down and enforced by his friends Pat and Jen? Why obey his buddies, who were “cool,” as he had described Pat to his foster mom after our first meeting? (I was under no illusion that the appellation applied to me, too.) And if he couldn’t learn to abide by rules at home, he’d never learn to follow boundaries in the larger world of school, after-school care, sports clubs, and eventual AA meetings. I jest, but the grim reality is that kids with ADHD alone and none of Ben’s other risk factors have a high incidence of substance abuse, so this is a struggle Ben will almost certainly face. Just one more reason why Ben needed a strong foundation now.
While I knew liberals who were fine with their kids calling them by their first names, these were children who’d been given stability, safety, and nurturing since their first breath. They might have their annoying habits or problem behaviors, but these kids weren’t dangerous. Ben, according to his therapist, was on a fast track to jail, not college. It was our job to parent him toward more positive outcomes, so we needed to substantiate ourselves as his parents, who set house rules that he needed to learn to follow. Having him call us by our parental titles seemed an increasingly important element of his success.
But a “Call me Mom from now on” edict would not cut the mustard. Our born-again-hippie friends could set down the law whenever they chose: “It’s Dad, not Paul,” and quit answering them whenever the kid greeted them as if they were at a bar. You can guess how Ben would have responded to that. He had plenty of other names to choose from. Dummy, Stupid, Asshole, Dead Fish, and the ever-favorite Bitch were all top contenders.
Yet I intuited that Ben wanted us to be Mom and Dad, titles that would claim us as his: “MY mom” and “MY dad,” which is how I still refer to my parents. The words indicate a sense of belonging, literally.
Still, he rarely called me “Mom,” and this only when he wanted something, when suddenly I was the “skinny, pretty Mommy.” The compliment illustrated his shrewd scheming more than my fit- ness for appearing on Project Runway, as he once suggested when I was swathed in winter gardening clothes. I’m not going to disparage myself, but no one has ever called me skinny; the closest I get is, “Have you lost weight?” Yet Ben never once called me “fat” as he did Patrick.
The notion of a mom was very much on Ben’s mind beyond wily maneuvering, though. He at times chewed on the word like a safety blanket when I was nearby, so we ended up having exchanges like this:
It took me awhile to learn that he wasn’t looking for an answer. This was his Ohm, his startling mantra. Still, I couldn’t quite relax, like a doctor always on call, never sure when the real need would arise that required a response.
The confusion wasn’t just mine. Once when I wasn’t home, Ben screamed at my husband, “I want my mommy! I want Mama!”
Patrick panicked. Which one?
Calling us Mom and Dad would also, instantly, “normalize” him outside the home. When he referred to us as Pat and Jennifer to teachers or classmates, questions were immediately raised: Who were we? What was our relationship? Were we his parents? This then called for qualifications: We were technically his foster parents until his adoption was finalized, which made him a foster child, which made him a child with a not-so-nice label, a child who just might spell trouble. If he called us Mom and Dad, suddenly there were no questions, and he had no explaining to do, especially to other kids. Nobody need know his unfortunate past as revealed by the “f” word.
How to make that transition?
* * *
While my husband was the Prom King of Creative Parenting Methods That Always Worked, I was the Valedictorian of the Plain Jane Nerd School of Parenting. So it’s odd that he can’t take any credit for my inspired tactic: I instructed Pat to stop calling me by my first name. From that point on, we referred to each other as “your dad” or “your mom” in Ben’s presence. As in, “Go tell your dad that dinner’s ready, please.” Or, “Tell your father that he can’t buy whatever he’s looking at on E-Bay. It doesn’t matter how I know and it doesn’t matter what it is, tell Dad to log off.” Or, if I’m mixing a martini (for a guest, of course), “Have your father get you a Band-aid for that. Oh, for heaven’s sake, they’re on the shelf, right in front of Dad’s nose.”
Ben took his cue and started calling us Mom and Dad. It was really that simple. He can’t remember ever having called us Pat and Jen. The profanity and the threats, the intense anger and destruction, all stopped almost simultaneously. He can’t remember calling me any of the other foul names he called me for almost ten months, close to the duration of a normal human gestation. Oddly, I, too, find it difficult to go back to calling my husband by his first name.
Ben has called me Mom for a couple of years now, but I still get a rush of pleasure every time. That might sound like a cliché, but it’s not. I waited a long time to hear that word. Mom. I’m a mom! I kiss scratches and mop up vomit and send him to timeouts when I discover things like the Brussels sprouts from his dinner plate floating in the toilet (only as a new mother did I discover, as he did, too late, that those buoyant round crucifers won’t flush). I witnessed the moment when he finally took off on his bike without training wheels, and he turned to see if I was looking. I was, and he knew it. I treasure the drawings he makes me (refraining from asking, “What is it?”) and display his tipsy Popsicle stick box next to my antique French crystal scent casket. I hold his small hand in mine on neighborhood strolls I used to take by myself, and I ignore my obsessive fastidiousness when he eats an ice cream cone and gets is all over his face and clothes. I gloat with maternal satisfaction at Ben’s empathy for and kindness to animals, having ignored the dire warnings that Ben should not be placed with pets; with mistreatment of animals being one of the primary hallmark traits of serial killers, my hubris in disregarding this raging red flag snapping in a nasty wind can only be chalked up to maternal instinct. Recently two members of his professional support team, who have never met, said separately to me, “You are his mother. You know him best.” My first response was to protest, “No, I don’t.” But I guess I do.
While I once couldn’t understand parents who made distinctions between their “biological children” and their “adoptive children,” sometimes I am tempted to identify Ben as my foster-to-adopt child. Not because I don’t consider him to be my forever child, the child who will either cheer me in my retirement years or send me to an early grave, but as a simple shorthand: “He came to us through foster care” is code for “He’s had a tough life, and we are decent people, so please forgive us for what he just did to your darling angel.” While I simply call him “my son” in his presence, if what he’s just done is really embarrassing or heinous, I just might try to work his history in as an aside, with heavy violins to evoke sympathy rather than a lawsuit.
What I’m more apt to do is refer to myself as an adoptive mother, my own proviso: I went through a lot to get here to this supervisory spot on the play- ground, and I am not a bad parent. Yes, that looks like my third-grader having a screaming meltdown in K-Mart, and you question what kind of ineffectual mother would allow this to continue, but please consider his first six years and give me a hip bump that he’s using no profanity and isn’t trying to steal anything.
Ben doesn’t have much from his first six years, so I save what I can, including his first voice mail message to us a few days after we’d met, in which he says, “Hi, Pat. Hi, Jen,” and asks if can come over and maybe play guitar and Legos with us. When I listen to the message now, almost three years later, to hear his baby voice call me Jen shocks me almost as much as if he’d called me one of the other names he was so fond of that first year.
Sadly, conferring the title on me meant taking it away from someone else. We asked his birth mother to stop signing her rare cards to him as “Mommy.” When he’d made his own choice to call me his mother, it was too confusing to Ben to get cards from a “Mommy” he no longer remembered and who had done very little of his mothering. His social worker suggested that for both of Ben and his birth mother’s sakes, it was better that they move on to a new stage in their relation- ship, signified by her no longer calling herself Mommy. We offered to give him as many cards as she chose to send but requested that she sign them with her first name (which thankfully isn’t Jennifer). She stopped writing him altogether. I can understand the value she put on that single word and how impossible it would feel to go back.
* * *
A few years ago, I had accepted without misgiving that the neonatal and baby years would not be part of my mothering experience (although I still haven’t lost the “sympathetic pregnancy” weight gain). And yet, they undeniably provide a deep bonding that endures, helping a mother get through sleepless nights, teething, and teenage hormones. How to bond when detachment and mistreatment came first?
“Mom! Watch this! Watch me, Mommy! Did you see me, Mom?” goes a long way towards mending that gap.
I must be careful about the baggage and weight I give these issues, though. For all that he experienced more in six years than I did in forty-three, he’s just a kid. One day, when he was going through a particularly rough spell, and the therapist had given him quite a lecture about his going to kid’s jail if he didn’t turn it around, I thought that perhaps Ben needed some validation and reassurance. I gave him a big spiel about how he was my son, my only son, the only son I ever wanted, and the only son I would ever have. Oh, a big, bonding moment to cherish! Full string section! Applause! Hankies!
Ben looked back at me and said, “What’s for dinner, Mom?”
Some names and identifying details have been changed.
Author’s Note: I assumed that Ben would want to keep his middle name as well as his first name, but just before his adoption was finalized, I thought of a new middle name that had been used by both my husband’s and my side of the family. I loved this name and the idea of being able to name Ben in a way that would further unify us as a forever family. I would be crushed if he didn’t like it, but it had to be Ben’s choice. Fortunately, he loved it, too. He used to just write “Ben” on his papers, but now he writes his new full name in big letters across the top of everything.
Jennifer D. Munro is a freelance editor whose essays and stories have appeared in more than sixty publications, including Best American Erotica; the best of Literary Mama anthology; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories is her fiction collection about the lighter side of sex and the sexes. She blogs about marriage, miscarriage, motorcycling, and motherhood at StraightNoChaserMom.com.