mother: (v.) to care for or protect like a mother; act maternally toward.
I have not been able to find a job in five months. This is radically unusual for me. I would be even more confused and concerned were it not becoming increasingly clear to me that the universe has assigned me a job — right now my job is to mother. And, more specifically, to mother James’ three children — Jay, a 13-year-old boy; Chelsea, who is almost-11-years-old: and Chloe, aged 7 1/2.
Now, in a blended family situation, the step-mother necessarily assumes some mothering responsibilities, which are easily enumerated and the focus of countless books. But there is no book for the kind of mothering I am providing to these children.
For the last six years, since their parents’ divorce, the children have lived with their mother in another state — let’s say Georgia — for most of the year, returning to their hometown and Dad for eight weeks in the summer and every school vacation. Despite this pathetically small amount of time in Colorado, they consider it their real home and their dad to be their primary parent. Unfortunately the courts don’t agree. At least not yet.
For the last five years, the children have been seeing a well-known and respected child psychologist when they come to Colorado, and she has been quietly wringing her hands as their situation out-of-state with their mother has become more difficult, more dangerous, and more heartbreaking. Their therapist has listened to their sad and angry young voices detail their mother’s neglect, selfishness, and abusive boyfriends, all the while knowing that she didn’t quite have a legal basis to file a report.
Until this summer.
This summer, the children arrived as usual and went to see their therapist to unload several months’ worth of private angst, frustration, and disappointment. As usual, they begged her not to make them go back to their mom’s house. As usual, they all reported, separately, the same sad stories of her parties and drinking and how they feel that they are the lowest priority in her life. But this time, they also must have said something a bit different… shared something slightly worse than was typical… revealed an infraction that was, finally, a firm basis for a report under mandatory reporting laws.
The therapist wasted no time filing a report with the mother’s state department of social services. The intake worker at first seemed fairly nonchalant while receiving the therapist’s report, but very shortly, most likely after a review of police calls to the home, the investigation kicked into high gear. And we and the children were thrust into the frightening and bureaucratic world of child abuse investigations.
It was what we had been waiting for all along. The allegations were no surprise to us, but they were heart-wrenching and sickening. And the matter-of-fact way in which all three children were able to detail the nature and frequency of their mother’s infractions was breathtaking. Yesterday, James and I sat in a child advocacy center for several hours while, downstairs, his children did for themselves what we have not been able to do for them: they demanded the attention of authorities tasked with protecting their well-being. They were forthright and honest and composed. And they likely changed their futures, one way or another.
And now, as the legal repercussions swirl around us, we fiercely try to maintain some kind of “normal” for the children. My daughters know what is happening, and they are as protective and nurturing of Jay, Chelsea, and Chloe as James and I are. As a family, we are completely focused on validating and supporting these three achingly-young children as they enter a governmental system that is more powerful and more arbitrary than they can possibly realize. Should they be required to return to Georgia at the end of the summer, they will face a mother whose fury and vindictiveness they are well-acquainted with and terrified of. If they are forced to go back, after all they revealed and all the trust they placed in anonymous adults who promised to help them, I fear they are likely to give up. I fear she will finally break their amazing, resilient spirits.
And if they stay, every single aspect of their lives would change: schools, friends, everything. Their mother would likely fly into a rage and spew all sorts of venom and hatefulness at them. James and I would do our best to protect them, of course, but the allegations are unlikely to warrant a complete termination of parental rights, so the force of her anger would likely be felt.
So this is where I am living this summer: in emotional limbo. I love these children as if they were my own, and they love me back. Before James and I even moved in together, Chelsea asked if she could call me “Mom.” I responded that she could call me anything she wanted, as long as it was kind. She beamed. Chloe quickly followed suit. I have watched them, as they call me “Mommy,” trying the word on their tongues. I have seen their little grins of pleasure when I respond as I would to my own girls, and those grins make my heart ache. Jay, when he’s not busy with his friends, hovers around me, telling me about music and movies and pretends to be appalled at my lack of coolness. But he also asks me to visit him to when he’s getting ready for bed (not to tuck him in, of course, because “that’s for babies and little kids”), and we play basketball whenever we can. Chelsea is my little shadow — a recent target of her mother’s derision, she blossoms when I tell her how smart and accomplished she is. And then there’s Chloe. Little Chloe. Despite being her mother’s favorite and avoiding the worst of her actions, Chloe cried to James recently, telling him that I am the only “real mother” she has and she doesn’t want to have to leave us.
What am I to do with these children? I have so very little control over their fates. And if things between James and I don’t improve, I could lose them forever regardless of the court’s decision. I am not their mother, and I do not endeavor to replace her. But I would like very much to take those spaces in their lives into which she pours fear and uncertainty and sadness and backfill them with kindness and support and affirmation. So I do the only thing I really can: I love them fiercely. I kiss and hug them often. I point out special and amazing and important attributes they have and accomplishments they achieve. I discipline them with love and honesty. I say prayers with them at night and talk to them about the guardian angels who I know guard them always, and especially when they are in Georgia. I tell them, over and over again, how much I love and admire them, even when they make me angry. And I hope and I pray that some small morsel of my mothering will sink in and carry them forward through the difficult days that lie ahead.
I feel helpless when I stare at the road before them. But then I remember that I have these weeks, these few precious weeks, to pour as much good stuff into them as I can, before the hurricane blowing towards us sucks them in. I try to be present and aware in each moment we have together. I ignore my phone and email. My house gets messy. My only goal is to never look back and regret that I could have done more.
As I’ve been writing this, the kids have been playing near me in my office, all five of them. Now it’s bedtime and there are five small foreheads to kiss, and five small bodies to hug, and five small souls to pray over.
Five small people to mother.