Somewhere in a parallel reality, I am the mother of two beautiful girls. Like me, their hair was white blonde when they were little, darkening as they grew older, and their noses freckle in the sun. Their voices and laughter fill my home and my heart. As all kids, they also fight and sometimes frustrate me, but always, there is a core of unconditional love. There, in that world, I am their mother first and everything comes after.
But here, in our reality, I am not a mother. In the annual ramp-up to Mother’s Day, everything that wasn’t comes back and haunts me. I hear the echoes of the laughter of those parallel girls of mine and the ache of what never was, can never be, overwhelms me again.
When I was 17 years old, my then-rheumatologist told me that my juvenile arthritis was the “genetic kind.” I’d been sick since age four in an era of no treatments and by the time I sat in his office, I was unable to walk and used a wheelchair. Having already lived with pain and inflammation for over a decade, I decided then and there to never risk passing this awful thing on to anyone else. To never have a child of my own. Today, we know that the risk of passing on autoimmune arthritis to your children is quite low and advances in treatment enable many women to have healthy pregnancies and children. But back then, I had to go with the information I was given.
Luckily, there is more than one way to have kids and I was sure this was the way to go. I pivoted to adoption, but given how severely I had been affected, knew I would need a spouse on board to help raise my active and inventive children-to-be.
It was a pretty simple plan, but so much got in the way. My condition deteriorated, romances derailed, and then my health deteriorated again. It was much, much later that I finally found a medication to control the inflammation and also found the love of my life. But by then, it was too late for kids. It is now known that the risk of passing on autoimmune arthritis to your children is low, but unlike 50-ish celebrities who can afford nannies, I have to be realistic: My middle-aged self does not have the energy to chase after a toddler.
And really, I have come to terms with it. Or rather, I have learned the futility of wishing for something that never happened and the heartbreak that brings. I try to look at what I have, not at what could never be mine. Because I choose joy, rather than living in misery.
But still, Mother’s Day is hard. This time of year, we are surrounded by a sea of pink calligraphy, jewelry, and heart-shaped chocolate boxes, all emblazoned with poetic odes making it clear that there is nothing in this world like being a mother. When you aren’t one, could never be one, it chips tiny pieces off your heart every time you see another display.
I don’t live in that place of psychic pain. When Mother’s Day is done, those wounds scab over and the voices of my parallel girls become quiet yet again. With the exception of those few weeks in May, I focus on being grateful for the children who are here, in my life already, and very real.
My friends and my sister have shared their children with me. I am privileged to be a second mom, a godmother, a crazy aunt, and an older friend to a clutch of wonderful kids, most of whom are now in their teens and beyond. I have held them as babies, comforted and laughed with them as toddlers, held their hands as they grow older, hold their hearts in mine always.
These children, teens, most now adults, have shaped me in ways I never could have imagined. I am more accepting, more loving, and laugh more because of them (and also have a few more wrinkles and grey hairs because of them). I am not their parent as such, but they are my children nonetheless. Because of them, I have experienced mothering, the role and the tasks, the worries and the love. When they have kids of their own, I will hold their babies, hold the hands of their children, and forever hold them all in my heart.
I have the great honor of having shaped them, too. Every single one of “my” kids are uniquely considerate of people who have varying needs. These young people are gentle and caring and not at all thrown by disability or wheelchairs. I know that this trait they have in common is because of me. Because I was part of their lives, have an understanding that many others don’t. I have faith in them, their future, and in how they will shape the world.
Being part of a child’s life is not limited to raising a child of your own. Family isn’t defined by blood—it grows and fills with friends who become part of your family, their children, and other souls you’re lucky to meet on your journey through life. All these fates knit together, creating a vast and colourful cloth of connections that wrap you in love.
This Mother’s Day, I will celebrate with the kids who love me and whom I love dearly. I know there’ll be texts from the ones I call my “pretend sons,” a call with my goddaughter, and a Skype session with my sister’s children, full of love and silly jokes. This year, I will banish the ache of what could have been and instead focus on the overwhelming love right in front of me.