I only needed one more thing and my shopping would be done. A birthday card for a friend was the last item on my list and I had procrastinated buying it. This time of year, any card store, drug store, and supermarket is a sea of pink calligraphy and heart-shaped chocolate boxes, all emblazoned with poetry for Mother’s Day. And being immersed in this is hard for me. Because I don’t have children. Couldn’t have children. Because I have a chronic illness.
I am a not a mother. When I was 17 years old, a doctor told me that my juvenile arthritis was the “genetic kind.” That was the moment I decided to never have biological children. I’d adopt, I thought, deciding that when I found the man for me, we would together love at least one child, maybe more.
So much got in the way — first a lack of a partner and then my condition deteriorated. Much later, medical science found out that although autoimmune arthritis has a genetic component, the actual risk of passing it on to your children is relatively small. Much later still, I finally found a medication to control my disease and also found the love of my life. But by then it was too late to have a family of my own.
Somewhere in a parallel reality I am the mother of two beautiful girls. Like me, their hair was a white blonde when they were little, darkening as they grew older, and their noses freckle in the sun. Their voices and their laughter fill my house and my heart. They struggle, too, and sometimes drive me crazy, but always, there is a core of unconditional love. There, I am their mother first and everything comes after.
But here, in this reality, I am not a mother. And really, I have come to terms with it. Or rather, I have learned the futility of wishing for something that never happened, will never happen, and the heartbreak that brings. I try to look at what I have, not at what could never be mine. Because I choose joy, not misery.
Still, in this ramp-up to Mother’s Day, everything that wasn’t comes back and haunts me like the restless ghosts of children who never came to be. I hear the echoes of the laughter of those parallel girls of mine and the scars on my soul rip open and bleed again.
I don’t live in that place. When Mother’s Day is done, those wounds scab over and quiet again. Being part of a child’s life is not limited to a child of your own. And in that, I am lucky. My friends and my sister have shared their children with me. I am privileged to be a second mom, a godmother, a crazy aunt to wonderful children, most of whom are now in their teens and beyond. I have held them as babies, held their hands as they grew older, hold their hearts in mine always.
These children, teens, and now adults have shaped me in ways I’d never imagined. And I have been allowed to contribute to shaping them into wonderful individuals. All of them are uniquely sensitive and considerate of people with varying needs, as well as not being phased at all when meeting someone who has a disability.
I know that this trait they have in common is because of me. Because I was a part of their lives, they have an understanding that many others don’t. And I have faith in them and in their future. Whatever their choices, each will live their lives and change the world in a slightly different way because of the way we loved each other. And I know that when they find love and 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 do have a family of my own after all — one filled with biological relatives, friends who became part of the family, and children born of others. Family isn’t defined by blood; it is created through love and also through choice.
The longing for my parallel girls still dogs me around Mother’s Day, but the text from the young man I call my “pretend son,” the Skype call with my goddaughter, and the hugs and silly jokes from my sister’s kids do a lot to ease the ache.
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Lene Andersen is the Community Leader for HealthCentral’s RA Community. Lene (pronounced Lena) is an award-winning writer, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. She’s written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Follow Lene on Twitter @TheSeatedView and on Facebook. Watch her story on HealthCentral.