by Joy Sawyer-Mulligan
Shared in my monthly newsletter this week, this beautiful essay is my top pick for Mother’s Day reading this weekend.
I’d been warned.
“Someday, you know, she’s going to tell you you’re not her mother.”
The counselor looked at me, hard; I looked right back, not wanting to believe she was right, but knowing she was. “OK. I can handle that. I mean, in one way, I’m not. It’s just a kind of truth, right?”
But it wasn’t a truth I had any experience with. My female kinfolk claimed the robust end of the fertility spectrum. My mother was pregnant ten times. My older sister could launch a pregnancy simply by clicking her heels and spinning three times. Magic.
Not I. A flamboyantly ruptured appendix followed by a dose of Clomid that blew up one ovary to the size of a Florida grapefruit had left me with a bunch of tangled innards, a cat’s cradle of scar tissue. Eventually, a straight-talking ob-gyn doctor calculated our chances of joining egg to sperm at 14%. That’s a number sort of like your SAT scores: it sticks with you, especially if it’s way below the median.
But outside the doctor’s high-rise office, in the bright SoCal sunshine, my optimistic, glass-half-full husband said, “It’s okay. We’ll adopt.” I took the sun’s glinting off steel and windows in precisely that moment as a sign. Yes. Yes, we’ll make our family that way.
And now, five years as wife-husband-and-beautiful-child, a therapist was laying it out baldly: I had become a mother, but not 100% — at least not to my daughter. As a concept, our daughter’s biological mother Susan was present in our lives. But it’s a law of physics, the Pauli Exclusion Principle: two objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously. If it is true with matter, I could accept that it might be true with a little heart — room for only one of us mothers in that thar town. Yet after all my practice bracing myself for her saying it, after my rehearsals of a rational yet empathetic response, the ringing “You’re not my mother!” hurt. The right words came calmly out of my mouth — ”I am your mother, and so is Susan” — even as the arrow found home. Read the full essay…
Joy Sawyer-Mulligan has been an educator for over 30 years. After earning her undergraduate degree at Colby College and graduate degree at Middlebury College, Joy taught at St. Paul’s School (New Hampshire) and at Choate-Rosemary Hall (Connecticut) before moving to The Thacher School in Ojai, California in its second year of co-education. She has worn many hats at the Thacher School, currently the English Department Chair, teaching 9th and 12th grade English and advising sophomore girls. For Joy, recreation is a hyphenated word, and means writing, reading, hiking, and singing.