Every year on Mother’s Day, Sydne Didier sends her own message of thanks to her son’s birth mother and foster mother.
The last time I mentioned her, we were playing badminton. As so often happens when I watch him move, so smooth and confident in his body, I think of her.
“I wonder if your birth mother is athletic like you,” I said.
He stopped, shuttlecock in one hand, racket in the other.
“You do realize,” he said, “that I have absolutely no interest in that, don’t you? Can we play?”
My son is not obsessed with his birth mother, but I am.
Twelve years ago, on Mother’s Day, my husband and I were in South Korea to meet our son. Across the world from our home, and jetlagged in a way we hadn’t known possible, we became parents. And somewhere, in that same country, a woman did not know that the child she had carried was getting ready to leave.
Since that time, I have wondered. Since the 30 hours of plane travel back to Massachusetts, since the work of caring for an infant, then toddler, then kid, and now tween, since helping a reluctant student with homework, and since a return visit to Korea, I have wondered about her.
I calculate her age and put pieces of her life together in my mind. Does she have other children? What does she do for work? Where does she live now? Does she have love in her life? What does she look like? Does she imagine him?
She is the invisible mother who is always there.
On that Mother’s Day 12 years ago, as we prepared to leave Korea, my husband and I were invited to visit our son at his foster parents’ home. After calling our own mothers, we spent the day in a Seoul apartment with a family we now consider an extension of our own.
Our son’s Umma and Appa, or mother and father, spoke almost no English, and our Korean was limited to a few restaurant phrases. And yet, we spent seven hours together. Their children knew some slang English and we giggled together. We shared a seemingly endless supply of food and toasted one another with Soju, a Korean rice liquor. Our child’s foster mother taught us how to comfort our son, how to change his diaper, and where to put the cream on his dry cheeks. We fed him.
We all cried, limited by language and not able to articulate our reasons, but clear on the sense of loss we all shared. I cried tears of gratitude for the love they had and continue to have for him. I cried for his loss and his birth parents, knowing that he would never again have quite the same relationship with them or with the country of his birth. And yet, we stayed in the moment as a baby can make you do with a burp or a smile, making us all laugh again.
His foster mother let us spend our first moments alone with him, giving us time in her bedroom as she and her family spent their first moments without him. The following day would be their last with him, and the start of our life as a family.
We transitioned together, two of his mothers sharing that Mother’s Day.
But there was and is another who will always be there.
Every day, I wear a necklace with the word Omoni inscribed on it. Korean for mother, it’s a constant reminder that I was not this child’s first mother. Before me, there were two others and they are still a part of our life.
How could they not be?
My son thinks this is dull.
Right now, I try to follow his lead, understanding that unless he discovered that his birth mother worked as a Lego designer, there’s no point of entry that appeals to him. He lives completely in the present.
Our conversation continued as we played, him beating me mercilessly, as he always does.
“Don’t you think about her sometimes?” I asked, “I do.”
“Nope,” he said, “Why would I?”
But I cannot help myself. I imagine her often and then, I imagine the two of us together. I dream of sitting with her to tell her how incredible this child is, how loved, how funny, how creative and strong and kind.
I want to tell her that sometimes, despite the intensity of my love for him, I question whether we did the right thing in removing him from the country of his birth. That as much as I cannot imagine my life without him, I ache for the losses both he and she had to bear.
Our game continued.
“Are you interested in Korea?”
“Of course!” he said, landing a shot well out of my reach.
“Because Korea’s awesome and has cool toys and great rides at Lotte World and super delicious food.” Our last visit, several years ago, had left a positive impression.
Even so, when I ask, “Should we start planning our next trip to Korea?” he answers, “Nah. I’d rather go to Bora Bora.” (I would also tell her that this boy, who has traveled around the world, is an amazing explorer.)
One of my jobs as mother to this child is to create space for these other mothers in our lives, to help him understand that he has a history and a past and that those women are a part of it. I want him to know that it’s OK to wonder.
But it’s also my job to remember that my imaginings about his birth mother and my desire to meet her are not his, and that I need to follow his lead while still giving her a place in the story of our family. And it’s my job to understand that this will be an evolutionary process, that his feelings about her, and his birth father, and his level of interest will change. Or won’t.
When I look at my necklace, I remember that regardless of my son’s current disinterest, I consider his birth mother to be an integral part of my parenting story. I picture her and wonder if she has the same beautiful red highlights in her hair as my son. I wonder if she has his “kissy lips,” and I wonder if she has his terrific sense of humor or fierce sense of loyalty.
And on Mother’s Day, in a private way, I honor her. I thank her, sending my own special message across the world to tell her he is safe. He is loved. And he is both of ours.
Then, I go outside with my wonderful son and he annihilates me on the badminton court once again.
Photo of the author, her husband and son
Sydne Didier is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She is currently at work on a memoir about her family experience with international adoption from South Korea. When not writing, she enjoys swimming long distances in open water and running as far as her dog will go.