There’s a baby in Emily Brownlow’s tummy. Emily Brownlow babysits for my daughter Saskia most Friday mornings so we’ve been watching her belly rise like dough in a bowl and talking about the baby inside. The timing’s good for us—to see this belly rise, and mull that whole “where babies come from” question. Saskia turns three in about a month, around the time Emily Brownlow’s baby will be born. The timing’s good for us not because Saskia’s going to have a baby brother or sister—we are not, Saskia’s the fourth, our eldest is fifteen and we are done with babies—but because Saskia is adopted and Emily Brownlow’s belly provides an opportunity to talk about birth and babies—and adoption.
Through Emily Brownlow, we kind of “get” the idea that babies grow in tummies. Through Jamie Lee Curtis’ Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born we kind of “get” adopted. Putting those two ideas together, though, that’s harder.
The little girl’s story in Tell Me Again is about a closed adoption: the adoptive parents say the first mom couldn’t be a mom and the baby flies home from the hospital with her new parents, their family a neat, pretty triangle. Our family isn’t really like that, with four kids and five grandparents from us, plus the mother Saskia doesn’t know as her mother, and aunts, uncles, cousins plus four more grandparents...
Saskia knows her birth mother, Caroline, as Auntie Cece. While she knows her grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins on that side, all those connections elude most two year-olds. She knows things like, “Grandma Lisa has two dogs at her house,” or “Liz and Bob’s house has a small crib and a big bathtub.” I am the Mama and my husband is the Papa; we don’t really require parents because we are the parents. Caroline suggested that Saskia call her Auntie Cece the way her nieces and nephews do. Maybe it fits, in terms of the kind of relationship they have when they see each other. But it doesn’t speak to the essential mother role Caroline plays.
Last night we had dinner with Auntie Cece, Aunt Margaret, cousins Sydney and Adam, and one set of grandparents, Janet and Jacques. Saskia had a grand time eating plenty of pasta with cheese, hamming it up for her audience, wandering the restaurant and meeting all the babies there and opening wonderful presents from the family she accepts as her family although she does not understand the relationships much beyond very nice to me.
Yet, clearly, she sort of understood something was up. Because at bedtime, she told me this: “When I was a baby at the hospital, I was small.” We’ve talked about babies and hospitals before. It did not seem coincidental that after seeing Caroline, she brought the hospital up again.
I asked whether she knew whose belly she was in when she was born at the hospital. She pointed to me. Huh. I took a deep and I hoped upbeat breath. “I would have loved you to be in my tummy,” I said. “But you were in Auntie Cece’s tummy before you born and your Mama and your Papa were at the hospital, too, waiting for you, and we were so happy to be there to hold you right away.” I paused. Her dark eyes were wide, and trained upon mine. I tried to look relaxed and assured, as I continued, “Your Mama and Papa took you home from the hospital right to your brothers.”
She asked, “Did we go home in our car?”
I answered, “It was a different car, a station wagon, before we had a van that could fit us all.”
It really didn’t matter that she’d heard the Auntie Cece part before. It was like the first hearing. It was somehow real.
She looked sad, her mouth drooping down, her eyes shiny although not wet. She hugged me a few minutes later and I asked, “Are you sad about the bellies? Whose belly did you want to be in?” She pointed to me. I hugged her closer and said, “I was right there when you were born and I was your Mama right away. And I was so happy to be your Mama." ***
All the questions that could follow about did Auntie Cece really want me are a ways off. Saskia has a Mama and a Papa and she doesn’t want it another way.
A few minutes later though, Remy came in (he is eight) and Saskia told him, “I was at the hospital and I was born and after Auntie Cece’s tummy I went to Mama and Papa and then we went home in a different car.” Phew. ***
Right now, Emily Brownlow’s baby is letting us talk about tummies and mommies and how I came to be Saskia’s Mama in a more complicated way than some mamas get to be mamas. Later, I imagine that pregnant women and birthdays and all kinds of little things I can’t yet imagine will sometimes sting, the way learning about the tummies was sad for Saskia. I will keep telling her how happy I was to become her Mama—and hope my words and my arms will be enough for her. ***
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser writes a blog, Standing in the Shadows, at the Valley Advocate site. She has contributed to various newspapers and publications including Child Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Southwest Review, and the anthology The Maternal is Political, edited by Shari MacDonald Strong. Sarah lives in Northhampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children.