When I dreamed of becoming a mother, I never imagined being a parent with broken Spanish strings. In fact, my linguistic understanding of it was limited to a sprinkle of vocabulary and beginner classes at a community college. I had no idea that my initiation into parenting would depend on embracing the Latino / a culture and the beauty of the Spanish language.
It had been a trying year both in my personal life and in the politics of our country. Within months, I had undergone two surgeries to diagnose and remove endometriosis and a wedge ovarian resection to treat polycystic ovary syndrome. After the second operation, my desire for a child was exhausted with despair and uncertainty.
At the same time, the political climate in our country was a source of division. Immigration policy was a particularly busy debate as families were systematically separated at our borders. As I sat in the doctor’s office pondering the realities of my empty stomach, child asylum seekers waited in detention centers. These two realities would soon collide with a very unconventional invitation to motherhood.
The day we first heard about a foster care program called Refugio, I was left mesmerized by the opportunity before me. I realized I was having a cautiously happy reunion with an old, abandoned friend: Hope. Refugio offered short-term placements for unaccompanied minors at the border. The foster parents had to come forward until reunification with the child’s family was possible. My heart skipped a beat as I imagined the distant possibility of tiny feet treading our house. I turned to my husband, David, and prayed that saying these words out loud would not break the tender web of hope that weaved in my heart. “I want to do this,” I whispered.
During an information session later in the month, my husband and I were briefed on the logistics of the program. We quickly understood the reality that made us, quite possibly, the least qualified family in the room: the language barrier. As the children in this program sought asylum in various Central American countries, Spanish was their primary language. Explaining our very limited Spanish, we asked if we should even apply. In the end, we were told the need was great and that we should proceed if we were interested.
We continued with the countless hours of paperwork and were the first host family approved for the program. Hope continued to creep into my heart. Maybe motherhood isn’t all about having a positive pregnancy test. Maybe I would become a mother after all.
No more silent nights
As we entered the gravel driveway on that sunny December afternoon, my body was tensed with impatience. I had wanted to be a mother for so long that my mind raced now as I prepared to meet our adopted 2 year old daughter, Maria. It did not matter that this entry into parenthood was atypical. It was our journey, and ours alone, that propelled us through the heavy metal door of the church crib.
Do we have to have silent nights of attentive prayer to meet God?
Amid my anticipatory nervousness, I reminded myself over and over again that her arousal wouldn’t match mine. After all, my joy went hand in hand with his grief. After the introductions and a short briefing on logistics, legal documents and car seats, we returned home as parents for the first time.
That evening, Maria was inconsolable and terrified of being housed with complete strangers. My many years of babysitting could not have prepared me for the cries of desolation and fear that flowed from the little soul entrusted to our care.
A few days later, during our church’s Christmas Eve service, the choir sang a breathtaking arrangement of “Silent Night”. I caught David’s attention and we tried to stifle our laughter. In this new season of life, our reality contrasted comically with the lyrics of this song.
Do we have to have silent nights of attentive prayer to meet God? I wondered how Mary’s life had changed with the arrival of Jesus. What if the quiet nights were exchanged for welcoming the holy families living among us? With firm resolve, I decided to trade in my idealization of silent nights for the noise that accompanies joy.
Meet God in Uncertainty
A powerful lesson that the love of Maria taught me is that we are not called to hold children only within the tight confines of our embrace. Being a parent is an art of letting go all the time. Each stage of development is another way for parents to liberate their children more deeply into this beautiful, chaotic and sometimes terrifying world. If we hold on to our children forever, how will they learn to walk, to venture, to explore?
Maria’s case has been lengthened several times due to factors beyond our control. In three separate weeks we were prepared to say that “this is the week” Maria would be reunited with her mother. The emotional roller coaster of getting ready for farewell and not knowing how much time we have left was unlike anything I’d ever known. In the end, I learned that all I could do was cherish each day with her as a gift. After weeks of looming uncertainty, we got the call that Maria was coming home.
What if quiet nights were exchanged for welcoming the holy families among us?
Within its reach, life contains so many different seasons. Each represents people, places and models. Our season with Maria lasted three months. She was the first child to invite me to become a mother. Her big brown eyes, her rounded belly and her plump cheeks are forever etched in my soul.
Maria’s scary cries permeated our farewells. His absence brought a deafening silence that I could feel pulsing in the walls of our house and which was confirmed deep within my throbbing soul. In turn, the gifts of motherhood and hope that her presence brought so abundantly were also planted deep in my soul. After Maria left our family to be reunited with hers, I became pregnant with my first biological child.
Many ways to be a mother
Including Maria, David and I were fortunate enough to welcome four children before the Houston Refugio program lost funding and came to an abrupt end. Each child was a unique gift to our family, teaching us the determined stamina that runs in the blood of child asylum seekers. Ultimately, this experience taught me that there is more than one way to be a mother.
As I now prepare our home for our first biological child, I find little relics from the lives of our foster children: extra jackets that wouldn’t fit in suitcases, little white shoes Maria was wearing, colorful confetti stars. that an older adopted daughter has piled up in the bathroom sink, and photographs that continue to linger on our fireplace. As we prepare for a new set of tiny fingerprints on our hearts and in our home, I pray that the old ones never go away completely.
Each child was a unique gift to our family, teaching us the determined stamina that runs in the blood of child asylum seekers.
Recently I had a dream in which Maria came to us again. Still pregnant with my first biological child, I hugged her to my growing baby and tried to breathe in her familiar scent. Despite the vividness of the dream, there was no trace of the smell I wanted. Even still, I remained captivated by it. Maria’s short, chubby legs grew longer with age as she pulled away from me, but she never lost the sparkle in her eyes.
As I travel from one form of motherhood to another, I keep a close eye on the many lessons Maria taught me. Without a doubt in my heart, she paved the way for the growing baby in me. May the love we shared with Maria grow exponentially forever as my body and heart grow to embrace another first in parenthood: my first biological daughter.
This article also appears in the January 2022 issue of US Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 1, pages 17-19). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash / Rod Long