Becoming His Mother
A mother is her baby’s first interpreter. She explains the world. She tells her children who they are. My mother’s words marked my life with guilt and doubt. She said, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” and I flushed and wanted to disappear. She told the nun who called to ask if my outspoken restlessness might indicate a problem, “No. She just doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.” When she said, “Your father and I didn’t know how lucky we were when we didn’t have children,” I understood that my disobedience was the reason for her unhappiness.
My mother, my first mirror, reflected only disappointment until I learned to look away. She mocked my dreams, smacked my head. The last time she hit me, I was twenty-one and due to marry two weeks later. When, at thirty, I left that husband, my mother said, “Who gave you the idea you should be happy in this life? That’s what heaven’s for.”
By then, I wasn’t listening. I’d finally decided to stop waiting for the next life and start living in this one.
Infertility overshadowed my second, happier marriage. When we decided to adopt, the remembered hum of my mother’s dissatisfaction grew loud in my head, clashing with the voice in my heart urging me forward. I wanted to be a good mother, better than my own. We chose a boy. There was less risk with a son that the past would trap me, less chance I would confuse him with my childhood self or my angry, frightened mother or my domineering grandmother—the unhappy women clawing at me like crabs in a steamer as I scrabbled past, seeking air and light.
This was the plan when I boarded the plane to Guatemala City to bring Luis home.
Humid air rolls through the cab, smelling of diesel and exhaust. The streets are mottled with evening shadows. From the back seat, I can feel the cab’s engine idling when we stop. The tiny fists of street children crowd the open window beside me, clutching tight red buds already bending toward death. Brown eyes watch me from beneath tangled black hair. High-pitched voices seek something in a language I can’t understand. The children are far too young to be wandering through traffic on darkening streets.
I lean forward in my seat so the driver can hear me through the clouded plexiglass that separates us. “What are they saying?”
“They want to sell you the roses.”
I begin fumbling for my wallet.
“Ignore them,” he says. His tone stops me, the reprimand clear.
The light changes and the cab lurches forward. The children barely have time to snatch their arms back. I want to save them all, but I may already be too late to claim even Luis.
Almost a week has passed since the adoption agency’s urgent call summoning us to assume custody of our child two months early. The Guatemalan police have begun raiding foster homes in a doomed attempt to stall much-needed reforms to the country’s adoption system. Some of the waiting babies are being transferred to orphanages; others are returning temporarily to their birth mothers. We can’t pack up and go on the day we get the call; the immigration paperwork isn’t finished, and the small legal-services project I run needs to be readied for my absence. Steve, my husband, stays behind to fast-track the documents we need to bring Luis home. My arrival is four days past the agency’s deadline.
Almost a week has passed since the adoption agency’s urgent call summoning us to assume custody of our child two months early. The Guatemalan police have begun raiding foster homes in a doomed attempt to stall much-needed reforms to the country’s adoption system.
The cab drops me at the Hotel Casa Grande late Sunday evening. I register with the lone clerk in a seemingly deserted lobby. The stress of the trip fires up my anxieties. This adoption will fail because of my delay. Luis will grow up in an orphanage or be lost to the streets like the little flower sellers by the highway. Either way, I will bear the blame for his ruin.
My room, at the end of a dim hallway next to the hotel kitchen, is worn, almost seedy. I heave two large suitcases onto the bed and begin untangling myself from the straps of the smaller bags slung across my shoulders. A furtive tap at the door makes me jump. I open it only as far as the brass chain will allow. A slender woman with tired eyes stands on the other side of the flimsy barrier. Her shoulders slump forward with the weight of the drowsy baby in her arms.
“I’m Lillian,” the woman says. “I work with Rosa.” Rosa is our Guatemalan adoption lawyer. I open the door.
Lillian’s face, just visible above the top of the baby’s head, is pale. Her expression echoes my fatigue and worry.
“I knew it was you,” she says, tilting her head toward the umbrella stroller strapped to my luggage, “so I followed you. I didn’t want to give you the baby in the lobby. Here he is.”
She hands Luis to me without ceremony, puts his few belongings on the bed.
“He has diarrhea,” she says. “He’ll need to see a pediatrician right away.” She speaks as if she is reciting a list from memory. Working quickly while she talks, she pulls a can of powdered formula out of a bag and shows me how to mix his bottles. “Call Rosa in the morning. She’ll bring the adoption papers tomorrow.”
“Wait,” I say. “What doctor should he see?”
She is already out the door. “Rosa will give you a name when you call her,” she says without turning back.
Luis squirms and slides lower in my arms. I hike him up and feel the heat rising from his sturdy body. He smells faintly of cornstarch and bleach.
This is how my first son comes to me.
I began thinking about being a mother the year I turned seven, after my brother was born and I was no longer the baby of the family. My docile dolls bored me, but Ray didn’t. He was always in motion, lips pursing, fingers grasping, legs pedaling. Even asleep, he held my rapt attention. The gentle pulsing of his fontanel was proof of his life unfolding, separate from mine. Motherhood seemed wondrous.
I was not the only one affected by his arrival. A baby can strain and change everyone in a family.
My father used to sing my sister Diane and me to sleep. Crouched between our twin beds, he crooned “Toyland” and “Daddy’s Little Girl.” In those moments, it was easy to imagine I was his star as I drifted into sleep. Then, one Sunday night during the winter Ray was an infant, something in my father snapped. The ride home from my grandparents’ seemed longer than the hour it took. Perhaps I was too hot or too itchy, both common complaints. Perhaps we left too soon after eating and I felt carsick. My father told me to be quiet. I whined and whined, and when he told me to shut up, I didn’t.
I was not the only one affected by his arrival. A baby can strain and change everyone in a family.
When we got home, my father dragged me from the back seat of the car and whacked me several times, harder than I’d ever been hit by either of my parents. He paused to unlock the back door of our row house so my sister and my mother, holding baby Ray, could get out of the cold. I hurried in the door behind them, but he wasn’t done with me yet. He hit me again and again while I yelled for him to stop and struggled to escape his grip. I broke free, ran the two flights up to the bedroom I shared with my sister, slammed the door, and hid in our closet.
He didn’t follow. My mother found me cowering on the floor among the shoes. She took off my wool coat and matching snow pants, and then lifted my skirt and petticoat. Under all those layers, my thigh was bright red from the beating. Ever after, my father told me what happened that night was my fault. “You brought out the worst in people,” he said. When I was seven, I believed him.
The following spring, the time came for me to make my first communion. Over the winter, I had become too fat to wear my older sister’s hand-me-down dress. My grandmother was making a rare weekday visit to fit me for a new one. The weather was warm, and my mother, with Ray in his coach, met my sister and me after school. She mistakenly thought there would be enough time for us to walk to the town library before her mother arrived. That afternoon, I discovered a biography of Amelia Earhart. The fact that women could fly planes astonished me. I read all the way home, lagging further and further behind my family.
We came in by the basement door and found my grandmother sitting in a chair by the front door with the dress in her lap. She frowned, her eyes narrowing with a barely contained anger. We had kept her waiting, me longest of all. My fingers flew over buttons and zippers. My navy-blue uniform fell around my ankles as my grandmother yanked white eyelet over my head. She prodded and pinned while my mother fluttered around us nervously, like her parakeet did when anyone got close to his cage. I recognized my mother’s reaction, so like my own when I displeased her. She was afraid of her mother, too. It was a pattern, repeating itself.
As I stood between them, absorbing their anger and their fear, I began to wonder. If I became a mother, would the pattern be the same? Or could I change it? Amelia Earhart was a different kind of woman, one who was brave and learned to fly. Maybe when I grew up, I could be different, too, and my life wouldn’t be the same as my mother’s. Maybe a child of mine would not have to be afraid.
As I stood between them, absorbing their anger and their fear, I began to wonder. If I became a mother, would the pattern be the same? Or could I change it?
I began to look outside my family for the lessons I needed. The Sunday-school teacher I helped, a young mother with a shy, toothy smile and a pillbox hat, was quietly attentive to her daughters and the other preschoolers. I imitated her gentleness and drew the youngest children to me. Next-door neighbors showed me the creativity in homemaking and the pleasures of fresh-baked bread and homemade applesauce. An affectionate couple around the corner trusted me to babysit their growing family twice a week for four years. The arrival of each child increased the love in their marriage rather than diluting it.
As he got older, my brother offered me the chance to practice what I learned. I entertained him in his playpen and on the living-room floor. He introduced me to the world of dinosaurs. We hunted crayfish together. On summer evenings, I pushed his swing until the fireflies drifted up like embers from the tall grass in the park.
This new experience of love opened my heart and made me more compassionate. As I changed, I wanted my mother to change, too. But she held tightly to the strict ways she had learned from her mother, demanding obedience, expecting disappointment, fearing anything new. A poem I wrote was published in the local paper. She snorted at my impracticality and told me I’d better marry a rich man. When my interest shifted to being a lawyer, she said I should be a legal secretary instead. If I learned to type, I would never starve.
In opposing her, I became as stubborn and rigid as she was. Her control over me was weakening, yet she continued to hit me, as if violent force would keep me in line. My tears made her angrier, so I locked myself in the bathroom and buried my face in a towel when I cried.
I wanted to rest in my mother’s love as if it was a hammock holding me, soft and taut at the same time. Instead, there was only a stone-hard place. What she did wasn’t right, but I loved her and needed to believe that she loved me. I convinced myself that I deserved the physical discipline. Eventually I would learn to trust my instincts and see clearly what was good in myself and others. But throughout my teens and twenties, the effort to accept her distorted notion of love skewed my perceptions, confused my relationships. I experienced competing impulses toward love and self-protection, which left me isolated, numb, unable to act.
Alone in the hotel room, holding Luis in my arms, long-forgotten doubts immobilize my good intentions. My heart goes blank. All I know about caring for a baby is temporarily forgotten. His arrival feels sordid, like he has come to me as contraband, part of some back-alley deal. I take a deep breath and steady my heart. I lay Luis on the bed and begin to undress him. From beneath an embroidered bonnet, a blue sweater, a white dress shirt and a tiny, buttoned undershirt, the child I have chosen emerges. I am as ready to be his mother as I’ll ever be. My heart leaps, pinwheeling into love for him with no restraints. I hope all I have will be enough.
We muddle through the first few days and nights. I sterilize bottles in the tiny bathroom sink and eventually move us from the hotel basement to a large, sunny room on the second floor. I find a doctor who overlooks the absence of documents and treats his fever, pronounces him healthy. The promised adoption papers remain elusive. I carry the constant fear that our tenuous relationship will be exposed. The presence of armed soldiers on the sidewalks in front of the hotel feeds my unease. Despite the difficulties, Luis and I grow used to each other. I pay attention. He communicates what he needs and I respond. Caring for him is that simple.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, Rosa brings Estella, Luis’s mother, to meet me. I am barely five-foot-two, and still I tower over her tiny figure. Her face is broad like her son’s, but her skin is ruddy in contrast to his. Her black hair hangs to her waist in a single thick braid. She wears a plain white blouse and a bright skirt woven in horizontal stripes of green, black, pink, and yellow. Luis smiles when he sees her. I place him in her arms. Before long, he begins to fuss and reaches for me. My heart beats faster when she hands him back, but there is no time to savor his choice. When I look up from his face, Estella is crying.
She begins to speak softly and Rosa translates. She says she loves Luis, but she has no money to support him. I cry, too, and say I will tell him about her love. I promise to care for Luis as well as I can and show her a picture of Steve and me so she knows what his new father looks like. I hope she can see that we are a happy couple. Estella studies the picture, nods, and turns away to speak to Rosa in private.
“She has given you her blessing,” Rosa says. “She will come back to my office now and sign temporary custody papers.”
We muddle through the first few days and nights. I sterilize bottles in the tiny bathroom sink and eventually move us from the hotel basement to a large, sunny room on the second floor. I find a doctor who overlooks the absence of documents and treats his fever, pronounces him healthy.
I am awake for hours after the women leave. Before I came to Guatemala, I thought only about the babies who needed homes. Their mothers remained an abstract notion. When the agency steered us to Guatemala, we accepted their one-page summary of the program without asking many questions. I wanted the quick and convenient process that they promised. Grinding poverty seemed inevitable in Central America. I didn’t consider the impact of a decades-long war or the allegations of government atrocities against the Guatemalan people.
Meeting Estella, hearing her story, has made her as real to me as her son, flesh and bone and heart. Her love for him is undeniable. I cannot ignore the fact that the money we are spending on adoption fees and travel expenses would be enough, in her hands, to raise Luis herself. The bargain we have struck becomes unimaginable. My desire to be a mother will be fulfilled because she has renounced hers.
Who am I to ask this mother to give up her child?
On our sixth day together, when I wake up, Luis is watching me through the bars of his crib, brown eyes bright and focused above a wide, toothless grin. My heart expands like a flower blooming in a time-lapsed film. I see myself reflected in his eyes—recognized, worthy, claimed. I imagine him thinking, Why not? Let’s do this. You and me.
I lean on my elbow to watch him. His attention returns to the task of studying how his body works. He holds his wrists above his face and rotates them. He swings his right leg across his body, tries to roll towards me, and smiles again. We are forging a connection. There is room for joy today. I have papers to prove he is legally in my custody. My son is healthy. He has the right formula now, the right shampoo for his cradle cap. He is safe, and he is mine.
I mix a new bottle, sterilize the rest, sort the clothes that came back from the laundry, and settle him on my lap to feed. He falls asleep in my arms. I have no desire to move. There are no more worried calls to make. There is nothing left to do but love my son. I sniff his downy head, inhaling the scent of baby shampoo, talcum powder, and his own milky-sweet smell. His warm body rests solidly against me, anchoring me at last. I vow this baby will know that he is wanted and loved.
Hours later, I am called to the hotel lobby. Estella is back. From the top of the stairs, I see her below me, sitting on the sofa, surrounded by three somber men and another woman. I descend slowly with Luis in my arms, afraid that she has come with family or members of her church to say she’s changed her mind. Despite how much I love him, I know by the time I reach the bottom step that if she asks for his return, I will honor her request.
Instead, I am arrested.
Estella claims I stole Luis from her at a bus stop. My legal training does not help me here. I cannot represent myself, I do not speak the language, and the courts aren’t open on Friday afternoons. Before I am taken away, I insist on retrieving my passport and packing a bag of bottles and diapers for Luis. I give the arresting officer my only copy of the custody papers. Somewhere between leaving the hotel and arriving at police headquarters, the papers disappear. I plan to call Rosa, our lawyer, when I get to the station, but she is already there; she has been arrested, too.
Despite how much I love him, I know by the time I reach the bottom step that if she asks for his return, I will honor her request. Instead, I am arrested.
I spend three days in Santa Teresa, the women’s prison. Concrete bunks, cold showers, meals served from buckets twice a day. I can’t force myself to eat. Inmates with knife-slashed faces stroke my arms, my hair, and declare their love for me, la pobrecita blanca. I endure the absence of Luis. The sorrow cuts so deep, sometimes I can’t breathe.
There is too much time to think. On Sunday afternoon, a spool of painful memories unwinds while I pass the time in the prison courtyard. The recollection of one failure bleeds into the next. Scenes from the end of my first marriage replay in my head. He waits for me at the train station in the morning, says he hates me, runs away. In the marriage counselor’s office, I sit with my trench coat balled up in my lap; his legs are crossed, one foot kicking the air. The therapist urges us to reveal what we need from each other. Irate, my husband blurts: “She’s not supposed to need anything.”
Then his angry prediction, during one of our last arguments: “If you leave me, you’ll never have a child. You know that, don’t you? Never.”
The backward spiral ends where it always does, with memories of my mother. All the angry voices begin to sound like hers, assigning blame, passing judgment. “This is what you get for trying to be happy.”
I sit on the wall with my darkest memories strewn about like salvage from a wreck. There is no escape—from Santa Teresa or the prison of my thoughts. An inner darkness overtakes me. I give in to the babble of shame and guilt; within moments of surrender they are gone, taking my mother’s voice with them. In the silence that remains, I find a measure of peace.
In this place, finally, I know that I am enough.
My release, when it is arranged, is conditional. I am not allowed to leave the country without libertad simple; I can’t get simple liberty until Estella withdraws her complaint. Embassy investigators search for days before they find Estella and bring her back to the capital.
She confirms that I did not steal Luis. She gave him up voluntarily. When the police began raiding foster homes, the agency sent Luis back to her for a few days. Their brief reunion gave Estella the idea that she could change her mind. She cooperated with the police in the hope of reclaiming her son.
During her interview with the investigators, Estella agrees to withdraw her complaint and allow the adoption to continue. I begin to imagine Luis in my arms again. Then she makes her sworn statement and has another change of heart. She retracts the accusations, but when she is asked if the adoption can be completed, Estella says, “No.”
Estella doesn’t understand the impact of that one word. Without her consent, I cannot complete the adoption, but she cannot take Luis home. Her parental rights were terminated at an earlier stage of the adoption proceedings. Luis belongs to Guatemala now. He is sent to an orphanage. I go home alone.
In the days following my return, I go through the motions of resuming my former life, but I no longer fully inhabit my body. Part of me watches the days go by from behind an invisible barrier that muffles all my senses. People flock around me to ask what prison was like. Inside, I duck and turn away from them. My public shell deflects their curiosity with flip comments. “It was nothing like Midnight Express,” I say, referring to a dark movie about an American jailed in a Turkish prison on drug charges. “More like a third-rate Girl Scout camp.”
No one asks about Luis.
A few weeks pass. I walk up Oxford Avenue from the Margaret-Orthodox El stop, lugging home a briefcase full of papers I will ignore again tonight. Work has long been my refuge, but it has lost the power to distract me. The emptiness of my arms stops me right there on the street. The pain of Luis’s physical absence, of being unmoored from his small weight, stabs my chest, sharp and hot. I drop my bag on the sidewalk and close my eyes. I don’t care who sees me. I breathe deeply, waiting for the feeling to pass, but the memory of how it felt to hold him persists. I open my eyes again and place my right hand around the silver pylon of the street light nearby, just to feel something real beneath my palm. The cool metal soothes me. As quickly as the pain rose, it subsides, and I plod home in the dimming light of a late October evening.
Part of me watches the days go by from behind an invisible barrier that muffles all my senses. People flock around me to ask what prison was like. Inside, I duck and turn away from them. My public shell deflects their curiosity with flip comments.
The call comes one month later. I am at my desk reviewing client files. A social worker introduces herself. She works in the domestic infant program at the agency that arranged our failed adoption of Luis. It has been three years since we began to work with them; I had forgotten our names were also on the infant list.
“A baby was born last week,” she says. She names a hospital ten minutes from our home in Philadelphia. “There are questions about his health, and his grandmother can’t take on a newborn. His mother signed the papers to begin an adoption when he was a day old. He’ll be ready for release soon and he needs a home. Are you interested?”
After Guatemala, Steve and I told each other we would not adopt again. We were finished taking risks. We had nieces and nephews to indulge. But loving Luis had opened my heart; and losing him had made me strong. I can take another chance because I know I will survive.
When I call him, Steve says, “I will if you will.” The excitement in his voice raises the hair on my arms.
“Yes,” I say. I am calm, steady; my answer is clear. It has nothing to do with what I used to tangle up with the longing to have a baby—the need to feel whole or loved or worthy of motherhood. Prison has distilled my maternal desire to its essence. I say yes because I’m ready to love this baby on his own terms.
Michael comes to us straight from the hospital when he is sixteen days old. He is barefoot, wrapped in a blanket, wearing shorts on the last day of November. He weighs six pounds, has long fingers, long toes, pale, skinny legs that constantly work free of the covers, hair the color of a tarnished penny. The antibiotic drip he needed during his first week of life has scarred the backs of his hands. He is too fragile for his mother, as she is for him. She does not change her mind.
The first night, everything I do for him feels unfamiliar. Lack of sleep disorients me. At four in the morning, he drinks a bottle in greedy gulps. There is no trace of Luis’s placid nature and easy rhythm. When I change him afterward, he arches his back without warning. In a stiff-limbed spasm, he flips off the bureau. I crouch, knees banging against the bottom drawer, and catch him as he falls.
On a cold January morning when he is eight weeks old, Michael sits in a denim bouncy chair on the kitchen table while I clear away breakfast. His weight has doubled and he stays awake longer each day. He kicks off the blanket again. When I lean over to tuck him in, he opens his blue eyes and stares at me.
“I see you,” I say, smiling.
His eyes widen, as if he recognizes me, too.
From OH, BABY! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love.
To read the rest of the collection, purchase the book.
Mary A. Scherf
Mary A. Scherf is a writer and lawyer. She volunteers in one of Philadelphia’s unstaffed elementary school libraries and teaches... read more