What does it mean to be a “real” mother?

Black and white image of baby deer looking at straight on


By Tanya Friedman


A cry pierced the quiet.

My mother and I were out for a walk on a cold weekend morning away from the city.  I was seven, or six.

Branches crunched under our feet as we bushwhacked toward the sound.

Shhhh my mother whispered.

I stepped carefully behind her. Cold air filled my lungs. The smell of not yet spring, damp and sweet.

My mother said Oh, it’s a baby deer. Look.

I huddled behind her, scared of the wildness. I clutched the back of her brown suede jacket with the furry white trim, new that winter and so soft. Bony limbs wrestled brambles, oversized ears stood upright. My mother edged closer.

She had no experience freeing fawns. The young deer startled but could not get loose. She pulled at the early spring growth and saw the caught leg. Muscles quivered and jerked. I worried the baby would hurt her, or she it. I wanted to leave and let the real mother come, but my mother reached in, pulled at the branches here and there, doubled down on her efforts to untangle the thorny stems.


First my eggs wouldn’t fertilize. Then the fertilized eggs wouldn’t implant on the uterus wall. Then the implanted fertilized eggs wouldn’t grow for longer than a few weeks. This is a condensed oversimplification of what did and did not happen, but enough to convey that the tiny steps forward didn’t add up to any meaningful leaps and the doctors couldn’t say why. They made their guesses and each recommended a different set of possible next steps: hormone cocktails, medical procedures, acupuncture, no dairy, no alcohol, a glass of wine every night, meditation, iodine, aspirin, worry less, focus on other things. But really, they had no clue why nothing worked. This surprised me but didn’t appear to surprise them. They didn’t pretend to know, didn’t seem to think that this many drugs and dollars and days later they should be able to say something definitive. It could be this or it could be that, or it might be both this and that, or maybe something else altogether, or just plain old-fashioned bad luck, they explained to my hollow heart.


People sometimes say I could never adopt.  

I would be too afraid that the attachment wouldn’t happen.  

I want my babies to be all mine.

I, I, I.

This happens more than you might think.

I have no response but I wonder about quantifying love, weighing belonging, measuring realness. By volume or heft or texture?


When I was almost fourteen my parents called a family meeting. My twelve-year-old brother and I sat in the square living room chairs, our bare feet on the thick coffee table fashioned from a ship’s door. The table played a central role in our games: a stage, an operating table, a bus or train or rocket.

My parents sat across from us. We were corners of a perfect square. There had never been a family meeting before so I understood for sure that my parents were getting divorced.

Except they weren’t.

My mother was pregnant. Tears spurted and I didn’t know why.  I had not tasted that blend of relief, fear and excitement before, the prospect of the picture of my life changing.

Also I thought love was a pie and I didn’t want to share my slice.


When you try to get pregnant for so many years a lot of things happen. Most of them are not cheerful, like falling to your knees on the kitchen floor when the nurse on the phone says negative again, or miscarrying in the smelly school bathroom while your class of second graders plays kickball at recess, or skipping the effort to make the daily shots you give yourself less painful because maybe if you feel the pain now, you can atone for whatever it is you’re being punished for. For being mean, lazy, selfish. For bullying your brother, lying to your parents, yelling at your students.

But something good happens, too. You finally understand you are not in control. Of anything. And the limits to your privilege—you cannot buy or think or trade your body into fertility—help you see the rest of your privilege more clearly.

Like the notion that if you did the right things, what you wanted would follow.

Like the conviction that you deserved to get pregnant, to have the precise life you planned.

I said good, not easy.


The phone rang on the wall in the kitchen with the blue linoleum floor.

My brother and I left the dish of sliced oranges in sticky sweet wine sauce on the table, rode the elevator to the lobby and took a taxi straight across Central Park to Mount Sinai Hospital to meet our new brother.

His bald head and one-hour old face and tiniest toes.

All of him so fragile but also strong.

A bag of sugar in my arms.

Oh, I thought, my heart a glowing ember, this is different than loving a kitten.


There’s also this:

When my daughter was born, not out of my body but into my arms, the relief at no longer having to want and wait and want, plus the joyshock of her, flooded my neurons with the sweetest endorphin rush that lasted months and months and years.

I didn’t mind being sleepless.

I didn’t mind accomplishing nothing more than bundling the baby and walking two blocks to the fancy market for purple-black figs.

I didn’t mind anything.

I am useless to people with newborns. I have no guidance for friends surprised to find life with an infant so difficult. When does it get easier? They ask. It’s not helpful to say aloud that the first year of my daughter’s life were the easiest days of my life.


And this:

My daughter collapses after an endless tantrum and says, I wish I wasn’t adopted. Or I miss my real momma. My heart breaks for her because how hard for a small person to hold so many big feelings. Hard enough for any of us to know where we belong. And she is only seven.

That must hurt, well-meaning friends say.

And it takes me a minute to understand they mean her words must hurt me.

But they don’t, not in the way they mean. Her loss isn’t at me. I hurt for her, the way my heart swells and deflates with all her other joys and sorrows. But how could I feel anything but reverence for her pain and the bravery to give it words. Her yearning for her first mother, the woman who carried her, who passed her to me in the delivery room and her attachment to me, our belonging to each other, are not a pie but an infinite loop.

Not unlike how my years of monthly failures, the dreamed for babies before her, travel a loss track that runs parallel to the joystory of being her mom. The wonder doesn’t erase the sadness; the grief doesn’t eclipse the gratitude. Our hearts big enough to hold it all.


Finally free, the dewy deer leapt out of sight in an instant and on such slight legs.

How did you know what to do? I asked my mother as we walked the steep path with patches of ice back up to my grandparents’ house.

My mother shrugged. I didn’t know what to do, honey. I just did it.


Tanya E. Friedman teaches, writes and mothers in New York City. She spends a lot of her time considering how privilege and access to power shape our inner and outer worlds and what to do about it.

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