Image by Crazy Bananas

I’d been warned.

“Someday, you know, she’s going to tell you you’re not her mother.”

The counselor looked at me, hard; I looked right back, not wanting to believe she was right, but knowing she was. “OK. I can handle that. I mean, in one way, I’m not. It’s just a kind of truth, right?”

But it wasn’t a truth I had any experience with. My female kinfolk claimed the robust end of the fertility spectrum. My mother was pregnant ten times. My older sister could launch a pregnancy simply by clicking her heels and spinning three times. Magic.

Not I. A flamboyantly ruptured appendix followed by a dose of Clomid that blew up one ovary to the size of a Florida grapefruit had left me with a bunch of tangled innards, a cat’s cradle of scar tissue. Eventually, a straight-talking ob-gyn doctor calculated our chances of joining egg to sperm at 14%. That’s a number sort of like your SAT scores: it sticks with you, especially if it’s way below the median.

But outside the doctor’s high-rise office, in the bright SoCal sunshine, my optimistic, glass-half-full husband said, “It’s okay. We’ll adopt.” I took the sun’s glinting off steel and windows in precisely that moment as a sign. Yes. Yes, we’ll make our family that way.

And now, five years as wife-husband-and-beautiful-child, a therapist was laying it out baldly: I had become a mother, but not 100% — at least not to my daughter. As a concept, our daughter’s biological mother Susan was present in our lives. But it’s a law of physics, the Pauli Exclusion Principle: two objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously. If it is true with matter, I could accept that it might be true with a little heart — room for only one of us mothers in that thar town. Yet after all my practice bracing myself for her saying it, after my rehearsals of a rational yet empathetic response, the ringing “You’re not my mother!” hurt. The right words came calmly out of my mouth — ”I am your mother, and so is Susan” — even as the arrow found home.

The pain wasn’t mine alone; I knew that my daughter’s dire truth came from brokenness, each word from a quiver of unresolved grief. In fact, our lives together had begun in loss and sadness — something generally ignored by the widely held “Everyone wins!” theory of adoption. This was definitely not how our daughter’s birthmother and father envisioned their mid-teenage lives playing out. Not how my husband and I expected to have children. Not what our daughter would have wished for.

I knew, too, that the world can be very binary: you’re either the “real mother” or not, and don’t mess with Mrs. In-Between. (Step-parents have to cope with this, too, I’m sure.) I hear the “real mother” phrase all the time, in off-hand conversations, in movies, right up there with “being adopted” as a punchline. When the real mother is off-stage or out-of-bounds, it’s harder for everyone. Here’s the paradox: the real is actually unreal, a distant, evolving fantasy parent, more perfect with time, while you’re the one slogging through the days of diapers and discipline, school lunches, soccer practice. Surely, bringing an in-the-flesh Susan into our lives — something we’d wanted to do all along, but that our daughter had resisted until her mid-teens — would help, right?

A dozen years after our girl had declared me unreal, years roiling with challenge, we were in the first heady months of reconnection with her biological mother and her half-siblings. I’d hear my daughter talking to her younger sister on the phone. “Hey, what are you and Mom doing?” “Are you with Mom right now?” “What do you think Mom wants for her birthday?” With one proper noun, she was claiming her blood-ties. On her first visit to meet the whole clan, she called us, a thousand miles away, sobbing that she’d found her tribe. She didn’t want to come home because she was — finally — home. Unsettling, but undeniably legit. A year later, when she backed quickly out of our driveway soon after her high school graduation to speed her way east towards that family and college, what could I do but let her go? She was only doing what teenagers, adopted or not, are wired to do. She’d just been practicing longer.

But the next spring, a Mother’s Day card arrived. It was signed, “Love, your daughter.” The loopy handwriting told me: I was becoming real to her.

It turns out that the Pauli Principle has a twist. Occupying space is what differentiates matter from light. There’s actually no limit to how many light particles can coexist in simultaneous space. Two objects — Susan and I — could not, perhaps, cohabit our daughter’s heart as matter. But if love is light, and light love, we can.

Joy Sawyer-Mulligan has been an educator for over 30 years. After earning her undergraduate degree at Colby College and graduate degree at Middlebury College, Joy taught at St. Paul’s School (New Hampshire) and at Choate-Rosemary Hall (Connecticut) before moving to The Thacher School in Ojai, California in its second year of co-education. She has worn many hats at the Thacher School, currently the English Department Chair, teaching 9th and 12th grade English and advising sophomore girls. For Joy, recreation is a hyphenated word, and means writing, reading, hiking, and singing.