My adoptive kids’ bio mama (Mama E) died last month, and I’ve cried more than they have.

At her Celebration of Life service, someone approached me, a long-time friend of Mama E. With deep respect, they asked if I thought it would be easier for all of us now that she was gone. I teared up and told her, “I never wanted to be Mama without her.”

If I am honest, I am afraid of being the only mama to these kids. The depths of my heart cry out because I know I will never be able to give them what they so desperately need – their biological mother. I hate the thought of our kids going through life feeling abandoned. I despair at the idea of them never hugging her again.

I Am Their Mama. But So Is She.

I know that I am their mama. I don’t even question that. I am so very thankful that God placed them into my arms, my home. They have our last names, and I am proud of that. But the truth is we adoptive parents cannot replace biology. We can’t replace the heartbeat they grew to know in the womb. We can’t replace their smell, their voice, or their hugs.

Mama E was anything but a perfect mother. Mental health and addiction wreaked havoc in her body, mind, and life. She made awful decisions that hurt others and knew the inside of the local jail cells. But the one thing that I knew without a doubt was that she loved her kids. She couldn’t be the only full-time mom to the kids. She knew it. I knew it. We could at least work together.

A year and a half ago, Mama E was diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of Leukemia. She fought hard. She was brave and strong. Every single health professional fell in love with her. They wanted her to win this battle. I desperately wanted her to live.

Being Mamas Together

We had been working on this idea of being mamas together since the kids came into my care. Goodness, we didn’t do it perfectly. She relapsed. I got frustrated. She made poor decisions and landed in jail. I wanted to hide and ignore phone calls. But I had made a promise. I had promised her I would be in this for the long haul. I wouldn’t give up on her, and for as long as she wanted to be a mom to these kids, I would support it.

Don’t get me wrong. We had boundaries — lots of them. The kids couldn’t stay overnight or even be by themselves with her. I was there every single time they were together. Most of all, the phone calls were on speakerphone. We set up the guidelines before we began our open adoption. She worked so hard to abide by them for the sake of our kids.

Making Memories

But when she ended up in the hospital for seven weeks, I knew we had to double down in our efforts to maintain a connection. These kids needed to make memories with her. I wanted to grab every single piece of family history I could find. I needed to give something to the kids as they grew up. So that is what we did.

Our daughter had her first and only birthday with her Mama E. I have pictures and videos of Mama E talking with our sweet girl, telling her birth story. Our son got to craft his skills in speedcubing, play cards with her, and talk about some things from their past. When he competed at a cube event, I sent pictures or videos.

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The kids had their first Christmas Eve all together with her. They found the pickle, laughing at the old German tradition. We exchanged presents. She gave her daughter and me a necklace. All three of us had a piece of a heart on a chain. Our daughter had the middle part of the heart, and each mama had a side. When we put all three pieces together, it created one heart.

In the summer, they creek-walked, and we hosted a 40th birthday party picnic for Mama E. I documented as much as possible, asking questions every time one popped into my mind.

We all became friends with the hospital staff, case workers, and nurses. She introduced me to everyone as the mama to her kids. She was proud of me, and I was so proud of her. Not only did she fight cancer, but she fought every single possibility of judgment that could (and sometimes did) come her way.

She and I became so close. I sat with her, holding her hand, as cancer slowly ate away her body. I held her hand when the doctors said there was nothing more to do.

Expanding Connections for Our Kids

Towards the end, we met some of her siblings when she came home on hospice. The kids learned who their biological aunts, uncles, and cousins were, and we exchanged pictures and contact information as Mama E looked on, smiling.

The week before she died, we sat in her bedroom. While she was rolling a cigarette, we talked and cried. She didn’t want to go, and I didn’t want to be left behind to be the only mama to our kids. Finally, I said, “You will be Mama in Heaven, and I will be Mama on Earth.” We hugged and cried more, agreeing to do our jobs separately now of loving our kids.

She quietly slipped into eternity soon after that conversation.

I’ve cried so many tears since then. While the kids were learning to say goodbye over the last year and a half, I was busy strengthening my friendship and partnership in motherhood with Mama E. We had to make those memories and teach the kids about their familial history. We knew the kids would need them to be able to walk through the confusion and pain of sickness. We did our job together, both of us helping the kids through terminal cancer and preparing to say goodbye. The kids were as ready as they could be.

It’s My Turn Now

The other day, we took her obituary and tied them onto purple and black balloons (her favorite colors). We released them into the bright, clear day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I silently cried and thought about how much I miss my dear friend. I miss talking with her and telling her stories about our kids. I miss laughing over the silliest little things. I miss so much more. I grieve all I have lost: our dream of together watching the kids graduate school and being present when they get married. I miss the comfort of knowing she had what I didn’t – that biological piece of our kids’ lives. As I watched the balloons float away, I thought, even though I didn’t want to do this without her, it is my turn to be brave and be Mama on Earth.

Thank you, Selma James, for sharing your poignant story of raising your children with Mama E. May your children always know how loved they are by both of their mamas.


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Image Credits: spemone; Tima Miroshnichenko; Dominika Roseclay