Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | May 14, 2013

A Tribute to Undefined Mothers

Here we are a couple of days after Mother’s Day, and I find myself thinking about all the women in the world who may have faced the day with bittersweet tenderness. There is so much attention (well-deserved, I might add) to the mothers who have given birth to and are raising their children. These women are very well-defined in our culture, and of course they should be honored and revered. But there are other groups of women who very often go unnoticed and are undefined in their parenting role. They do not know how to explain the relationship they have with the child or children they love. Not that they should have to explain, but often in our society we need an explanation for that which is unfamiliar. Having something fit neatly into a framework in which we can understand somehow makes us all feel better. But there are some things in life that do not fit into a nice package. And sometimes those things are the most beautiful.

As someone who has been and continues to be in an undefined mothering role, I wanted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the mothers of the world, those that are known and unknown, those that have names and no names. Perhaps it is best explained through stories of those I have known.

I have worked with dozens and dozens of foster parents over the years, and I am continually in awe of their devotion to children they often have to say goodbye to. Being able to fall in love with and parent a child who you know will not be with you forever, or for even very long, is a delicate and sometimes painful experience. There are those moments that as a “temporary” parent you unconsciously hold your emotions and love from the child, because deep down you know that child will have to go. Loving someone so completely all the while knowing he or she will leave requires a person to access the deepest parts of one’s soul. But I can tell you that when a parent, temporary or not, is able to love in that way, a child is forever changed for the better, even if they do have to say goodbye.

I call to mind a foster mom who has devoted herself to a young toddler boy. He came to her neglected and underfed, with aggressive behaviors most likely rooted in unrelenting fear. In one year with her, he has developed into a loving, kind, and joyful preschooler. This woman has taken him to his birth parent visits weekly, has consoled him when he didn’t want to leave her side to visit this strange person who birthed him, and has had to endure the pain of the child welfare system’s decision to return him to his birth home. Even in the midst of this pain, she has advocated for his rights, stood up for him at his preschool when he was labeled the “bad kid,” and has created a safe and loving family for him. She has cried with me and shared her fears about his possible eventual return to his birth family. When he has called her “mama,” she has corrected him and asked him to call her another motherly term of endearment….”because I don’t want to take any child away from his mother, and I don’t want to confuse him.” But yet she is his mother, not the one who gave birth to him, but the one who has cared for him, loved him unconditionally, fought for him, and who will probably have to let him go. She has given all of herself to him, and it was a self that he so desperately needed so that he could heal. She is not called mom, but she is the essence of a true mother.

I also am thinking about a grandmother who adopted her young grandchildren when she herself should have been retiring into a calm and peaceful existence. Her own daughter suffered a serious mental illness, and she could not raise her children safely. This grandmother had to make a choice between keeping her grandchildren safe, or keeping her own daughter out of the criminal justice and mental health system. She chose her grandchildren. She devoted the rest of her life to loving her granddaughters, helping them understand their mother did not abandon them, but was just too ill to care for them. She organized her church community, her friends and neighbors and created a security blanket for these girls to grow and thrive, and even continued to work full-time. And, she never complained. She just did what she knew she had to do. The kids started to call her mom, but that was not going to happen, because they had a mom. She lovingly and firmly explained she was “Nana,” and she would never ever let them get hurt again, because “Nana’s” are always a protector. She is not called mom, but she is the essence of a true mother.

I am thinking about the aunties who become mothers, not by choice, but by circumstance. They were in the role of being the auntie who could give their nieces and nephews candy for dinner, keep them out late at the movies, and who would shower them with silly gifts and unconditional love. For some aunties, that all changed. They continue to shower the kids with unconditional love, but they have to say no to the candy for dinner, they have to tell them to stop playing and get ready for bath and bedtime, help them with their homework, and be the one who says no when all they really wanted to do was keep saying yes. I know some of these aunties. They are relentless in their love for their nieces and nephews, they are unyielding in their commitment to their kids, and they have sacrificed their dreams for the safety and health of their family members. They are not called mom, but they are the essence of a true mother.

I am also recalling all of the same-sex couples with whom I have worked. Many states do not have co-parent adoption rights for the non-biological or non-legal parent, and often times these parents only assurance is trusting the other parent to be honorable, and hoping that the community at-large will just “get it.” I myself have experienced the question when taking our children to a medical provider or someone who may not know us: “So who is the mom?” Well, we both are. “No, but who is the real mom?” Well, we both are. “And so what does she call you?” “Well, which one of you birthed?” Just because one of us is called something other than “Mom” does not mean we are not moms. But when society is faced with the unfamiliar and undefined, the inappropriate questions and obnoxious curiosity permeates the interactions. The most important people in the world, our kids, “get it.” But it’s hard to explain to them time and time again when other’s don’t. It’s the “others” that I worry will erode our kids’ sense of normalcy. But as a mother, you carry on, and you fight, and you explain, and you scream in your pillow late at night when no one is listening.

And then there are those same-sex couples who divorce, and because of our laws, or lack thereof, the once honorable parent becomes dishonorable. Because one is legal and the other is not, it has unfortunately happened that parent-child bonds are altered or even broken. Children lose parents, parents lose children, and society loses its soul bit by bit and piece by piece. The non-legal mother, the non-biological mother, the Mama, the Mami, the “whatever you want to call her” has sufferred and endured a heartbreak that never really goes away. And so has the child. Even though these moms do not or cannot see their children, they love them no less. They are not called mom, but they are the essence of a true mother.

I have spent most of my career helping, healing, listening, educating, and honoring mothers. For all that every mother does, both defined and undefined, you are valuable, you are honorable, and you are a blessing to this world.



  1. Another mom who might struggle with being “undefined” on Mother’s Day…those whose children have died. One of my good friends lost her daughter to bone cancer, and every year struggles with all holidays, but especially her birthday, the anniversary of her death, and Mother’s Day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: