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This Is My Daughter's Mother: Dawn Friedman's Happy Family

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It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love," to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Dawn Friedman talks about her happy family:

Over lunch the other day, I asked my 5-year old daughter what I should write in this essay.

"I'm going to write about your adoption," I told her. "What do you want people to know?"

"I want them to know that adoption is hard," she answered right away. "I want them to know it's hard being away from your real, real mommy."

Madison often calls Jessica her real, real mommy. This is to help her listeners understand the essential importance of the woman who, as she says, "borned" her.

A few months ago, in a spate of enthusiastic picture making, Madison drew two pictures of her families. First she drew one with herself holding hands with Jessica who is holding hands with Jessica's husband, Tommy, who is holding hands with her baby brother, Roscoe. In the second one, she drew herself holding hands with me who is holding hands with her dad, who is holding hands with her adopted brother, Noah.

I considered Madison doing double-duty in two families and as I was hanging the pictures up I said, "You know, these are two families but we are also one family. Jessica belongs to you but she and Tommy and Roscoe are also part of our family and we're all part of theirs, too. We are all together even though we don't live together."

Madison looked at the pictures for a while and then she drew a picture of Roscoe and herself flanking Jessica and me. Roscoe is holding Jessica's hand and Madison is holding mine. Jessica and I are linking the children; we are holding hands, too.

When Madison was three days old and my husband and I brought her home from the hospital, I didn't expect our open adoption to permeate our lives this way. I expected adoption to be something neatly segregated, that would happen at set times or be present in explicitly defined discussions.

Instead it is part of our everydayness. Jessica calls me to ask if I think Roscoe might be teething and I call her for advice on planning the menu for a party (Jessica is studying to be a chef). Our Facebook friends overlap and when Jessica needed lactation advice, she called my old La Leche League leader to arrange a visit. Madison helped her entertain a chatty 4-month old Roscoe during Noah's recent bar mitzvah and Roscoe's happy baby noises were part of the loving atmosphere during the ceremony.

It's not always easy but then what family relationship is?

When people meet Jessica or spot her picture on our wall, they sometimes ask what her role is in our family. Is she like an aunt? Like a family friend? It's hard for them to understand that she is like Madison's mother. When we go out together I have taken to using the introduction Jessica uses for me, "This is my daughter's mother." Because that is who she is.

Yesterday Madison was talking to her cousin on the phone. Lucia had a lot of specific questions about Madison's adoption and Madison was answering them with clear confidence.

"I didn't grow in my mama's belly," she said. "I grew in Jessica's belly. But she couldn't take care of me so she chose my mommy to take care of me and now she is my mommy mama. Jessica cried because she missed me and she loves me. Jessica is still my mama. She is my birth mama. I am her child and I am mommy's child."

Open adoption runs up against the more traditional view of adoption; this presence of two mothers doesn't fit our old paradigm where one mother replaces another.

More than once I have explained it this way. I am Madison's mother by virtue of my doing. I have earned my motherhood by taking care of her, wiping her nose, making her dinner and listening to her prattle on while she colors at the kitchen table. My mothering is made up by the daily acts of doing motherhood. I am the verb mother.

Jessica is Madison's mother by virtue of her being. She became essentially Madison's mother by conceiving her and carrying her, by knitting together her muscle and bones, by handing down her bright brown eyes and wide smile. She is the noun mother.

To Madison, it is a plain fact that she has two mothers. She doesn't understand why people find this confusing.

"I tell them I have two mommies because I was adopted," she told me. "That's all."

In the picture she drew of herself holding hands with me, holding hands with Jessica, holding hands with Roscoe we all have big smiles and there are hearts above our heads.

"What do you think?" I asked her the day she drew it.

"I think that is a lot of love," she said.


Dawn Friedman is a freelance writer working on a book about how openness is changing adoption in America. She manages Open Adoption Support, a social networking site for families and individuals who are living open adoption.