Note: Pamela Haines has written extensively on nonviolent parenting. In honor of Mother's Day, Madeline asked her to write a piece from her experience and she shared this—a very inclusive way of thinking of parenting and family. –Lucy
I started claiming children in the usual way—having my own. Then, when the boys were two and five, that claiming took a whole new turn.
A young neighborhood boy, who had been babysitting for us and turned out to be in the foster system, found himself in need of a new home. As an African-American teenager, he was not easy to place. But we knew and liked him, so we chose to leap into the unknown and become his foster parents. I remember putting a hand on Paul’s shoulder for the first time, awed at the possibility that I could claim this young man as my own.
There were sleepless nights, and challenges we had never anticipated, and sometimes we wondered if we had done this young man a service by inflicting our inexperience and cultural ignorance on him. But we came to realize over time that the simple reality of our love had more weight than all those inadequacies. Paul, quite simply, is our son.
When the children were still small, we also had the pleasure of hosting a Chinese family whose little girl was the age of our youngest. They played and played together, and I grieved when, after a year or so, they were ready to move off on their own.
Later, we offered space to a single mother and her 11-year-old. When the mother moved downtown to be closer to her work, Sarah stayed with us for parts of each week. They too moved on, but our families have claimed each other fully, and Sarah still turns to me for help when things get hard with her mom.
My firstborn Tim spent a young adult year in Nicaragua, and my younger son Andrew came back from a visit with a painting for me. On the back it said in Spanish, “To my mother, from her Nicaraguan son, Ismael.” Now this was a son I hadn’t known existed! It turned out that he had claimed Tim as a brother so I, by extension, was his mother.
When I went down to Nicaragua to visit, Ismael was there with Tim at the airport to meet me. We worked hard to get to know each other over that week, as I labored in my high-school Spanish, and he patiently repeated till I could understand.
I got a message from him a couple of months later. He was struggling with alcohol and deep depression, and reaching out for help. This may have been my hardest parenting work ever, as I stretched to communicate all the love, confidence, and hope I could muster—in my painfully limited Spanish, over the Internet, to a young man thousands of miles away whom I hardly knew, but who badly needed a mother.
I’ll never forget hearing from him over a year later that he had started teaching art to the young children in his neighborhood—turning the corner from self-absorbed despair to an awareness of what he could offer others.
Several years later, my husband and I—along with Tim and Sarah—were in Uganda, offering tools for trauma healing in a region reeling from 20 years of brutal civil war. Most of these young people had lost parents, and two in particular chose to claim me as a mother. By then I had learned that if somebody chooses me like that, he is mine.
So now, when people ask how many children I have, I am truly at a loss for an answer. The two biological ones are a starting point. Our adopted foster son Paul clearly belongs as well. But what about Ismael, and Okello and Omona, who all call me mother?
What about Sarah, who has a perfectly good mother of her own? What about all the others who look to me from time to time as a parent figure? And what about the ones who would be ready to claim me—and I them—if our paths crossed?
I can see no logic in setting any arbitrary limit. So I have come to believe that the only path of integrity is to claim them all. They are all my children. They are all ours.