“You were so brave to tell that story.”
“It was really courageous of you to do that.”
“Most young women choose abortion; you’re so brave.”
“I wouldn’t have the courage to tell a story like that.”
I heard it four times after the Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh show on Friday night. Four separate times from four separate, unrelated people. Four people I didn’t know.
I said, “Thank you.” Because manners.
The rest of the people said, “Congratulations,” and, “You made me cry so hard,” and, “That was so well-written,” and, “You delivered it so perfectly,” and, “I didn’t see that coming!” My own mother called it “eloquent,” which felt like a gift given specifically to heal certain parts of my heart. My husband, well, he knows my story because he’s lived it with me, and as someone pointed out, it’s also his story, but he told me he felt so proud of me. My friends who came hugged me and loved on me and cursed me a little for the tears and told me I did a great job.
My fellow cast mates hugged me. One woman told me that I single-handedly changed how she viewed adoption. We told each other how proud we were of one another, how amazing we all did on stage. Because we did. Every single woman took to that microphone and told her story.
Which is my problem with this brave and courageous talk.
I’ve already made my peace with the fact that people who don’t know me, don’t know my story, don’t know adoption as intimately as our family and those others who know adoption because they live adoption, view birth parents either as saints or sinners. I get it. Since I put a name and a face to the title of birth mother up on that stage, they didn’t view me as the sinner. I wasn’t scary. I didn’t talk about stealing babies back like Lifetime movies. I didn’t talk of drug or alcohol addiction. I was a brunette with medium-long hair in a green dress and silver shoes. I totally sank the boat of a stereotype they held, and so they switched to the other.
If I wasn’t a sinner, I was a saint.
I’m not. I’m human. Like you. Like us all.
So no, I didn’t take offense at the whole brave, courageous stereotype either. I’m not really brave and courageous. I have moments of brave. I have moments of courage. The young, sick mother who made a choice to place her daughter for adoption did the best she could with the information she had at the time. I was scared out of my mind, not brave. That’s the best truth I can offer. I felt scared out of my mind. I didn’t know what kind of mother I might be, didn’t know what mothering meant despite putting my life on the line to bring that little girl into this world.
What gave me pause about the comments offered to me was that not all the mothers who spoke on Friday evening were offered the same “brave and courageous” comment. Every single mama who stepped up to that microphone was brave. Courageous. The embodiment of those words. Whether she spoke of mental illness or transplants or rare genetic abnormalities or just being fucking done with parenting for the day, every mother was brave.
It’s hard enough to parent, to be as present as possible with your children day in and day out. Then to write out what you want to say about motherhood on any given day—about clowns or the girl next door or pool noodles—takes a moment of your time, takes a piece of your heart as you put it down on paper, or rather, up on a screen. Then! To drive into the city and wait outside a hotel conference room and walk in and say hello and hi and give three women your written piece and stand in front of them and read it out loud? That takes all the courage in the world. You don’t know those three women. You don’t know their preconceived notions about adoption, about mental illness, about what’s funny and what’s not, about what motherhood should or could or does look like. You know nothing other than your own truth, and you’re willing to share it.
So you do.
And things being what they are, when you’re accepted into a show like Listen to Your Mother, the audition then becomes the easy part. Because you then have to stand in front of an audience and say those words, recite your truth, lay it all out on the line. You sit in your chair waiting your turn, counting it down. I was third, so I didn’t have to count long, but I counted all the same. Three, two, it’s me. It’s me in front of a room full of people I knew and didn’t know. To those who knew me, they saw me as I am, as I was: a mother with three children, telling a part of her story as part of a show. To those who didn’t know me, I threw them for a hard shift when I mentioned my daughter’s soon-to-be parents.
But I felt the same thing with every other mother’s piece. You bought a sex chair. Wait, what? Your baby needed a heart transplant. Wait, what? Oh my God, I’ve never even thought of rain that way. Wait, what? Yeah, I was kind of an asshole, too. Wait, what? True.
In each story, I saw myself. In each story, I saw motherhood. In each story, I saw courage and bravery. In each story, I saw little bits of what we don’t always say when we’re talking about mothering on social media, on blogs, anywhere in the media. I saw mothers get real. Talk about what it’s like to be born without a uterus. What it’s like to date again after 22 years. What it’s like to witness your children fear your mental illness. I witnessed the epitome of the Instagram #honestmotherhood hashtag with less white and beauty and more grit and shades of gray.
I witnessed the definition of bravery, of courage.
When I finished my audition, one of our amazing directors and producers said, “You know, if we had 20 stories about potty training, we could only take one.”
Later, after our first rehearsal, I asked one of them, “How many birth mothers did you have up in there telling their story?”
I accept your mentions and notions of courage and bravery as long as you recognize the courage and bravery involved in telling stories in general. Yes, I’m a birth mother who openly speaks about what it feels like to have placed a child for adoption, what it feels like to parent other children who feel big feelings about the choice you made before you knew they would exist. But every mother who walked to the podium on Friday night was brave. She had a story to tell. She told it.
I am so proud to be a part of such a movement, of mothers telling their truths. I am so proud to be my daughter’s mother, my sons’ mother, my daughter’s mom’s friend, part of this family unit we have created all on our own with no help from any book or agency. And I’m proud of each mother for living her story, her truth, for making her way in a world that does not come with an instruction manual.
We are all so brave, so courageous.