The Other Mother
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2 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”
Moses had a shaky start in life, through no fault of his own. Some have called him a “war orphan.” Although the Hebrew people were not in a war, per se, the situation they lived in certainly could not be called a just peace. Moses and his birth family were the victims of politics played out on a national level. Of course, political maneuverings, war, and natural catastrophes impact families in ways that reverberate down through the generations. Moses’ birth parents were bit players in the larger drama of conflict between Pharaoh and the Hebrew people. For there came a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and the favors that the Hebrews had enjoyed for a time came to an unfavorable end. Eventually the government ordered that all male Hebrew children should be killed at birth. But the midwives conspired to keep the children alive protesting that the Hebrew women were so strong that the babies were born long before they could get there to do the Pharaoh’s dirty dealings for him.
Moses was born into a particular political situation that named him dead from the moment he took his first breath. And most of us are familiar with the rest of his story: how he was hidden as a baby, set into a basket among the bulrushes along the edge of the river, where he was discovered by, of all people, the Pharaoh's daughter. Nursed by his own birth mother for a few years, he was then raised in Pharaoh’s household, and eventually went on to be one of the greatest leaders of the Hebrew people, guiding them out of slavery toward God’s promised land.
The book of Exodus does not supply many details about Moses’ birth mother, but I have been thinking of her lately. How did she feel in those first moments after his birth, when she knew that her baby’s gender marked him as a goner? What was it like for her to have to hide him those first few months, and then set him in a basket to float away to an uncertain future? How did she manage all of the emotional ups and downs of that whole saga: giving her son up to the river, having him returned to her, losing him again to the Pharaoh’s daughter? Was Moses’ birth mother in utter despair about the circumstances of the loss of her boy, or did she have some deeper confidence that God was at work in the unfolding of his story. Clearly, she plays a walk on part in the wide screen version of Moses’ life, but I want her to have her own movie. I want to know more about this mysterious, other mother.
I am aware that my interest in Moses’ birth mother is fueled by my curiosity about the birth mother of the daughter Peter and I adopted. The political circumstances around her birth also impacted her life. We can only make an educated guess that China’s One Child policy and the cultural favoring of male children had something to do with why Keziah was left at an orphanage when she was six days old. The connection between politics, peace, and Mother’s Day is not lost on us.
When Peter and I first decided to adopt, I made a string of prayer beads, over at the bead store on Church Street. I thought of them as Baptist prayer beads, designed to help me to remember certain things and people in prayer. I carried the beads around in my pocket, and each time I looked at the beautiful blue, heart shaped bead that represented the baby, I prayed for her. There were two small beads on either side representing the birth parents and the caregivers who took care of her until we went to China to bring her home. As I held the small blue bead that represented the birth mother, I would try to imagine who she was, and what she might be going through because of her pregnancy. As we filled out documents on the other side of the world from her, I wondered: how far along in the pregnancy was she? Did she cry herself to sleep at night, knowing that she would not be able to keep the baby? Or did the shock come at birth, when we saw the baby’s gender, knowing that a female baby might not be welcome for a variety of reasons. Was the birth mother single, having to live with the shame of being an un-wed mother in a culture that did not favor such things? Or did she and her husband already have too many children in a country that regulates one child per family, placing the value on male children? Were the circumstances of her pregnancy pleasant ones or terrifying ones? Did she pray that God would send loving parents to rescue her child from the orphanage where she would be left? I will probably never know the answers to these questions, but for me, this other mother has become very real. I think of her often, and know that I will have a lifelong bond with her, though we may never meet, though I may never know her identity. Perhaps we will only be vaguely imaged women to one another, though mothers in partnership.
In my musings about motherhood I find that I have something to learn from the other mothers, whether she be the birth mother of our child or the mother of Moses or the mother of Samuel or Isaac or Jesus, all of the mothers who stand like a shadow in the background of humanity. The very hint of their presence teaches me some things I need to know about mothering. Perhaps their most powerful witness is to the truth that to be a mother requires the capacity to suffer. As parents, we are required to let go of the lives we wish to create for our children and lose them to the lives they will shape themselves. There are many forms of mothering, and to be a mother, whether we mother our own children, other people’s children, or if we mother people or institutions or our own creativity in the end life usually demands that we let go of that which we create, and release our creation into God’s care. I think of the birth mother of my child weeping alone at night, afraid that others will hear her, or of Moses’ mother, anxiously awaiting news of her son. I think of Hannah, holding the little hand of Samuel as they climb the temple steps, where she will release him into Eli’s care and direction, an act of gratitude for his very existence. I think of Jesus’ mother, who can not turn her eyes away from the heavy wooden cross that cradles her son unto death, and I know that these mothers teach us that mothering sometimes involves suffering and loss and grief.
If the capacity to suffer is a given with motherhood, then also is the capacity to love with abandon. Moses’ mother hid her son until he was simply too big to hide. She did so at great risk to her own life. Had she been found out, it might have meant her own death as well. Her capacity to love, to make someone else’s growth a priority gave her the courage to sustain the personal loss that was involved. Perhaps Moses mother did not even know she had it in her to love like that until she was faced with the situation. Perhaps being a mother in those difficult political times drew the best out of her in that she was able to love Moses in a way that was best for him, which meant letting him go.
Suffering is sometimes linked to loving, loving is sometimes wed with letting go; these are the things that I learn from the other mothers of the bible and of the world. These mothers also teach me about faith. Moses’ mother must have believed that God was at work in her life, and in the life of her child. Perhaps her complete trust in God’s goodness allowed her to suffer and to love in a way that drew her beyond herself, deepening her connection with God. Can we trust God this much with the lives of our children, and with our own lives? Can we trust God enough to let go of that to which we have given birth, literally or figuratively? As his mother placed Moses in the tiny cradle so carefully made by her husband, she was caught in a deep crucible of having few good choices available to her. She could let her son die at the hands of the government, or she could release her son to the river where if the snakes did not get him first the waters would. Lousy options. Yet she acted in confidence, making an “as-if” choice. Acting “as-if” God was stronger than the arm of Pharaoh or the quick waters of the river. And so it came to pass that God surpassed her simple request that the life of her child be spared. A nation in bondage was released. A woman of great faith placed a basket at the edge of the river. A mother hidden at the edge of the river, a shadowy presence and yet her story has touched our lives forever.
And so on this Mother’s Day, I am especially mindful of a mother on the other side of the world, somewhere in China. While we were waiting to go to China, I read a book by an adoptive mother who was required by her social worker to write a letter to the birth mother. I have often thought of what I would say if I were to write to Keziah’s birth mother. My letter goes something like this:
To the Birth Mother of Keziah Si Yang:
How I wish I could call you by name. You are a mystery to me, and yet very real because I see your face in the face of our daughter every day.
I can only imagine that the decision to let go of your child was a difficult one. Whether the reasons were personal or political, I know it took enormous courage and love for you to think of your child’s best interest and choose to place her in a situation where adoptive parents could be found for her.
We named our daughter Keziah Si Yang. Keziah is a name from the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. Job lost his whole family, but in the end is given a new family with new daughters, whom he named after exotic and valuable spices. Keziah means cinnamon. Since Job is a story of loss and restoration, and adoption is a process of loss and restoration, the name Keziah seemed fitting. We are told that her Chinese name, Si Yang, means “thoughts of sunshine.” This is also a name that suits her.
I can tell you a few things that might give you some comfort. My husband and I are happily married; we both have meaningful work, a house with a big yard with vegetable and flower gardens. The daughter you gave birth to has become our daughter in every possible way, and we find it hard to remember what life was like before she came home to us. She has loving grandparents and aunts who spoil her in every way they can think of, which involves lots of ice cream. At eleven years old she is growing rapidly, does well in school, is kind to her friends, does gymnastics, rides horses, plays the clarinet, and beats us at board games. She is so beautiful that we have told her she can’t date until she is thirty. She is a sweet and thoughtful child.
I have no idea how history will judge us, you as the birth mother or me as the adoptive mother, or how the political situation around Keziah’s adoption will one day be viewed. But I do know another story about a baby named Moses, how his mother made an adoption plan for him that saved his life. He went on to be a great leader of his people, and God did amazing and life-giving things through this man. I do not know if our daughter will grow up to be a great leader or not, (although she can be pretty bossy if necessary) but I do believe that God is at work in our daughter’s life, and that God loves her far more than we can imagine.
I thank you for the things you have already taught me about being a mother: that loving can involve sacrifice and sadness, that it is possible to love someone deeply enough to let them go to follow their own path, and that God is forever at work in the lives of our children, whether we can recognize that or not.
I can also tell you of my belief that God is a loving mother, and that God has promised never to leave us orphaned. May God bless you for your courage, and heal you in your loss. Thank you for the gift of Keziah, and for revealing to me something of how God loves this world. May you know peace on this Mother’s Day.
With love and thoughts of sunshine,
The Other Mother