It Takes a Village: Why I Cried the “Ugly Cry” this Mother’s Day

Yesterday I got a Mother’s Day card from my son, Ovaka, and I cried the ugly cry. You know the one I’m talking about – where you gasp for breath and your face contorts into what can only be described as gargoyle-esque deformity and snot drips liberally down your face. I was alone, thank goodness, when I opened the card, but just thinking about it makes tears spring to my eyes at the most inconvenient times. I miss my son.

Ovaka is the second of my five children, and the oldest of four children born within two very short years. He has twin sisters who are eleven months younger than him, and our last little runt was born thirteen months after the twins. To say his four years on earth have been hectic is perhaps the understatement of the century. For the better part of the first two years of his life, I was on modified bedrest, hospital bedrest, recovering from childbirth, tending to twin preemie infants, or pregnant whilst doing a combination of all of those things. And in the two years since my last baby was born, life has only gotten more exciting as I dealt with my now ex-husband’s incarceration, my subsequent divorce, and becoming a single mother to my five adorably active, curious little kidlets.

Most days I love my life, but the weight of being the sole caretaker and provider gets heavy sometimes. It was a challenge being the single mother of four babies that were two or younger. Four babies in diapers with two strains of flu virus and the accompanying vomit and diarrhea…seriously, that is some hardcore parenting! So many times in those first couple of years I thought, “Wow. This is HARD. Surely if I can make it through this, I can make it through anything!” But, then my twins turned three, and suddenly I was the single mother of three 3 year olds and a two year old. And all of a sudden the difficulties of newborns seemed like a piece of cake compared to the activity, independence, and temper tantrums that come with having four toddler/preschool-aged runts. So, again, I thought to myself, “Man, this is HARD. If I can make it through this, I can make it through anything!” And yet, daily, I found myself in circumstances that seemed harder than the day before.

It got to the point fairly recently that I honestly wondered how I could possibly continue to go on. Without going into too much detail, I will just say that the obvious issues arising from my situation were compounded by the fact that some of my children have special needs that I, struggle as I might, was simply unable to meet on my own. Being outnumbered five to one made it impossible to provide the one on one attention that my children needed. I was drowning and lost and was slowly losing hope. Enter my saviors.

I’ve said this before, but for those who aren’t familiar, I am half Tongan and half Swedish. I grew up in a little Texas town where we were the only Tongans for miles, and I had a decidedly “un-Tongan” upbringing. Much of what I know about the Tongan culture I learned later in life, and much of that knowledge is still incomplete. And because I was raised in a household where Tongan culture was not emphasized, I often mislabeled activities or events or practices as “Tongan,” when really they should have been attributed to the individuals involved, not the culture in its entirety. (This is relevant, I promise.)

In the Tongan culture, as with many other cultures around the world, there is a sense that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Extended family members are often called upon to help in the rearing of rising generations. Children in Tongan households learn to view their first cousins as brothers and sisters, which, frankly, confused the hell out of me upon first encounter because, not being “raised Tongan” or even being raised around any of my Tongan cousins, I had little knowledge of this practice. I remember thinking to myself on more than one occasion, “How many freaking siblings do you have, dude?!” only to realize later that at least half of the 20 or so people that had been introduced as “my brother” or “my sister” were, in reality, close cousins, not actual siblings. Additionally, Tongan kids are sometimes shuffled between extended family members, often residing with an aunt or uncle’s family long term. More than once in my brief married life we had the privilege of hosting extended relatives in our home. It is not at all uncommon for children to reside with their aunts and uncles for months at a time. In fact, Tongan couples who experience infertility commonly receive a child from one of their siblings to permanently raise as their own. Such was the case with my own father, who was raised by his aunt and uncle, my biological grandfather’s sister and her husband.

In my dad’s case, the pseudo-adoption was…complicated. Although his aunt and uncle raised him, he was not formally adopted by them, and there have been some complex and challenging issues about this particular circumstance that led to confusion, anger, sadness, and just generally difficult conditions that have persisted for over 50 years now. And because of the way these circumstances affected my family and our relationships with extended family, I always looked at the practice of…child-sharing?…unfavorably. As the offspring of the adopted child, I saw the complications inherent to our family’s circumstances and I hated the fact that I constantly felt like I was in the middle of a war zone with my extended family. I always thought, somewhat self-righteously, “I could NEVER just give my child away! This doesn’t make any sense at all.”

I saw my dad’s pain, felt my own pain, and mistakenly attributed this pain to my biological grandparents’ willingness to “give my dad away” and the chaos that ensued from this single decision. I labeled the entire interaction “Tongan,” not recognizing that much of the anger, confusion, and sadness could be attributed to the individual personalities involved more than the general Tongan culture. I didn’t understand the complexity of the situation. I didn’t understand the strength of my dad’s adopted father when he stepped aside and allowed my dad to be sealed to his biological family in the temple. I didn’t understand the strength my biological grandma displayed every time she smiled at us with sadness in her eyes. There is much that I still do not understand. But, I am starting to understand just how a loving mother can give her child away. I’ve been given a firsthand lesson by Karma. And guess what? Karma is a ruthless bitch.

Karma, cruel teacher that she is, created the perfect storm that rocked my boat enough to throw me overboard – drowning me, allowing me the experiences necessary to see just how much love is required to give up your parental claim. My sweet second son Ovaka was drowning along with me, neck-deep in the struggle of my single motherhood, crying out for the kind of attention he needed that I just couldn’t physically give. He gasped for figurative breath each day as the stress of living with three other toddlers overwhelmed his senses, a slow drowning that started anew each morning and usually culminated in massive tantrums born of overstimulation and just plain not enough of Mom to go around. I actively sought solutions; countless doctor appointments, evaluations, and therapy sessions helped, but did not eliminate Ovaka’s struggles. In the midst of our slow sinking, my baby brother and his beautiful wife stepped up and said, “Here we are. Let us love him.”

And just like that, we were thrown a lifesaver, and Ovaka was off on his great adventure. It’s an open-ended arrangement that has thus far yielded unimaginable positive results for my sweet little boy. There are no words to describe the gratitude I feel for my brother and sister-in-law for their willingness to give Ovaka the one-on-one care that I just can’t physically provide him right now. I’ve seen him transform from a frustrated, defeated, agitated, angry little boy to a happy, healthy, well-adjusted kid in just a matter of a few weeks. It’s truly miraculous in ways I never anticipated.

No one ever told me that being a good mother might mean allowing someone else to mother my child. No one told me that meeting the needs of each of my children might mean letting go of my expectation that I, as their mother, could provide everything they might need. I never expected to know from firsthand experience just how much strength it takes to let go of your little boy’s hand when you desperately want to hold on.

I miss my son. I miss the way his little fingers tangle in my hair as he sits on my lap when we watch tv. I miss his mischievous smile and his raucous laughter. I miss the sweet sound of his singing voice and I even miss the way his little feet inevitably ended up on my face or neck each night as he snuck in to sleep on my bed with me. I miss him to the tune of the ugly cry, and I miss him to the brink of tears at unexpected moments throughout my day. And yet, I wouldn’t change anything about our current situation because right now this is exactly what all of us need. We were drowning, and our village rose up to save us.

It takes a village to raise a child. I think I’m starting to understand what that means. And, in the Tongan context, I am just beginning to appreciate the value of the village. Being a mom is hard. Being a single mom is really hard. Thank God for my village.



What does your village look like? Is your cultural village similar to my Tongan one? Has your experience been positive or negative? I’d love to hear your story.

26 responses to “It Takes a Village: Why I Cried the “Ugly Cry” this Mother’s Day

  1. Absolutely beautiful. Truly. Now I get to do the ugly cry. Thank you for sharing this piece of your heart with us. I am changed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kalani,
    I found myself doing the UGLY CRY as I read your blog.
    Your words are powerful and I felt your pain. I think you’re a GREAT mother because you have chosen to make GREAT sacrifices for your children.
    Always remember that your Heavenly Father loves you and has blessed you with a GREAT Village!!



  3. I am crying so much right now. I’m so happy that your brother and sister in law were able to help out and your family has been able to find a situation that works well for you all!


  4. Beautiful post! Thanks for sharing this. Wow!


  5. Cruelest Month

    So impressed with your ability to put Ovaka’s needs first and the willingness of your family to step up and help meet those needs. I briefly parented a niece after her parents divorced. Single parenting just one child dealing with the fallout of divorce was challenging. I can’t even fathom how thin you’ve been stretched. Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable personal experience.


  6. Kalani, thank you sincerely for being so open and real. I can always count on your written pieces to help bring me more understanding and smiles. My younger sister was adopted by my father’s older sister and her husband. It wasn’t legally binding, and she is sealed to us (having been born under the covenant). She’s an adult now, but growing up she’s always known we were her biological family. I’ve held a little anger inside by how things have turned out, and all the seemingly unnecessary frustrations and pains that she and we endured due to, not a Tongan tradition, but rather an entitling and almost power-hungry personality of individual(s). I have to say though, that your article has helped me try to be more understanding and a little more optimistic and hopeful that things can be better. Simply put, you’ve allowed me to know that it’s normal to feel that anger and confusion, and that in the end there is always something more worthy of our energy and focus. Like being there for my children, and just providing the best for our little family right now. Ofa lahi atu, Kalani, and sending you hugs whenever you find yourself getting emotional or doing the ugly cry 😉


    • Mary, thank you for sharing your story. I often wonder if it is just our situation that was so messed up, or if other people who have had a sibling given to someone else to raise have similar experiences. I’m sorry you’ve also had a hard time, but I’m also grateful that you shared a little bit about your situation with me. It is validating and comforting to know I am not alone in feeling that way. Much love to you.


  7. Kalani, there is a reason why I avoid reading too much written by you. You cut me right to the core and I cry like a baby. This was beautiful. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to let him go and how much harder it would be to know it’s right and good for him. I admire your strength and example. What a beautiful village you have!


    • Thank you Farrah. And, yes, one of the hardest parts for me has been realizing that what is best for him right now is to not be with me. It is bittersweet, but every time I start to miss him, I look at the pictures of him smiling and healthy and truly happy, and my heart breaks a little less knowing that he is exactly where he needs to be. Thank you for your kind comment. I so appreciate it.


  8. Beautiful. Beautiful, beautiful.


  9. Crying here too friend. Beautiful. I love you!


  10. Love reading your articles Kalani. The struggle is real and being a mother is hard single or not. Me, having 6 kids, losing 1, and basically raising the kids alone with my husband always out of town, I too feel like I’m drowning and can’t give the kids the attention they need. I thank God everyday for my “Village” in helping me when I need it. Being Tongan, I also thought “I could never just give my child away”, but when u see that someone else could give your child the love and attention that u just can’t give at that time and u let that child go is such a selfless act. U are such a strong woman. Thanks for sharing.


    • Teresa, I so appreciate your comment. Although I do not wish struggles on anyone, it is good to find comrades in motherhood who understand the daily challenges I face. Thank you for sharing a little of your story and helping me to feel less alone in the struggle. Much love.


  11. I love you Kalani! Grandpa Nifai’s village is here for you when you need us! I’m not sure if you know, but I have challenges holding a baby full term. I’ve had one C-section and my son passed away. Being pregnant again, knowing I’m going to have to get another C-section makes me nervous about how many kids I’ll be able to have. I’ve always imagined having lots of kids, but the thought that I’m now limited makes me sad. I’ve talked to my husband about adopting from family, but I’ve seen its challenges first hand. I’m now at the point where if it’s in Heavenly Father’s plan, it’ll happen. Thank you for sharing your heart and being so raw in your writing. Heavenly Father sees you, he knows you and loves you! Keep rockin’ Momma! You got this!!


    • I love you, Brittany! Thank you for the lovely comment. I’ve been following your journey from afar, and have been so impressed with the way you have handled all of the many struggles and losses life has dealt you. You have my prayers for a healthy pregnancy. I wish we lived closer to each other so I could do more than just pray. Love you lots, girl. Send my love to the family out in California.


  12. Thank you for sharing this story. Your strength and courage are a light. I cried the whole way through this piece. It’s so so hard to seek help, even when we’re drowning, even when we know that if we don’t, we will not survive. Holding the grief and the knowledge that this was the best choice simultaneously is apex of parenting. I wear my heart on the outside of my body when it comes to my children–especially my son that sounds a lot like your Ovaka. It can tear you to shreds and still be the right thing; whatever “it” ends up being.

    Thanks again for sharing your story. You are a gift to our community.


  13. I LOVE THIS SO MUCH.. My husband and I adopted my daughter from his little sister because of our fertility problems and I couldn’t be more happier… She’s my life andi I really can’t imagine my life without her. I’m thankful for mothers like you who give mothers like us a chance to be mothers and love your children like they’re our own.. Thank you for this article. It gave me the ugly cry 😂😂😂


  14. I’ve read and reread this so many times, and every time I’m blown away by the love and heartache and utter strength in your words and experiences. I so admire you and your family. You have my love, thoughts, and prayers.


  15. I just felt every single one of my heartstrings ❤


  16. It gets to me each time I read your brother and sister in law’s words of “Here we are. Let us love him.” Your words are truly powerful and beautiful.


  17. Kalani,
    I AM CHANGED!! I am doing the ugly cry amd have done the ugly cry countless times in my lifetime.
    I commend you, applaud you and I admire you and your strength. I, too, have been in your shoes some 15 years ago……although I had no village to save me OR my kids I (we) suffered in so many ways, yet were blessed in other ways. I was left with 4 small children (ages 1, 2, 6, 7) and raised them alone. Although at the present time, I truly enjoy being a gma to 3 beautiful souls and my children take such good care of each other. Yet, this was not always the case. During our time during and after my divorce to their dad, we had been homeless, stayed in shelters and was even kicked out of own familys members home because i had.too many small children (they were afakasi, and it didnt umderstand that not every poly didnt have the “poly love”. I read your article and I must say, you are such a LOVING mother to do do. You and your children will be blessed beyond measure for your sacrifice. I wish during my time of trial all those years ago, I had that same “saving grace”. May the Lord continue to bless you. He truly does know your heart.


  18. I really enjoyed this. Cried a little inside but I enjoyed looking at a different perspective of something dear to my heart. Thank you. You are a light x


  19. Pingback: The Posts You Like Most | femwoc

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