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.