A few days after we met, Zachary proposed. This was a problem. Zachary was 5. I was the 37-year-old girlfriend of his widowed father.
After I gently declined, Zach's proposal took various permutations. Most of his ideas involved my waiting for him to grow up. Once, he suggested that I marry his dad, and then divorce him when he, Zachary, got big enough to marry me himself.
Over time, Zach and I grew more attached to each other. He thrived at having a female (and often simply a practical) presence in his life—someone, as he put it, who knew that vegetables did not have to come out of freezers. In the meantime, his dad and I had been blessed with a certainty about our shared future. We met in September, were ring shopping by April, and planned a wedding in July.
To our surprise, Zach was upset when we told him about our plans. His mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer when he was 3 months old, and she died a month after his first birthday. He clung fiercely to the images he held of her, images drawn not from memory but from videos, stories and bedside photos. When Ken and I mentioned marriage, his response was a heart-wrenching torrent of tears. Zach understood that nothing would bring his mother back, yet he hoped—and hope is painful to surrender. Seeing the grief etched on his face, we decided to put a halt to our plans and give him time.
He didn't need much, only a few weeks. One evening, as I was toweling him off after a bath, he extended his arm and tapped my shoulder with his toothbrush, "dubbing" me a member of his family. "You are now a Cohen," he intoned, mimicking a king. As I tucked him into bed that night, he looked at me a little slyly. "What member of the family are you going to be?" he said. "You're too big to be the sister. I guess you'll have to be the mommy."
Ken and I got formally engaged soon after, and we asked Zach not to tell anyone until we could tell our families. Fat chance. The next morning, Zach burst into his classroom shouting, "I'm getting a mommy!" He came home that afternoon glowing, with a book of crayoned drawings by his classmates all about his new mom.
Zach found his own ways to deal with his conflicting feelings about his biological mom and me. We taught him from the start that he would always have two mommies, Mommy Gillian and me. I would live in his house, but Mommy Gillian would live in his heart. One day, while we were walking across the parking lot at the mall, he described the castle he was building in his heart for her, complete with chandeliers and Oriental carpet. Then he began constructing a guest cottage in my heart so she could visit me and we could become friends. I'm not sure how I managed to drive us home safely through my tears.
Joanne Kenen is coauthor of Good Night, Sleep Tight, a book about getting kids to sleep.
A new beginning
The wedding took place on a glorious summer day, amid shady trees and beds of bright flowers. With the gray tails of his morning suit flapping, Zach, five weeks shy of his sixth birthday, ran around excitedly telling everyone that he was the "ring barrow" and that he could keep the little satin pillow. When our guests commented on what a happy event the wedding was, he took proud ownership. "It was the best idea I ever had," he'd reply modestly, apparently believing that we would never have thought of marriage without him.
Zach had wanted to call me Mommy as soon as Ken and I got engaged, but we'd discouraged him. At bedtime, though, we let him say good night to "my mommy-to-be." He clutched my hand as he said that and looked so happy. Right after the ceremony, he took my hand again and looked up at me. "Mommy?" he said softly, half querying, half rejoicing. I bent my head down to his. "Yes, Zach, I'm Mommy." At the reception, he watched Ken's brother and mine give toasts, and then without any warning, he strode out onto the reception floor and lifted his own glass of bubbly cider. "To my new family," he said.
Zach integrated himself easily into my family, and I'm forever grateful to all of them for embracing him as I had—not as my adoptive son, or my stepson, or my husband's son, but as my son. There were moments of anxiety as Zach's new grandparents, aunts, and uncles tried to get used to this energetic 5-year-old, but everyone was patient and, from the start, treated Zach just like any other kid in the family—hugged when he needed a hug, scolded when he needed a scolding.
I had a new family, too—not just in-laws but ex-in-laws, Gillian's surviving family. For the most part they welcomed me, if a bit tentatively. I knew it must be wrenching for them to see me take what to them was still Gillian's place in Zach's life, and it must have been jarring for them to hear me be called Zach's mother. But we're on good terms. Any doubts or antagonisms vanished years ago as we realized that we had one great bond in common, our love for Zach.
Gillian also had two children from her first marriage. They were in their late teens and lived with their father in Michigan. I met them when they came east to visit Zach and the rest of the family, and Ken, Zach, and I flew out to see them a few months before the wedding. I never tried to be their mother—unlike Zach, they had their memories. I didn't try to be their stepmother either. But over the years, we became friends, then good friends, then family, and I'm really happy to have them in my life.
As Zach grew older, we sometimes laughed about how unfair it is that I get his entire adolescence but only half his childhood. I missed out on so many precious firsts—his first step, his first word. I didn't see his delight when he first saw a rainbow, an ocean, a monkey. I don't know if he was afraid of thunder. Just as Zach has to try to wring knowledge of his mother from videos and scrapbooks, I have to turn to them to experience secondhand my own son's early childhood.
A special bond
Shortly after our wedding, Ken and I drew up wills and Ken appointed me Zach's legal guardian, giving me the right to make educational and health decisions and custody of Zach should anything happen to him. But we postponed a legal adoption for several reasons. We didn't want Gillian's family to feel that I was "erasing" her. And we wanted to have a child together, so we thought it would be wise to hold adoption in reserve. If Zach felt less loved than any biological child I might bear, we could create a ritual around adoption to enforce our bond.
As it turned out, four years later we did have a baby, but Zach, then 10, didn't seem to experience a sense of being second-class. If anything, Ilan's birth had tremendous healing power. It normalized Zach's life somehow, made him more whole, patched up at least a few of those gaps in his psyche that I could never fill, no matter how much love I poured in. He stayed in the hospital with me overnight when Ilan was born. "It's male bonding," he told me. "You wouldn't get it." And he's a wonderful big brother; Ilan said "Gak" at 10 months, even before he said "Mama."
Ken and I completed a legal adoption shortly after that, partly for Zach's sake, but as much for my own. I wanted Zach to be as much mine legally as he was emotionally. I wanted him to be every bit as mine as the baby I had carried in my belly.
The adoption process, which required a ridiculous amount of paperwork despite the fact that I'd already raised Zach for much of his life, turned out to be a bittersweet affair, more difficult for Zach and Ken than we'd anticipated. It was a celebration of their bond with me, of our choice to be a family. Yet it triggered another avalanche of grief, particularly when we learned that Maryland law didn't treat this type of adoption any differently from that of a teen mom surrendering a baby at birth, and that Zach would be issued a new birth certificate, with my name replacing Gillian's. We quickly ordered extra copies of the original certificate for him to keep. But we left the courthouse squabbling, and it took us a good hour before we understood why we were feeling so much heartache, and once again found a way to balance the sorrow of the past with the joy of our future.
For the first two or three years after Ken and I got married, Zach would often talk about "our wedding" and "our anniversary," and I realized that in a way he was right. I had married both father and son, just as he'd proposed back in kindergarten.
Families are package deals. Friends, including other mothers, often comment on how lucky Zach was to get me. I always tell them that I was the lucky one—and that he has a heart large enough to wrap itself around both me and the woman who bore him.
I'm his mother, not his stepmother, not only because I want to be but because he's allowed me to be, and our bond has a special intensity because we know we chose each other. After the wedding, Zach was a little bothered that I hadn't changed my last name, that unlike him, I wasn't a "Cohen." But he quickly worked that out for himself. "You did change your name," he told me one evening. "You used to be Joanne. Now you're Mommy."