By Janet B. Villa
A few months ago, I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen, listening in on my husband Jojo homeschooling Anna, our six-year-old, on science. “Here,” he said, handing her the Usborne Children’s Encyclopedia. “What do you want to talk about?” Anna flipped through the pages and pointed. “This.” It was about how babies are born.
She and her dad leaned over the illustrations and traced the journey of the sperm meeting the egg to form a baby inside the mother’s womb. Their heads were close, just as their hearts are, for these two are as thick as thieves. They have the same grin, the same eyes, the same mischievous streak.
Then Anna asked, “Did I come from Mommy’s tummy?”
I let the knife clatter to the sink and hurried to where they were.
“No,” I said, kneeling before my daughter and taking her hand. “You did not come from my tummy. You came from another woman’s tummy.”
Anna had been ten months old when we met her for the first time. Her cheeks were bursting with health, her smile was full of teeth, and her puppy eyes were fringed with long lashes. She was a cute version of Jojo.
On her first night with us, I cradled her to sleep, her weight in my arms unfamiliar yet welcome. I sang her a lullaby, but I changed the lyrics. I poured into the song the story of her, the story of us. The song stretched this way and that, the melody lost in the syllables that I had forced into it. It didn’t matter. Her mind might not have understood the words, but I was singing to her spirit, shining with trust and open before me. For many nights since then, I would sing her the same story shoehorned into different lullabies, praying that someday the words behind her adoption would sound not just familiar but comforting.
Just before she turned two years old, I was a little more direct. We were lying on her bed, waiting for her to finish her milk. “Anna, you did not come from here,” I said, pointing to my tummy. “You came from here,” I said, placing a hand on my heart.
“Boobs,” she replied, lifting her bottle and chortling.
We took every occasion to talk about the myriad ways a family is formed. “Look,” we would say, pointing to an illustration in a book. “This child has no mommy but he has a daddy.” Or this other child would be cared for by grandparents. And yet another would be raised by non-relatives.
We used whatever we could to help Anna understand that she is our life, including a dollhouse inherited from her cousin Bianca, which Anna has worn down with her loving. We would tell a story about how a king and a queen died, and their pretty princess now lived in this dollhouse with her new Papa King and Mama Queen. They once had been sad, but became joyful because the new princess now graced their days. That joy, we would tell Anna, is called “adoption.”
Did Anna understand? It was hard to figure out. She had only been a toddler when we first told that story.
One May morning, when she was still three years old, we headed to the court for the pre-trial on her adoption. “Where are we going, Mommy?” she asked. “We’re going to court,” I said.
“What kind of court?” She had known, so far, only the basketball court. “It’s a court where there’s a judge,” I said. “The judge is going to ask Daddy, ‘Daddy Jojo, do you want to be Anna’s daddy?’” Jojo looked at Anna in the rearview mirror and said, “And Daddy Jojo will say, ‘Yes!’”
“Then the judge will ask Mommy, ‘Mommy Janet, do you want to be Anna’s mommy?’ And Mommy Janet will say, ‘Yes!’” I said.
Anna thought about this for a while. She kept quiet in the back seat. Then she asked, “Is it adoption?”
She got it.
We had surrounded her with several mother figures. My sister-in-law, Gay, who had committed to care for Anna if Jojo and I would find ourselves unable, is her Mama Gay. Inday and Baby, who have stayed with Jojo’s family for close to 30 years now, are Mama Inday and Mama Baby. Our Tita Belen’s longtime helper is Mama Lucy. Our message to Anna was this: Many people loved her, and any woman who loves her is a mama with a mother’s heart.
Anna had always known that she was adopted but she had not known, until now, that there was someone outside of our family who had given her life. There on our couch, with her homeschooling books surrounding us, we told her about how her birth mother carried Anna in her womb and battled much pain nine months later so Anna could live.
Anna’s brows furrowed. “But why did they give me away? Did they not like me?” There was a catch in her voice.
We had thought that six years would be enough to prepare for us for this day, but at that moment we stuttered. “I don’t think it’s because they didn’t like you,” I said, stalling, a little desperate.
And then the past intervened. Words whispered in the night, songs shared at the cradle, books pored over together—the past reached out to Anna from long ago and spoke to her.
“I know,” Anna interrupted me, her voice strong and steady. “You prayed for me, and God said to give me to you.”
The broken road that led from there to here, all the nights of singing and days of sharing led to this one perfect truth that crystallized in her heart: Anna is a gift from the God of a million second chances, who had redeemed our daughter—and us—to form our family.
“Would you like to meet your birth mother someday?” we asked.
“Okay,” Anna said.
“Maybe we can pray for her in the meantime,” we said.
“Would you like to give her a name?” we asked.
She thought for a while. “How about Anonymous?”
We laughed. “It’s hard to pray for someone named Anonymous,” I said.
Sensei Nell, a missionary who had been staying with us for a few days, stepped in and suggested, “Why not Mommy Anonymous?” Anna liked it, so Mommy Anonymous it was.
In one episode of Once Upon a Time, the young boy Henry told his birth mother, “I know why you gave me away. You wanted to give me my best chance.” I understood Henry—Jojo and I are Anna’s best chance too. But we wouldn’t have been Anna’s best chance and she wouldn’t have been our best joy had it not been for Mommy Anonymous. She is a part of us.