Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


Like the last autumn spider rappelling from the dried hydrangea blossoms I brought inside, a child will soon find herself displaced into our home. The spider drops itself bit-by-bit, wriggling against the strength of its own vine, searching for somewhere solid to land. But, nothing is familiar, and the wooden table that centers our kitchen seems too far below. Seconds later the spider climbs back up, only to rappel again.

I, the mother to be, must spin a web around this foster child whom we will soon take in and prepare to adopt. I must create fibers strong enough to withstand the winds that will sweep her into our lives. But, how do I prepare to weave a pattern that will suit her without even a name for me to whisper, without a face by which to create my design? At this moment, while I wait, this child has no identity for me. She exists only as "child" who will need a home, who will need love, who will need security.

After all these years, I want to be ready to mother a small child again, but it's difficult to prepare my heart without a person to imagine. It's been said that one can build compassion for another by thinking daily about her and about her suffering. Since I cannot yet know her story, I need something to hold. But, when I think of her, she has no name. When I picture myself pushing her in a carriage or standing by the stove making cookies or sudsing her hands, I get stuck. There is only a small person—a smudge where her features should be. I can't picture her hair or her walk or her smile. I cannot hear her laughter or the sounds of her distinct cries. Who is this child I pray for every day?

As we wait, our family has taken to calling her "the child" or "our adoptee." Both sound so cold, so impersonal, and yet our family is warm. I need more than this; I need a name.

My husband sometimes even says "the children," which scares me. We have agreed to adopt up to two siblings because it's more difficult for siblings to get placed for adoption, and the thought of them being forced to grow up separately is too much for us to bear. At the adoption center, they call all the children "kiddos," and I'm happy to hear so much light in their voices.

The adoption counselors email us every so often, letting us know that we are being considered for this child or that. I absorb the details of each child—name, age, traumas they have suffered—and begin to weave these threads into the imagined future of my life. But in each of these cases, the center has decided to place the child with another family, perhaps one they felt was better suited for that child.

There's worry too. This child will come to us because of trauma, something in her life from which she should have been protected. Will she be shattered, like the slick shards of a broken vase? Sometimes these children find it difficult to attach to anyone, too afraid that they will be pushed away again. I, too, am afraid that I won't know how someone else's child needs to be loved. Will I be able to interpret the cadence of her cry? Will I know when she is testing and when her pain is real? Will my motherly instincts prevail even though the child is not mine?

For now I tend to the cut flowers I gathered this morning. They are Annabelle hydrangeas—such a beautiful name for this cone-shaped wonder that grows more beautiful as the season fades. Near the end of each fall, I take my shears out into the yard to gather. Our garden holds hydrangea bushes of many different varieties. They all can be a challenge to grow in New England where their blooms are assaulted by frost, wind, and drought, so come summer, we never know whether our yard will hold colorful mophead blooms or lifeless sticks. When these temperamental bushes do decide to bloom, some show sky blue, others white as snow.

I walk around each bush, selecting the blooms that have dried to a gentle brown, carefully clipping stems at similar lengths. I love to watch this flower's transformation as it glows moon white in the summer months, only to show green petals with pink tips as autumn dawns, and finally antiquing themselves to prepare for winter. It's as if an artist took his softest brush and swept brown paint across the very edges, the color bleeding inward to suggest that even more ripening will come.

Now, before the winter frost hits, the blooms are sepia colored and crisp, yet preserved in their wonder. How they fade but still stand tall on their stems, woody and strong. I love how I can just clip and gather them, dropping them into a vase without water. By now they have absorbed enough sun and water to get them through. They will remain this way—constant.

I want our family to be the watering, the sun, and the gathering for our coming child. I want our family to build a firm stem and strong leaves. To absorb enough sun to pass on, water to shower, earth to hold her steady through the frost. I want her petals to change with the seasons, as she grows into a rose-tipped bloom, colored by the gentle experiences we can offer her. Warmed by the way we tend each other. Gated by the safety that is our home. The love, constant.

I pinch the web that trails from a dried stem, carrying the tiny spider to my door. I set her free into the chilly breeze and watch as she scrambles for shelter. Perhaps for now I can content myself by naming our future child "Annabelle" in my mind. I need this for the moment—to allow myself to grow compassion for this elusive child, to ready my heart. Yes, for now, I will name this someday child Annabelle and pray she will find comfort in our home when spring comes again.

Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published widely. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014) and the founder of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.

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Heather Vrattos is pursuing an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Center of Photography. She is the mother of three boys, and lives in New York City.

How beautifully you depicted the emotions of a foster child. Excellent article.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting Sameera. I'm glad my essay spoke to you.
This is so beautiful Julianne Palumbo. I can hear the yearning and feel the desire and fear. I hope your Annabelle(s) arrives soon. Thanks for taking us on this journey with you. I look forward to the next chapter...
Thanks so much for reading this, Jude, and for your kind comments. This has been a truly rewarding journey.
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