The other day at work, I had a routine interaction with a coworker that left me feeling unsettled. The woman is new to my organization, and we had an orientation meeting so I could provide an overview of the projects I work on that will overlap with hers. At the end of the meeting, as we walked out of the conference room, I asked about her family. She told me about her 12-year-old daughter and then asked me if I have any kids.
I paused. My hesitation has become typical in these situations; for the past several years, I have become unsure how to answer this question.
How many kids do I have? One? Three? One and three-quarters? Two and a half? I’m never quite sure how to calculate who I have a right to claim as my own.
I have my biological daughter, Lila. That’s easy. My stepson, Soren, has been in my life since he was four years old, and I married his dad when he was nine. He’s twenty-four years old now. I have loved him for nearly twenty years, and we intentionally claim one another as family. So, yes, he’s my child. And yet, I always feel like I need to provide a caveat. I feel I owe an explanation to the person asking. “I have a stepson,” I explain. “But he feels like my son.” The listener usually nods agreeably, but I’m never quite sure if they really understand. I wonder if they believe that the relationship fully counts – if they view it as legitimate to count Soren as my child.
And then there’s the most complicated relationship to consider in the tally: our former foster daughter, Alayna.* Alayna arrived in our home a few weeks before her third birthday. During the time she was with us, she became a daughter to my husband and me, and we became her parents; she started calling us “mommy” and “daddy” within forty-eight hours of her arrival and never stopped.
But Alayna was only with our family for nine months. And, we haven’t seen her in the three years since she left our home.
The “only” in the statement above feels problematic. Nine months is long enough to gestate a baby, and it was certainly long enough to feel a deep belonging to one another that bordered on a sense of ownership. We laid claims to one another. So surely, I’m allowed to count her as one of my own?
But since she left our house, Alyana has been adopted by her ‘forever family.’ They lay full claim to her now, and arguably our ties continue to weaken as time goes by. We can’t be sure if or how much Alyana even remembers us.
So, does she count as one of my children?
The question of who I can rightfully claim as my own only starts to make sense to me during my evening prayers with Lila. As we snuggle into her bed and she takes her last sips of the water on her bedside table, I begin our prayers by asking for blessings for our biological family. “Please bless Lila and bless Soren.” And then, each night – even though I’ve been through this ritual hundreds of times – I pause for a second. A tiny hiccup of uncertainty catches me off-guard. It is the same uncertainty I experience when confronted with my coworker’s question. In that moment, I wonder if Lila will challenge my inclusion of Alyana in the list of our family members, although I know this is ridiculous. Lila considers Alyana her sister, no matter how much time or space divides them.
So I proceed. “Please bless Alyana,” I say each night. And then, with a predictable rush, that prayer for Alyana opens up a flurry of additional people to be included. Alayna becomes the bridge. If I claim her, where do the boundaries of who I count as my child begin and end? After we work our way through the list of people we know well, we begin to pray for people who are strangers to us.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.” Jesus does not worry who is “in” and who is “out” when he lays claim on the children of the world. Over time, I’ve come to recognize this as one of the greatest blessing of being a mother to children who don’t always fit the traditional category of who we “count” as our own. Loving both Soren and Alyana has helped me expand the boundaries of who I recognize as my family. By the end of our evening prayers, Lila and I always conclude by praying for all of the children of the world. It evolves naturally; we’re not forcing it. In that moment, every kid starts to feel like they could be part of our family too.
*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality