The Replacement Mom

“You’re not the Mom he never had… you’re just the Replacement Mom, the Mom he’ll have to make do with because he doesn’t have anyone else.”

I remember when it was just me and Evangeline during the day.  I remember how sometimes just watching her play would start my mind thinking.  I would hear things like “She’s so beautiful, how did I ever deserve such a precious gift?  What an amazing miracle God has given me, a beautiful treasure… I wonder who she will be when she grows up…” You know all those lovely, motherly thoughts that you think about the little loves of your life.

With four now… it’s harder to get such a moment, a moment where my mind can just stop and rest on one precious little life and what it means.  However, I did manage to catch one such moment yesterday with my dear Jacob, but what my mind began telling me were not the sweet, motherly whispers I so desperately wanted to hear.  Instead, my inner monologue went more like this:

“You get to be who he’s always waited for, the Mom he never had and always wanted…   Well, not really.  The Mom he wanted was the one he was given in the first place, the mother who grew him and carried him for nine months, the mother he was intimately connected with, who he loved and needed, the mother who was his whole world.  But she left, and where did she go anyway?  How could she just up and take away the one person who ever meant anything to him?  You’re not the Mom he never had; you’re just the Replacement Mom, the Mom he’ll have to make do with because he doesn’t have anyone else.  You’ll always be the substitute; you’ll never be as good for him as she could have been.”

Writing it down is almost worse than when I heard myself ranting it in my head the first time.  The reality just downright hurts.  Now, I know I’ll have some readers, especially those in the adoption community, who will be quick to point out all the fallacies of my little rabbit trail.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard “Adoption isn’t second best, it’s just as good as any other situation a child can be given.” Or… “Choosing not to parent isn’t a bad thing, sometimes it’s just the best way to care for your child.” Or… “God made this child for our family; he was always meant to be ours, God just had him grow in someone else’s tummy.”

Every time I hear any version of these it makes me cringe.  Every adopted child has trauma, whether they were adopted as newborns or come from hard places.  Babies are meant to stay with the Mommies who gave birth to them.  And when that doesn’t happen fear, loss, grief, confusion and loneliness enter the child’s life… no matter how young they are or how well taken care of by others.  Babies aren’t meant to be taken care of by strangers; they are made to bond with and be cared for by the mother they grew to know for nine months before being born.  When that doesn’t happen it is never good for the baby, and any other situation is always going to be second best.

(Disclaimer: Sometimes adoption is the most loving thing a mother can do for her child!  But these tragic situations come up only because we live in a fallen world where we cannot always give our child the best of everything.  We cannot always shield our children from loss, and when this happens, we should absolutely support birth mothers who give their children for adoption as a way of seeking the best for them in a tragic situation.)

As a mother caring for two children who were not born to me and who spent a great chunk of their childhoods without me… I am acutely aware of this truth.  It would be so much easier to simply think “This is how it was meant to be.  God wanted them to be a part of our family all along.”  But this is self centered thinking.  It says that the traumatic loss of my children’s birth mothers was all for my benefit.  That the pain and grief my children and their birth families have was all orchestrated just so our family could grow in a unique way.

I’m sorry, but I can’t buy that.  I know that God has been preparing me to be the Mom for these two for well over a decade, perhaps before I was even born… I know that He knew what would come to pass, and I believe that He paved a way for my children to have a mother and a home.  I believe God had good plans for my children, but I am not foolish enough to forget that the best plan He had was to keep them with their birth mothers in the first place.  He gave these two lives to them, entrusted these children to their care, not to mine.

Jacob was never meant to be mine.  He was meant for the woman God originally gave him to.  He was hers, and in a sense he still is hers.  I am just the Replacement Mom, God’s second string, the merciful backup plan He had in place, knowing that this precious life would be rejected and tossed aside.  It’s not hard to be second string, not anymore.  After all, I’m in the game now aren’t I?  And I’m not going to be benched again anytime soon.  The hard part, though, is knowing that I literally cannot be everything to Jacob that I am to Evangeline or Stephen.

I cannot go back and give him the security of knowing me intimately right from the womb.  I cannot turn back the clock and hold him as he suffered through that debilitating respiratory attack just hours after his birth.  I cannot take away the crib he laid in at the baby house for four years.  I cannot take back all the lies that were thrown at him about how he could never learn and would never walk.  There are seven years of suffering that I cannot just simply erase from his life.

His birth mother could have prevented all that, but I’m not her.  I’m the Replacement Mom.  All I can do is pick up where her legacy left off and try to write something new into his story.  That is the pain of adoption, the pain of not being able to protect your child, the pain of knowing that no matter how far you turn back the clock you never could have done anything to stop it anyway.

Courtesy of Jill Heupel Photography

Courtesy of Jill Heupel Photography

But, even knowing all this, what I was saying to myself before (though perhaps accurate) was not fully complete, it missed the most important part of the story… the ending.  What I must remember when I begin my next monologue about being the Replacement Mom is this: The novels that begin the most tragically are the ones that hold the greatest potential for the most beautiful endings.  Yes, I am coming in late to finish a story that was started long ago… but I have been given the duty and privilege of writing love into this book, of writing joy and hope and family into the life of a child who never knew any of those things before.

Neither Jacob nor I could control how his story started.  But I am here now, and I have the honor of helping him write the rest of his story to the very end… which is, after all, the most important part.


  1. You are only Plan B from your perspective, never from God’s. From His, you were chosen from before the foundation of the world to be Jacob’s mom. You are not the Replacement Mom from His perspective. The sin of Adam and Eve was not a shock to God. God did have to shout “Oh NO!” and come up with a plan to send His Son to save the world because we sinned. So nope, I do not think you are a replacement mom.

  2. I think you stated this beautifully and honestly. This is very well said: “Sometimes adoption is the most loving thing a mother can do for her child! But these tragic situations come up only because we live in a fallen world where we cannot always give our child the best of everything.”

  3. You may be the Replacement Mom but that means that right now, you’re the mom he needs. That’s pretty darn special.

  4. Beautiful!

  5. While there is undeniably loss when a parent can’t care for a child, your son’s trauma and deprivation is primarily due to his years in institutional care. A baby immediately adopted by a loving parent does not suffer these effects. Babies are programmed to attach to their primary caregiver and they do NOT know whether that is a biological or adoptive parent- or a grandparent or a foster mom, etc. For a healthy child with a loving and responsive parent, there will be no difference in that attachment- or the parent’s bond with the child. Mind you, I’m not saying that the child will not feel loss later when that abandonment is understood and processed- continuously over the years. But that sense of loss does not disrupt a healthy attachment. A child who has experienced trauma, deprivation, and lack of loving caregiving will have great difficulty UNlearning the lessons of survival- and then forging a trusting and secure relationship with a new attachment figure. It’s natural for the process to be very painful- for both child and new parent.

    • says:

      Quinn, thank you for your reply. You should definitely look more into the emotional development of babies in utero and how they recognize and need to connect with their mothers immediately following birth. When this does not happen trauma does result for the infant at some level. Attachment disorders and difficulties arise both in children adopted when older as well as in babies adopted at birth. This is why one should never enter into an adoption believing they are getting a perfectly healthy, typical baby. This is never the case. There is always damage that needs to be healed. Babies do not come into this world as “clean slates” but as humans already intimately connected with the caregiver they have been with the previous nine months – their mother!

      As far as survival lessons and unlearning those, you bet that’s hard! But it’s not the only trauma that my son has been through, and it is not the only thing that affects our attachment or his life’s story.

      • I’m actually a child psychologist who specializes in social dysfunction, including “attachment disorder” and also autism. But even in the field we don’t all agree on the impact of very early experience, so no need to agree with me :-) . We do know that the challenges in attachment can happen even for children who have no disruption in caregiver- there are other factors that impact security of attachment since it develops within a social context with the caregiver. We also know that children can develop secure attachment even WITH disruption in attachment. The earlier that disruption happens, the more likely secure attachment happens. For children who are adopted at birth there is virtually no difference in attachment compared to biological children- everything else equal. However, there seem to be increased challenges for moms of preemies- in the NICU for lengthy period. The medical and developmental issues along with separation may have impact there. Child development and especially infant development is very challenging to study, so our research isn’t always straightforward for interpretation. Anyway, bottom line is that you are doing a wonderful job with children who are such high need. I’m a fan and my input was meant to be reassuring, not so much challenging.

        • says:

          Thanks Quinn I suppose I just simply cannot fathom how a person would be able to study the development of a baby in utero and conclude that very early experience is negligible. Children definitely can develop secure attachment with disruption in attachment, and yes, the earlier it happens (or the longer there is stability) the more likely secure attachment can take place. But that does not mean secure attachment will absolutely take place. I’m sure there is a lot of disagreement on this in the field; our understanding of the tiniest people among us is so clouded by a culture that wants to discount the reality of their existence. It’s definitely a deep topic with lots of wiggle room for differing opinion. Thank you for reading and for sharing yours. :)

          • Stephanie says:

            Dallas, I agree with your story and am often sharing in your feelings of being the replacement mom. Children ultimately desire that relationship with their bio mother, and no matter the age, suffer a mortal wound when that is not there. I am 12 years into our adoption story and the wounds remain. We adopted our son at age 5, so his wounds remain, RAD is part of our lives and I often am discouraged. God has a plan and loves us and sustains us on our journey but it is difficult. Thank you for sharing.

        • I understand that the physiological cummunity truly belives that newborns do not experience trauma but I would challenge professionals to talk to adult adoptees who were adopted at birth. I belong to an on line support group only for adoptees. There are thousands of adults who were adopted at birth and every single one of them seem to experience the same struggles emotionally as older adoptees and much of the same trauma when they fund out they were adopted. The only ones who seem to be ok are the very few who had open adoptions and knew thier biofamilies. I too am a very religious person but not being with your bio mother is not normal for children and does create disprution. Many and honestly most adult adoptees do not speak up and share that publicly becuase they are taught from birth to be grateful and that thier life is normal even if they feel like a fish out of water thier whole life.

    • My apologies, but I do believe (And so do many others) that even children who are adopted at birth feel the loss of their bio mother. It is known as ‘the primal wound’. Even children adopted at birth can have special issues.

  6. I didn’t read the comments… I don’t really care so much about them. I just want to thank you. Thanks. This is important stuff, for our children, for ourselves, for the world. We are just shy of celebrating two-years-in-our-home with our youngest. She was an orphan in EE and has significant disability, but not the *obvious* kind. Her disability is the: “Ohmigosh, she’s so cute!!! Does she ever slow down?? I just want to eat her up!” And also severe brain differences which lead to crazy behavior…

    When I speak to her, and to myself about God’s plan in all of “this” I tell us, over and over again, that The Lord brought us together, not to fight, but for good. For her good, for our good, for the good of many… God is able to work in miraculous, *good* ways, but… there is brokenness, and there will always (until we are made *completely* new) be brokenness. Hers, mine… ours.

    I am not The Lord’s first choice for our little Bug, just as you have said, but I was available, I was called, and I am staying… which means, Lord willing, that I’ll be around for *our* beautiful ending.

  7. I remember sitting down with my stepson one day after nearly 10 years of parenting him and telling him “I know I am not the mom that you want. I’m not the mom I would want you to have either. You want YOUR mom to be here doing all the things that I am doing and I wish with everything that I have that she was the mom that you want and deserve- but she isn’t. I know I am not the mom that you want- but I AM the mom that you have. We can’t change the way that things are, so you can continue to punish me because you can’t punish HER, or we can try to make the best of this.” ….Shelby

  8. Thankyou from an adoptee we find it so insulting when people say its gods will so sick of that crap honesty turns us adoptees into athiests. No loving god if they exist would let a stranger take a baby. Thankyou for knowing that adopters are always second something many hate to hear they are so desperate to own us body and mind .In no other instance would us loosing our families be celebrated ,if my parents had been killed at the birth I would be encouraged to know them and I would be told how they loved me and my care giver would not become my new instant parents .I will never be grateful how can I when I have lost everything .Until adopters recognize that we are not theres we will always have a life time of suffering trauma . So thankyou from an adoptee thats adopter tried to create a as if born to blank slate she had no control of my mind and my DNA. It was only a matter of time till the universe set things right and I was back with my mother and her family.something my replacement mother didnt like at all. She never understood that nature has a way of winning over greedy wants needs and a big cheque book.As a child I could never understand the adopters saying your mum was poor so she gave you up to have a better life I would always think well your rich why didnt you just give her some money or let her live here as there soany spare rooms.Took me a while to grow up and know that it was never about me but the adopters needs and wants ..

  9. Yes yes yes!!! I feel this exact same way and have been saying it since I brough our son (16 at the time) home a year ago. Thank you for saying it in such a way that conveys what I have been feeling and the truth.

  10. Stephanie says:

    Thank you. Just thank you

  11. There is truth here. I have three very different children; one apparently suffering from attachment issues but appearing to try to find her way back to her adopted family with some input from her birth parents, one apparently doing well with only the “typical” issues of her age, and one who might have suffered some in utero challenges secondary to a birth mother who was traumatized and anxious, and trying to conceal her pregnancy. And I love them all equally and try my best to be the mother that they need now and forever! And believe me, I love the supportive complements but the reality is that I think that I am just doing what any mother does for her children, adopted or natural. And yes, the “ending” is my goal. All of my children were adopted from “children of trauma” through the foster care system and my ultimate goal is to break the chain of trauma!

  12. Oh my. This is my life. I really get uncomfortable with the platitudes about “I was God’s plan for my adopted children”. No – but I am that merciful plan. Thank you for so eloquently sharing (and yes – adoption is always trauma-not unrecoverable from trauma but trauma mom the less. I hope Quinn is more up to date on the science of in utero after your comments)

  13. So well said! Thank you from one replacement mom to another. What a privilege to be a part of how God works this whole thing out!

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