“How many children do you have?”

It’s one of the first questions I’m asked, whether speaking at a conference or paying for groceries. It’s an expected question, a natural one.

But I never know how to answer it.

I have five children at home, one in his own apartment twenty minutes away. The oldest is 21, the youngest is 6. But only one of my six children called me “Mom” from birth. Only one shares my genetics, brown eyes and mischievous smile. Only one did I nurse and swaddle and witness his first smile.

The other five came to me in unexpected ways. Two from a second relationship, when still 5 and 6 years old. That relationship eventually became the marriage I treasure today, over twelve years strong. At times they’ve called me mom, but the biology is different.

Does it count?

And what about the youngest three? They’ve been in our home for not-quite two years. They call me “Mom” daily, the former “Aunt” reference fading. Still, they know my perch in the family tree is not as “birth mom.” Another woman carries that title.

So, on Mother’s Day Sunday, when my pastor asked the moms of four or more children to stand, I didn’t know what to do.

“Should I stand up?” I grabbed my husband’s wrist, whispered in his ear.

“What?” He didn’t understand my question.

“Should I stand up? Do I count all six of our kids or just one?”

He shrugged. I waited, needing his validation.

“Sure, go ahead. You’re their mom.”

So I stood up, along with a couple dozen other moms. But then, doubt. Loads of it. Did the pastor require proof? Birth certificates? Court orders? Blood tests? Baby books and snippets of hair?

If so, I’d have to confess my fraudulence to a packed room of perfectly traditional parents.

Ugh. Anything but that.

This is my very real struggle. One I share with scores of silent women (and men, for that matter). At times I wonder if it’s just me and my skewed perception. But then a dear friend, who didn’t mean to offend, asked me only yesterday:

“Did you stand up at church on Sunday? How many kids did you say you have?”

Ouch. Exactly. Her question confirmed my fear:

My sense of unworthiness isn’t insecurity. It’s cultural perception of what it takes to be a “real” mom. I may love my six children as if I’d given birth to each one. But without a certificate or blood test, I don’t measure up.

There are many of us “un-moms” out there. The step-mom. Foster mom. Guardian mom. Kinship mom. Mentor mom. Even, at times, the adoptive mom. Regardless of the dinners made, homework assignments completed, conversations shared, and “I love you’s” given, she’s discounted as less than ideal. Less than enough.

It isn’t right. Maybe not intentional. But it’s real.

So what do we do?

At the least, it warrants a conversation. Even better, a commitment to see and actively support the thousands of men and women who fill gaps they didn’t create and love and lead children they didn’t birth. What they’re doing matters, and it does, indeed, count.

But the first step begins with the un-mom herself. The one who doubts her significance and wrestles with her role.

Yes, you.

[And me.]

So you didn’t wear maternity clothes and eat tacos at two in the morning. So you didn’t groan for twenty-one hours of labor until the doctor dropped a squalling child in your arms.

So what.

You said “I do” and opened your arms to children you didn’t birth. You said, “Yes,” and welcomed a troubled child with no where else to go. You signed papers and set up extra bedrooms and got that extra job.

A birth certificate isn’t the measure of a mom; what you do with the gift you’ve been given is. Don’t wait for the world’s validation. God has given you a sacred responsibility. For whatever reason, He brought you—YOU—a child needing your love.

Do it well. Stand up and take your place as a lover and molder of children.

You are a mother.

Do you know a non-traditional mom, someone who is investing in a child she didn’t birth? Tell us about her. Then send her this post. You’ll make her day. 

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