The Measure of a Mom

May 15, 2013

“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. 


  1. stacy

    Wowzza! I do have a “mom” just like that. She has made me the person, mother, wife and woman I am today. Thank you Momma for blessing us with your love. And thank you Michele for sharing your words!

    • Michele

      Beautiful tribute, Stacy. She is certainly a gift!

    • Pam Pieters

      You honor me my dear girl. Thanks for making it easy to be your Momma.

      I love you more than words can say!

      • Michele

        🙂 Well done, Pam.

  2. Esther

    My post today is exactly all of this! My friend Jess has birthed, fostered, adopted, and much more for many children. Today she’s on her way to Liberia to help children find adoptive families, I say she is also their mom along the way.
    Toss the labels! You are a mom of 6, God sees you as a mom of 6, your children see you as their mom. Bless you! 🙂

    • Michele

      Three cheers for Jess! Wow … what a heart. You honor her by telling her story, Esther. Well done.

  3. Risé B.

    What is a mother anyway?? I have a mother who wasn’t a mom. She was not loving, she was only kind if there was an audience to see it – but more often than not her words were abusive. To me, if the kids call you mom and you love them, respect them and you are giving them your time, attention and affection – guess what? YOU are their MOM!

    I know of women who have adopted – and I heard one story of someone who said their adopted child wasn’t really theirs and this particular mom got quite upset. The child was prayed for and so very wanted. This child was loved – she gave the child all her time, attention and affection. If she was not the child’s mom, who was she then? Any woman can be a mother … the one who loves and provides and wants to know who you are is a mom.

    I know that even if I was being a mom to kids I did not birth – I would have boldly stood up, proudly. Birthing children doesn’t make you a mom – loving a kid like you are their mom does!! 🙂

    • Michele

      Well said, Rise. WELL SAID. My heart goes out to that adoptive mom. For the most part, people are well-intentioned. But I have been the recipient of more than a few insensitive comments, and boy does it sting. The good news is we can do the opposite, and regularly tell the non-traditional moms in our lives how much their influence does matter. Sometimes all a person needs is to be seen.

  4. Gina

    Just made me cry, thanks for your honesty. Can’t wait to chat next week!

    • Michele

      You’re doing a beautiful thing, Gina.

      (P.S. Me, too!)

  5. Leslie

    Beautifully said. It’s tricky sometimes. We have fostered many, feel like their parents for that time, then grieve their leaving. They are in my heart, although I am likely forgotten in their young hearts. 🙂 We have also adopted and birthed. Raising 6…they all count. 🙂 You are so courageous, Michele and definitely they all count. I’m glad you stood!

    • Michele

      I can’t imagine anything more difficult than loving children as your own … then releasing them to someone else. How do you do it, Leslie? YOU are courageous. Because you’re loving without thought to protecting your own feelings. “There is no greater love than this: That a [wo]man lay his life down.”

  6. Darcie J Gudger

    I can sooooo relate as an adoptive mom! I have been questioned over the years about my status as a “real” mom. Way was I with certain groups? What made me think I had a right to be at —- when Kyle was not my “real” son? My reply was this: “not real? What do you think he’s made of? Plastic?”

    I still get the question: “how can you love him when you didn’t give birth to him?” My reply: “you didn’t give birth to your husband/dog and you love them…”

    DNA doesn’t not make a family. I have seen more abuse in DNA families in my role as a teacher/coach than in adoptive families.

    Here’s an admission: I am GLAD I didn’t have to do the birth thing. I don’t feel like I am missing out. I didn’t feel slighted over the whole breast feeding thing (and boy, did I ever get verbally crucified over that one- how cruel it is to take a child from his birthmother so he could not suckle… How I was selfish for not torturing my body by taking synthetic hormones to force my body to breastfeed- um…. Hormones are WHY I can’t conceive.)

    I feel like I got a special gift by adopting Kyle. Especially since I did not have to go through all the birth stuff. In my eyes, his young teen birth mom is a hero for making a hard choice and doing what was best for her son so he would not become yet another statistic. Adoption takes guts on BOTH sides.

    Michele, you are a super mom. Taking in here little ones when your boys were moving into independence. Sacrificing those golden years of freedom with your husband… Guts. You have heroic guts. Those are YOUR kids. Always will be.

    I mean, even my guardlings who have parents become my kids. Motherhood is more defined by answering a call to a role regardless of how the child came to your arms.

    Beautiful post! Can you tell this is something raw and real for me too?

    Love you!

    • Michele

      I adore you, Darcie. Thank you for being honest and brave in your comments. This is an emotional topic—and should be! We’re talking about children, for heaven’s sakes! And that topic should always have direct access to the deep places of our hearts. Kyle is precious … And you ARE his mom. A good one. Period.

  7. Suzie

    I have a very simple comment for you or any mom who question their measure as a mom.
    “God knows your heart”.


    • Michele

      The fact that He knows and sees is the greatest comfort of all.

  8. Becky

    Thank you so much for this post. As a stepmom, I struggle every Mother’s Day to know whether to stand up when they want to acknowledge moms. I’m glad I’m not alone and I’m thankful for your honesty and willingness to say what so many “un-moms” can’t seem to express. I will definitely be sharing this in the stepmom small group I’m starting!

    • Michele

      You are definitely not alone. I love how you’re committed to making other unmoms feel less alone, too. I wish I could be part of your group!

  9. Jessica Luther

    When my husband and I went through the process of blending our families, I asked myself the same question. In fact, many times we would walk in somewhere with our five beautiful “stair steps” and people would ask…How many kids do you have!?!? My husband would reply that two are his and three are mine. It really offended me that we would classify our children as anything other than equal….his and hers…that’s for towels, not children. Now, I know he didn’t mean any harm by saying this. It was just him struggling with the same question. I told him that we are a family and we do not have to explain our dynamics to anyone. Biology does not make a parent any more or less a parent to the child. I see characteristics in my bonus daughters that reflect my character and interests all the time. I make the same sacrifices for all of my children, regardless of biology. Now, when asked….it’s easy to answer “FIVE! Ranging in age 9 to 17..and can you believe there is only one boy in the bunch!?!”. Hold your head high Michele….you did the right thing by standing!

  10. Jon Stallings

    I actually I know two moms like that. Both sets of parents are leaders in our church. And they both have a house full of their own plus technical niece and nephews. I never know which is which (I need a scorecard). I have been known to ask one of the kid’s where their mom is, and they will say, “You mean my aunt” Then later I will hear the same kid call her mom. – OK I am confused.

    Anyway both families always have lots of energy and plenty of smiles. At the end of the day that is what they are, a family.

    • Michele

      I think it’s a beautiful thing that you can’t tell which is which! I rarely tell people which of my kids are bio, step or otherwise, and then only in answer to questions. It makes no difference to me. You’re absolutely right … in the end, it’s ALL family.

  11. Kelly Combs

    My husband lived in a boys home from age 6-11. Then his foster mom took him in…”only for the summer.” Well, she tells the story that the moment she saw how sad and scared he was, she knew she would never send him back. She never did.

    She passed away 2 years ago. But before she passed, she & her husband ordered their tombstone. It reads, “Parents of Richard and John.” Richard is their birth son. John joined them at age 11. But there is no doubt that they were his parents forevermore. And how we miss his mom. (His dad is still with us at the age of 92).

    • Michele

      Oh, Kelly. What a precious woman. Our world needs far more men and women like that.

    • Jenny Mosier

      That gives me goosebumps. <3

  12. Kelly Combs

    By the way, you will likely enjoy this video. This family who lives in my community has adopted many kids. There son George has no arms, but is a talented musician. At age 18 he has played with Goo Goo Dolls, Jeremy Camp, and he has met Stephen Curtis Chapman and Randy Jackson (Yo yo!). He has special need siblings as well. His dad articulates the importance of “ransoming” a life.

  13. Matt McWilliams

    This isn’t a political statement or judgment (that is usually code for “I am about to make a judgmental political statement”) but with that caveat aside…

    You are more a mom to the 5 that you did not carry in your womb than many women are to those they did. I can tell that.

    My wife and I cannot wait to adopt. And she will be a mom to 2 (we have a 2-year old genetic offspring), then 3, and 4, and…who knows? God does.

    • Michele

      Thank you for that, Matt. I adore my children—every last one. Such a gift to be their mom. By the way, 6 is a good number. 😉

  14. Joyce C.

    I am blessed to be a mom both by adoption and birth. I have never hesitated to proudly say I am a mom to two kids. God chooses us to be moms in different ways and knows which children should be ours. I’m willing to bet that us adoptive moms don’t sit around every day saying this kid is my adoptive kid. I am thankful that my son’s birth mother made a selfless, brave and loving choice to place him for adoption. Unfortunately there are people who are uneducated when it comes to adoption so we have to be the ones to educate them. Fortunately I haven’t run into too many of those people and had to deal with insensitive and uneducated comments like some moms.
    Michele, stand up proudly you are a mom to 6 beautiful children! What a blessing!

  15. Kimberlee

    I hate that you even had to write this post. Of course you are their mom, and good for you for mothering those that weren’t “yours” previously. I admire your commitment to expand your heart and your home to these sweet little people. As a matter of fact, in my book you are even more of a mom because of what you are doing.

    So happy Mother’s Day, a bit late, but multiplied by six. 🙂

  16. Tracy Higuera

    Beautiful! You are an amazing MOM to all 6 kids, no doubt about it!

    As you know, I have wrestled with this awkward issue for almost 18 years now (since Jamie was 4) and thought it would get easier when she was an adult. However, this past week, at her college graduation, wasn’t any easier as she talked to MY family and friends about her “parents” (referring to her mom and step-dad). I would have been able to happily accept the use of the term “other parents”. I wonder still, if they are her “parents”, what does that make her dad and I? Still, I won’t stop loving her as my daughter! (And I won’t stop telling everyone I have 3 wonderful children, without any explanation of who gave birth to who!)

    • Michele Cushatt

      Thank you, sweet Tracy. The same to you!

      I thought it would get easier, too. But you’re right—it’s still just as complicated. I’m so sorry to hear about graduation. Painful! The “big” days always carry the most potential for hurt. But I LOVE your attitude and commitment to love unconditionally, regardless. It’s so worth it.

  17. Jenny Mosier

    I wonder why it’s easier for some of us to accept that title than others? I have ALWAYS claimed the title, whether my kids were legally mine or not. Once our foster kids entered our home, I was Mom, whether they called me “JenJen” or “Mama”. And they were mine, even if for just a while. I COMPLETELY get what you’re saying, but I want to stand up and shout out “You ARE Mom! You are a mom of 6!” You might not be their only mother, but you are Mom.

    Maybe the wait to get the title made me grasp onto it with all my might, whether I earned it or not! 😀 There is no greater title in all the world!

    • Michele

      Jenny, I think stepmoms might have the toughest time doing this. Not because they don’t want to “claim” their children. But because there’s a stigma surrounding them doing so. It’s a tough place to be, trying to respect the bio parent and boundaries, and yet wanting to make the children feel loved and accepted and welcomed in your home and heart. Often it’s a no-win situation, especially if you have a bio-parent that is discounting your role every step of the way. But I say LOVE ANYWAY! If you’re going to err, err on the side of loving too much.

  18. Jenny Mosier

    I think I’m reaching my post quota since this is my third post here (ha!)… but I just LOVE the comments from others on this post! I guess it speaks loudly to all of us no wonder where we are on the “mom spectrum”. Way to get us talking, Michele! Thank you!

    • Michele

      You deserve an award! You can comment as much as you want. I love it. 🙂 Honestly, the comments here have been more touching to me than you can know. I’ve also received emails and messages that have brought me to tears. This is a tender and important topic. I’m thrilled men and women have shown courage enough to participate in it.

  19. Lorena

    Thanks for this article. Well said! My sister has 10 children (right now) – 4 are her biological children, 1 is adopted (from birth), 3 are long term foster, 1 is short term foster (at least for now) and 1 she used to foster and now does respite care for. Is she the mother to all of them? – you bet!! I have 3 children of my own, but we often talk about how many kids we “really” have – our 3, two sponsor children, two adult children that used to live/rent with us that called me mom, and our kids friends who call me mom. What a blessing it is to be able to be a mom to the extra kids – we can make a difference in their lives in ways that their own families sometimes can’t.

  20. Molly

    I am a mom of four. My oldest two are my husband’s from a previous marriage. They live with us and they are my children. Even with the biological mother still in the picture, they are still mine as well. The third oldest is mine from a previous relationship. My little one is my husband and my own child. Yes, we are a yours, mine and ours family. Because of the redeeming power of an awesome God I am proud to say “yes, they are all mine!” I too, questioned this in the beginning. Should I say “these are my husband’s, this one is mine and this one is ours? Or should I say they’re all mine?” I finally realized by explaining and giving these certain “ownership” titles to them that I was inhibiting the bonding process. There’s no need for explanation unless asked. These are my children. I love them all, I mother them all.

    • Michele Cushatt

      I agree. There’s no need for explanation unless asked. I want all of my children to feel safe, valued and wanted, regardless of how we came to be a family. And I believe how we speak about it goes a long way to making that happen.


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