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  • I heard the familiar creaking floorboards and thud of heavy little heels patting out of the bedroom and down the stairs. I put my book aside to meet her there, all squinty and sad. She is Ruby, 5 years old, blue-eyed blond, the baby of this threesome I sit for.

    “What’s the matter?” I ask, taking her in my arms.

    “I just really don’t want to be alone right now,” she whimpers as she leans into my abdomen. Her sad earnestness levels me.

    “I know. Me neither.”

    I scoop her up. She buries her hands and face in my hair and sighs. We walk up the stairs this way. I let her gently down into the sheet fort we built in the floor and lower myself beside her. She lies facing me, taking me in a moment with a soft smile that says “thank you.” She closes her eyes, tucks her hair under her face, and gropes the blanket with her hand for mine. I take her soft hand in my palm, pressing my fingers into hers and letting the warmth of her fingers closing around mine sweep me into her beauty. With my free hand, I stroke her hair until my arm burns and I curse the frailty of my body for shortening this little gift of comfort. I cannot move. I cannot take my eyes off her, but they cloud with tears and I soak the pillow taking her in. She is beautiful and perfect and love. She is love.

    I take in all of her: her scent, her breathing, her fluttering eyelids, her tangled hair. I stifle my sobs so I don’t disturb the little miracle of falling asleep, held. I wonder if she can feel my pain and I pray in that moment that all my sadness and all my fear and all my loneliness exits in my tears and that all my joy, my love, my hope, my peace funnels through my trembling hand into her. I see clearly this is a divine transaction. Her request said she needed me, but truly, in this moment, I need her presence desperately.

    When my lungs have quieted, my thoughts wander forward into the future of what motherhood looks like for me. They wander backward to the many children I have mothered this way over the years. They wander across to the man I married, and what I thought we’d have together. And every time they do, I get this little involuntary squeeze from the little hand holding mine. It’s an invitation back to her. Back to this moment. This kiss of the divine. I stay and I stay long after her little body has stopped twitching into sleep. Long after her grip on my fingers opens in total repose. Long after the hardwoods stab into my 30-year-old hip and shoulder. I stay and I stare and I cry.

    Once she’s asleep, I check in with myself. Tears are communicators: What are these hot tears saying? The thought that bubbles up is not a new one, but a renewed one: You are already a mother. Motherhood is a state of being – body, mind, spirit. And giving birth isn’t a prerequisite to the body part of that trinity. It’s a beautiful work of suffering and sacrifice and beauty and life in its own right, but it is not the only way to motherhood. You are already there, whether you ever have children at all. Whether you adopt or not. Whether you are partnered or not. That’s the miracle. That’s the divine providence, the way for love to win above all else. You love like a mother. And that is as much a gift as childbearing.

    I was driving at some point earlier today thinking about motherhood and how a desire so strong and earnest could evaporate in the course of a year. How a longing prayed for in December, a dream so powerful and eviscerating in January and a tearful desire voiced with close friends in the spring could give way to this peace and stillness about not having children. Right now, in this tumult and transition, nothing could be further from my mind in terms of pursuit. Though this perplexes me, for the first time in a long time, I am content.

    Tonight, I understand why. I have that which I have sought. Though my time next to Ruby leaves me breathless, it is not the first of its kind. I have mothered many with my presence in the last 20 years. With back rubs and cuddles, diaper changes and feedings, glasses of water and kisses of bruises, meals and juice boxes and snacks. I’ve offered fingers to steady new steps, open arms at the bottoms of slides and in pools, pushes on swings, healing hands to broken skin and tear-stained faces, embraces to frightened little hearts. I’ve given my face to curious teeth and sharp fingernails, my clothes to spit-up and diarrhea and snot and half-chewed food. I’ve potty-trained and accident-recovered, wiped bottoms and noses and hands and faces, bathed and medicated, carried and sung to sleep. I’ve given hips to clingy babies, legs to playful toddlers, songs to laughing children, stories and questions to pre-adolescents, presence to brooding teens.

    Sometimes presence is what’s needed. I don’t have to have given birth to them to offer that. And I don’t have to have named them to love them. It’s a gift, a privilege to love the world’s littles, no matter who they belong to.

    And tonight, right now, that is more than enough. My heart is full.
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