My sister-in-law sent me a Mother’s Day gift this year, the first I’ve ever received. I felt like an imposter when I opened it.

I hadn’t forgotten the Toddler, the Infant and the Newborn living with me, three sisters all under the age of 3, but my status as a foster parent is ambiguous by nature. Do I count as a mom?

Legally? No.

When my husband and I couldn’t have biological children, we chose foster-care adoption. Children stay with us while a court determines the competence of their parents. If the parents’ rights are terminated, we adopt. It’s a Russian-roulette system that guarantees a painful bullet to all involved. It’s a system where the parents have lawyers, and the children have lawyers, and my husband and I stand voiceless in the wings, waiting to return the girls on a moment’s notice.

I understand my place within the confines of this legal system; my confusion breeds outside its insular walls.

The nurses in our pediatrician’s office call all female caregivers “Mom.” It’s a knife every time, not just for me, but for the Toddler, too, who struggles to define who I am.

“The girls call me Georgene,” I remind the nurses gently. Bewilderment, then embarrassment, flickers across their faces. It’s the same flicker I see on the teachers at the Early Head Start program, and the other parents at the park. I see it on our friends’ faces, and even on family.

What makes a parent is often written about in the context of adoption. Some adoptees refer to having a birth mom as well as a mom who takes care of them. It’s a distinction based on biology, and on presence, and while it’s the closest corollary I have, it fails me because it’s a construct rooted in permanence, in the context of knowing.

Uncertainty is the one constant of foster parenting.

Initially, it was the uncertainty of the placement. When would it happen? Who would these children be? We knew only what a social worker could tell us in a five-minute phone call; were we crazy for accepting these girls into our home?

The uncertainty of duration followed. Federal law requires a decision be made on parents’ rights within a year, but because the courts are backed up in our county, we’ve been told it could be three years. My husband and I understand we should be grateful; social workers at our foster-family agency tell stories of six-year limbos, a full third of a human being’s life as a minor.

Somewhere blended into all of this is the uncertainty of who I am.

We posted pictures of Mommy in the girls’ room and they visit with her twice a week. It’s easy to see the girls’ features reflected in hers, to imagine what they will look like at her age or what she looked like at theirs.

I don’t speak Spanish and Mommy doesn’t speak English, so we exchange only quick, pleasant greetings when I drop the girls off and pick them up. Even though that’s the extent of our conversation, I like her.

I hadn’t expected that, and it’s an extra twist in an already tortuous emotional roller coaster. For these girls to become my daughters, this woman has to fail beyond the point of repair. I love them, and don’t want to lose them, but most days, I root for Mommy to get her act together. The days I don’t, I feel like a thief.

Before the girls were placed with us, well-meaning friends asked if we were sure foster-care adoption was the route we wanted to go, with a heavy implication that the children must possess some form of irreparable defect. My friends are surprised at how joyful the girls are, how resilient. I am, too. The wholeness of the Toddler, the Infant and the Newborn is precisely what bewilders me about who I am to them, and who I should be.

If being a mom is defined solely on presence, I qualify.

I feed and read; change diapers, potty-train; smooth sheets, tuck in and cuddle. But so do so many women in their lives: the teachers at the Early Head Start program, the babysitter, the counselors at peewee camp. I can’t bring myself to read the girls the P.D. Eastman classic “Are You My Mother?” It’s too easy to imagine them asking the titular question to all these caregivers.

I saved the card that came with the Mother’s Day gift. Maybe someday I’ll feel like I deserved it. But in the meantime, I’m just Georgene.

Georgene Smith Goodin lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the cartoonist Robert Goodin, and their three foster children. Follow her on Twitter @gsmithgoodin, or read more of her writing at

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