Before getting married, I knew that I could not carry a pregnancy. But I didn’t know that my Mr. Right was an Australian who lived on the other side of the planet and that I would move there to be with him. Our meeting was a beautiful surprise, something like a Plat du Jour. A Plat du Jour is a special menu item offered on a particular day in addition to standard fare, making it a momentary wonder. Though raised in different countries, we blended together beautifully as though we were were a batter of butter and sugar, perfect for cakes, cookies, and in our case, marriage.
When the time came, our wedding was perfectly sweet, right down to the cake. Traditional Australian wedding cake is fruitcake marinated in sweet liqueur or brandy, often served with brandy cream. But mixed tradition was more our style: My Americana love of cream cheese, his preference for all things chocolate, and our mutual Latter-day Saint (LDS) sensibilities combined, so we served a masterpiece I made myself- a red velvet cake with honeyed cream cheese frosting.
American tradition for me meant that we would feast on this top tier in celebration of our first wedding anniversary. Australian tradition wavered: many couples no longer kept the top cake tier, while traditional couples kept the top tier to share upon the christening of their first child. We knew we could not apply for adoption unless we had been married for at least two years, so we ate our top tier on our first anniversary. Even after a year, the carefully wrapped cake tasted as moist and fresh as the day it had been served at our wedding. Things seemed hopeful.
But by our fifth anniversary, there was still no “bun in the oven.” No one was “in the pudding club.” And no one was “eating for two.” We were childless. Full stop. The move to Australia has been challenging and lonely for me, being unintentionally childless made the situation harder. So we both searched for ways to pass the time. Bruce enrolled in a class called “Cooking for Blokes,” wherein he learned how to make curried sausages, proper meat pie, and mini lamingtons. I spent my spare time perfecting my southwest salsa, Midwest meatloaf, and New York pizza. Our bellies were full, even if our hearts were wanting.
The Relief Society in my ward had a “Mums and Bubs” group where mothers (mums) with their babies (bubs) got together for “morning tea.” Morning tea is a mid-morning snack, rather than just a hot drink. Though tradition serves hot tea, these Mormon women would meet to have their children play while they talked, shared, and snacked on vegemite sandwiches. I had always liked the saltiness of vegemite and longed for female companionship. Even though the group was supposed to be open to any woman in the ward, no one ever contacted me or spoke to me about it.
In my mind, “mums” became women who were too snobby to invite childless immigrants to tea. I could never be a “mum.” I was sure that one day I would be a mother. My patriarchal blessing promised this to me, no matter how increasingly hopeless I felt. I would only use cilantro (NOT coriander!). I would make biscuits (NOT scones!), and my fries would only be cascaded by ketchup (NOT chips! NOT sauce! No gravy!). I would be a mom (not a mum!).
I could not think of myself as Australian. The place was fine. I liked it, but I did not feel at home. When another American immigrant and her husband moved into the ward, I was hopeful of making a friend. I was happy to be assigned to visit teach her. She and her six- month old seemed to find ready friends in the “Mums and Bubs” crowd. I had become accustomed to being left out, so wasn’t overly bothered. Besides, Mother’s Day was coming.
Every Mother’s Day since we had married, Bruce gave me a gift. It was symbolic of his love, of sharing his pain in our infertility. His gift showed me that he saw me as a mother now. This tradition was a symbol of our faith in the promise that we would have children. It was a witness that we accepted and believed the prophetic rhetoric often associated with women in the Church: that we are all mothers, even those women who do not give physical birth.
This was a sacred day to me, made delightfully special with the tag atop a gift. The tag read “TO MOM” and was miraculously signed by our dog. The gift was a new mixer – perfect for whipping butter and sugar together, ready to make crispy cookies, cakes or fluffy bread.
At our designated meeting time that month, my visiting teaching companion and our American friend sat chatting warmly as they organized their children to play. I sat sequestered on the opposite side of the room, far from the children’s toys, silently watching as they chatted about babies. I felt removed and sought for ways to join the conversation, or at least to share the visiting teaching message. They finally veered their talk away from children and moved on to discuss the gifts they had received on Mother’s Day. One had been served breakfast in bed and given a tee-shirt, the other shared that her husband made dinner after church, including her favourite dessert. Then I shared that I had been given a new blender and that we had gone out to dinner.
The room went silent. Their mouths gaped open. Their eyes reflected shock, and they shot each other confused looks. I rushed and sputtered out explanations as to why Bruce and I believed that all women were mothers as I began to self-consciously quote prophets who had stated this fact. But the situation was hopeless; they were not hungry for talk of childless women on Mother’s Day. I might be tempted to use the phrase “pearls before swine” to describe their perfunctory comments that followed my statement, but even that could not relay the emptiness and exclusion served up by these otherwise good women. The conversation eventually changed, but the meeting had soured. This was a gathering for “mums.” But not me. I was not invited. My presence was not on their Mother’s Day menu.
In the years that followed, Bruce and I silently did four full rounds of in vitro fertilization, telling no one in the ward. I stopped going visiting teaching, and still no one visited me. I swallowed birth control pills to regulate my ovulation. I eschewed caffeine, soft cheeses, and processed foods in hopes of fruitfulness. The loneliness was yet bitter. Though the “Mums and Bubs” gatherings began to be announced at the start of the Relief Society lessons, I could not bring myself to attend.
I cried, like the Syrophenician woman in the books of Matthew and Mark. She fell at the feet of Jesus begging for His help. But He ignored her. She pestered His disciples until they asked Him to send her away. Jesus finally explained to her that He came to teach those in the House of Israel, saying, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” (Matthew 15:26).
I felt like this woman, pestering “mums” in my ward, seeking the bread of friendship, only to feel like a sequestered annoyance. I also felt like this woman, seeking for the blessings of motherhood, to be told again and again that it was not intended for me. Serving those outside the House of Israel was not on Jesus’ menu, yet she was determined. She remained, seeking a personal Plat du Jour. Yet he called her a dog. In stride, she expressed her faith, declaring that “yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).
She knew that even the smallest portion of miracles – “crumbs”—were yet blessings. She did not seek cake or even bread; she only sought a child’s crumb, knowing it would bring the miracle she sought. In the end, Christ performed the thing she asked, in recognition of her dogged grit and testimony.
This would not appear to be the case for us. Our dining table seated six, yet it was only occupied by the two of us. Adoption papers, IVF, and even surrogacy had failed to fill the seats at our table. It seemed that our menu was void of a children’s section, so I concluded that we were not intended to be parents. The miracle crumbs afforded to us were a different flavour to what we were craving, but our pallets warmed to it. By our tenth wedding anniversary, my hunger for family had waned so much that I simply had no appetite to be a “mom” or a “mum” or anything in-between.
The “Mums and Bubs” groups were younger now, so I did not seek their spicy friendship or sticky inclusion. I sought for more caramelized relationships. Thought they were two or sometimes three times my age, I preferred the company of women who were well past retirement age. These gems were more open to varied conversation and less ready to place a homogenized label on a person.
Then suddenly, life served us a surprise flambé. Just before Easter, two toddler girls came to us, filling up our table with breakfast cereals, peanut butter, chicken nuggets, ice cream cones, crust-less sandwiches and milk. The situation was unsure, even impossible. So the girls called us by our first names as we presumed it unlikely for them to stay.
But miraculously, what we thought were just temporary and fleeting crumbs– began to leaven. The leavening continued and before long, we were well engrossed in the process of adoption. I had forgotten that I had desired to be called “Mom,” or even “Mum,” yet I was acting as a mother, every whit.
This was not without problems. The toddlers had suffered before they came to us, and we worked with counsellors and friends to help them heal and feel loved. In the process, the love of patient, devoted, and inspired Relief Society friends from multiple wards across states and countries taught me how to be a mother. They listened as I cried in exhaustion, answered a million questions, and offered advice that sometimes I took, and sometimes I put aside. They tidied things I could not comprehend to organize. They delivered food, toys, and clothes. One friend suggested decorating sugar cookies as an activity, so I found myself creaming butter and sugar into a fluffy mix. Sticky hands, brightly coloured icing and dozens of edible cookie toppings combined into one of the most memorable and delectable moments in my life, thanks for the love and advice of a friend.
I began to visit teach again, bringing cookies and smiles to the women I taught, including the women without children. I also allowed visiting teachers to come to me. And I loved them. It seemed that my “Mums and Bubs” exile seemed at an end, but it was only then that I saw it had been mostly self-imposed. Raising a child is just as wholly encompassing as is fighting the battle of infertility; but while children are delectably visible, infertility is an invisible, putrid radish. The former is simply easier to identify, discuss, support, and to celebrate.
As time went on, the sweetness of shared watermelon slices, squished grapes, and freshly peeled carrot sticks became feasts for queens. I perfected my vegemite sandwich making skills, and learned how to make letters and numbers out of pancake batter, ketchup, and pink cupcake icing. We continued to parent, which for a time included regular visits to the LDS Family Services children’s counsellor. Once per month. I made a grocery list of items that I needed her help with: night terrors, how to respond to sad or painful memories, and more. So much more.
One day, the counsellor dished up a plat du jour. “Let the children just call you ‘mummy,’” she said as we were walking out the door. I just nodded, suggesting I agreed, or perhaps that I would obey, or something. I’m not sure. But I nodded, unable to think or discuss or respond. Dare I do that? Call myself….Mummy? Or Mum? Or Mom?
Suddenly, being called “Mom,” seemed utterly foreign, even painful to my ears. The days of me hoping to be a “mom,” had become tasteless. This acidic aversion to the title was new, confusing me. Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, “A rose by any other word would smell as sweet”? Yet the one time sweetness of “Mom” had vinegared and spoiled. It would not do.
That left “Mum.”
The long-time audio reminder that I was left out, did not belong, and was foreign. Mum. Mummy. Mother. Perhaps all along this is what I needed to learn: to submit to God’s terms for me. It unexpectedly became clear that my own pride, my own selfish desire to be and do things in my own narrow way were what isolated me. It wasn’t infertility. It wasn’t citizenship. It wasn’t even culture. It was pride. It seemed that God’s name for me was to be Mum. At least for now. NOT Mom. I had saturated my hurt in the bitter syrup of pride. This marinade had reached and seeped into everything, poisoning my perception of what was really important: who I am to God, and who God wants me to be. Titles and perceived or even real injustices are worthless. Who I am to God is an infinite treasure. In this, I finally understood that the title of “Mom” had never been mine, nor was it ever meant to be.
Mum. Mummy. Mother. Could this be me? Really? I decided to leave it up to the girls.
“You can just call me ‘Mum,’” I said passively to them in the car one afternoon shortly after the meeting with the counsellor. “Or mummy.”
“Are you going to be our mummy?”
“I am working on it.”
“Mummy, can we get ice cream on the way home?”
Both girls accepted and called me Mummy immediately; it was as though they had forgotten or never called me by my first name. For me, the new colloquialism felt so natural that I did not blink. Yet it thrilled me, and tears filled my eyes. It was like the vanilla added to perfectly whipped butter and sugar–a perfect complement, offered at the perfect time, ready for the rest of the ingredients to make the cake of a lifetime.
“Yes,” I said, and bought them ice cream. Fifty cent cones at a drive-thru fast food restaurant: such a miniscule token of thanks for the utterance of a term infinitely cherished.
After the adoption was completed through the courts, we arranged to have a ceremonial celebration in the multi-purpose room of our local chapel. Between Cinderella and Rapunzel, the girls said they wanted to be “married” to us, so we obliged. An “adoption wedding” was fitting for us. After all, we were a new family. I sewed dresses for my daughters out of silken and embroidered wedding fabric. My beloved visiting teacher, a hairdresser by trade, styled all of our hair to perfection. On the day, we all walked down the aisle together to be greeted by a dear Relief Society friend and mother. She officiated our “wedding” by offering words of love, support, and speaking of the blessings of eternal families. It was perfection.
The day before our adoption wedding, the girls and I worked together to make the wedding cake. We chose red velvet with honeyed cream cheese icing. After all, I loved the Americana of cream cheese, Bruce had a preference for all things chocolate, our five year old loved all things related to honey, and our four year old loved anything that was bright red. Yet this cake was different. As I swirled the butter and sugar together into a sweet creamy batter, my daughters took turns pouring in the additional ingredients. Vanilla, eggs, baking powder, salt, flour, red chocolate paste, baking soda, and even vinegar were each added in turns, complete with “oohs!” and “aahs!” Every single item swirled in unison making a divine batter that baked to lush perfection.
As the cakes cooled, I showed the girls how to press heart-shaped cookie cutters into pink fondant, making decorations for the cake. They copied me, tasting the marshmallowy-sweet fondant every time they thought they were out of my sight. When the time came, they helped me to add the icing to the cake. This lasted for as long as they could stand before they succumbed to licking the beaters whilst dancing and singing “Families can be together forever….”
This cake was our familial pièce de résistance. Its taste was rich and creamy, yet the marshmallow fondant made it the epitome of childhood confectionary delights all mixed into one. It was the perfect recipe for us to start our lives together.
As the years have begun to pass, and as life events begin to be shared as a family, I can’t help but marvel at the Plat du Jour that is how my family came to be. My hemispherical marriage, mixed with the unique way our family came to be is testament that God’s hand had a firm grasp on the menu board of my life. Christmas, birthdays, house warmings, reports cards, morning teas and Family Home Evening dessert–almost all of it starts by whipping butter and sugar. The next ingredients by our own hand, and by God’s direction and blessing, can swirl and combine into something more divine and miraculous than imaginable.