The whole month of May always has me thinking about mothers. In the USA, we celebrate Mother's Day on the second Sunday of the month. In Haiti, it is usually the last Sunday of the month. Between planning for my mother and mother-in-law in the USA and then helping our family ministries plan for our huge Mother's Day Celebration, I am pretty much fixated on one thing this month: mothers.
I have a wonderful mother, one who has always embodied sacrifice in a way that I have always been able to identify. She sacrificed sleep, she was always the first one up and the last one to bed. She sacrificed her own wants and needs to make sure we had what we needed, which I realized more as I grew up. She sacrificed so much for us, and I will always be thankful for that.
As my time in Haiti marches on, though, I often think of the sacrifice that is not seen. It is often misunderstood by us, as well. It's the sacrifice of a birth mother, bringing her child to an orphanage or children's home.
Haiti is filled with orphanages. It's a serious problem that has grabbed my heart. As I figure out ways to put more language behind my significant feelings, I will write about it. In May, though, I often think of the birth mothers I have known and those I haven't known in Haiti (and beyond). I think of how they are such unsung heros in a world of total misconception.
On my first day in Montrouis, Haiti, I went to work at an orphanage we fondly called the "Number 7 Orphanage." The blue gate, at that time, had a mere #7 spray painted on the front of it and inside lived about 30 children with a Haitian pastor and his wife. I remember all of the misconceptions I had about this place when I first began working there:
I can't believe all of these children had parents who died in the earthquake!
I can't believe none of these kids have been adopted!
I want to adopt all of them! Right now!
Somehow, without asking a single question, I began thinking about the parents who had died in the earthquake in Port-Au-Prince, a good two hours away from this orphanage. I began wondering, aloud, how many of these children I could adopt (maaaaajor faux paux). I did not stop to ask anything about the children or their histories. I just assumed.
When I tell people I work in Haiti, many tell me about their own experiences. Often times, it is of working alongside an orphanage. They go to "love on the kids," and talk about their important work. I often wonder at these things, but I stop in my tracks when I hear about the "horrible mother who abandoned her child." It visibly changes my face and...let's face it, I usually say something (I mean, I can be quite emotional ;)). The fact is, these perceptions are so one-sided and biased. It places the assumptions of the "best" on us and the "worst" on these mothers we have never met. And, it makes me sad.
I don't know when it was that my assumptions about the #7 Orphanage started being challenged. I wish I could say it was when I realized how ethnocentric I was being and that I started asking all the questions I could ask. However, I really think it was when I could start understanding Creole, the native language of Haiti. I remember hearing my dear sweet Jean Cleline, one of the kids in the orphanage. She had told me about her mother dropping off her and her brother and sister at the orphanage.
I remember my mouth agape, looking at my husband and friends. I loaded up in our blue truck and stared out into the busy road, "I had no idea they had parents..."
From that moment on, my life became about understanding the situations that drive parents to feel their children are better off in an orphanage. As a matter of fact, this is the exact thing I will be writing my Master's degree thesis on starting this summer. It is so interesting to me, in part, I believe, because it is so misunderstood. By me, and by others, too.
I remember moving into our house and people asking when they could drop their children off at the center. We laughed, but after a little while, we started asking "Why would you want to drop your child off here?" The answer was almost always the same: I want my child to have a good life.
What I have realized about the universality of motherhood is this: everyone wants what is best for their child. And, in Haiti, people have far less options for support and help. As a matter of fact, in a recent study, developing world mothers were asked how likely they were to feel equipped to keep their children if they had access to schooling programs and other supplemental programs for their children, and a whopping 90% said they would certainly keep their children in this case(faithtoaction.org). Guys, this is a large number.
If this is true, which the research shows that it is, then we need to start seeing the orphan system as a great sacrifice for parents. We need to make sure we understand just what we are doing when we go to an orphanage on a trip. We need to get the point when people bring up orphanages, especially in the developing world, that we understand just how difficult it must have been for a parent to say their goodbyes to their children and head back up that mountain. We must understand what it means for someone to feel so hopeless and so helpless that the best option for their child is to drop them off at a place like an orphanage.
I would like for us to stop demonizing mothers like this, who have their children in orphanages, and instead look at them for who they really are. They are mothers making an immense sacrifice for their children. Additionally, they are making a sacrifice that is perpetuated through our Western desire to volunteer at an orphanage instead of give toward family empowerment programs. We play a part in supporting this system when we go on trips to support these systems, de-humanize the mothers and their own stories of sacrifice, and continue to see ourselves as the heroes of the story.
I am not attempting to dumb down the complex situation of the orphan crisis, nor am I saying that every birth mother is a saint. But, I am saying there is another, more holistic and honest, option out there to be aware of and know. The sacrifice is real. The ways we can help are real. So, let's start there!
Happy Mother's Day to Mothers- all of you who sacrifice in various ways to make sure your children are taken care of and loved.