Valerie Cantella’s children meet for the first time at Los Angeles International Airport.

Growing up in a loving family with a hard-working dad and a highly competent mother, I always imagined motherhood would be part of my story. But I never envisioned the rollercoaster the journey would be. A life-threatening diagnosis at 21 meant pregnancy could never be part of my future. The thought of not being able to have a future family was distressing, but I focused instead on staying healthy and alive.

A few years later, with my health in stable condition, my doctor told my husband and me it was safe for me to become pregnant. So, we conceived not once but three times in one year, losing the first two pregnancies in the first trimester. The third pregnancy ended with the birth of my beautiful son — a true miracle, with his blue eyes and full head of dark brown hair. It was a joy to be his mother, and my world felt complete.

A few years later, my husband and I decided to adopt a baby girl from Vladivostok, Russia. When she was 16 months old, our daughter joined our family as a severely malnourished and developmentally delayed baby. I believed a mother’s love, food, medical care, and a stable home would help her thrive and flourish. But it didn’t, and all types of therapy and medical attention couldn’t overcome her tragic beginnings.

As the Mother’s Days passed, I put on a brave face and held my breath for some progress or improvement, believing the following year had to get better. But as the cornucopia of diagnoses — reactive attachment disorder, autism, fetal alcohol exposure, ADHD, sensory integration disorder, and, eventually, bipolar disorder — piled up, so did my feelings of incompetence.

I grieved the parenting experiences I didn’t have with my daughter and the lack of a relationship. I struggled with guilt for feeling differently about my two kids and kept the pain of it wound tightly in my heart.

What really broke me, though, was the Mother’s Day I spent by my son’s bedside at Cottage Hospital. The previous evening, he thought downing fistfuls of prescription medication was the answer to his trauma and pain. I was heartbroken, my spirit crushed. My daughter was already in residential treatment, and now my son was also experiencing major depression and anxiety. I wished I could turn in my “mother” card. The position of “mother,” the one I prayed for during my pregnancies, had become a badge of shame. Though I fiercely believed everything would be okay, on that day, I wished a simple resignation from motherhood could remove the unbearable pain that was crushing my soul.

But motherhood isn’t a position you can resign from, like an unfulfilling job. It’s a 24/7 calling. So, I just kept going, as we moms do. I pressed on to learn more about myself and my teens, and I tried to do better, be better. I gave up the script I’d envisioned written for my life.

Today, both my children, now adults, and I have healed in subtle and significant ways. I am a different mother than I was back then, and I am grateful for what I learned in the journey. My children have forgiven me for the things I could have done better or differently, and I’ve forgiven myself as well. I was doing the best I could.

Each year as Mother’s Day rolls around, there is a slight sting, like an acupuncture needle or dentist’s tool that has hit a nerve. The emotions I wrestled with during the darkest days resurface in my brain. I acknowledge them and then reflect on how far I’ve come as a mom.

So to all the mothers out there whose parenting experiences aren’t the material of Hallmark movies, I see you. I grieve with you, and I affirm you.


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