The night before my eighth-grade graduation, my mother stayed up sewing me a light blue gown that fit like a glove. She didn't work until dawn because we were too broke to buy a dress; she did it because I simply hadn't liked anything in the stores. This is a woman who can cook multicourse meals, grow prizeworthy roses, lead Girl Scout troops through the woods, and create Halloween costumes that made my friends green with envy. Did I mention she has a PhD? And six kids?
When I decided I wanted to be a mother, I approached an adoption agency. I was single and had always wanted to adopt. I ached for a child. And after seven months of paperwork and red tape, I was told there was a birth mother out there. The agency sent me her photo and an ultrasound of the baby.
But when I held the fuzzy black-and-white print in my hand, I started to hyperventilate. Wait a second, I thought. How am I going to be somebody's mother? How could I lead a Girl Scout troop when nature freaked me out? What if my daughter needed a graduation dress? I couldn't even thread a needle! I didn't know how to make macaroni and cheese!
In a panic, I called my mother. "I don't know CPR," I moaned. "I don't even have a crib!"
My mother was silent. Then she burst out laughing. "Shonda," she said. "A baby can sleep in a drawer. A baby can wear an old T-shirt. You can buy her food at the market. Do you think women in the old South attended CPR classes?"
I took some deep breaths.
"All a baby needs is your love," she said. "Mother is a verb, not a noun."
Suddenly, my definition of the word changed. Mother no longer meant "brilliantly competent jill-of-all-trades"; it no longer meant any one thing. I could be the kind of mother who traveled the world with her daughter, who helped with science projects and painted toenails. If we wanted nature, we could go to the zoo. If we wanted a great meal, we could go to a restaurant. My mother, fabulous as always, had just given me permission to be myself.
My baby girl is 31/2 now, and she doesn't mind that I don't bake her cakes from scratch. She doesn't care that her Halloween costumes are made by Granny instead of Mom. She's thrilled to spend her days driving around the Grey's Anatomy set in her Flintstones mobile and her nights cuddled up with me, reading. It's true, what my mother said: All a kid needs is love. And diapers. And, as I've discovered during my own journey into motherhood, a tiny plastic car and a stack of books helps too.