This is the story of a confusing but important relationship.

She created two of the best things that have happened to me, my kids. She gave them their lives, and perhaps some of their biggest life challenges. Her own life has been difficult as she tried to overcome addiction and other problems. Pregnant with our daughter, she got herself into supportive housing, living in a group setting. She was on methadone, trying to quit heroin for good. She had our son, and things got more complicated. By the late Fall of 2011 things were bad enough that, at 4 and 1.5 years old, the kids were removed from her care by the State of California.

In May of 2012, after 6 months in a foster home, the kids moved in with us. 16 months later, September of 2013, the adoption was complete. During this time their birth mom was frequently out of sight. There were court-ordered visitations, but after she didn’t make a few, the judge ended them. In the summer of 2013 she was hospitalized, and the doctor told her social worker she was terminal. We had to decide whether the kids could see her. It might have been their only chance, but though we met with her about the possibility of a visit, and she was admitted into hospice care in San Francisco, and we were thinking about it, by the end of the summer she had left hospice and was in an unknown location, apparently using again. Her father, in touch with us, had no word from her for months and months. We feared the news, when it came, would be bad.

She surfaced briefly several times, but would disappear again.

Toward the end of the Summer of 2015 she called me to let me know she had gotten sober, and wanted to see the kids. This was amazing: she was alive! But it was also difficult. It had been 4 years since the kids had seen her. We didn’t want to traumatize or upset them. Through most of their first years with us, both kids would ask about their mom frequently. They accepted us as their dads, and there was only a little thought given to their birth dads. But without a mom, they longed for one. Jaden took to sometimes calling me mommy, and pretending to be born as a new baby. I called it our rebirthing work.

The kids knew their birth mom had been sick and in and out of the hospital. They worried she’d die. But they were also slowly making progress, putting down roots, moving on. Should this be left alone? We feared passing up another possible “only chance” … How would they feel as teens if their mom was gone and we’d had a chance for a visit but didn’t do it?

We decided it was too early in her sobriety. We encouraged her to keep in touch. We told her we thought she should have a year of sobriety before we’d be ready to talk about a meeting. All our sources were saying seeing the kids early in her sobriety would be no good for her either.

Of course I hoped she would stay sober, but I didn’t really expect it. Yet, throughout 2015 and into 2016 she kept in touch, stayed in the same place. She tried a semester of school. She wanted to see the kids.

By the Fall of 2016 Jay and I were unsure what to do, with strong feelings both ways. We decided to see a therapist with the idea of possibly brokering a meeting with the birth mom, but in just a couple sessions we realized we still weren’t ready to have the kids see her. Instead, I had coffee with her that fall, only the second and third times I’d met her. We talked about the kids, how she was doing, what a meeting might look like. She was shaky and vulnerable. Sometimes she was in denial, other times she seemed to be facing up to the realities.

It is an agonizing choice, figuring out whether shielding the kids from their past is a better approach, or letting them see their mom and whatever memories that might bring up. I could fully, clearly see it both ways.

Finally in early 2017, after saying no and no and not yet, Jay and I both felt ready. I met one more time with the birth mom, and we set a meeting date.

A day before, after confirming one last time that she really promised she would come, I calmly, casually let the kids know their mom was well enough for a visit. That weekend we met in a San Francisco park. The kids were so excited, and on seeing her they were positively giddy, hugging her and hanging on her, talking a mile a minute. Competing for her attention. It was awkward, but they threw themselves into it. We all managed conversation, or watching the kids play. After an hour or so it was winding down. “When will I see you again,” she asked. “What are you doing next weekend?” Shit. In years and years and months and months of planning, I’d never thought past the first meeting.

We stalled, and the second meeting was about a month later. Again, it was both normal and weird. Their mom brought her dog. We had ice cream. The kids brought her photos and a drawing.

After both visits, the kids seemed quiet, happy, sad, shaken. Shayla, in her typical way, didn’t want to discuss it. Jaden was weepy in class the next week and wanted his “real” mom. Were we undoing years and years of work helping them make a new life?

Then, Shayla announced that she did not want to go to the next visit. “She decided to have us,” she said, “She decided to leave us, and now we just go meet in a park, and…” Shayla couldn’t quite formulate it, but she’s not ready to keep meeting without an explanation, or apology. I told her I think her mom did the very best she could, loves Shayla and Jaden very much, made bad choices because of drugs. But I also told her she could decide whether to go or not. There are enough things in her life so far she’s had no say about. This she can decide.

We had another visit, just Jaden and his mom. We ate breakfast, Jaden was happy to see her, but the next week or so he was again weepy in school. Am I doing the right thing, or the wrong thing?

Last week, we had our fourth visit. A bit more time had elapsed, and Jaden was asking to see her, though intermittently. Again, Shayla decided not to come. The night before the meeting I can’t sleep, torturing myself: will this ruin Jaden’s life? Am I undoing all the bonding, all the “rebirthing”?

We meet at a skate park, so he can show off his skills. He gets to play with his birth mom’s dog. She lets him look at her phone.

When we’re done we come back to the East Bay, and on a whim I take him to the beach, where he plays soldier. He’s in a fatigue-only dress mode, which can be awkward in peace loving Berkeley, but a guy loves what he loves. He finds a friend and they stage marching and drills up and down the beach for several hours. We get home and he’s exhausted.

As he sleeps I pray I’m making the right choices, that Jaden and his sister can recover from my mistakes, whichever ones I’m making. May knowing their mom give them some peace, or at least not ruin them. Their mom wants to do the right thing for them. I still don’t know what’s the best approach.

I wake up the next morning and my little guy is snuggled up to me. “Mommy,” he calls me, and announces he’s just been born. “Gaa, gaa.”

I’m not under the illusion they won’t ache for their birth mom their whole lives. My own mom has been gone 28 years, and still every few months the phone will ring and I’ll think, “I hope that’s mom.”