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I've Been a Mom to Hundreds But Have Never Given Birth

Here's how I did it.

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illustration of family looking at wall filled with picture frames
Jon Krause
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I can’t have biological children. But I am the mother to many.

Divorced and in my mid-30s, I found out I’d been wasting money on birth control. This, when I was diagnosed with endometriosis and told that no sperm was ever going to dance its way to one of my eggs to produce a pregnancy. So, I set out on a mission to have a child in my life. I filed papers as a single parent to adopt a child in China, which you could still do in the early 1990s. I used my cover as a reporter to infiltrate a group of “Dads Without Partners” on the premise that I was going to write an article about them. I read about the foster care system, though as a single parent in those days, I would not have been allowed to welcome a foster child into my home.

Still, something about the foster care system struck a chord. “Foster kids, they’ve been taken away from their parents, but they aren’t free for adoption. They live in a kind of limbo, getting bounced from home to home,” I told my friend Peter, one night over dinner. I was simply making conversation. But Peter had other thoughts. “You should do something about it,” he said.

For the five previous years I’d been married to a Frenchman, living in a remote town in his country. Returning to New York as a divorcee after that time abroad, in addition to hatching ways to become a mother, I was struggling to resurrect my once-active writing career and my dating life. And I sorely needed a new winter coat.  

Having written an encyclopedic book about fashion, I jumped at the chance to become the spokesperson for the National Hosiery Association, which provided me with a steady paycheck for going on morning talk shows to demonstrate how to put on a pair of pantyhose without ripping them. It’s nearly impossible, but that’s another story. Still the gig was an economic lifesaver, and it freed me up for other pursuits.

So, when Peter encouraged me to do something about the foster care system, I thought, why not?

As it turned out, Peter, a child psychologist, was connected to a bunch of generationally rich 20-something cousins who were learning how to give away money. For many years I had run education programs for youth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a writer, I had a leg up on crafting a proposal.

Within weeks I was awarded a grant of $5,000 to give art classes to children in foster care, on site at foster care agencies.

In starting an art class, I was actually giving birth to a foundation!

Little could I have imagined that today, 30 years later, that foundation, Foster Pride, has worked with more than 15,000 youth, offering art classes, mentorships and access to internships that these young people would never have had the opportunity to work for — companies such as the Guggenheim Museum and Google.

CBS.com named my small art-class-turned-foundation one of NYC’s Four Top Charities!

Over the years, my dream of being a mother has materialized in so many ways. I have had the pleasure of helping 21-year-old Tatiana land a job in sales at AMC-TV and taking her on a shopping trip to buy new clothes. I video chatted with Patricia from the delivery room as she and her husband showed off their new baby.

When Sammy came to a Foster Pride computer class, he was 9 years old and not doing well in school. With the help of his tutor, Sammy won his school's science fair. As time went on, I got to attend Sammy's college graduation, dance at his wedding, and celebrate with the couple as they built a wonderful family with two children — the family he didn't have growing up. And because of Sammy's success, his employer, Verizon Communications Inc., awarded Foster Pride a $10,000 grant.  

Then there was Massama, 15 and newly arrived alone in the United States from Mali, who needed an emergency place to live for a few months. I was able to offer him the spare room in my apartment — the first bedroom of his own that he’d ever had. Then, because of the pandemic, Massama ended up living with us for four years, and we officially became his American parents.

Boating date with my daughter-to-be, Aliana, with her father Martin, my husband-to-be, on the Delaware River.
Courtesy Lynn Shurnberger

And yes, I said “us,” because two years after I started Foster Pride, I met Martin, a widower with a 3½-year-old daughter, Alliana.

Every family has a birth story, although most of them take place in a delivery room. Still the three of us — Martin, Alliana and I — relish the retelling of the first whole day we spent together. Martin and I had been dating for about a month. It was a hot, lazy day and we were canoeing down the Delaware River; father and daughter serenaded me with “Bold Hippopotamus” and “Hotel California.”

I taught them “Getting to Know You.” Martin snapped the photo that he still carries in his wallet: We’re picnicking on a boulder we’ve dubbed Lunch Rock. Alliana, in her Pocahontas bathing suit, smiling broadly in the crook of my arm. Later that evening Alliana asked me to tuck her in and kiss her good night. We were married — all three of us — five months later.

To all of us who love, protect, nurture, brush a child’s hair, show a child how to use scissors, or make a child feel safe in this crazy world, Mother’s Day is for all of us.

Besides your mother, what woman is like a mom to you? Let us know in the comments below.

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