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What makes a mother or a mom?

If we didn’t look and act so similar — right down to our temperament — I would have very little evidence that my mother gave birth to me. Sure, there’s the birth certificate (the long form) and the witnesses. There are some pictures from that time. But how do I really, really know that my mother is my mother? She could just as well be a woman who decided to raise me as her own, and I wouldn’t know the difference.

my mother and I

Look familiar?

See, what makes my mother my mom is the degree of love and sacrifice that she has displayed while raising me (and my siblings, of course). She got pregnant at age 17, unwed. Her and my father did get married, but that marriage wouldn’t last. (The story of my dad is a whole other post for a later time.) So mom needed a lot of help raising me, especially since she decided to get her law degree.

That’s where the other mothers in my life stepped in. Aunts, older cousins, mom’s friends, and my grandmothers all did what they could to make sure that I had everything I needed from food to shelter. They really did treat me as one of their own, even though I wasn’t. Again, in a vacuum, I’d be hard pressed to tell which of them was my birth mother because they all displayed so much love toward me.

My grandmother then...

My grandmother then…

...And one year ago, weeks before she passed.

…And one year ago, weeks before she passed.

Later, when I left Texas for Pennsylvania and started working at a hospital laboratory, the women at the lab became my “adoptive” mothers. I was the youngest lab tech, and I was living on my own and very far away from my relatives. So they did their best to open their homes and families for me. There are several “kids” out there right now whom I see as siblings more than as my coworkers’ kids.

And I don’t think that this is all a bad thing. I don’t think that those other women stepping in to take care of me speaks badly of my birth mom. Life always gets in the ways, and it would be wrong to judge my own mom for living the best life she could. She wasn’t a drug addict who left me in an empty house without food. She didn’t marry off and go away, leaving me behind to grow up not knowing her. (If anything, she knows me too well. I can’t lie to her because she knows!)

My older cousin was also my "mom".

My older cousin was also my “mom”.

Mom was and is a good mom. And she certainly has displayed that unconditional love toward my younger brother and little sister. Love and guidance that’s made us successful. I’m working on my doctorate, my younger brother has his master’s, and my little sister is doing well in middle school.

Compared to how other Hispanics have done in education in the US, we're ahead of the curve, thanks in a big part to our mom.

Compared to how other Hispanics have done in education in the US, we’re ahead of the curve, thanks in a big part to our mom.

So, mom, and all the other “mothers” I ever had and ever will have, thank you for all the love and support… Thank you for your influences to make me who I am today. Most of all, thank you for being so strong, smart, and determined that you modeled my idea of the woman I’d marry. I found her, and that is probably the crown jewel of all the contributions you had for me in life.



Mother’s Day in Mexico is celebrated on May 10th each year. ¡Feliz día de las madres, Momma!

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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