A birth mother and a non-birth mother, Alice Ellerby considers her parental role

A birth mother and a non-birth mother, Alice Ellerby considers her parental role

On Children by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with
His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.


When I first heard Kahlil Gibran’s poem ‘On Children’, my eyes were opened. I saw the parent I aspired to be. I hadn’t consciously considered how I would feel holding my child in my arms for the first time, but when I saw my eldest daughter, I realised my subconscious had formed expectations. What I actually felt in the moment was very different. I realised I had thought that when I looked at her, I would see part of myself. I guess, vainly, I thought I would see ‘my creation’. I thought I would see her and know her, as I know myself. But that’s not how it was at all. I looked at her and was amazed by her completeness. There she was, fully herself. I didn’t see our biological connection, family ties, lineage. I saw a whole new person who had landed in my life and who needed me. And I felt myself step into my new role. I knew in that moment that I would love her and support her and look after her with all my being, so she could continue to be the whole, complete, brave soul that she was born. “We’ve got you,” I whispered to her as I held her, and she curled her hand around my wife’s finger.

I want to give my children opportunities to grow, to find their passions, interests, pleasures, values. And I want them to grow up without feeling a weight of parental expectation on their shoulders. Of course I am invested in their lives, their loves, their learning. I want to celebrate their achievements with them. But when I do, I want to tell them I am pleased for them, not proud of them. To be proud of them feels too much about me. About how well I look basking in their reflected glory. It muddles their autonomy. With or without my genes, they are not me. They are not mine. They are themselves. “And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

I felt this very early on, even when my eldest daughter learned to use the potty. I told her I was proud of her, but it felt wrong to share that with her. The truth I wanted her to hear was that I was pleased for her. What a milestone to have reached. How well she had done. I was pleased for her that she had made this step and acquired this life skill. While I am proud of my children, I don’t want that pride to be a validation. I want my children to be able to make choices based on their own instincts and values, and not to be swayed by what others, especially their parents, might think or expect. “You may give them your love but not your thoughts / For they have their own thoughts.”

My second daughter was born nearly four years after my first. My wife carried her and gave birth to her, and I was with her from the very beginning as she wriggled and kicked in the womb and was born.

Now that we have each given birth to a child, it has surprised me how many times we’re asked whether we’re more bonded to the child we carried. I understand people’s curiosity about an experience different from their own. But still, I can’t help finding the question crass. I can’t imagine asking another parent whether they have a favourite child, and this is what it feels like they are asking us to consider. Surely few parents would entertain the question. I bristle when I hear it. I want to retort defensively, “No! Which of your children is favourite?”

I remember hearing a mother talk about her two sons, one she’d given birth to, and one she’d adopted. She had a recurring nightmare after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, a year after she had adopted her son. In it she had hold of her boys, one in each hand, as the water tried to take them from her. She was losing her grip. She couldn’t keep hold of them both. She would have to let go of one to save the other. This is when she would wake up. Of course she couldn’t choose. The idea of making a choice was impossible. She loved them just the same.

Just as having children with same-sex parents demands I speak up about LGBTQ+ rights when, to my shame, I may have previously thought it was enough to live my life and be visible, I also feel the responsibility of having donor-conceived children, and the need to address misunderstandings and misconceptions about families like ours. All children have different needs. My children’s ages demand different things of me, just as their personalities do, and just as the particulars of their births have, at least in the early days. While I didn’t breastfeed my youngest daughter, there were other things she needed of me.

I cling to Kahlil Gibran’s poem in these moments. We have been blessed with two children. How they arrived with us has no bearing on my love for them or my responsibility to them. They come through me, not from me. I am here to support them towards “the house of tomorrow” and I rejoice at watching them make their way. I am privileged to know them and to be part of their journey as they, as living arrows, are sent forth. May they go swift and far.

Next time I am asked, I will take a deep breath, and this is what I will try to communicate. 


Alice Ellerby lives in Bristol with her wife and two daughters. She ran away to the circus in her 20s and performed as an aerialist, before running away again when her eldest daughter arrived. Alice now works as sub-editor at JUNO and has just finished writing her first children’s book, set in the circus.

Illustration by Veronica Petrie studiovink.co.uk


Published in issue 77. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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