Each year at this time, I spend a lot of time thinking about her birth.
I do the same with my boys, and they love hearing the stories about their very first birthdays - the sounds (and faces) they made when they cried, how their grandparents, aunts and uncles came to visit, and how we admired their tiny pink feet and bright red hair.
Natalee's birthday, though, is always a little bittersweet. Because three years ago, I became mommy to the daughter I SO wanted ... and another woman let her go.
My husband and I cuddled our tiny new daughter, marveled at her thick black hair, her tiny pink feet, her smooth brown skin, and the birthmark on her left cheek, thinking of all the memories we would make with her. We looked forward to her first smile, to taking her to soccer practice, and to buying her girl gifts.
During the first few days of her life, her first parents cuddled their tiny new daughter. They, too, marveled at her thick black hair - straight like his - and her perfect lips - full like hers. They admired her, held her, fed her, dressed her, knowing they would not make memories with her.
People have asked me, "Do you feel differently about Natalee than you do about the boys?"
The politically correct answer is, "No! Of course not! They're all my children!"
But the real answer, the answer that comes to me at every milestone, every time she curls her hand around the back of my neck when I'm carrying her, or presses her little nose to mine to give me a kiss, or reaches for my hand as we're walking together, is Yes.
Yes. I do feel differently about Natalee.
The boys are of my flesh, and my husband's. They inherited so many of our traits: toenails that curve over the toes, freckles across the bridge of the nose, stubbornness, red hair, thick eyelashes, the love of a great book. Sometimes they seem like mirror images of one or both of us. Sometimes I see myself in them and am filled with a giddy sense of pride.
The boys grew inside my body. I felt their kicks, their movements, their sleep cycles. I felt my belly expand and my legs swell. My body nourished theirs for the first year of their lives.
Those things, in themselves, are gifts. It is the gift of motherhood that we are privileged enough to grow another human, and then nourish that human until he is ready to eat on his own.
For us, this gift came easily, naturally - and joyfully. There is absolutely nothing in the world like seeing your child for the first time, or watching him grow into his own person after making his entrance into the world.
At the end of June 2011, I received "the call" from our adoption agency.
A young woman had chosen our family to raise her daughter.
I felt a new, different kind of joy! I mean, really. Beyond elated. I cried as I wrote down her name, her age, the details of her pregnancy. I cried as I told my husband the news. I called my mom and cried while telling her the news. "A birth mom chose us!"
We would have our little girl at last!
Three weeks passed, and Natalee's birth mom called to say she was going to the hospital to be induced. More excitement. Packing. Packing my clothes, the boys' clothes, and clothes for the baby. We drove until late at night, and woke up the next morning to drive the rest of the way.
Natalee was born just an hour after we got there, and tears sprang to my eyes when the hospital loudspeakers played the lullaby announcing her birth.
That's when my joy, my elation, changed ... until that moment, I had been so excited about the impending arrival of our daughter, and so caught up in planning for said arrival, that I hadn't spent too much time thinking about how her birth parents must be feeling.
Another woman had chosen to give her unborn life. She had felt this baby's kicks, her movements, her sleep cycles. She had felt her belly expand and her legs swell. And because she knew she couldn't care for this baby, she was giving her to us.
She chose us to raise her child, knowing she would never feel her daughter's little hand curling around the back of her neck, or kiss the smooth, chubby cheeks as she put her to bed. She chose us to raise her child, knowing we would be the ones to memorize her little quirks - like the way she chews her food for way longer than necessary, or the way she has to be on her stomach to fall asleep.
In the hospital for 2 days, Natalee's birth parents held her. They changed her, admired her, talked to her, loved her.
And then they said good-bye.
They gave us a daughter.
It is a tremendous gift; one that humbles me every single day.
And I think of the gravity of their choice almost daily, but especially on her birthday.
So while I think of my boys as a gift - because we have the privilege of creating 2 kind, generous, smart, funny boys who are made up of our DNA and will carry on our genes - I think of Natalee as a different kind of gift - a gift resulting from sacrifice of the greatest kind.
So again, my answer is Yes. In some ways, I feel differently about Natalee than I do about the boys.
And in other ways, I feel exactly the same: I hope, with all my heart, that they grow up to know their dreams. As their mother, I wish for nothing more than their true happiness - in whichever form that comes.
And I know that when Natalee's birth mother chose to ask us to raise her, she hoped for the same.
That hope is the same for all mothers, isn't it?