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Mom Talk: I’m Raising My Three Brothers

Written by Sally Kim

Photography by Photographed By Valerie Denise

We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Sally Kim recounts the life-changing night when she became “mister”, a.k.a mom-sister, to her three biological brothers, in addition to being a mother-of-two already. -JKM

I don’t talk often about my mom. She was cruel. There’s really no other way to explain it when people ask my history. She called me names I’ll leave unmentioned here, she hit, she put me in situations no little girl should ever be placed in. From being hit in the head with a belt to sleeping in a stranger’s hotel room when my mom threw me out of our own in a drunken rampage (I was ten), there are a lot of very real memories I am still mourning and living with. She was cruel to me, her only daughter.

When I was twenty-two, just months after graduating college and weeks after returning from a humanitarian trip to India, I received a call from the police at 3:30 a.m. telling me I was needed right away at the local hospital. I hadn’t lived with my mom since I was sixteen, had really jump-started a life of success by the world’s standards—college, apartment, growth—and, by my own—compassion, justice-oriented, and empathy for others’ situations. I wanted to be a social worker. But, everything got put on hold that night.

Without drowning you in detail, I arrived to the hospital a twenty-two-year-old single girl with dreams of graduate school or world travel, of being swept away in a romantic whirlwind and living my life for the greater good, but really, for me. Because that’s what you do when you’re twenty-two. I left the hospital with my thirteen-year-old, seven-year-old, and two-year-old younger brothers in my custody and care. I became an overnight foster mom.

Since I hadn’t lived with my mom since I was sixteen, my relationship with my brothers was pretty limited. It’s been five years since that night, and within that timeframe, they were reunified with our birth mom once. After two years of not seeing or hearing from them, they were given back to us in foster care. In those two years in between, I met my now husband, got married, had a baby, and got pregnant with our second, both girls. I am their mommy.

We get glances. We get a lot of interesting questions: “Are these all yours?” or “So, how did you become their foster parent?” with a nod symbolizing, “Well, that makes sense” when I explain that they are actually my biological half brothers, as if it’s any less of a daily choice to love them, or any less of a sacrifice.

They are my biological half brothers, but they are my sons. That’s the fact. The youngest calls us “mom” and “dad”. The older two call me by my first name, but I have learned to hear “Sally!” as a term of endearment. It melts me the same way my heart softens when my two-year-old calls me “mama”. Both precious, both calls and symbols for need and care, and longing for love and acceptance.

Raising your brothers doesn’t look that different from most motherhood experiences. My dream of graduate school, traveling, and newlywed life were put on hold the moment I received the first call, and then again when my husband and I received the second that we had been holding our breath for. I pack lunches, kiss boo-boos, go to football games, make nice with other parents, and cheer them on the loudest. I speak pride into them, and affirm their belonging and ability to do amazing things—to dream big, but to stay humble. All the things any mother would speak into her sons, you’ve heard it around our table.

What makes it different is the harder moments, the pressure to be perfect. Yes, most moms feel this pressure. But, as a biological mom, you are starting fresh. Even if we had adopted or fostered a child we never knew before, there would be freedom in that I do not share the same DNA as their abuser. When my mom is their mom, too, no matter how removed I am from her, a frustrated glare or laugh or need for space can trigger my sons into a dark place, reminding them of the monster that hurt them.

Raising my brothers means getting stares and questions, and navigating if they will call me mom, or my husband dad, even though I’m still in my late twenties and my husband is in his early thirties. We may look odd, but we love each other hard, and we navigate an uncommon, but existing broken circumstance. Our family is built on the foundation that there was abuse, that there was mental illness. And, yes, we get to start new, but we are the ones responsible for trudging through the mud first. We are the trailblazers for our future grandchildren, or nieces and nephews? Who knows at this point. We will cross that bridge when it comes. Raising my brothers means court dates and putting “normal” life on hold. It means there is a constant fight for my personal care and health because I have promised myself, my kids, and my husband that I will never become like the one who harmed them. We may share DNA, but our hearts, our minds, and our lives could not be more opposite.

I am not that different than a normal mama. I cook, I clean, I kiss and fight, and I fail. I fail and fall. I have a one-fifth chance of letting someone down each day, but just like with any other mother’s situation, the sun rises again the next morning, and I get up. I enjoy the sound of chatter as my husband is flipping eggs and my thirteen-year-old son (or biological brother) clammers on about his college tour, and my two-year-old daughter is pulling at his shirt to hold her tight. I breathe it all in: the chaos, the laughter, the joy, and the pain that brought us to this place. I say “thank you”, thank you for this life. Then, I throw my hair into a high bun and armor up for another day as a “mister”.

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