Not every woman has what it takes to be Mom

Contributing writerMay 19, 2014 

Ben Kastenbaum mug The News Tribune columnist


Mother’s Day is a reminder that whether one chooses to have children or not, being a mother is a choice. Some women who don’t have kids would make great moms. In contrast, some who give birth to children aren’t up to the job.

I got to experience both – what it means to have just a biological mother, and what it means to have a devoted mom.

I was the fifth of five children. By the time I came along, my two older sisters and oldest brother were already gone out of my mom’s life. It seemed as if she thought that three children were too many, so why not let them go and start over with just two?

So I spent my first years with Mom, Dad and my older brother. We migrated from city to city, true nomads of the American West. Our final destination landed us on the streets of Las Vegas, where Mom had relationships with various men, shelter came and went, and the only thing that was certain was the uncertainty of each day. I didn’t fully know what was going on at this time; all I knew was that life was unstable. This was my normal, however – the life she chose for herself and her kids.

It wasn’t long though, before my brother and I experienced the same fate as our older siblings. Mom couldn’t take care of herself; it was only a matter of time before she wouldn’t take care of us, either.

That day came on a warm, sunny Las Vegas morning when my family was standing on a corner across the street from a casino. More than anything, my brother and I loved to play video games. Our eyes lit up when we saw this familiar place, so we begged to go into the arcade. Mom said yes to my brother without reluctance, but no to me (I was four). I pleaded some more, and she eventually gave in. That moment would mark our separation for the rest of our lives.

My brother and I were alone in the casino’s empty arcade, banging on the buttons without any quarters. Two police officers who seemed on break were sitting at a nearby table and spotted us.

Naturally, they grabbed my unsupervised brother and me and put us in the back of their vehicle. I remember how dark and black the backseat of the police car was.

I cried desperately, staring out the window at the bright, sunny street flying by. The contrast between the vehicle’s interior and the blurry street now seems almost a metaphor for the controlled, state system I was entering and the rushed, chaotic life I was leaving behind. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew my mom wasn’t there.

She would never come for me. The burden of raising children was too great, and she chose to lead her life apart from the five children she brought into this world.

Fast forward to this day; things are quite different. I got to celebrate Mother’s Day with the woman who has actually mothered me.

Laurie Kastenbaum never had biological children of her own and had reached a point in her life where she was content without any. But being the woman she is, she found out about me and wanted to help.

I was still four, getting off the flight from Las Vegas to SeaTac, the first time I saw her. I stepped on the down escalator with trepidation. I looked up and saw a woman I had never met looking up at me with an astonishingly bright smile.

The bright smile from that first moment never dimmed throughout my upbringing.

She was more than engaged in my life. She would chaperone my school field trips, and involve me in such enriching activities as art, acting, and the piano. My heavy involvement in sports would have her missing some games, but I can hardly remember any she was absent from. Her positive attitude and willingness to put others before herself made her a natural fit to be a mom.

On Mother’s Day, I got the chance to reflect on two sides of motherhood. While I love both of my mothers, I clearly see that choosing to be a devoted mom is an enduring commitment.

Being a mom is not easy, but I hope its rewards are greater than its troubles. Motherhood takes extraordinary sacrifice. As I found out in my life, some mothers have it and some don’t.

Ben Kastenbaum of Tacoma, a graduate of Stadium High School and the University of Puget Sound, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at

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