I was driving on Mother’s Day, to breakfast then church, and heard on NPR a reading of a story from the Modern Love Podcast. It’s called “A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Adoption: ‘My Greatest Accomplishment & Deepest Regret’” (beautifully voiced by one of my favorite actors, Sarah “Last Man Standing” Paulson of American Horror Story). It’s about a young woman whose unplanned pregnancy leads her to give up her son for “open adoption,” an arrangement which gives her the ability to interact and have a relationship with him but not actually raise him:

In the months before I gave birth, when my boyfriend and I were just getting to know the couple we had chosen, I was able to comprehend the coming exchange only on the most theoretical of levels. But it seemed like gentle math—girl with child she can’t keep plus woman who wants, but can’t have child. Balance the equation, and both parties become whole again.

As you might expect, the math wasn’t in the end so simple. Plans are so often mathematical yet rarely unfold accordingly: “if I do x, then will result”; “if I give my baby to someone who can’t have one, then we will all be happier.” That is, until reality. The baby appears and the previously nonexistent love of the mother comes into being alongside of it. The quadratic equation takes you a direction no one foresaw.

The birth mother, author and architect Amy Seek, explains that she has a hard time letting go of anything, not to mention the human who had grown inside her. But when the time came she signed the papers because she felt that as a young, unprepared mother who had already arranged the adoption, it was the right thing to do. Her son’s adoptive family, and especially the woman who would become his mother, were always “committed to openness,” and they encouraged the son to love his birth mother even when she wasn’t around.

Amy says the adoptive mother, Holly becomes “devoted to our relationship, and not because it is easy for her…a pivotal point in my grief was the moment I was able to say aloud that I wanted my son back.” But it was impossible. She wanted her son but had given him away. He had a new mother, and a father, and belonged to a family that loved him.

I had spent my entire life without a child, but I was newly born that night, too, and my old self disappeared. I could no longer imagine how a mother could give up a child and live. Adoption was not simple math. A new mother cannot know the value of the thing she subtracts.

This is the hard math of life, of law. Completely out of the bounds of our control, even our good deeds can feel bad, and even our wrong ones right—our greatest accomplishments can simultaneously become our greatest regrets. In her memoir, God and Jetfire, Amy recounts her struggle with defining her faith and, despite wanting her son to grow up in with a Christian family, her difficulty in understanding a God whose ultimate desire would be our sole devotion of him, even at risk of our cutting ties with everyone and everything else.

I stood between my mother and brother at church, the only Catholic church for miles. Dad stood on my brother’s other side…

At the Our Father, we all took hands to pray. I was comforted by the familiar motions, though I never knew much about what they meant. I remembered some of our born-again neighbors telling me you don’t take anything with you when you die, not your parents, or your siblings, or your pets. Definitely not your possessions. Definitely not the hills of Tennessee, or anywhere else you might love. When they said God’s ways were not our ways, I thought that was the least my way of all God’s ways. Because I wanted to keep all those things.

When we got to the middle of the Our Father, we always lifted our hands, hand in hand, together, for the words “For thine is the kingdom.” It was an expression of submission to God’s ways. But then it was an incongruous gesture, and for that reason it was always my favorite moment in the Mass. We were lifting our hands in surrender, but we were grasping them, hand in hand, like a human chain. With our mouths we admitted we don’t make the rules, we may all die alone, but with a hundred clasped hands held high, we objected: we are going to hold on tight. It was a losing battle, our will against his, but we raised our clenched fists to God, as if we could hold on to anything.

One strange characteristic of love is that it can make us defiant and unreasonable. Would you, in your right mind, oppose God, the cruel judge, to hold tight to the same brother who fought you on the staircase, the same mother who spanked you with a wooden spoon? Love can muddle our sense of reason, make us raise our hands in defense. Yet in the Bible no one shows this better than Christ himself, who is not only the judge but also the man who laid down his life for his friends, the father who ran to greet his prodigal son and threw him a homecoming party when all the money had been squandered.

That isn’t to say human error won’t disrupt life as well. It can and will. It will change the details of the tale. This Modern Love story isn’t a perfect allegory for that of the prodigal son, which, I must say, as a cake-pan Christian, I was sort of expecting. In one sense, Amy, the birth mother, can never really be her son’s mother. She will never wipe his baby butt and yell at him to clean his room; she will never have him back, fully. But that doesn’t mean she won’t love him, and love is longer-lasting than anything. Even when the circumstances of daily life seem to the rest of the neighborhood like weakness (say “an unexpected pregnancy—she got what she deserved”), love, as in this story, disrupts our most mathematical expectations. It comes as if from no-where, and there is always room for more. Even though she can’t have him, she wants him, not because of what he has done, but simply because—unplanned, unexpected, and in spite of everything she had ever thought she wanted—he came into her life. Her son.