…on a sticky, sweaty afternoon in July, I received a call from the head of homefinding from my local county social services agency. These are the folks whose job it is to find homes for kids who come into foster care. A two-day old newborn boy was being removed from the hospital, because of mental health issues in his mother. ”I know you didn’t even want a baby, but it is only for two weeks. Can you pick him up by 4pm?” (It was 2pm already)
Earlier that day I had emailed another worker to say that we were ready to take another placement. Two boys, K. (8) and C. (7) had been with us for about three months, but we were in a good, stable place with them and suspected they would go to their father in another state quite soon (they would leave a few weeks later). Placements had been thin and our huge house felt too quiet, and I knew saying goodbye to the boys, who we adored, would be very hard. So even though we’d said that we would never take a single, healthy infant (because so many other people want them and our mission was sibling groups – we’d said we’d only take babies if they came with siblings), I figured two weeks of cuddling a tiny baby would help me deal with the grief of losing the other boys. After all, I’d had babies before – how hard could it be?
When I called Eric (who had taken the two boys to therapy near the hospital) and told him to buy an infant carseat and pick up a baby on his way home, he thought I was totally out of my skull, but we were committed, and off he went and picked up a 7lb newborn boy and brought him home that afternoon. It seemed strange and shocking that we could have a baby in hours – after all, I’d spent 9 months preparing and planning with my other sons. And yet…we did. It also put into perpective all the time I’d spent on thinking about what a baby needed the first time – it turns out that you can meet pretty much all needs with a quick stop at Target and a call to friends.
The two weeks turned into two months, when hitches arose with the relatives who were supposed to take the child we called “Baby Z.” We went back to sleep deprivation (he was terrible sleeper), had that glazed look of new parenthood. Only this time we had the big boys to help with the transition. Simon had always adored babies, and at 11 would grab Z. from me and claim “this is my baby time.” Asher had longed to be a big brother – he always said “I don’t care whether we get girls or boys, I just want to be bigger than someone.” And now he was. Isaiah who had never thought of himself as liking small kid became a devoted baby person. They fought over who got to carry him, and spent hours cuddling him and carrying him around.
By the time we got into autumn, and Baby Z’s case seemed not to be going well for his mother, we’d fallen deeply in love with him. We were asked by his caseworker whether we wanted to adopt, and told him – absolutely. Then about two weeks later we got a call from the same head of homefinding, asking us when we thought it would be appropriate to move Z. to a pre-adoptive home with another family. I read the email, called Eric, and sat there. I don’t think I’d ever fully understood the metaphor of something making you feel like you’d been punched in the gut before, but now I did – I couldn’t fully breathe. My baby was going away.
It turned out it was a communication error – the homefinding head had assumed because we hadn’t wanted single babies, and because we had jokingly said they needed to send us some girls, that we would not want to adopt Z. Still, it was at that moment that I knew for certain how deeply mine he was. I began to tell people that getting Z. was like winning one of those billion dollar lotteries, only without even purchasing a ticket, and that’s what it felt like.
But of course, he was his mother’s too. Struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues, she would make some improvement, attend visits regularly, and then fall apart and disappear. At first it didn’t matter much for Z., but as he hit 9 months his separation anxiety became acute and the visits were torture for him – and for his mother, who would see him flinging his arms around me and calling “Mama, Mama!” I ached for her.
It is odd, one would think that the relationship between birth and foster parents was inherently adversarial, and in some ways, there are true conflicts of interest. At the same time, the more I knew his mother, the more I realized that she truly, deeply loved her son, and that she wanted to do right by him – even if often she was unable. I did not want her to raise him – to see him raised in a difficult, unstable environment, but I did want better for her generally. For her part, she was appreciative that we kept him, and more understanding than I think I could have been about Z’s preference for us. It was a difficult relationship – sometimes she was angry, sometimes we secretly panicked when she seemed to be doing better, but somehow everyone mostly acted ethically and I think all of us derived some pride for doing right by one another.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act means that after a child has been in care for 15 out of the previous 22 months, the state is supposed to (it doesn’t always, but did in this case) being proceedings to terminate parental rights, and that’s what happened here. In October we sat in court while the judge changed the case’s goal to adoption. His mother might still have pulled it out if she’d made major changes, but things fell apart for her again, and she only saw him four or five times in the last six months. Most of the visits didn’t go well, because he didn’t know her anymore. Thankfully, at her last visit, her extended family came along and everyone took pictures of Z. on his grandparent’s lap, and with his biological sibling and cousins. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Z.’s father had been almost entirely absent from his life, seeing him only twice since birth. His rights were terminated in December on the grounds of abandonment. A few days later on a cold, snowy evening in December of this past year, Z and I walked into the county offices for a meeting with Z’s Mom. She had requested that I come to a visit to talk about our offer of ongoing visitation and make a plan. It was supposed to be a meeting with just the two of us, no caseworkers, just Z’s mothers sitting down together. She had confirmed in person that she would be there, and then called again and asked the worker what to get him for Christmas and asked that we dress him up for pictures. Z. and I sat in the waiting area, chasing a ball and entertaining the office workers and the security guard and waiting, and she didn’t come. A worker came out and told us that legally we only had to give her 15 minutes past the scheduled time, but I pleaded, could we stay a little longer. But she didn’t come, and Z. and I went out into the snow, Z. delighted by the wintry weather, me saddened for his mother. I could only imagine what the lights and bells and snow looked like to her. I understand why she couldn’t do it – too intense, too hard, too sad. I don’t know if I could have done it either.
Yesterday was his mother’s last opportunity to sign a conditional surrender. Otherwise her rights would have been terminated. In practice it probably didn’t matter much which she did – the stick with the surrender is that a conditional surrender includes visitation rights and pictures, while in a termination of parental rights, the parent has no right to see the child. In reality, we wouldn’t have cut her off from visits – I think knowing his birth family is to Z’s enormous benefit. But it was important to me that she have some legal rights, that she make a choice and speak for herself, and that she understand fully the changes that were coming. I was afraid she wouldn’t show up for court, but she did. Yesterday, in freezing winds and with ice underfoot, she made her way to court, and so did I.
I sat with her, gave her pictures of Z. – Z. in the lake at Labor Day, Z. climbing into the wheelbarrow to be pushed thorough the garden, Z. being held by Isaiah, Z. laughing at something our other toddler, Q. did, Z. in a pile of autumn leaves, Z. in his winter coat, holding Eric’s hand. She was grateful for the pictures, she especially liked the one at the lake and I told her how none of the other little ones can go in the bath with him, because he splashes like a maniac. She was grateful when I assured her whatever happens she’ll be his mother, and that it is important to us that she stay in his life but she looked beaten, and I think she was. Her choices and her circumstances, social services and her losses are defeating her. Yes, her choices had put her in this situation, but she didn’t choose the burdens of mental illness and addiction fully. We gave her our phone numbers, we promised to meet, we asked if she’d bring Z’s siblings too. I offered to let her see him that afternoon, but that was too much. ”No, sometime soon.” she said. I’m not sure if she meant it.
The judge sat and ensured she understood what was happening. Was she on medication? Did anyone offer her money to do this? Was she doing it freely? She spoke “I want to take him home, but that’s not going to happen, so I am doing this because I want to keep seeing my son.” The judge nodded. She signed. I would have liked to hug her as her lawyer took her out of the room, but she’s not a hugger, and that’s not quite our relationship. I touched her arm and said “Thank you.” She looked away, and left. I have never felt more grateful to any human being.
And then, 18 months after he came home, the child formerly known as “Baby Z” – our soon to be adopted son, Zion, was now legally free, soon to be ours in every sense. He’s been ours in some ways for a long time, of course, and for a long time I said it didn’t matter much, just a piece of paper, but it is more than that.
The caseworker asked if I was happy, because, she said, I didn’t seem excited. I was, but it took me a while to stop being sad for his mother, and be excited for me. It seemed so abrupt after all the waiting. We took Simon, Isaiah, Asher, Q. and Zion out to lunch at an Indian restaurant and celebrated with Naan. Then we called our parents, our extended families and friends, and we were happy, mostly – but then I guess that the ambiguity of situations can’t be erased instantly. We tucked Zion into his crib that night, knowing that nothing had changed for him – and everything had.
We forgot to stop for wine on the way back home, so Eric and I toasted Zion’s new status in our family with a bottle of half-flat cream soda that we’d been forced to purchase because one of our toddlers had in curiosity opened the bottle in the store. It seemed oddly fitting. Eric made the toast “To the expansion of the empire!” (We jokingly refer to our farm critters and expanding family as our “Biological empire”) We hope that in the coming year or so the empire might further expand with other children. We look forward to adoption day, and one heck of a party to celebrate our fifth son, to his naming at synagogue and conversion to Judaism, and to all the other happy days to come. I also look forward to the day when Mommy (me) and Mom (his birth mother) and Zion can sit at a playground on a warm spring day with the sun on our faces and watch him play, and when he turns and calls “Look at me!” we both look, and cannot look away.