How to Love a Baby Who’s Not Yours to Keep


ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRGThis essay, which offers a glimpse into one of our foster parenting experiences and challenges assumptions that are often made about parents with children in foster care
, originally appeared in the digital publication Parent.co.

Ana’s joyous screeching carries through the house and wakes my 16-year-old from her afternoon nap.

“You suck,” the surly teen growls at the boisterous infant before bending down to kiss her downy head as it bobs up and down in the Exersaucer.

Both of our daughters, our biological children, have been remarkably loving and accommodating with this baby – far more so than they were with the puppy they promised to care for when my husband and I relented to their begging five years ago.

“If we’re going to become a foster family, we have to be all in,” I told them when the discussions began nine months ago. “Everyone has to help, especially if we get really little kids. If any one of us has doubts about this, then we just can’t do it.”

Our girls have made good on this promise.

She is perfect, this smiley little Ana with the enormous blue eyes. Though the fatigue that comes from waking at night to attend to a six-month-old has confirmed my belief that babies are a young person’s game, the awareness that she will eventually return to her parents offers a sense of relief that is both optimistic and wistful. The thankless drudgery of caring for a tiny, helpless human won’t drag on for years, but neither will the pure delight.

Ana’s parents, Sandra and Tim Thompson, are always in the back of my mind, like a low-grade headache. Did she sleep through the night for them? Would her dad take her out in this cold? Will her mom like this outfit? For some foster parents, particularly those interested in adopting their charges, I imagine a tepid or antagonistic relationship with a child’s biological parents might offer a protective emotional barrier. My husband and I are not looking to adopt, however, and I bear no ill will toward Sandra and Tim. I want to do right by them.

Every Wednesday, I take Ana to the Children and Youth Services office for a one-hour visitation with her parents. I am humble and gracious when I see them, always striving to make sure they know that I understand this is their baby, not mine.

The Thompsons sent a good-sized wardrobe along with their daughter when she was forcibly, unexpectedly removed from their home, but the seasons were changing and she needed warmer attire. I purchased several new outfits with a clothing voucher from CYS, but when I’m getting Ana ready for visitations, I always make sure to dress her in something Sandra and Tim sent so they don’t think that I think their clothes aren’t good enough.

One Wednesday, as the Thompsons and I rode together in the elevator to the third-floor CYS office, a stranger inside the cab was fawning over the infant in my stroller and asked her age. I consciously stopped myself from replying and allowed Sandra to explain that Ana would be six months old the following week.

That day, answering questions about the cute baby in the soft, floppy hat was her mother’s privilege, bragging rights she hadn’t enjoyed for weeks. I have plenty of opportunities to gush about Ana, but on visitation days, I’m just the stroller jockey.

The Thompsons lost custody of their baby because CYS found evidence of drug use in their home — what types of drugs and how much, I’ll never know. Her caseworker initially told us that Ana would be with our family for at least a month, when her parents had their first custody hearing. If the Thompsons attended scheduled visitations, passed their regular drug tests, and received substance abuse counseling, they could regain custody of the child after the hearing. If not, Ana could remain in our care for an additional six months.

This is the story I repeat to friends and acquaintances I encounter when I’m out with the baby in our town, a sleepy suburb west of Philadelphia. My words are often met with a sad, sympathetic gaze at Ana and an eye roll that silently conveys disgust at the child’s situation: How could her parents be so irresponsible? How could they choose drugs over their baby? The response often smacks of hypocrisy.

While our family has provided care for the children of individuals making bad life choices or failing to put the well-being of their children first, it’s wrong to assume that every child in foster care is there because his or her parents don’t love them or aren’t trying. Sometimes, there’s a lot more to the story.

When the Thompsons, a low-income working family, asked for assistance from CYS, they willingly opened themselves up to a kind of scrutiny that the financially secure parents of our community don’t have to endure and would certainly never tolerate. The fact that there was evidence of drugs in their home doesn’t necessarily mean Sandra and Tim are bad people or incompetent parents; they clearly love their daughter and took great care of her, despite their substance abuse issues. When their baby came to us, she was in excellent condition: alert, healthy, and above average weight, with the disposition of an angel.

The privilege enjoyed by the residents of our community doesn’t make them better or worse parents than Ana’s. They are not saints (neither am I) and I bristle at their blind assumptions. Though I am not a religious person, I’ve had a single phrase stuck in my head since the day I first met Sandra and Tim Thompson: There but for the grace of God go I.

“Will it be hard to let this little girl go back to her parents?” people always ask me. “Don’t you want to keep her?”

My answer is always immediate and unequivocal: No. When the time comes, we will happily surrender this baby to the Thompsons. They are decent people and competent parents, and I have no reservations about returning their child to them. Though we will miss Ana’s joyous screeching, downy head, and enormous blue eyes, she was never ours to keep. Ana was always a borrowed baby with a strict repayment schedule, here with us for a little while before returning to live out her own unique story, separate from ours.

Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

Gone to the Dog: Bed Pillow

imageA semi-regular feature in which I spotlight household items that were stolen, chewed, and destroyed by our asshole dog, Huck.

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The dog was nowhere in sight and unusually quiet, so I sent my daughter to see what he was up to. She found the asshole under my bed, once again, ripping a huge hole in one of my bed pillows. Bonus holes had been chewed in the quilt and pillow sham.

Gone to the Dog: Flip-flop

imageA semi-regular feature in which I spotlight household items that were stolen, chewed, and destroyed by our asshole dog, Huck.

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The asshole has been helping himself to shoes in the basket near the front door (a veritable shoe buffet) since day one, but never had one in his mouth long enough to do any real damage—until now. The strap on my daughter’s flip-flop was ripped from the sole while I was distracted in the kitchen.

Gone to the Dog: Magic Eraser

imageA semi-regular feature in which I spotlight household items that were stolen, chewed, and destroyed by our asshole dog, Huck.

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This fluffy cloud of detritus used to be a Magic Eraser. The asshole stole it from a kitchen cabinet I inadvertently left open and quietly ripped it to shreds while I was on the phone in another room.

Alone May Be Where You Are, But It Isn’t Who You Are

ml_published_badge_ltblue1This essay, a tribute to my extraordinary daughter and everyone staying strong through the struggle, originally appeared in Mamalode magazine.

You put on a happy face for me, sweet daughter, but I know exactly where you go the moment you leave my side: Alone, population one. You’ve been a reluctant visitor to that dreary backwater many times before and though you may feel stuck there now, defeated and lonely, you are not. You never really were.

Resilience had your back the day you tried to talk to those other little girls in front of the elementary school. When they rolled their eyes and turned away, you smiled and climbed into the waiting bus.

Humor made you giggle behind a curtain in the emergency room when you had an asthma attack on Christmas Eve, even though you were afraid Santa wouldn’t come if you weren’t at home, sleeping.

Sincerity coaxed a fragile smile from your lips when you came home from a slumber party with magic marker all over your face because, as you explained, everyone at the overnight had agreed that the first person to fall asleep would receive the graffiti treatment.

Grit was your co-star on the stages where you poured your heart into every role after enduring countless fruitless auditions.

Confidence escorted you to a school dance when your date cancelled two hours earlier.

Fortitude accompanied you to more funerals than any kid should have to attend.

Resolve pushed you out the door to school every day when fatigue and depression beckoned you back to the cozy sanctuary of your bed.

Dignity insisted you were better off without the boy who left when you didn’t give him what he wanted.

Courage convinced you to leave the boy you love when you couldn’t give him what he needed.

Empathy gently reminds you why he withholds his forgiveness.

Determination drove you to another doctor’s office after all the appointments that came before were dead ends on the road to a diagnosis.

Persistence called shotgun when you continued on your quest to find out why you’re so exhausted and the numbers on the scale keep creeping higher.

Optimism waited just outside the fitting room, knocking occasionally to see if you needed anything.

Self-acceptance wrapped you in its arms as your eyes, framed in soft, smoky hues for the occasion, studied your reflection in the mirror and scrutinized the figure beneath the elegant prom dress.

Alone may be where you are right now, but it is not who you are, baby girl, and it is not your final destination. You and the good company you keep will travel far from this place. Soon, all of these fine attributes will be on hand to hoist you up (and comfort your weepy mother) as you walk across a stage to receive your high school diploma. In August, these lifelong cohorts will tag along to college where you can introduce them to new companions who will likely be by your side on the rest of your journey. Who you are and the qualities you possess will take anywhere you want to go.

Gone to the Dog: Pencil

imageA semi-regular feature in which I spotlight household items that were stolen, chewed, and destroyed by our asshole dog, Huck.

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Here we have a standard No. 2 pencil my English teacher husband had been using to grade papers. I’m not sure if the pencil fell on the floor or if the dog swiped it from a table, but I found the asshole under our bed chewing the eraser amid a pile of lead and wood shards.

Is pencil lead toxic to dogs? I have no idea, but it’s been several hours since he ingested it and he’s running around like a lunatic, barking incessantly, and harassing our other dog. So, yeah, business as usual.

KateJustAte

It started out as an elaborate joke.

In 2010, my friend Christy and I, both editors in different cities for the same nationwide parenting website, had been on the phone discussing search engine optimization and the search queries people use to find information on the Internet. We were fascinated by websites that captured readers through common search term misspellings, like “lisence plates” instead of “license plates.”

“You know what would be really funny?” Christy giggled, sending yet another work-related conversation off the rails. “If you had a blog called Kate Just Ate. You’d get all kinds of traffic from people trying to Google Kate Plus 8!”

The idea of building blog readership from careless typists searching for a reality TV show about Kate Gosselin and her brood of eight kids was ridiculous, but because Christy and I shared the same weird sense of humor, I felt compelled to take it a step further. As soon as we got off the phone, I sat down at my computer, opened up BlogSpot, and created KateJustAte: A log of things I’ve eaten, created solely to entertain my friend, Christy.

My first—and what I assumed would be my only—post was a humorous confessional about eating odd European cookies and a stash of chocolate bars I had hidden in the basement, complete with a well-styled photo of the confections. I sent Christy a link to the blog and waited. Within minutes, she upped the ante, responding to my absurd blog with an equally absurd list of topics for future posts.

A week later, Christy was on a quest to find food—the more bizarre, the better—for me to eat and write about on KateJustAte. She recommended restaurants, forwarded recipes, and even sent me a 20-pound box packed with all kinds of unusual items she’d found at an Asian food market: crispy wafer rolls, mixed bean crackers with dried anchovies, cashew nut crisp, rice candy, duck-flavored noodles, aloe vera dessert, seasoned cockles, and more.

Asian Food

Care packages with goodies from Christy were nothing new. She had been sending trinkets and a wide array of foods from her home in Orlando to my family outside Philadelphia for years. We received Key limes from a tree in her backyard to make a pie, candy for Halloween, homemade treats at Christmas and Hanukkah, alligator jerky because…I actually have no idea why she sent the alligator jerky. Christy loved surprising my family with food and silly gifts almost as much as we loved receiving them.

For months, I diligently wrote amusing stories about things I ingested for KateJustAte, everything from the contents of Christy’s package to meals my husband cooked with my daughter to cuisine our family enjoyed on vacation. Many friends seemed to like the blog, but none more than Christy. It was a fun project—our project, a bridge over the miles that separated our respective cities.

KateJustAte never developed much of a following (the search term-challenged Kate Plus 8 fans Christy had anticipated never materialized) and as life moved forward, I eventually ran out of time to write posts. Our jokes about the blog, as well as Christy’s threats to send me more strange food, continued right up until her sudden, devastating death in the summer of 2013.

Though KateJustAte has been dormant for years, I still occasionally type the URL into my browser and read through it. Sometimes, I consider resurrecting the lighthearted log of things I’ve eaten or firing off one last, goofy post in honor of Christy, but KateJustAte just doesn’t feel worth writing if she’s not around to read it. My friend would understand my reluctance to revive the old blog, and as I consider ideas at the launch of this new blog, an informal place to park my writing, I can hear her giggling, “You know what would be really funny?”