A few months ago, my spouse and I walked into the neonatal intensive care unit of our local hospital, and walked out with someone else’s baby.
In any other circumstance, that sentence would be alarming, but the hospital was expecting us. On this day, we’d been licensed as foster parents for only four months when we found ourselves responding to a call asking us if we’d be willing to care for a newborn in need of a foster family. When the social worker called that day, I actually hesitated. I had recently gone from full-time teaching to substitute teaching and was concerned about the idea of suddenly becoming an instant stay-at-home mom for some unknown amount of time. Plus, there were some issues with the baby to consider. You aren’t, after all, typically called to pick up healthy infants from the hospital as a foster parent.
The placing worker who called told me that she had put in a call with another family, as well, and that if we both agreed to care for the infant, then she’d let the investigative worker (there are so many workers in foster care) decide on the caregiver. “Is the other mother a stay-at-home mom?” I asked.
The worker said that she was, and I thought that was best for the baby, so I told her that we would take the baby if the other family could not. I told her to consider them first. In my heart, I hadn’t actually wanted to say no. I was trying to be practical. I was trying to ignore the fear and excitement and sadness and myriad emotions that were collecting in my heart, the heart of a woman who is a natural nurturer, who has dreamed since childhood of becoming a mother.
Less than an hour later, she called me back. “The other family declined,” she said. “Are you in?”
I said yes, of course, after confirming via frantic texts with my spouse that we were on board.
Not long after our call, the investigative worker called to tell me that the hospital was insisting that at least one of us room with the baby overnight. We hadn’t been expecting this. I guess we had thought that we’d just pick her up or that a social worker would bring her to us. We were confused, but we agreed, arriving at the hospital at the end of the workday, and after having had one last “just the two of us” meal before diving headfirst into parenting a fragile newborn. We’d also had time to run by the store to pick up a “going home” outfit for the baby. That’s what mothers did, right? Every child needed a going home outfit.
I’ll be honest: This isn’t exactly how I pictured parenthood when I was a little girl naming my baby dolls whatever name was currently trendiest and pretending to feed them bottles of apple juice. There was no baby shower. There was no birthing class. It is a strange kind of surreality to walk onto a hospital maternity floor neither as a visitor nor as a patient. We were buzzed into the NICU and led to the child in question — a beautiful, vulnerable baby girl with thick hair who was so small and motionless that, at first, I really did think she was a CPR doll.
The nurse had us watch a video on CPR, then, since my spouse wasn’t certified. I kept finding my eyes drifting away from the video and to the baby in the incubator. I kept wondering where this story would lead us.
A hospital staff member returned and proceeded to place bracelets on our hands to signify that this was our baby. The bracelets had the birth mother’s name on them, clearly meant for this baby’s parents. “An alarm will go off if a baby gets too close to the exit doors,” the nurse explained. “The bracelets let us check to make sure, you know, that you have your baby.”
Our baby. They kept saying that. They kept referring to us as, “Mom” too, no doubt out of habit. At first, I instinctively corrected them. “Foster parents,” I’d say. “We’re her foster parents.”
But, it kept happening. “Mom, sign here.” We ultimately just let it go.
Our foster daughter passed her car seat challenge, a test designed to ensure that she would be able to leave the hospital in a car seat without having any problems breathing. We were taught a special way to feed her and then sent to our own hospital room with the baby, where we would get up all night with her for feedings. They wanted to make sure that she would eat and that we understood how to properly feed her. If she ate well all night, then she could be discharged the following morning.
That night, I slept in a hospital bed as though I had just given birth while my wife slept in the recliner next to me. On my other side was this baby, connected to an EKG machine that I had been taught to understand and silence if it got out of control. On my wrist, her mother’s ID bracelet.
I stared up at the ceiling and thought about her mother. I thought about where we were and where she was and how there would probably never be the right words for this situation. There would only be that ceiling and this moment.
We were discharged the next morning, our foster daughter proving to be tough, determined, and absolutely hungry. I snapped so many pictures, wanting to document these moments for her. Due to some unfortunate circumstances in my own past, I have less than ten photos of me under the age of six. Now, here I was: the memory keeper for someone else’s childhood.
When we left the hospital that day, carrying this child down the halls toward the double doors, I couldn’t help noticing the proud pink and blue banners that decorated the doors of the other patients’ rooms. It seemed spectacularly unfair to the little girl in our arms that there was no huge banner proclaiming her arrival. I wished that I had brought her a balloon or a wreath or something that I could’ve photographed for her to keep, for her to know that she was welcome and wanted on this planet.
We drove home from the hospital like any other nervous parents, our tiny baby in this giant convertible car seat that I had purchased when we were first licensed, thinking we’d be placed with a 2-year-old or some other, older child. Everyone always tells you that you won’t be placed with a baby.
The weeks that came next were a blur of feedings and sleepless nights, hysterical crying and doctor’s appointments. I barely left the house for three months. We were first-time parents, navigating the waters of what I now know is dubbed “the fourth trimester” due to the intensity of early infanthood.
We had so little help, both because of the fears of others regarding the uniqueness of the situation and because of our own fears of bringing people into our situation. My spouse had to go back to work after a few days, so I spent day after day on my own with a newborn.
It’s different when it it’s not foster care, isn’t it? Parents stay the night and answer questions. Everyone pitches in to help the new parents rest. I subsisted on two hours of sleep for days at a time and used Google to guide my way through new parenthood. I quickly found myself in this bizarre circumstance of having the typical feelings of a first time parent — not wanting her out of my sight, not trusting anyone else to know how to care for her, terrified of something going wrong — and having the feelings of a foster parent, wondering how long any of this would actually last.
When the weekly visits with the baby’s birth family were first arranged, the phone call scheduling them knocked the breath out of me. I don’t know why I reacted that way, but I did. I think I even cried. I still have a hard time on visit days. A reminder that this isn’t my baby, no matter how much it feels like she’s mine.
Many people have told us that we’re angels for being foster parents, but that always makes me feel like a fraud. I’ve never felt less angelic in my life. On the contrary, I’m more exposed and more human than ever before. A new, sleepless parent of someone else’s child.
I carry with me overwhelming sympathy for our foster child’s family, but then, I’m attached to this infant. Everyone always tells me that they couldn’t foster, because they’d “get too attached.” As if we don’t. As if we have some sort of super power that lets us love only the exact right amount.
No. We’re too attached. That’s the point. And it feels like a knife attack.
Well-meaning friends and family ask questions that we can’t answer and use other phrases that often hurt more than they help, no matter how unintentionally.
“I’m so happy for you,” is a common refrain. “She’s so lucky,” is another. “Do you get to keep this one?” is perhaps the worst. Like a child is something you pluck from a cabbage patch.
Relatives use titles for themselves when we don’t even have the baby calling us “mama,” or else they call us “mama” just assuming that’s what we must be called. It’s meant well. It’s really all meant well. But, it’s incredibly isolating.
“Do they understand that this is foster care?” I’ve asked my spouse a dozen times. “How are they happy for us? How are they assuming a title? Do they understand that her current goal is to go back?” And then, I flip to the other side of the coin. “How can they think that she’s lucky? She’s growing up without her family. Do they understand that this is foster care?”
The answer is simple: No, they really don’t. How could they? As a teacher, I’ve often heard it said that if you’ve met one child with autism, then you’ve met one child with autism. The phrase is meant to show that each person is entirely individual and no situation is alike. The same is true of foster care. Several people have told me they understand, because they know someone who fostered. They all but wink at us, telling us that they know.
But they don’t know. They just know someone who fostered. As for everyone else, well, they only know what they know, too. They know “mama” and “grandma” and “auntie” and “uncle.” They don’t know what to do with a temporary mother and a temporary child. I don’t know, either. I may never know.
Our foster daughter is still a baby, but a little older now, and we recently started corresponding with her birth family. We send pictures and swap little snippets of conversation. It’s brought peace to us, as we travel down this unknown road. I once broke down in a store, because I was thinking of how much I would miss the baby’s scent, a sweet mix of baby laundry detergent, lavender, and her.
Corresponding with her family lets me feel like we’re doing the right thing, healing families if they can be healed, even if it hurts. We’ve had family members disagree and look at us in horror. I’ve flat-out told relatives to only speak of our foster child’s family with respect. They’re her family. They’ll always be her family. There can be more than one family.
It occurred to me, looking down at this baby as she locked fingers with mine over her bottle, that her mother was once a baby, too. We all were once babies, vulnerable and desperate for love. If we could look at each other with the same lack of judgement and easy kindness that we give babies, the world might be a slightly better place. We are all just doing the best that we can.
For now, we are her parents. For tomorrow, only the stars in the sky know how it should end.