I pride myself on being a good person. Not any better than anyone else, just your normal run-of-the-mill, try to do the right thing, kind person. I have my quirks and I certainly have many areas that need “tweaking,” however, I can generally be trusted and relied on. As I sit in the car doing my self-taught yoga breathing while trying to force my body to move toward the building, I remind myself yet again that Malachi is not mine. He is hers. We are here to meet her and to let her hold the son she gave birth to just six short weeks ago. I am here because this is what I signed up for and I will put any negative or selfish feelings I have aside and be here for this woman because it is the right thing to do. It could be possible that because of the insane heaviness and extreme fatigue my body is feeling, I am being overly dramatic; however, I feel like this is a defining moment for me and how I handle the next couple of hours could make or break me. This is about her. The other mother. The original mother. The mother who is fighting to get her kids back. To get my son back. The moment I allow my brain to think of another woman cradling him like only a mom can do, I literally feel as if I am going to vomit and have to physically shake the thought out of my head. I have no idea what to expect because one person tells me she doesn’t understand a thing that’s going on and then another informs me that she is starting to pull it together and took the first step towards getting custody back by getting a steady job.
I turned 40-years-old three weeks before we brought Malachi home and was used to getting my eight hours of sleep per night. I would literally make plans around the fact that I needed that full night. The newborn thing hit me hard. Very hard. He had just turned 6-weeks-old and we were nowhere near a set schedule. The voice of the woman at the shelter rang in my ears frequently when she said “good luck with that” in reference to his loathe of sleeping. The most I got was a two-hour stretch and the weekend reprieve from my husband. Mac was the strongest newborn I have ever witnessed, holding his head up the day we brought him home, and when he was awake he wanted to be heard. I continued to study him day in and day out. I was starting to understand what his different cries were and came to know every crease in his tiny body. I was falling in love with my son the same way I fell in love with my daughters. As much as I tried to keep those walls up, there was no denying the bond that had been created already. I spent a lot of midnight hours rocking him and making plans on how to walk that thin line of falling in love with our “son” and guarding our emotional well-being in the event we had to return him to his mother. I had every intention of doing my best to foster her as well and I reminded myself of that often. Somehow I thought that the more I said it the more it would ring true and start to feel natural instead of forced. I made the decision early on in the licensing process that if I had to return a child I loved back to his mother that I would have a relationship with her. The kind of bond that made it comfortable for her to call me if she needed help of any kind. I was anxious to meet her and get the process started but every time I called Nina, our case worker, to inquire about the visits, I just got her voice mail with no return call until it was finally full and I couldn’t leave any more messages.
When she finally called me back it was only because Malachi was missing a required examination that was supposed to be done before he was placed in our home. She informed me that the appointment was already set for two days from now. Even though she tried to scurry off the phone without any questions I was able to ask about bio-mom again and the soft-spoken and clearly overwhelmed case worker barely spoke in a whisper when she informed me that bio-mom had a steady job now and it was hard to get a set schedule. Without thoroughly thinking it through, I decided on the spot that I would extend the first olive branch and invite Malachi’s birth mother to join me at his DCFS exam if she wanted to go. It could be beneficial to learn some of his familial medical history and she could provide that. Ultimately, it was just because I was so annoyed with waiting and wondering who she was I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted to pull the Band-Aid off and get it over with. Nina thought it was a great idea and called back within the hour to confirm that bio-mom would indeed meet me at the appointment in the DCFS office downtown Chicago.
I spent the next day obsessing over all of the different scenarios that could play out. Was she going to be receptive to me or bitter? I knew that she has some mental illness, although I was not legally allowed to know her diagnosis. I had imagined all kinds of stories that had her with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and every other personality disorder you could imagine. I remember the green-eyed woman relaying to me compassionately that “mom in this case is very confused, doesn’t understand what’s going on, and is under the impression that this whole thing is going to be over in a couple of weeks.” With so many variables I decided that I would have to be okay with having absolutely no idea what was going to transpire. This is something that I personally struggle with, big time.
“DCFS Examination Visit”
After underestimating the time it takes to pack a diaper bag and get ready to leave the house with all of the added elements, I was running a few minutes late. I didn’t have time to sit in the car and give myself a pep talk, but it was essential today.
My legs felt like concrete when I tried to lift them to depart the car. Somehow I was able to maneuver them out the door and began my stroll to the building with nausea taking up residence in my stomach with each step. I felt old. I felt tired. I felt anxious and sad and excited. As I walked through the back entrance of the facility, a hospital-smell hit my nose – hand sanitizer and bleach with a little hint of barf thrown in. Considering the squeamishness I was already experiencing I scanned the interior for a bathroom sign, but there were too many people, so I sought out a bench that was nearby and sat down to regroup. That’s when I saw Nina at the big circular information desk in the middle of the corridor.
I swallowed the golf ball in my throat and stood up with all the confidence that I could muster and moved. I looked directly past the case worker and saw her. My heavy legs did their job, but I’m not sure how. The entire walk towards them I reminded myself that regardless of how much I was falling apart on the inside I had to keep it together and forge forward with fortitude and fearlessness.
Of course she looked nothing like I thought she would and I was trying not to stare at her. Her entire demeanor appeared as drained as I felt. She looked beat down. Her skin was a caramel color, she was about 5’5” with her hair combed straight and completely over to one side like an 80’s side pony without the scrunchie to hold it in place. She had freckles and dark bags under her naked-looking small eyes. She appeared very young even though the binder told me that she was 32-years-old. She had on an oversized, well-worn, big black coat with what appeared to be dandruff all over it.
I don’t know at what point in my life I became a hugger, but I am. I haven’t always been one and I can typically sense when someone is not comfortable with the affection, but it doesn’t stop me. I still go in for the squeeze, it’s almost become a habit. I sat down the car seat carrier with arms stretched out before I even realized what I was doing. Was I really going in for the hug now? I was. That’s when the smell hit me. The offending odor was coming from that coat, but I had already committed to the embrace and couldn’t turn back. She didn’t say a word and did not attempt to return my gesture, but instead gave me a one-handed shoulder pat and went straight for Malachi. During my failed attempt at being dramatic with our introduction, Nina had found out that we had to go to the fourth floor and so we headed toward the elevator without speaking. Bio-mom carried Malachi in his baby seat and I carried the diaper bag. Once inside the elevator I tried to break the awkward silence by complimenting bio-mom on what beautiful children she had. She ignored me.
The elevator emptied directly into the waiting room and it was filled with children and parents or guardians. I found myself looking at each person, one-by-one wondering what their story was. Are they a foster parent? A bio-parent? A case worker? A grandmother, Aunt, Sister? Since I am Mac’s guardian I was the one to approach the reception desk and provide his medical card and fill out the paperwork. Nina and bio-mom stayed in the waiting room as she held our baby and just stared down at his face. I sat in the only seat available directly across from bio-mom and became fixated on the fact that she had picked up my son, removed his blanket and had his face directly against the foul-smelling, dandruff-flake-coated coat. I wanted her to leave now. I was uncomfortable and regretted the invitation. If it were anyone else holding him I would insist that they remove him from that offensive fabric and clean him with a baby-wipe at once, but since it was her I wasn’t sure what my boundaries were. Is he my son right now or is he her son right now? We are co-mothers? What are the rules? I began to sweat and shift in my seat. The chair next to me opened and Nina made her way over and explained to me that she had to leave. Like now. I completely missed my opportunity to abort the entire operation when she asked me if I was comfortable handling this alone and I automatically, without even thinking, said “of course.” What I should have said is “no, my body is completely numb, I think I might throw up and do you see the nastiness that my baby is laying on right now. I can’t do this.” But I didn’t.
The moment Nina walked away Malachi started to fuss. So here we are, just me and bio-mom sitting in a DCFS waiting room approximately 6 feet directly across from each other separated only by a small table full of magazines. She made eye contact with me for the first time and asked for a bottle. I noticed that she was missing a front tooth. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or momentary insanity, but the fact that she was missing a tooth threw me for an unexpected loop and I just blankly stared at her for a considerable pause before I snapped back and started to dig in the diaper bag for the bottle. I was trying to recover from my inappropriate reaction to the tooth thing and bio-mom decided to, at that very moment, display her first sign of mental illness.
I am fairly confident that I looked a bit mad myself as it happened. My mouth was agape, brows were lifted and eyes pleading to anyone who would make eye contact. Bio-mom decided to start chanting to our baby in a deranged high-pitched tone, “I know. You want the titty, I know. You want the titty. I’m sorry I can’t give you the titty right now. They won’t let me give you the titty.” I am not sure if the next part was created in my sleep-deprived mind or if it really happened, but I swear she looked at me with piercing eyes and took it one octave higher with “My baby wants the titty and he can’t have it.”
While recovering from the outburst, I said a quick prayer that we would be called back to see the doctor before she made any other comments about her body parts. I waited out the rest of the time pretending to thumb through a magazine while secretly watching her every move.
The nurse who finally called us back into the room was a jolly woman with very large breasts. The reason I can recall the size of the woman’s chest with certainty is because bio-mom made sure to mention it while she was weighing the baby, “wow, my kids would have loved to breast feed if you were their mother.” I felt myself shrinking with every word she spoke. I quickly wondered which one of my past mistakes was allowing karma to bite me in the ass so hard right now.
I let bio-mom handle the maneuvering of the baby and I was surprisingly okay with it. I do understand that she birthed him and I am a mother, so I sympathize with how hard this had to be for her as well. I wanted to give her this time; however hard it was. She was very aggressive with the way she handled him, paying no attention to his head flopping from side to side, but I made a conscious decision to let it go and told myself it would all be over soon.
The nurse handled bio-mom’s inappropriate breast-feeding comment with ease and came back with “how many children do you have?” Her answer was very curious to me and at that point I knew I was overanalyzing everything that spewed from her mouth. She said “I have six and you can have any of them but this one, this one is all mine.” What does this mean? She doesn’t want the other five children? Who says this about their kids? But then again, who announces in the middle of a full waiting room that their baby wants the titty.
When we got to the examination room the nurse wasn’t sure who to address her questions to and it turned into yet another uneasy exchange. I would answer the question and bio-mom would follow-up with a giggle or a curious snort and add her own commentary as if to say “he is my baby too and I know what’s going on.” When the nurse asked “how is he sleeping,” I answered “he is not a good sleeper at all,” bio-mom was right behind me with that awkward giggle saying “yep, just like Tameka.” Another question was met with “yep, Jay did the same thing,” and yet another follow-up of “Oh yeah, I remember Justin used to do that too.” I understood her need to flex her parental muscle and it made me feel bad for her.
It was a long wait between the nurse and the doctor and I was going crazy trying to think of ways to relay to this young mother that I was not against her, I was only here to help her, but I could not come up with the words or find the right time to ease it in. I was also trying to convince myself that it was true. It was Malachi himself that actually broke the awkwardness of the situation between his two mothers when he became agitated and started crying. After several failed attempts to calm him, bio-mom said “he must be tired.” I concurred and asked if I could show her how he likes to be comforted. When she slowly handed him over to me I immediately welled up with tears and had to fight back a big-old melt down. He is so comfortable in my arms, this is where he belongs and I automatically feel calmer with him closer to me. I put his blanket between my left shoulder area and his face, stood up and did the “mom-sway” back and forth a little, while cradling his head in my right hand and whispering “shhhh” in a rhythmic way. He immediately nestled in and fell back to sleep.
I didn’t want to hand him back to her but knew I had to. As I made the exchange, I was careful that his blanket was shielding his face from that funky-smelling coat. I suggested that she remove the nasty sheath before I handed him back to her so she didn’t get hot, but she ignored me again. I filled the silent moments with whatever I could and told her that I met Jay at the shelter and how stunning both Daryl and I thought he was. I explained to her that he didn’t want to talk to us but instead just looked at us. She gazed at the floor, lost in thought as she whispered her response, “he was probably scared.” My heart softened toward her and I felt sad again. She must have felt it as well because this was the moment she started to open up to me. Without making eye contact she said “I trusted the wrong people.” I quizzically answered with “I’m sorry but I’m not quite following what you’re saying.” After looking at me for a good 10 seconds she came back with “My neighbor called DCFS and stole my money, she stole the money that comes with my kids.” The only response I could muster was “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” She went on to say that she brought Malachi home from the hospital for one night and the neighbor heard him crying so she called the DCFS hotline and turned her in again. She turned her attention to Malachi and said “I almost got away with you.”
Then she asked me if I had any other foster children and I proceeded to tell her about my daughters Ravyn and Taryn and then went on to explain that Malachi was our first real placement with the system.
Bio-mom’s next shocking revelation made my fight or flight response kick in. It all happened so fast. After a few moments of silence she turned to me very sharply, as if she had just discovered that I was a murderer and said “why did you call DCFS on me?” She caught her momentary lapse of whatever it was, and her face switched from a look of contempt to one of pleading within seconds. I felt like we were in a hot yoga room and so many thoughts ran through my mind in that fleeting moment. My brain shifted from “she’s gonna attack, run to the closest exit,” and “this is my opportunity to introduce that I am indeed here to help her, the window I’ve been waiting for.” After a quick reminder to stay calm, I gently said “I am only here to help you with Malachi. I did not know you before I was asked to take him. My husband and I did this because we wanted to help and that is what I want to do, help you care for Malachi as long as we need to.” She looked at me with a blank stare for what felt like an entire minute and then we both shifted our attention down to the innocence that rest on her crusty coat.
I was getting impatient when the doctor finally entered the room. She was a black woman in her 50’s and immediately I could tell she was not the “warm and fuzzy type.” We spent most of the visit going over the past six weeks and she was very hard on bio-mom, asking her questions like “why did your children get taken away from you?” When bio-mom didn’t answer right away she asked in a more aggressive tone, “Did you hear me? I asked why the children were removed from your home?” There was absolutely no compassion in her tone or her body language, and why was she even asking these questions at all? Bio-mom wasn’t even supposed to be here, I invited her. This obviously flustered the mentally-ill woman and I felt so bad her for her I physically got goose bumps. When the pause was too long, the control-freak in me took over and I started to answer for her. In retrospect I am a bit grateful for the door that this doctor opened for us, she made bio-mom and me a team, if only for a moment. When bio-mom stuttered, I answered. I responded with “the paperwork reads neglect.” Bio-mom looked at me and whimpered “is that what it said? Neglect?” With sympathetic eyes and a slow nod, I answered “yes.” When the doctor asked the ages of her other children she could not recall any of them. Because I had familiarized myself with the binder I knew the answer to each one and I coaxed it from bio-mom, “isn’t Angela 10?” “Yes, she is” answered bio-mom. And it went on and on with each child, I would answer and then bio-mom would confirm. The physical examination itself lasted minutes and my only concern was Malachi’s skin. He was extremely dry, to the point where he looked almost alien-like on his stomach, back and sometimes his face. The doctor said that it appeared to be eczema and that I should continue with the Aquaphor wash and cream twice a day.
I was more than relieved when the doctor said that the baby should be taken to his primary care physician for his shots. I did not think I would be able to let bio-mom comfort him after that trauma. I would have had to take that one over.
The doctor left the examination room and we stood on each side of the table while I started to dress Malachi. It was silent for a moment and then bio-mom shocked me again when she softly muttered “I’m not a monster you know.” I stopped what I was doing and looked at her face and tried to sound assuring and gentle but somehow it came out forceful, “I know you’re not a monster and I am going to take very good care of Malachi, I promise.” She didn’t look at me. If we spoke again in the exam room, I don’t remember it.
It was almost noon when we walked out of the building together. It was a beautiful, sunny December day. Unsure how to part ways I asked her if she knew where the bus stop was from here and contemplated offering her a ride, but my autopilot knew better and took over just in time. She pointed in the direction of the bus stop and assured me that she knew where to go. Despite my debacle attempt at hugging her at our introduction, I made a conscious decision this time to try it again, coat and all. I received the same half-hearted shoulder pat and then we walked in opposite directions.
I wasn’t even half way to my car before I started to cry. By the time I secured the baby seat and got the car started I was in full hysterics. The kind of sob where your face gets all scrunched up and your throat starts to hurt and you make noises that sound like a pig squealing. I allowed the melt down to occur the entire drive home while having a full-fledged, out-loud conversation with myself. I can only imagine what I looked like. In between sobs and squeals and occasional psycho-laughs it went something like this:
“What was I thinking inviting her? How am I ever going to hand him over to her? What if I actually do have to hand him over to her?” What did I do? Who does this? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with her? Who opens themselves up to this torture? I love him so much already. Why do I love him so much already?”
Every once in a while I would stop short of my temporary insanity, blow my nose and start to giggle at how absurd this predicament was and then I would pick up right where I left off:
“Love him like he’s my own and then hand him over to a woman who can’t remember her own kid’s birthdays and repeats the word “titty” over and over again? Really? Schizophrenia? Bipolar? Where is she going to sleep tonight? Does she have someone who loves her? Is she crying right now? I know she’s not a monster, did I indicate I thought she was a monster? It didn’t seem like she was THAT mentally ill. I can’t believe I tried to hug her with that disgusting crusty coat on.”
I was crying because of how much I already loved him. I was sobbing for the heartache I felt for this young mother who wasn’t born with the ability to be maternal. I was baffled at how confused my emotions were. If I thought of her as Malachi’s mother, bitterness and contempt entered my heart. If I pictured her as a young, scared mother without her children I felt nothing but sorrow. I really did want to help her, but I really didn’t want to give him up. What a conundrum, and we had only just begun.
As always, with my controlling nature, I volunteered to have ALL of the bio-mom visits at our Oak Park office without thinking it through entirely. Bio-mom could easily get to us on the green-line, I wouldn’t have to drive him and sit for an hour in some germ-infested McDonald’s, and I could get some work done while spying on them at the same time. Win-win, right? I’ll tell you about it next time.
*Names have been changed.