Malachi was seven-months-old when my daughter said to me, “so they’re for sure not going to take him away from us now, right mom?” She was under the impression that the older Mac got, the less of a chance he would be taken from us. I didn’t tell her that you hadn’t even ordered the case to officially start yet because I didn’t want her to stress any more than she already was. I didn’t tell her that we now had two Bio-parents trying to get custody of him. I tried to sound confident and brave without completely lying to her when I said “I don’t know, but we have to trust in the system, we have to believe that processes are in place to make sure that Malachi will be safe regardless of the outcome.” I looked at her with the most understanding eyes that I could muster and said “The Judge will do what’s right by Malachi.” Then I tried to convince myself of that truth. It is true, right? So if you decide that Bio-Dad has sufficiently proven himself as a stand-up man and determine that it is safe and stable for Malachi, then it has to be true. I have no choice but to believe in you.
I was driving home from volunteering at a PTC lunch at the girl’s school with Malachi sleeping peacefully in his car seat when the phone rang. It was Henry, and I could tell by his stutter that the news was not good. “Uh, Hello Mrs. Davis, this is Henry, uh, Henry from the Public Guardian’s office, and, uh, the paternity tests came back and actually, surprisingly, uh, one of the gentlemen was Malachi’s father.” I was speechless and felt my body slump into the seat of my car as if the leather suddenly turned into quicksand. Prospect #2 was my “baby daddy.” Mr. saggy-pants with the tattoos.
Henry explained to me that we would have to wait for Bio-Dad to show up to court on May 30th, get assigned a public defender and be assessed for services before we moved forward. I felt defeated as I stayed silent on my end of the phone and Henry, in his never-changing dry tone, reminded me that this was the same man who had an on-going relationship with a woman who was obviously mentally ill and that doesn’t say a lot about him. I don’t think he realized that this did not make me feel better at all. There was a home visit scheduled with Kena for the next day so I didn’t press for any more information.
I called my husband and he was as equally as shocked as I was. Daryl is one of the calmest people I’ve ever known and it takes a lot to rattle him. He didn’t disappoint when I told him the news. After a short pause, he let out a sigh and said, “Well that sucks. We’ll just have to see how it all unfolds. It doesn’t do any good to stress about what we don’t know and can’t control.” I think he was guarded and careful not to add to my already fragile state. He stayed strong and calm and I loved him so much for that.
Kena sat on my couch with a look that was hard to decipher when talking about Bio-Dad. It was somewhere between despair and sympathy. All she could tell me about him was that he had a very lengthy criminal record, 42 arrests. She could not, however, tell me what they were for. All she could tell me was that they were not “petty crimes.” I didn’t know how to take that comment. What’s “petty” to you might not be “petty” to me, right? Does that mean guns? Drugs? I am definitely not well-versed in criminology; however, I don’t think they let rapists and murders walk the streets.
Kena explained to me that she had made a couple of attempts to reach Bio-Dad but he had not returned her call. After she reached him she would set up a meeting to prepare his case.
So once again, we waited.
“Thursday, May 30”
The day had finally arrived and I was heavy-sighing all day with anxiety. Nobody was sure if Bio-Dad would show or not. The reason Kena had not been able to set up a meeting with him before court was because the supervisors at the agency labeled it a “dangerous situation” to meet anywhere outside the agency because of those 42 “non-petty” arrests. I didn’t know if he wanted custody or what his intentions were. Kena said she would call me as soon as she got out of court and that started at 1:00. The hours crawled by and Malachi and I were both getting restless so we went on a walk. I strapped him in the stroller, put on my sneakers, plugged in my headphones and off we went. I was enjoying some Usher and soaking in the beautiful day when my phone rang.
“Hi Mrs. Davis, how are you?”
“Doing good Kena, what’s going on?”
“Well, Mr. Bio-Dad came to court today and the Judge has ordered a supervised visit to happen before Monday. What do you have going on tomorrow?”
I will never walk that stretch of street again without recalling the physical feeling I had at that moment. There are no words to describe it, but I stopped walking and maybe even breathing for a second. It was as if time stalled while I processed what she said. After jolting myself back to reality, I explained to her that I had plans to leave town the following morning and would not return until Monday. She muffled the phone and relayed my message to who I am assuming was Bio-Dad. When her voice returned clearly to the phone she said “is there any way you could come back early?” I don’t know if my voice was as shaky as I thought, or if I sounded as I angry as I felt, but I responded with “I can’t believe after all that I do for this case that I am expected to change my plans. It’s pretty shitty that after all of the waiting I’ve been doing you are going to ask me to be inconvenienced again.” After hearing the muffled sounds again she came back to our conversation with “We will settle for Monday then. I will be in touch regarding a location and time.”
I hung up the phone and my mind started to go into overdrive. What are these arrests for? Does he have other children? Does he have a job? I just remember seeing him in court with his nonchalant attitude and his pants down past his butt. I recalled his demeanor and his comment to my husband, “this is all her fault anyway.” I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. Daryl was out of town at a seminar so I had to leave him a message.
I could not stop the assault on my brain. The dizziness, thoughts and images were fast and furious, like a slide show on speed. I decided that I would call Henry, my ally, and see if he could calm my fears and give me a different perspective. In the very least I could find out what kind of dangerous man I was about to be forced to become involved with.
I had called Henry a handful of times and he answered the phone every single time. His voice was the still the same – very monotone and professional. I explained to him that I knew about what transpired in court and that I would feel more comfortable taking my son to meet Bio-Dad if I had more information on his criminal record. He put me on hold, and when he came back on the phone it was the first time I had ever picked up any inflection in his voice. Unfortunately, it was irritation that I was hearing. His normally boring voice was a little higher and sharper, “Mrs. Davis, the list of Bio-Dad’s offenses are extensive and I would have to ask my assistant write them down and call you back. There are 42 arrests and 8 convictions.” Then he added, “Mrs. Davis, please, engage me if you will, I don’t understand why you think that you would be in any danger at all, you’ll be in a public place. There is nothing on his record to indicate that he has molested a child or endangered any children at all, so I don’t understand your hesitation.”
I almost lost it. In fact, I can’t believe I didn’t. What I wanted to say was “what part don’t you understand asshole? What is it that your tiny brain can’t grasp? You don’t get that you people want me to treat this baby like my own and then after I fall in love with him and consider him my own you want to know why I am uncomfortable handing him over to a man who has 42 arrests and 8 convictions on his record? Are you a moron?” But I didn’t say that. If I had said anything else at that point I would have been crying so hysterically that he wouldn’t have been able to hear what I was actually saying. I felt betrayed as my one-time ally turned on me. Was he ever really my ally anyway? I’m just one foster mom in a pile of 200 families on his desk. I should be impressed that he even remembers who I am. I’m guessing the silence on my end of the phone said a lot and he went on to say “the charges range from aggravated assault, to drug charges, to criminal trespassing, and I can get you the list if you really need it.” I dryly responded “don’t bother, have a great day.” Before I could hang up on him he decided to poke this mama bear one more time with, “listen, I know how hard this process is on foster parents and I can understand your frustration. Bio-Dad has made his mistakes but he could prove to be a good father and he deserves that chance.” I rolled my eyes and responded with “he is likely a gang member with multiple arrests that include violent behavior so I don’t get why YOU don’t see this as a big deal.” It was his response that made me turn numb and feel like Mike Tyson just delivered his final blow to end the match. His regular monotone voice was back when he delivered, “we don’t know that he is a gang member for sure, and to be quite honest with you Mrs. Davis, even gang members can be good parents.”
“Coping through the weekend”
Kena called back and explained how it all would work. She would have an “interview” with Bio-Dad, and from that extensive meeting they would decide what services he would need to complete. For example, the aggravated assault on his record might mean anger management classes. The drug charges might mean drug counseling. Kena alone had the power to determine how this man had to prove he can be a good father and what classes, counseling he would have to participate in. She already had an appointment set with him on Monday at 2:00 so she said we could do the visit at 1:00. I found out a few more specifics on Bio-Dad during our call. He did not have any children, was a foster child himself and he did indeed want full custody of my baby. The most shocking part of the phone call was when she said that he would not really be judged on his criminal background but more on his parenting abilities. They won’t let the caseworker go to Bio-Dad’s home because is it too dangerous, but will entertain the thought of handing him over a baby without considering the criminal record? Maybe I’m blinded by how much I love Malachi, but this sounded crazy to me. I was speechless. When I asked if he would be drug tested right away she said no. The only time they have a right to drug test a Bio-Parent is when they answer “yes” to the question “have you ever done any illegal drugs.” So if he says he has not done drugs he will not be tested.
I tried to move forward as normal as possible. I was on autopilot as I fed and bathed Malachi and did some math homework with Taryn. I knew it was time to give up when it took a pen and paper to figure out 50 x 100. My mind was racing. What if he’s ready to change his life around and be a good dad? That’s good, right? Except for the fact that it’s going to take at least a year for him to complete all of his requirements and by that point Malachi will be almost two-years-old. You can’t just remove a toddler from the only home they’ve ever known without some major backlash, right? It would be easier on him if they just took him now. But I don’t want to let him go. Would Bio-Dad be able to handle the crying? The constant attention? The lack of sleep? The eczema routine that goes on all day? Would he read to him? Would he take him on walks? Because he loves to go on walks. Would he rock him the right way? Would he play with him on the floor? Would he sing to him? My mind whirled for hours.
It was that during the last feeding of the night that I finally let it all out. Malachi was nestled in that sweet spot just under my left arm with his big fuzzy brown blanket between us and I looked down at him drinking his bottle. He was so tired that his eyes were struggling to stay open. I love him so much. How did I let myself love him this much? I mean, I told myself all along, from the very beginning, that I would never lose sight of the fact that he was not mine. I whispered to him as he finished his bottle, “I love you buddy, and I’m so sorry.” He doesn’t know what’s going on, he’s too busy being innocent.
After allowing myself a good cry, I sat down to text my cousin. I didn’t really like to discuss how I was really feeling with too many people, it’s just not in my nature to open up. Tracy was always good for some solid advice and comfort. It was in the middle of some mindless television-watching when she texted me back, “When the nurses were rushing me to the OR when I was in labor with Jonah, and he didn’t have a heartbeat, I said to my husband, God would not have let me carry this baby for 9 months to take him from us now. That’s how I feel about Malachi and your family. God put him with you, you passed on baby Mia, then Jason and the other boys just didn’t’ work out because Malachi was the baby for you, I have faith that’s where he’s supposed to be. It’s all going to work out.”
I am not a religious person, but I did believe what she texted. I did believe Malachi was supposed to be here. But the logical and oh-so-guarded side of me knows that if it’s indeed God who decides, He does let women carry babies for 9 months and take them in the end. He does take kids away from good families and put them somewhere else. Nothing made sense about any of this and mentally I was completely spent.
The weekend at my parent’s house in the Quad Cities was really good timing. With Daryl being in North Carolina at his seminar, the girls and I kept busy enough that I was able to successfully push back our pending nightmare enough to enjoy myself playing cards with cousins, having drinks with friends, visiting with my sister and nephews and enjoying time with my parents. When anyone asked me how it was going with Malachi, I explained to them the predicament with the most upbeat attitude I could muster. I despise the thought of people feeling sorry for me, I never have liked that “pity” feeling. It is just one of my many hang-ups! I only want people to think of me as strong and independent. Everyone said the same thing, “oh that’s just crazy, no Judge would ever give custody to someone with that record,” or “I just know it’s going to all work out in the end,” or “I’m so sorry that you have to go through all of this.” As I listened to them repeat to me the proper things to say (as if this is a common occurrence) I wondered how many of them wanted to actually say “what the hell did you expect? You openly asked for this.”
While enjoying a night out with friends on Friday night, I got lots of fun advice for the impending visit with Bio-Dad. One friend suggested giving Malachi prunes a couple of hours before the visit. Another one said that I should keep him up all night, over-feed him and give him a good pinch before I hand him over.
“Bio-Dad attempt #1”
Monday morning was pretty quiet. I was perplexed how to dress Malachi. Do I want him to look cute? Preppy? Sporty? I was obsessing over every little detail and then I got angry that I was wasting so much energy on what Bio-Dad would think. I ended up putting my little man in a pair of jeans and a plain green t-shirt. He is absolutely adorable in everything, so in the end it didn’t really matter. As I drove and Malachi took a quick nap I prayed out loud, “God, I know that you are really busy and have a lot going on but if you could give me an up-the-back blow-out poop from Malachi in about 30 minutes I would really appreciate it.” I opted not to pinch him before we went in.
We were downtown in record time, but it took 10 minutes to figure out where to park. It was a very industrial-like neighborhood with a nice park smack dab in the middle. It smelled like exhaust and flowers at the same time. I ejected Malachi from his seat and secured him in the stroller, draped the diaper bag over my shoulder and took one last deep breath before forcing my feet to move forward. I vowed that I would not, under any circumstances, let this man see me sweat (figuratively and literally). It took a minute to figure out how to call into the building and when they answered I could barely hear because of all of the trucks and buses going by. I heard the door click so I assumed it was safe to enter. The building was enormous and smelled musty and old. I wasn’t sure where to go but when I hoisted the stroller up the small incline I realized that the only thing in front of me was a fairly significant set of stairs with no elevator option. There goes the vow of not letting him see me sweat. I unstrapped the baby and positioned him on my hip so that I could use the other hand to carry the stroller and diaper bag. Half-way up the stairs a security guard came to help and guide me where to go. Suite B was right around the corner.
I signed in and waited for Kena. The waiting room was small and quiet. There was a conference room off one side with several people gathered around the table. I wondered what they were meeting about; which one of the thousands of children in the system were they discussing? Were they having an appeal meeting like they did when Jason’s grandmother fought for him? Or were they talking about finances and “visit requirements?” The receptionist called us back to a big room with approximately six big round tables and some kid’s toys. I thanked her and put the baby into a saucer jumper and he was immediately off and jumping.
Kena arrived promptly at 1:00. She greeted me with a hug and pulled out some papers. We made small talk and I shared what was new with the baby while she took notes. She is always taking notes. Whenever I am asked what superhero power I would choose if given the opportunity I always say to freeze time and people. This would be one of those times. I would twitch my nose and freeze her so I could see what she was writing. She had a good poker face so I never truly knew what she was thinking or if she was just telling me what I wanted to hear. I trust her more than I have trusted anyone at this agency so far, but I know that she has to be protective and guarded with me as well.
I told her how Malachi was starting to mimic what I did, rock back and forth on his hands and knees, and finally, occasionally sleeping for three-to-five hour stretches. It was almost a pleading tone used when I told her what a happy baby he was. Even though I knew the thought was absurd, I wondered if she read between the lines like I wanted her to. I wanted her to write down that he was too happy where he was and it would be a travesty to move him anywhere.
It was 1:15 when we noticed how late Bio-Dad was. He had not called to say he would be late. Kena said that she spoke with him at 8:10 this morning and verified that he would be here at 1:00. She told me that I would be allowed to stay in the room for the first 15 minutes to fill him in on Malachi and his development, etc., but then I would have to leave the room for the remainder of the visit. I understood why, but still felt a twinge of anger. It’s so strange to raise this little being as your son for most of the week and then walk into a situation where you have to do as you’re told in regards his care. I briefly thought of trying to argue my case for remaining in the room, but decided it was fruitless and I should just trust her. It was 1:30 and Bio-Dad was still not there. At this point I noticed that all-too-familiar look on Malachi’s face and knew that God had answered my prayer! A couple of grunts later and I smelled it! Oh yeah, up the back poop, just as I requested! Karma chose this unique situation to remind me that “thou shalt not judge,” as I changed the stinky diaper.
Kena explained to me that she would call Bio-Dad, but he didn’t have a phone. The number she had for him belonged to one of his friends and she had to leave a message and wait for a call back. At 2:00 it was time to go. All of the stress, preparation and anxiety was for nothing. He didn’t even have the courtesy of showing up. Kena went on to say that she would have to make several attempts to reach him and reschedule, because in the end, she had to prove that she made every effort to bring him and Malachi together. He also had to have the “interview.” Kena assured me that she would document every time he didn’t show.
Even though I was angry as I left the agency, there was an extra pep in my step. I understood that he would have many more opportunities, but I still felt triumphant. He didn’t really want custody or he would have been there. There was no way in hell this man was going to complete any services. I felt like I could breathe again. Malachi fell asleep the instant I put him in the car seat and I turned my phone on to see seven texts and three missed calls.
“Thinking about you a little extra today.”
“Are you there? What is happening?”
“What’s going on? How did it go?”
“Did you pinch him before you went in? How did he react to Bio-Dad?”
I called Daryl to fill him in, and then drove home in silence allowing myself to once again consider the fact that Malachi would one day be MY baby. I felt happy for the first time in weeks.
The happiness was short-lived. I pulled into the driveway at home and got a phone call from Kena. Bio-Dad did try to get to the meeting but he went to the wrong location. He was at the courthouse and not at the agency office. That all-too-familiar feeling of despair entered my body again. We would have to do this all again next week.
I arrived at the agency 15 minutes early and sat in the waiting room with Malachi, and once again, I was a ball of nerves. Not quite as nervous as last week but still sweating. Kena walked in at exactly 1:00 and I followed her into the conference room area. Within seconds, Bio-Dad was walking through that same door. He moved toward me with a huge smile on his face but stopped short, put his hands on his forehead and turned on his heels to avoid me seeing the tears in his eyes. He quickly turned back and said with a cracked voice “wow, this is my boy, my son.” The moment tugged at my heart strings and made me nauseous at the same time. Malachi was apprehensive but went to him without issue. Kena introduced me with “this is Mrs. Davis, the foster mother. She is here today just to fill you in on Malachi.”
I was immediately offended by her use of words. What’s wrong with saying “Mrs. Davis is here because she is the only mother Malachi has ever known and she is concerned that he might be scared,” or “Mrs. Davis has taken care of your son since he was 8-days-old and she loves him.”
Bio-Dad was about 5’10’’ and handsome. He had chocolate skin and strikingly crisp, deep-set brown eyes. His hair was in tiny braids and he was dressed in a short-sleeved pressed shirt, sneakers, and jeans that hung below his butt. He looked so young.
Kena and I sat down at the table while Bio-Dad continued to stand and stare at Malachi. Sweat beads were forming on his face and a couple of drops broke free and started to fall down his temple. I could relate. Kena got up and walked to the far end of the room and came back to hand him some tissues and gently said “for your sweat.” I had to do a double take… WHAT? Let the man get his own damn tissues, he is a grown-ass man. Last week, when I was changing that up-the-back poop, trying to maneuver Malachi on a little bench while holding his feet still, balancing the diaper bag on my lap and looking for some assistance with what to do with the actual dirty diaper, she just looked at me. Here this man has a little bead of sweat roll down his face and she jumps up to get him a tissue?
Bio-Dad continued to comment on how big the baby was, “wow, look at this boy. He is so big and strong.” He could not stop staring at him, nor could he control the undeniable grin on his face. I couldn’t help but stare at all of his tattoos, they were everywhere. On his hands, his fingers, his neck, his arms and let’s not forget the tear-drop tattoos underneath the eye. The one that made me the most curious was on the back of his hand that read “cheezus Jesus.” I later googled it to see what it meant, and basically all I could find was that it was an action figure sold by Pizza Hut. The definition made me more confused than I already was. I also googled the tear drop tattoo, and learned “it can signify that the wearer has killed someone or has spent time in prison; the wearer was raped while incarcerated and tattooed with a tear drop below the eye by the offending party and his accomplices, or it can acknowledge the loss of a family or fellow gang member.”
He smelled like the really strong cologne that is sprayed throughout the entire store of Abercrombie and Fitch and I immediately felt a headache coming on. I explain to Bio-Dad that Malachi was having a rough day because he was up a lot last night with a cold. I filled him in on the bronchial issues and the eczema and ask him if either of those run in his family. His answer was almost a whisper, “I don’t really know much about my family history.” Again, I softened toward him. I continued to fill him in on Malachi and his development, likes and dislikes. Any time there was a lull in the conversation I would nervously ask him if he had any questions for me. His answer was the same every time, “Nah, I just wanted to see him. I just wanted to see him. He is my first son.”
Kena asked me to leave the room so that she and Bio-Dad could talk. If I had a tail it would have been between my legs as I walked out of the room with my head down. I felt like a small child being asked to leave the room so mom and dad could talk about important stuff.
As I sat in the small waiting room I could see them through the glass doors. Bio-Dad was holding my son, his son, with awe and wonder in his face. He was actually good with him, loving and affectionate. He knew how to hold him and was very comfortable maneuvering around the room with a baby in his arms. He examined Malachi’s feet and then he placed him gently into the saucer-jumper carefully making sure that each leg went into the correct hole.
I couldn’t hear the words that were being said but the constant giddy laugh that was coming from Kena could be heard from the next building. She was smitten with Bio-Dad and that made me angry. Why would she be flirting with him? It was at this point that I convinced myself that she would do whatever it took to help him and recommend that he got custody of my son. I know it sounds ridiculous to come to this conclusion after 30 minutes of observation, but when you are in constant fear of your heart being broken into a thousand pieces, your mind doesn’t necessarily react normally. I made a decision in that waiting room, watching Malachi with his sperm donor, that I would no longer go out of my way to make anything easier for Kena. I felt betrayed yet again.
Bio-Dad gave Malachi a bottle and then they called me back into the room because he was getting fussy. As I walked into the room and caught the eye of my sweet baby boy, he smiled and got excited, waving his arms and jumping up and down with a big smile on his face. I picked him up for a quick snuggle and then asked Bio-Dad if he wanted to change a diaper before we left and he politely declined, “Nah, I think I’ll let you handle that.” Of course it ended up being an up-the-back poop!
Kena and Bio-Dad walked me to the door and he kissed Malachi good-bye. As I strolled down the sidewalk pushing my son I sighed loudly and felt so drained. I knew that if Bio-Dad did everything they told him to, he would get custody of my precious baby, and I didn’t know how to grasp the reality that this presented.
Then I waited again. I waited for a phone call to tell me what days I would have to present Malachi to weekly visits with Bio-Dad. I waited to see what his requirements were going to be and I waited to see if he would comply. I waited to exhale.
I tried really hard to live life around what our new normal was, but it was a challenge with all of the requirements, the fear and anxiety. I’ll tell you about some of those struggles next time.
*Names have been changed