I have been blessed with children who do not look like me – which has always been a sore point, truth be told. I did all the work to get them here. It was my body, now stretched and tired, that carried each of these babies from seed to scream. Through damp, hot summers, I waddled around, thick thighs chaffing, sweat pooling under too-tight bras. It was my pelvic floor threatening to collapse with every step of those final trimesters. Then, in the chill of fall or winter, through piercing pain and force of nature, this body delivered them safely into the doctor’s hands. And when those freshly birthed babes looked up at me, all wrinkled and pink, hair matted, eyes searching, I saw nothing of myself reflected back.
“Maybe as they grow,” I thought. Maybe once they’ve evolved from shriveled suckling to human child. Maybe once they fill out and start toddling around the house, they’ll look like me. When they hit 3 or 4 and their features become more pronounced, I’ll find my eyes or nose tucked inside those faces.
But, no. I could never find myself there. Today, I understand why.
Our family was never meant to be knit together with monochromatic hair and signature smiles, a collection of mini-me’s with matching shirts. Those adorable couples with two kids, copycat versions of their parents – I’ve envied them for years.
“It’s like they each got their own!” I whined. “And here we are, kids following us around like shrunken strangers. They don’t even look like they’re related to each other!”
But now, I see. There was more work to be done, more babies to stitch into the folds of this patchwork family.
Here he sits, the missing square that makes us closer to whole, draped sideways across my husband’s chair. He lounges comfortably atop the stone-colored leather, like his tiny body has always held this place, a fourth boy with independent features and another hue of hair to add to our array.
I look at him and know that for us to feel complete, another family has been dissolved. I live in that space throughout the day, and have for nearly each of the 778 days that preceded this one, but holding all the details, I know there was no other way this time. It could only have ended with him here. Maybe not ended. Maybe begun.
His presence has always felt like a beginning, so what am I to do with the undeniable knowing that he belongs? How do I claim this while still acknowledging the loss? And when, if ever, will peace come?
“The day of the termination did not feel celebratory. It felt sad. I mean, it felt like a relief, like I could finally breathe. But really, it just felt sad,” I pause.
“But today, we had our first home visit with the adoption worker. Today is different. It’s lighter and I finally feel like we can announce it,” I speak in tentative tones through the phone. “Right?”
“It’s okay to be happy about this,” my friend replies. Is it, though?
I’ve grown so accustomed to holding disparate feelings over this child, now curled comfortably in his father’s chair, babbling to himself about pirates and treasure. His world is simple right now, but it won’t always be this way. Someday he will have to hold these emotions in his own hands and head and heart as they battle one another morning and night. What will my joy feel like then?
Today is a day I have quite literally begged for, out loud and often. Alone in my car, driving home from a parenting visit or staring into his sleeping face with the glow of a nightlight illuminating each eyelash, I pleaded for him to stay. The alternative was not an option. There would be no awakening, no amount of classes or counseling that could fix what was broken. He needed an end to the uncertainty within the walls of the sterile courtroom, and I longed for the start of something new which was not really new at all – a stamp of approval on the preordained. But how does tragedy exist also as destiny?
I received a call in the weeks prior to his arrival, before our foster license had been approved. It was about a baby with Native heritage in need of placement. We were still a month from finalizing our license, so unfortunately, we couldn’t help. Before I hung up, though, I asked if there was any other information.
“All I really know is that the child is a baby boy,” she said, “and I believe the name is Moses.”
When I heard his name, I knew. He was the reason we were becoming foster parents.
Six weeks later, after our paperwork had been double-checked and sent away to the state, we received a text from our licensor. “You’ve been approved!” it read. That was Friday. On Monday, I received another one asking if we would consider being a borrowed bed for a separate agency. There was an infant in need of a home. The caseworker phoned later that afternoon, wondering if we might welcome an 8-month-old.
“He was initially placed with a relative, but that situation is unable to continue, and we need to find placement elsewhere,” she began. “Court is scheduled for tomorrow, so I have to secure a new home. It’s between your family and one other. You are the only two Native descendant foster families available in the area.”
“What’s his name?” I asked. The answer that came solidified my instinct from weeks before. It was the same little boy. I didn’t need to know anything else.
We entered the courtroom sixteen hours later, after a blurry-eyed trip to the grocery for formula and diapers and baby food and bottles. We searched the aisles wondering what he would need, realizing we should have asked a few more questions. Did he take a pacifier? Was he eating solid foods? What size diapers? 2’s or 3’s? Maybe 4’s? I bought them all.
A restless night followed as I sketched pictures of faces in my brain until dawn, then drifted off as the alarm buzzed in my ear. The questions crashed to the forefront again. Who was this child about to enter our lives? How did I know he was supposed to come? And what did that mean?
The thoughts that poured forward were only the beginning of the worries that would keep my mind constantly ticking for the next two years. Two years of courtrooms and medical appointments and parenting times that left more questions than answers. Two years of near constant fight or flight conflict inside my chest. Two years of the tick, tick, ticking. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? What’s going to…
And then, 778 days later, just like that, the ticking stopped. With a monotone pronouncement from the judge while I watched from my laptop 50 miles away from the courthouse, parental bonds were broken. Our child had been released from the tethers of his former life.
I write this last sentence in full awareness that I am not supposed to say these things. I write these things, feel all of these things, from a space of shame and jubilation. These words are disrespectful to the bonds that came before. They are horrific things to feel and say, but they are no less true.
He is our child. He has felt like our child from the day I heard his name – another thing I am never supposed to admit. But mothers have a knowing that lives in the very center of our beings, and he lives in mine.
There are times I stop and lose my ability to breathe, struck numb that he is not actually of my body. To look at us, it is so obvious that for me to say I forget this seems an exaggeration. It’s not. Love is love is love. Will it be enough? No, but it will be enough to make me fight like a rabid animal for this family we are building, for these children who, on the outside appear strangers, but on the inside, have the exact same fragile and feisty hearts. Our beauty lies in our likeness and our difference, our sadness and our strength, and in the knowing truth that guides us.
Our portraits will forever look like a hodge-podge kaleidoscope of hair and skin and crooked, mismatched smiles. Wide-set, doe eyes and tiny beady ones. Big brown wells and light blue pools. Ginger locks and thick brown bangs. Black coffee curls and stick-straight dusty blonde. We are and will continue to be the cliched rainbow growing and stretching after the storm. And like all storms, what came before this moment, what brought our youngest child home, could not have been more terrifying in its destruction or more magnificent.