Saying Goodbye to Our Foster Child

Saying Goodbye to Our Foster Child

By Meghan Moravcik Walbert


Illustration by Linda Willis

I make a list of all of the essentials. The things he needs and the things I know he will really want. The things that will help him fall asleep at night. The things he will cry for.

I put the finishing touches on the photo book I will send with him so that hopefully he won’t forget our faces too quickly.

I order yet another copy of Goodnight Moon. This time, it’s a recordable version that will help him remember how our voices sounded as we read to him each night at bedtime.

I will stock him up on size 4 T-shirts and summer pajamas. Maybe a new pair of Crocs. Yet another pair of sunglasses even though I know, I know, he will probably break them in the first week. I will buy him these things in advance to get him set up for next season, which he will spend without me.

I am un-nesting. I am preparing not for the arrival of my child but for his departure.

He’s not my child, though. Not legally. He is my four-year-old foster son, a boy whom I have never had any real claim over, but a child I have fed and hugged and cried over and corrected and laughed with and loved for the better part of the past year.

He’s not mine, but oh, how it feels like he is.

I prepared for him, the little boy we nicknamed BlueJay within the first day we met him. I prepared for him in ways that mirrored the ways in which I prepared for the arrival of my biological son, Ryan, who is now 5 years old.

I decorated BlueJay’s room just as I had prepared Ryan’s room. My husband, Mike, and I made announcements to family. I read parenting books and Google’d endless topics.

I also prepared for him in ways that looked completely different. Foster nesting requires training sessions, invasive questions about your marriage, health assessments and, in our case, four separate background checks.

BlueJay was wanted. Long before I knew he was, in fact, a he. Long before I knew he doesn’t walk, he only runs. Long before I knew about his macaroni and cheese obsession or his fear of fireworks or the way he crosses his arms with an audible HUFF when he’s mad, he was very, very wanted.

I used to sit in his bedroom, back then. Back when my heart swelled in a way that felt strangely familiar to the way my belly swelled as I grew Ryan. I would sit on his bed and imagine it. I would rub my hand back and forth across his quilt and try to picture tucking a child beneath it’s warmth.

I tried to picture it all. Two kids jumping in waves at the ocean’s edge on our annual family vacation. Two kids clad in costume with two pumpkin buckets clasped in tiny gloved hands. Two kids running down the stairs on Christmas morning. Two kids laughing. Two kids yelling. Two kids playing and fighting and making faces at each other over their dinner plates.

I imagined the first hello.

The surreality of it left me breathless.

In the moments when I’m strong enough — or are they the moments when I am the weakest? — I un-imagine it.

I picture the way our house will once again be quieted. The half-empty backseat of my car. One pair of rain boots instead of two. The way our family will no longer fill up an entire booth in a restaurant.

I imagine the last goodbye.

The pain leaves me breathless.

If this were to happen, I had thought back then, we would be fine. Yes, we ultimately wanted to adopt, but we were well aware there are no such guarantees when you foster a child. Reunification with the biological family is almost always the primary goal. It’s an important goal, a goal we fully supported then and still support now.

That’s why we thought if our placement didn’t end in adoption, everything would still be OK.

Sure, it felt at the time like maybe there was a small gap in our family where a fourth person could permanently fit, but the hole wasn’t gaping. We weren’t woefully incomplete. We were a regular family with a happy, typical life that happened to have room for a little bit more. More joy, more love, more noise, more family.

If our foster child reunited with his family, we would simply bask in the warm knowledge that we were able to provide a stable, safe and loving home for him at a time when he needed it the most.

But BlueJay is the giant bell in our lives that can never be un-rung. He’s no longer an idea or a possibility. There is nothing abstract about him anymore. He’s not a category on a sheet of paper or a series of checked boxes indicating who we can – or are willing to – accept.

Now, he’s the loudest, fastest, clumsiest and most hilarious piece of our family puzzle. That piece you might hold up initially and think, “I’m not sure where this fits,” until you fill in everything else first and then suddenly realize you needed that piece all along. The piece that somehow pulls the rest of you together.

After him, you do not simply return to the same old content life of a family of three. He changes you.

I am running out of time. I want to somehow cram a lifetime of parenting into the next few weeks.

I want him to know he should never look in a lady’s purse without asking. Or that he should chew with his mouth closed, then swallow, then speak.

It isn’t polite to point, kiddo. Sit on your bottom. Don’t just look both ways when you cross the street; listen, too.

It’s OK to feel frustrated or angry. Deep breaths will help.

Your words have power, so choose them carefully.

Your choices have consequences, so make the best ones you can.

If you’re sorry, say it. When you say it, look directly into the person’s eyes.

If you love someone, say it. When you say it, look directly into the person’s eyes.

Be kind. To friends and family, to strangers, to the person taking your order at a restaurant.

Be yourself. Be the boy whose favorite color is purple. Be the loudest person in the room. Be the bull in a china shop. These are the things that make you stand out, make you special.

Remember that I always love you. Always. No matter what. No matter where you are or what you’ve done, nothing will ever stop me from loving you. Even when you can’t see me, especially when you can’t see me, I am loving you.

I have no idea how much love and respect and pride I can imprint on him before he leaves. I have no choice but to focus on the things I can control.

So, I make the lists. I will pack up his favorite stuffed puppy dog and his Ninja Turtles bathrobe and his toy guitar. I will type up notes detailing his bedtime routine and his favorite foods for the far-away relatives who will raise him after me. I will give suggestions on what to do when his emotional triggers are tripped or when he regresses and it seems like he truly can’t distinguish blue from orange even though we know he can.

I will tell them, when all else fails, to turn the radio up and let him dance.

Meghan Moravcik Walbert is a freelance writer, a stay-at-home mother to her five-year-old biological son, and a foster parent. She writes about motherhood and foster parenthood from her home in Eastern Pennsylvania, and she is the author of the Foster Parent Diary series on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. More of her writing can be found at


Commencement Speech for My Special Needs Second-Grader

Commencement Speech for My Special Needs Second-Grader

Conceptual shot of child education. Brown teddy bear in graduation cap leaning on books

By Melissa Hart

Members of the second grade class: two years ago, you scampered down these hallowed halls to play with the unpainted wooden dollhouse and the felted gender-neutral puppets and the classroom newt in a kindergarten done in womb-pink. Among you moved a little boy named Oliver.

Oliver wasn’t like other children. He forged his own way, eschewing circle-time and songs and hand-clapping games, and sprinting for the nearest exit at recess. His voice rang out above all others, commanding attention. He was, in short, a trail-blazer—a child so original that the teacher’s aide devoted her days to him.

As you struggled to form letters and numbers on your soft ecru paper, the aide bent over him, fingers gripping his around the hand-carved pencil, sometimes for half an hour while you soldiered on alone. You wonder now: What did Oliver have that I didn’t have? I’ll tell you:

A learning disability.

Like yours, dear children, Oliver’s parents visited a vast array of educational institutions. They pored over commentary at and debated into the wee hours self-directed curriculum versus whole-child learning and how each might ensure happiness.

Oliver–like the 22 of you now sipping chamomile tea while covering your soft ecru paper with watercolors–learned to finger-knit yarn spun from the alpacas you fed on your field trip, becoming so attached to his string that he wound it around his fingers until they turned purple, and screamed and bit the aide. Inspired by his teachers and principal and his tearful disbelieving mother, he forged a new path to a behavioral classroom across town.

He didn’t try to be special, dear hearts; he simply was.

I tell you this because today–as the morning glories stretch and beam from the garden boxes you lovingly decorated—there’s another child in your midst who shows the same spirit that you may recall from Oliver’s days.

Unlike that boy with his feet planted firmly on the spectrum, however, this little girl came into the world drug-affected and placed in foster care. As a toddler, she enjoyed the perks of regular feedings and diaper changes, unhampered by distractions such as caregiver eye-contact and physical embrace. Thus, she learned to sound her barbaric yawp so that she, like Whitman rolling naked in his leaves of grass, might make herself known.

You know her as the child in the front row, directly in front of the teacher’s podium, with all the privileges that weighed blankets and noise-cancelling headphones confer. The letters ADHD mean nothing to you—but you marvel at her ability to turn cartwheels behind the teacher. She’s memorized the words to over 100 songs and locks herself into the bathroom daily to belt them out. She isn’t like you, dear hearts. She marches to the beat of her own drum and refuses to learn with the rest of you how to play the pentatonic flute.

Like Oliver, she doesn’t try to be special; she simply is.

Education is a community-driven endeavor, and you exhibit this daily. For years, the little girl in question watched you arrange playdates and sleepovers in the hallways. She heard thrilling tales of birthday parties to which she wasn’t invited. Just this morning, two of your fathers dialogued in the classroom about a class camping expedition—a trip apparently open to a select few. How inspiring to know that you gather so lovingly to support one another at a school that prides itself on inclusiveness.

A mystery to you, the little girl’s mother who shows up each morning with a smile plastered across her face as you gather outside to jump rope while her child screams because she’s forgotten her homework. What pride the woman exudes as your parents remark on the artful display of her daughter’s uneaten lunch on the floor among her shoes and jackets where they lie below your own neatly-hung Columbia windbreakers and precise rows of Bogs.

How unfriendly that mother appears with dark circles under her eyes as your parents pair up to arrange warm-hearted diversions after school and on weekends. It’s impossible to picture her, dear ones, weeping at night for all she’s been given, not the least of which is a flexible schedule that allows her to work early in the morning and late at night, the better to homeschool.

So you see, dear ones, this story does have a happy ending. Next year, the little girl in question will turn cartwheels each Monday morning in gymnastics class and take professional singing lessons at the music studio downtown. She’ll study on her living room couch, travel weekly to wetlands and science museums and animal shelters. Hell, her mommy may even adopt an alpaca.

For a moment, as you pause on the threshold between your second and third grade classrooms, you may glimpse the future—six more years in these same hallways fragrant with patchouli and the bliss that only true oblivion can provide.

It’s your future, dear ones. Keep in touch.
Melissa Hart is the author of the YA novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and the memoirs Wild Within and Gringa. Web:


The Zoo

The Zoo

Hispanic girl sleeping in bed surrounded by stuffed animals

By Reva Blau

Siena, our three-year daughter, adopted the year before, had been asking about the zoo. I assumed that she knew about the zoo from books like some of our favorites: Sammy the Seal, Goodnight Gorilla, and the comic book styled Psst in which the animals plot their erstwhile escapes. In November, Joe, my husband and, Dashiell, our ten-year-old son, had been invited along to an early-season Bruins day game at the Garden. So I decided to take Siena to the Franklin Park Zoo, famous for its Western lowland gorillas, on a dusky day. The sky looked like it had lowered over New England but we set forth cheerfully in our Pilot. Little did we know that it would be the end of what the adoption world calls “the honeymoon phase” and we would be entering into murkier territory.

A year and a half earlier, I had first met our daughter in a small, sanguine DCF office set up with sagging sofas and plastic play houses and toys. Her child’s social worker, Muriel introduced her as the “the famous Siena!” as she toddled into the red brick building clutching a puppy purse. I was introduced simply as “Miss Reva.” Siena looked up at me passingly. I was just another adult of a long string that she would have met over the last year in foster care — social workers, advocates, and lawyers. She wasn’t told that I might be her mommy one day. The introduction was honest. I was Reva to her. Today, I am fully Siena’s mom and she is our daughter as our son Dashiell is our son. Yet, every day Siena reminds me that it isn’t only me who remembers the time before we were her parents. Siena remembers not being my daughter. If I say no to her 3 year old wishes, say, wanting to eat candy for breakfast, she’ll retort, “You Reva!” in a rugged punch and I’ll be brought back to the first day we met.

In the room at DCF, Siena sat poised on her foster mother’s lap straight and with head held high as if knowing that confidence, no matter the circumstance, is queen. I had read that L had gone through three foster homes, two of which had been neglectful, even after her removal from her biological mother. At one point, during foster care, a visiting Social worker visited her in her foster mother’s home and was surprised to see a bump on her head. She brought her immediately to the ER. It turned out that Siena had skeletal injuries. She turned one in the hospital. The doctors never determined whether accident or abuse caused these injuries. No one was allowed to visit her except for a newly appointed social worker because she associated the first one not only to the trip to the hospital but with prior visits to federal prison to see her biological mother.

The foster mother I was meeting on this day had ended this murky chain of events. Gabriela, a grandmother of six, is a veteran bilingual foster parent and has fostered over fifty children over the years in her home. She rehabilitates children who have been tossed around the system. Siena, as all Gabriela’s kids do, called her Meeta – diminutive for Grandma in Spanish – and sat on her lap most of the visit.

But Siena ventured over to me on the opposite side of the room when I offered the presents I had brought. She scooted herself into a small seat and uttered words like “baby” and “milk” as she hunched over the doll in the tiny crook of her arm. She answered me in words I could not decipher when I spoke with her. Gabriela translated the syllables for me, “She says she wants you to put the baby in the stroller.” When Siena bumped her head on the play table, she folded right back into Gabriela’s arms for her booboo to be kissed. My heart pounded in my chest as I realized that she might be the child we would adopt.

For the next scheduled visit, in a park, I brought Dashiell along to see how they might relate. We had been discussing adoption for so long, I figured we would continue the conversation if the adoption did not go through. From May to early June, summer had bloomed. Children were playing in the playground. Soon after she arrived, Siena leapt on my lap face front nuzzling her head in my neck. When she turned some minutes later, back to the outside world, Dashiell acted nonchalantly, pretending interest in the square of grass between them. He allowed Siena to initiate contact. Gently, he taught her to twist the blades of grass and pat the grass rather than keep pulling the grass up. She looked up at him like he held the key to the universe.

A week later, I had convinced my husband that he needed to meet Siena. Adoption blogs are filled with complaints from would-be moms that they coaxed or convinced their husbands into having a first or second child with as much wrangling it might take to sign a peace treaty. We had been on a list of waiting families for more than three years and, maybe because we lived on a peninsula sticking out sixty miles into the ocean, we had received only two handfuls of calls followed by emails with confidential files attached for us to consider. In each case, my husband found a reason to not pursue the match. Often it was because the child seemed to have suffered experiences severe enough that he didn’t think we could handle raising him or her. DCF adoption is often called “special needs adoption” if the child has an official diagnosis or not. The Department wants future parents to understand fully that neglect and abuse has serious consequences on development. As they flatly told us: these adoptions are not for the faint of heart. I was quick to fall in love with the children I saw in these grainy pictures sent to us. In truth I was grateful to Joe for being cautious.

But like many women pursuing motherhood, I was persistent. I convinced Joe to take a day off, holding up his favorite lunch spot as bait. We drove back to the South end where we had arranged that Muriel would drop Siena off with us at our favorite gastro pub. It would be the first time Muriel would leave for the visit. I felt a surge of fear. I had forgotten what it was like to care for an almost two year old. How often would she need to use the potty? Would she cry? After Muriel waved goodbye, I wiggled Siena into a high chair and pushed it up to one end of the table so she could sit between the adults and see all of us. Her hair had grown in a bit and Gabriela had woven it into tiny, immaculate braids. We decided to get plates to share. Joe ordered the most toddler-proof thing on the menu — a bowl of gnocchi and when it came it was festooned with bright orange and yellow nasturtiums. Who would know that the next time we came here, Siena would be sampling pig’s tail and oxtail rillette. But over this lunch, the 23 month old admonished her future father not to eat the nasturtiums. “Flowers, no eat,” she warned him waggling her finger. He popped the tiny blooms in his mouth, his eyes sparkling and she squealed. I knew at that moment we would be a family.

The court had not yet terminated parental rights although the social workers believed it would. Social workers must balance many juggling balls at once as they act for the security of the child, honor birth parent’s rights, fulfill the legal obligations to the court, ensure the good will of the foster parent and prepare the child for a permanent family. To give the birth parents – who might need rehabilitation from drugs or the penal system or domestic violence – enough time to prove their ability to parent can be unfair to any child, who should not have to wait for parents to get their acts together. On the other hand, to terminate parental rights after a misstep in a society buckling under massive poverty and the inadequacy of social services for the poor, the addicted, and the abandoned would be unethical. Social workers and the court system are forced to balance these two outcomes to create some kind of compromise. It is a serious thing to remove a child from a mother. Yet it is just as gravely serious that a child be left to live in danger or limbo.

I was in a juggling act on par with that of DCF, albeit on a domestic scale. Dashiell was at camp. Joe was in his busiest season ever at the restaurant. He agreed he wanted to adopt her; but said, “let’s just wait till the summer is behind us and I can focus full-time on our family.” I had read enough about adoption to know how crazy that sounded. We were in no position to stall. This was the first time that a child’s Social worker chose us as the potential adoptive parents for a child. We had already had three visits. Not only would we lose the opportunity to adopt this particular little girl but also our own Social Worker could very well question our commitment. They might stop sending us referrals and remove us from the lists.

Over the next few days, I sensed Joe’s resolve to wait soften. We were already three weeks from my first visit with her. Social Workers employ an equation to estimate the ideal length of time from a first visit to placement: one week plus the age of the child. I knew that any minute we would get the call to finalize when I would pick her up to move into our home. Already, I called Gabriela every evening to wish Siena goodnight. I had graduated from “Miss Reva” to “Mama Reva.”

On Thursday, late morning, the phone rang. The Social worker informed me that she had set a date for transition at the following week. “Are you and Joe ready?” she asked. I looked at him, felt that pull of his equanimity and deep loyalty. When I got off the phone, he asked “so when are we picking her up?”

We picked Siena up at the same DCF office where I had first played with her on the square institutional sofa in June. The transfer took place quickly. Muriel loaded Siena’s trash bags full of clothes and toys from her Prius to mine, while Siena sat expectantly looking around from Muriel’s backs-seat. Muriel took her out, handed her to us. We buckled Siena into the car seat a friend had given me the day before, and off we went. At an intersection, I glanced back, half-expecting it to be empty. There was someone else’s toddler in our backseat!

We first stopped at a Jamaica Plains coffee shop where I had planned we would meet my sister so she could meet her niece. Ruth sat at a small table eagerly looking at the window looking like she would pop out of her skin with excitement. Too excited to be hungry, we ordered only one sandwich, opening the bread so Siena could grab at the turkey and cucumber slices inside. Siena reached for my sister’s face and felt her eyelids while my sister closed her eyes, inhaling her small child scent, and re-lived when her own kids – 12 and 10 — were small.

Time with toddlers is warped. Meet any grandmother on the playground and they will utter wistfully, “It flies by!” and meet any parent on the playground and they will gripe that they just had the most endless afternoon of their life. Both are true. Two and three year olds demand almost as much as a baby to scaffold early skills while allowing them the opportunity to practice. But emotionally, they demand almost as much as a teenager, needing flexibility, empathy, equilibrium, and structure. An afternoon can feel like an eternity for the number of times you have been required to find a potty or fill a sippy cup and also respond cheerfully and wisely to another human endlessly curious about the world around them. Thanks to this full engagement, endless afternoons fly by like a cartoon rendering of a calendar pages flying off it.

With a child who just transitioned into your home this truth becomes truer. Without trying, I made it my job to show up for her, gaze at her, respond to her needs not only every minute but also every second. Especially, in my case, because I worked, I spent every waking second not at work with her, playing baby and dollhouse on the floor of the living room, bundling her into the car seat for early morning trips to the hockey rink to watch her brother play and stomping my feet in cold playgrounds.

The first year from when we brought her home to the trip to the zoo flew off the pages with a memorable pause when we drove to Boston to sign her adoption papers at City Court. I barely remember any of it except in almost slide-show form of her delight and ease. A friend said around the holidays, six months after joining our family, “she slipped into your family like she was sliding on a slide of olive oil.”

Most of Siena’s language developed drawing the lines of the constellation of our family. She learned new words in order to rehearse our relationships. With jubilation, she sang the names mommy, daddy, and brother. At drop-off at her daycare, she would announce, “I have a daddy!” as a morning newsflash to her teachers. Or if a classmate mentioned a sibling, she would gush ‘I have a big, big, BIG brother.” The way she said “Hi Mom,” had the upward tilt of a teenager’s boast. It made sense: she had never spoken the word “mama,” although she had had one.

The milestone of forming sentences is exciting for any new parent. At our house these early sentences were like an incanted blessing. Her most repeated early dialogue were variations on the Dr. Seuss book: “Are you my mommy? You mommy! I Siena!” On my end, I practiced Buddhist detachment. Not that I wasn’t completely attached. But having longed to adopt a child for so long, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t too delighted in the way you would when you win the lottery and you try to not to gloat. I was aware that we had defied the odds. I tried to feel humble in my gratitude.

The first year, she was like a dream child, rarely crying, saying please and thank you and showing us endless amounts of what could only be described as gratitude. At night, I’d give her warm milk; she would sort of brush her teeth, then I’d read two books. I’d say “night night” and she’d jump into her toddler bed, fold over herself into a Paschimottanasana pose, face between feet and go to sleep. Not all children sleep as if they are under the desks in a lockdown drill. Yet, in these few signs of distress, if a shadow crossed my consciousness, it was mostly in noticing how easily she had slipped into our family, on a slide of olive oil, as my friend had said.

I searched the map of the zoo for the animals which had appeared in the books – lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants – the kind that always makes me feel sad seeing them as they pace behind urban walls. We somewhat over-optimistically bought the full family membership at the hut painted a forest green. Putting up an umbrella over the stroller, I tramped through the drizzle to marvel at the glory of Noah’s ark displayed in the faded light. One hundred yards from the gorilla house, I heard a blood-curdling sustained scream. It was no hyena—it was coming from the stroller at my feet. Siena curled into a ball facing backwards in her stroller. I cut away from the path away from the safari animals and headed to the farm animals. I stalwartly lifted our little girl from the stroller, pulling the raincoat hood over her head. Her scream did not subside but only heightened as we approached the petting zoo. In my arms, she was thrashing about. I tried to do what one does in the face of a new experience with a small child, “Oh look at that friendly goat! Is that a mommy goat?” She was screaming, “No! no animals! No animals!” I headed back to the car.

Later I told my friends about the experience. They said, “welcome to the threes. Or, maybe she is scared of gorillas.” I knew differently.

For the next week, she would fall to sleep exhausted at midnight and then fitfully sleep until five until she’d finally sleep fitfully on my chest on the couch downstairs. Of course, days became incredibly difficult. Getting dressed to go to school was like climbing Everest. I learned that to get to work on time, I needed to just stand up from the couch, with her half-asleep in a ball in my arms, and unfold her limbs into clothes. I would carry her to the car, filling a sippy cup with apple juice with my left hand along the way. She’d slowly unfold herself exhaustedly into her car seat, and I’d run into the house and get myself dressed.

Joe and I fretted that the girl we knew was gone, the honeymoon, long and sweet but obviously over (“but it lasted a whole year!”) and I quickly went to work finding a therapist. Remarkably, a group of respected child play therapists had recently started a practice in our small town. I left two messages on each of their five answering machines that day. One called back and said she would be very happy to work with us.

The same day that we were scheduled to meet Tonya at our house, a package arrived at the house. Inside was a photo book, the kind that a photo store might print, with a mysterious note “For Siena’s parents. We were her foster parents.” The return mail indicated a DCF office in Western Massachusetts.

The book was filled with pictures a very chubby baby Siena and two beaming adults. There were pictures of her in a crib, playing with a puppy, playing with blocks, pictures of her in a stroller in a park. In all the pictures the nice-looking man and woman are holding her or playing on the floor with giant grins. The pictures have captions ending in exclamation points, like “At the park! or “In the crib.” We showed some of the pictures to Siena in the living room and then put the book down on the coffee table. An hour later, Tonya knocked at the door. We ushered Dashiell upstairs to do his homework.

Wedged into little seats at Siena’s art table in the playroom, Joe and I described Siena’s recent behavior. Tonya, meanwhile, started engaging Siena by looking at the toys on the shelves. But quite suddenly Siena jumped up and ran through the kitchen into some other part of the house. She came back with her recently photo book and proceeded to show Tonya. She flipped the pages quickly, “there’s me. There’s my doggy.” She didn’t have any words for the adults in the picture. She arrived to pictures at the end of the book that I hadn’t yet seen and I bent forward to get a better look.

A man holds a baby Siena underneath a string of home-made cards that spell Happy Birthday! The photo is of a cake and one candle at the center. And then appears the Franklin Park Zoo—pictures of Siena gazing at the giraffes and the zebras in their muddy field. The next is a picture of the very same goat that we tried to visit that day a fortnight earlier. I don’t think I will never know if the injury that was discovered at the hospital happened from an incident of violence that happened the same day at the zoo after the photos were taken or if she associates the zoo with losing another set of caregivers.

A few months later, Siena has not had another PTSD episode. But she does have one or two days a month when she is anxious and needy. When she plays on any day, her stories are dark and twisty, and veer more towards “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” plots than the more sanitized endings we have given them. In an afternoon of playing, play-mobile figures sometimes do terrible things to one another. We try to let her play these things out and then react appropriately, like, “Oh no, the prince was hurt? Let’s help him get across the moat.” While three year olds can be bossy, she can be pushy and domineering and sometimes seeks to control tiny details, like which hand I use to eat or when I take my glasses on or off. On those days, it’s hard to remember what one should expect of a typical three year-old. Should I pick her up every time she wants to be carried? Put her in a carrier at the hockey rink since she feels the most secure when she is next to me? These questions are sometimes hard to answer.

People versed in adoption will say, “just go in with your eyes open” and that is wise. Yet, if we all had our eyes open 24/7, we would never conceive a child, let alone adopt one. We often make love (and conceive our children) with our eyes closed literally and it makes sense that we would enter adoption with our eyes closed metaphorically. We close our eyes to quell our minds, so that our other senses can be open. Since our trip to the zoo, I have re-read the assessment I had already read blindly around the time of meeting her. I saw there all the details that I hadn’t seen before. Details that make me understand that she sometimes doesn’t cry like other children but instead bleats raspingly. It makes me understand why she tries to have control over details that other children would not feel the need to control. I have empathy for her and know that I will try to set limits even while holding her in the pain of what happened.

When people from stable families do research into their ancestries, they often find immigration documents, marriage and death certificates, summa cum laude and Kingsmen of the year newspaper clippings. But an adopted child’s assessment pries into the crevices of the failure of the American dream and scrapes the surface of our society’s shallow veneer. In an adoption assessment you will find some of the following: vagrancy, violence, drug abuse, mental illness, assault, murder, and rape. In hers, there were all of these.

For an adopted parent, it little matters whose fault was any of it: it’s that a certain set of tragedies, crimes, or random catastrophes, impacted someone living under your roof. I have friends who marvel at our family and are inspired to adopt because of what they see in us. A happy, balanced quad with smiles plastered on our faces as we go about our lives juggling jobs and raising two kids with an eight-year age gap. They ask me how they should first begin the process of adopting. I tell them to go into it with eyes not shut but not completely open either — maybe squinty-eyed.

People often distinguish between infant and older child adoption. Yet, not enough is said about the particular way a child and parent experiences the adoption at ages two or three, whose birth of Self as separate from their mothers becomes complicated by transitioning from one mother to another. Siena is developing much like other children but in profound ways her early childhood experience leaves a trace, like everybody’s wounds do. We haven’t been back to the zoo but we will go one day soon.




Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

By Melissa Hart


My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth.


At nine, I read a novel in which a boy’s beloved hound dog got mauled by a cougar—ripped open from breastbone to pelvis so that her entrails spilled out and festooned a nearby bush like Christmas tinsel as she attempted to follow her master home. That’s how I felt when my mother and her girlfriend left me on my father’s front porch Sunday nights, and I watched their VW bus disappear down the street for 10 days—like my entrails were cascading from my gashed abdomen, pooling in a pile around my white Keds.

And that’s how I felt 35 years later, watching my nine-year-old daughter say goodbye to her older sisters on our front porch after 24 hours of let’s pretend and coloring books and hiking trails while I wished their adoptive mother a safe journey two and a half hours back down the highway.

My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth. She didn’t miss the parent she’d hardly met. But her sisters with their identical timbre and diction, their shared love for dollhouses and hip hop, their shared trauma—these girls, she missed.

My husband and I adopted her from Oregon’s foster care system. Another family had adopted her sisters—one of them developmentally delayed—and couldn’t parent a third infant with significant medical needs. We agreed to an open adoption, to visits with them when time and schedules permitted. For several years, our meetings consisted of tentative hours at shopping mall playgrounds and children’s museums as we got to know each other, gradually lengthening into daylong playdates and this season, a sleepover.

They tell you that as a parent, you’ll experience all the ages and stages of childhood again vicariously through your kid. I never found this to be true until the moment my daughter stood out on our winter porch with the kitchen vent emanating smells of her favorite macaroni and cheese, and she told her sisters goodbye.

All at once, memory walloped me. The girls clung to each other with goosebumps raised on their skinny arms, called “I love you, Sissy!” with their breath creating smoke flowers in the crisp air. Then, two of them walked to their car and one of them stayed behind, and my insides spilled out.

 *   *   *

Every other Sunday in the eighties, when I stepped through my father’s door, I paused for a moment to take the temperature of the house. Almost always, he sat in his bedroom upstairs paying bills and listening to Vin Scully recap Dodger games on the radio. My stepmother stood in the kitchen describing for my younger siblings the new dessert she’d concocted from crushed Oreos and vanilla pudding or fresh Meyer lemons and cream cheese or bottles of stout poured into chocolate cake batter.

Alone, I sat on the carpet in my room and pillowed my head on the bed. No one came in. If I missed dinner those Sunday nights, if I shook my head at my stepmother, mute with sorrow, she returned to the dining room explaining my absence as “hormones.” I listened to my father’s overloud laughter and pressed my hands against my sternum, wondering how on earth to hold myself together for ten days before I could see my mother again.

Losing a family member over and over becomes a Sisyphean series of cruel small deaths. It would have been easier not to visit my mother every other weekend all the years of my adolescence. It would be easier not to see my daughter’s sisters, to let the girls get on with their lives 100 miles apart. But easy isn’t always optimal.

*   *   *

This winter on our porch, I left my daughter waving goodbye to her sisters in the car disappearing down the road. I went into the house and sat at one end of our big green couch, legs splayed inelegantly across the cushions, and reached for the warmest, softest blanket I could find. Then, I waited.

How do you help a child through grief and loss? The first few years, I met the moment of the sisters’ parting with a barrage of what I believed to be comforting distractions.

“Let’s go see a movie!” I told my daughter. “Let’s go to the trampoline park! Get ice cream! Go roller skating!”

She took my suggestions, mute, eyes wide and glittering as an animal’s when it’s in pain, and I congratulated myself for avoiding the chilly disregard of my father and stepmother. But last summer, after a playground visit with the sisters ended much too quickly, she hurled these words in my face: “Mommy, I don’t want to do anything!”

I heard her, and thought with a spinning head, what now?

The Buddhists tell us to sit with our pain, to make friends with it. Three decades ago, I sat with the loss of my mother surrounding me until I fell into bed exhausted. I think about what I wanted from the two parents with whom I lived—not space to process the transition as some obtuse child psychologist had counseled my father. Not even the whimsical desserts that my stepmother presented on her silver cake tray and I failed to recognize as reparation. I would have said no to a trip at the cinema or a game of Monopoly. I longed only for someone to say, “You hurt,” so that I could nod and push my insides back in and soldier on.

So this winter, I sat on the couch with a soft plaid blanket on my lap, and I waited. My daughter walked into the living room without looking at me. She closed the door against the 34-degree wind rattling our front yard cedar and wandered into her room.

I’ve failed, I thought. But she returned. Eyes downcast, she walked over to me and sat on the couch, straddling one of my outstretched legs. Then she crawled between them and lay against my chest. I covered her with the blanket and put my arms around her.

I couldn’t tell her it would be okay. Because it isn’t okay.

But if we can acknowledge that, not okay becomes more bearable.

My daughter and I sat there together on the couch for an hour and just breathed. She dozed a little in the warmth from the baseboard heater. I closed my eyes, as well.

For once, maybe I got it right. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there with her, the slippery tangle of our entrails surrounding us, and held on.

Sky Pony Press will publish Melissa Hart’s debut middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in April. She teaches for Whidbey Island’s MFA program in Creative Writing.

Photo: Andrew Pons/

On a First Name Basis with My First Grader

On a First Name Basis with My First Grader

By Jennifer D. Munro

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 5.07.32 PMAlthough Ben is my first and only child, I am his twelfth mother. By the time Ben became my son, I’d missed out on so much already: not only the maternal bonding provided by pregnancy, childbirth, and breast feeding, but Ben’s first breath, first word (which might have been “ma”), first step, first day of kindergarten, and, not-so-endearing, his first cuss. But not being able to name my own child turned out to be the most surprising deprivation, a profound loss that I hadn’t fully considered.

Ben was one of the ten thousand available children in our state’s foster care system. I realized that, although I didn’t choose his name, I could live with a Ben. I could grow fond of a Ben. I could love a Ben. Unexpectedly, though, what turned out to be the problem was not our child’s name, but mine.

When Ben moved in with us six weeks after we met and two weeks after he turned six, I realized there was one more unexpected loss to mourn: It had taken me so long to mother, but I would never be called “Mom.” My husband Patrick and I were Ben’s parents now, planning to adopt him out of foster care when the requi- site six-month waiting period passed. His forever family who would usher him into adulthood. But Ben didn’t call us Mom and Dad. He called us Pat and Jen.

I’m not sure how many of his eleven other mothers he called “Mom,” but I know it’s what he called the single mother who had fostered him for the previous three years—the one who loved him but gave him up because she said he was an active boy who needed an active, two-parent family. We deciphered the coded language later: He was too difficult for one person to manage. He needed a dad who could step in when he punched Mom.

Fathers had been less integral for him. There were father figures in his past, but they didn’t parent. They carried impact for the wrong reasons. One “stepdad” of sorts is in jail for using a tire iron to murder (with no motive) a disabled man. He wasn’t patient around a toddler, either, but he wasn’t the only one among the “stepdads” who insisted that his girlfriend’s children call him Daddy (though the relationships they forged were decidedly un-father-like). Ben’s biological father had always been a distant figure. When I had the chance to ask him if Ben had been named after a family member, hoping to share that history with Ben someday, he replied, “Well, I had said God damn it, if it’s a boy, I get to name it. So at the hospital, it was a boy, but I hadn’t thought about it at all, so I just sort of came up with Benny right there.”

After three years of living with a single foster mother, Ben craved a live-in, microwave-dinner-cooking, piggy-back-giving, shaving-in-the-mirror father. Ben’s complete focus on my husband verified what his foster mother had told us about Ben wanting a dad. Mothers, however, were impermanent, throwaway items, like plastic utensils. In fact, they were apparently interchangeable. Since he would rarely see her again, Ben needed to transition away from calling his last foster mother “Mommy.” She suggested he call her Aunty Jennifer; we shared the same first name. His first foster mother, who had parented him from fourteen months to two-and-a-half years, was also named Jennifer. No wonder the state had a shortage of foster families, since being named Jennifer was apparently one of the licensing requirements. Ben had blown through a lot of homes one summer between the two long-term Jennifers, and I don’t know how many he called “Mom” or “Jennifer” or some of the other profane names he used on me, which was probably one reason that he was so frequently sent packing.

Why should he bestow yet one more stranger with those honored parental titles when every Mom and Dad in the past had either hurt or deserted him? Jennifers didn’t exactly have a stellar track record, either, but I fully expected from the start to be Jennifer to him forever. Mom and Dad would have to be earned and would have to be Ben’s choice. No matter how much we wanted it, asking or demanding it would set it even farther out of reach, since he was diagnosed as an Oppositional Defiant Child (I’m told there are some kids who aren’t), which meant that the more we insisted on something, the happier it made him to deny us. So be it. We wouldn’t ask.

I reconciled myself to being Jennifer and worked on other things. When I picked Ben up from school every day at first, he greeted me with, “What’d you bring me?” After a month or two of coaching him, he upgraded to: “Hi, Jen! What’d you bring me?” and then added, “Thanks,” for whatever snack I’d brought along with the skateboard or bike or scooter. Sometimes after “thanks,” he scowled and complained that’s not what he wanted; after we’d made even more progress, he didn’t throw the unwanted item back at me.

*   *   *

I preferred Jennifer to the other things he called me the first year. His most common refrain was, “I’m going kill you, you fucking bitch.” (He launched such vulgar threats before he knew about prepositions.) He called my slender husband “You fat bitch.” Pat and I found humor where we could and laughed about that one when Ben was out of earshot. But his spitting on me, trying to punch me (he never succeeded, either because I was too quick or he knew better, deep down, than to really try), peeing on the carpet, breaking things, manipulating, stealing, and pathologically lying, all weren’t so funny.

With Ben’s many disturbing behaviors, we needed to create a safe circle of love as well as authority—firm, even uncomfortably strict, parental authority. Why should Ben listen to rules set down and enforced by his friends Pat and Jen? Why obey his buddies, who were “cool,” as he had described Pat to his foster mom after our first meeting? (I was under no illusion that the appellation applied to me, too.) And if he couldn’t learn to abide by rules at home, he’d never learn to follow boundaries in the larger world of school, after-school care, sports clubs, and eventual AA meetings. I jest, but the grim reality is that kids with ADHD alone and none of Ben’s other risk factors have a high incidence of substance abuse, so this is a struggle Ben will almost certainly face. Just one more reason why Ben needed a strong foundation now.

While I knew liberals who were fine with their kids calling them by their first names, these were children who’d been given stability, safety, and nurturing since their first breath. They might have their annoying habits or problem behaviors, but these kids weren’t dangerous. Ben, according to his therapist, was on a fast track to jail, not college. It was our job to parent him toward more positive outcomes, so we needed to substantiate ourselves as his parents, who set house rules that he needed to learn to follow. Having him call us by our parental titles seemed an increasingly important element of his success.

But a “Call me Mom from now on” edict would not cut the mustard. Our born-again-hippie friends could set down the law whenever they chose: “It’s Dad, not Paul,” and quit answering them whenever the kid greeted them as if they were at a bar. You can guess how Ben would have responded to that. He had plenty of other names to choose from. Dummy, Stupid, Asshole, Dead Fish, and the ever-favorite Bitch were all top contenders.

Yet I intuited that Ben wanted us to be Mom and Dad, titles that would claim us as his: “MY mom” and “MY dad,” which is how I still refer to my parents. The words indicate a sense of belonging, literally.

Still, he rarely called me “Mom,” and this only when he wanted something, when suddenly I was the “skinny, pretty Mommy.” The compliment illustrated his shrewd scheming more than my fit- ness for appearing on Project Runway, as he once suggested when I was swathed in winter gardening clothes. I’m not going to disparage myself, but no one has ever called me skinny; the closest I get is, “Have you lost weight?” Yet Ben never once called me “fat” as he did Patrick.

The notion of a mom was very much on Ben’s mind beyond wily maneuvering, though. He at times chewed on the word like a safety blanket when I was nearby, so we ended up having exchanges like this:









Or, “Mommymommymommymommy.”


It took me awhile to learn that he wasn’t looking for an answer. This was his Ohm, his startling mantra. Still, I couldn’t quite relax, like a doctor always on call, never sure when the real need would arise that required a response.

The confusion wasn’t just mine. Once when I wasn’t home, Ben screamed at my husband, “I want my mommy! I want Mama!”

Patrick panicked. Which one?

Calling us Mom and Dad would also, instantly, “normalize” him outside the home. When he referred to us as Pat and Jennifer to teachers or classmates, questions were immediately raised: Who were we? What was our relationship? Were we his parents? This then called for qualifications: We were technically his foster parents until his adoption was finalized, which made him a foster child, which made him a child with a not-so-nice label, a child who just might spell trouble. If he called us Mom and Dad, suddenly there were no questions, and he had no explaining to do, especially to other kids. Nobody need know his unfortunate past as revealed by the “f” word.

How to make that transition?

*   *   *

While my husband was the Prom King of Creative Parenting Methods That Always Worked, I was the Valedictorian of the Plain Jane Nerd School of Parenting. So it’s odd that he can’t take any credit for my inspired tactic: I instructed Pat to stop calling me by my first name. From that point on, we referred to each other as “your dad” or “your mom” in Ben’s presence. As in, “Go tell your dad that dinner’s ready, please.” Or, “Tell your father that he can’t buy whatever he’s looking at on E-Bay. It doesn’t matter how I know and it doesn’t matter what it is, tell Dad to log off.” Or, if I’m mixing a martini (for a guest, of course), “Have your father get you a Band-aid for that. Oh, for heaven’s sake, they’re on the shelf, right in front of Dad’s nose.”

Ben took his cue and started calling us Mom and Dad. It was really that simple. He can’t remember ever having called us Pat and Jen. The profanity and the threats, the intense anger and destruction, all stopped almost simultaneously. He can’t remember calling me any of the other foul names he called me for almost ten months, close to the duration of a normal human gestation. Oddly, I, too, find it difficult to go back to calling my husband by his first name.

Ben has called me Mom for a couple of years now, but I still get a rush of pleasure every time. That might sound like a cliché, but it’s not. I waited a long time to hear that word. Mom. I’m a mom! I kiss scratches and mop up vomit and send him to timeouts when I discover things like the Brussels sprouts from his dinner plate floating in the toilet (only as a new mother did I discover, as he did, too late, that those buoyant round crucifers won’t flush). I witnessed the moment when he finally took off on his bike without training wheels, and he turned to see if I was looking. I was, and he knew it. I treasure the drawings he makes me (refraining from asking, “What is it?”) and display his tipsy Popsicle stick box next to my antique French crystal scent casket. I hold his small hand in mine on neighborhood strolls I used to take by myself, and I ignore my obsessive fastidiousness when he eats an ice cream cone and gets is all over his face and clothes. I gloat with maternal satisfaction at Ben’s empathy for and kindness to animals, having ignored the dire warnings that Ben should not be placed with pets; with mistreatment of animals being one of the primary hallmark traits of serial killers, my hubris in disregarding this raging red flag snapping in a nasty wind can only be chalked up to maternal instinct. Recently two members of his professional support team, who have never met, said separately to me, “You are his mother. You know him best.” My first response was to protest, “No, I don’t.” But I guess I do.

While I once couldn’t understand parents who made distinctions between their “biological children” and their “adoptive children,” sometimes I am tempted to identify Ben as my foster-to-adopt child. Not because I don’t consider him to be my forever child, the child who will either cheer me in my retirement years or send me to an early grave, but as a simple shorthand: “He came to us through foster care” is code for “He’s had a tough life, and we are decent people, so please forgive us for what he just did to your darling angel.” While I simply call him “my son” in his presence, if what he’s just done is really embarrassing or heinous, I just might try to work his history in as an aside, with heavy violins to evoke sympathy rather than a lawsuit.

What I’m more apt to do is refer to myself as an adoptive mother, my own proviso: I went through a lot to get here to this supervisory spot on the play- ground, and I am not a bad parent. Yes, that looks like my third-grader having a screaming meltdown in K-Mart, and you question what kind of ineffectual mother would allow this to continue, but please consider his first six years and give me a hip bump that he’s using no profanity and isn’t trying to steal anything.

Ben doesn’t have much from his first six years, so I save what I can, including his first voice mail message to us a few days after we’d met, in which he says, “Hi, Pat. Hi, Jen,” and asks if can come over and maybe play guitar and Legos with us. When I listen to the message now, almost three years later, to hear his baby voice call me Jen shocks me almost as much as if he’d called me one of the other names he was so fond of that first year.

Sadly, conferring the title on me meant taking it away from someone else. We asked his birth mother to stop signing her rare cards to him as “Mommy.” When he’d made his own choice to call me his mother, it was too confusing to Ben to get cards from a “Mommy” he no longer remembered and who had done very little of his mothering. His social worker suggested that for both of Ben and his birth mother’s sakes, it was better that they move on to a new stage in their relation- ship, signified by her no longer calling herself Mommy. We offered to give him as many cards as she chose to send but requested that she sign them with her first name (which thankfully isn’t Jennifer). She stopped writing him altogether. I can understand the value she put on that single word and how impossible it would feel to go back.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I had accepted without misgiving that the neonatal and baby years would not be part of my mothering experience (although I still haven’t lost the “sympathetic pregnancy” weight gain). And yet, they undeniably provide a deep bonding that endures, helping a mother get through sleepless nights, teething, and teenage hormones. How to bond when detachment and mistreatment came first?

“Mom! Watch this! Watch me, Mommy! Did you see me, Mom?” goes a long way towards mending that gap.

I must be careful about the baggage and weight I give these issues, though. For all that he experienced more in six years than I did in forty-three, he’s just a kid. One day, when he was going through a particularly rough spell, and the therapist had given him quite a lecture about his going to kid’s jail if he didn’t turn it around, I thought that perhaps Ben needed some validation and reassurance. I gave him a big spiel about how he was my son, my only son, the only son I ever wanted, and the only son I would ever have. Oh, a big, bonding moment to cherish! Full string section! Applause! Hankies!

Ben looked back at me and said, “What’s for dinner, Mom?”


Some names and identifying details have been changed.

Author’s Note: I assumed that Ben would want to keep his middle name as well as his first name, but just before his adoption was finalized, I thought of a new middle name that had been used by both my husband’s and my side of the family. I loved this name and the idea of being able to name Ben in a way that would further unify us as a forever family. I would be crushed if he didn’t like it, but it had to be Ben’s choice. Fortunately, he loved it, too. He used to just write “Ben” on his papers, but now he writes his new full name in big letters across the top of everything.

Jennifer D. Munro is a freelance editor whose essays and stories have appeared in more than sixty publications, including Best American Erotica; the best of Literary Mama anthology; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories is her fiction collection about the lighter side of sex and the sexes. She blogs about marriage, miscarriage, motorcycling, and motherhood at

Paying My Respects to My Son’s Birth Mother

Paying My Respects to My Son’s Birth Mother

By Heather Cole

COLEI had never crashed a wake before.

I was so nervous driving to the funeral home that I accidentally drove the wrong direction, down a one-way street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. An oncoming car honked loudly, and I managed to swerve into a nearby driveway before being hit.

How ironic would it be, I thought, if I was killed on the way to my son’s birthmother’s wake.

We adopted our son out of foster care when he was 15 months old. Charlie was placed in foster care at birth. His biological parents never completed the rehab and parenting classes that could have gotten Charlie returned to their custody and didn’t contest the termination of their parental rights just over a year later.

At the time we were relieved. Like many children in foster care, Charlie’s biological roots were mired in multiple generations of poverty, substance abuse and mental illness. And several members of his birth family were apparently still struggling with those issues. Charlie’s adoption was finalized as a closed adoption with no birth family contact.

But current research on adoption and identity tells us that pretending Charlie had no previous ties wasn’t healthy for any of us. The experts say it is best to have regular, age-appropriate conversations with adopted children about their biological family and heritage so that they grow up understanding their story and feeling comfortable asking questions.

I took that to heart and, as we were going through the process to adopt Charlie, I gathered every piece of paper and snippet of information about his birth family. His medical card had his original last name. Social workers provided first names and general social history information on his birth family. Legal paperwork provided some more clues. With that information, I scoured newspaper archives, online police logs and various social media sources. Every few months I’d plug all the names I had into Google to see what came up. And, gradually, I accumulated a binder of clippings, photographs and notes on a family that I believed to be Charlie’s birth family. I felt like I had done my job: I had names and photographs to share with my son when he asked questions about his biological origins. And when he turned 18 he could search for them, if he wanted.

But then one winter evening I was surfing on Facebook and noticed that various members of Charlie’s birth family had recently changed their profile photograph to one of his birthmother. Not just one person, but three, four, five people. I had never seen that before, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out what it meant.

And in that moment, the reality of my son’s loss finally hit me. A pile of newspaper clippings and low-resolution photographs might not be good enough. They didn’t answer the questions he might have for his birthmother. What else might Charlie be losing by keeping his adoption closed?

When I found the obituary online and told my husband I wanted to go, he tried to talk me out of it. “Who are we to this family? Don’t they deserve privacy in their grief?”

But I kept coming back to Charlie, and what we would some day tell him. “One day Charlie will ask what we did when his birthmother died,” I argued. “And do we want to say ‘nothing’? This is a chance to find out for sure if this is his birth family. To meet them. To pay our respects. To maybe begin to forge a connection.”

So that’s how I found myself walking through the doors of a dark funeral home on a Tuesday night in February, preparing to introduce myself to my son’s other family.

At the entry to the waking room was a poster board with a few dozen family snapshots. My concern that perhaps I had the wrong family vanished when I recognized a pair of blue eyes looking back at me from one of the photographs. There he was—my son, at that moment being tucked into bed by my husband—and here a baby surrounded by the members of his other family. I thought I recognized the setting as his foster parents’ home.

As I stood scrutinizing the faces in the photographs, I heard, “How did you know Charlotte?” The man next to me was in his mid-40s. I didn’t recognize him from my Internet research, so I wasn’t sure how to respond. “I didn’t. I mean, not well,” I stammered. “I know her family.”

He offered his hand. “I’m her brother. Thanks for coming.” As I shook his hand and offered my condolences I wracked my brain to remember what I knew about him. Was he the brother who had been jailed for a violent crime?

For a moment I thought maybe my husband had been right—I had no business being here. But as I looked around the room, amongst the baggy pants, wool hats and heavy makeup, I saw faces that had become familiar. These were the people who knew and loved Charlie first. The people who shared his history, his genealogy, his DNA.

These people weren’t just a binder of information to be doled out in age-appropriate pieces to my son. They were real, live, human members of his family. Of our family.

There is some comfort in the familiar ritual of a Catholic wake. I approached the open casket, kneeled and blessed myself.  I noted the funeral home-supplied flower arrangements with sashes proclaiming “mother,” “sister,” and “daughter” and the framed poem propped on the casket. I was relieved that they’d been able to provide this for her.

I then, at last, looked upon the woman who gave birth to my son. She wore a long-sleeved black blouse and her dark hair was arranged over her shoulders.  Her hands were folded on her chest, a rosary entwined in her long fingers. I wish I could say I felt some connection to my son’s other mother. But I just felt sad. She was the same age as me, but looked so much older. Her life had been hard.

There was a row of chairs along the wall opposite the casket. I guessed that the older woman in the center was Charlie’s maternal grandmother. It was to her that I directed my attention.

“Are you Charlotte’s mother?” I had heard that she’d had a stroke shortly before Charlie was born— we were told that was the reason he was placed in foster care, rather than with her and his biological siblings. So I spoke slowly and as gently as I could manage.

“I am so sorry for your loss. I apologize for the timing, but I wanted to come and pay our respects. I wanted to let you know that my husband and I adopted Charlie. He is five years old now. He is doing great. We love him. And I just wanted to let you know that.”

My eyes filled with tears as I waited for her response. It was tough to read her expressionless face if she understood me, but a woman to her left grabbed my arm and whispered, “What did you just say?”

I had a moment of panic. But I offered her my cell phone, with a photo of Charlie on the home screen.

“I’m Charlie’s adoptive mom. I wanted to come pay our respects and let you know he’s ok.”

In a moment, I was surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings, all crying and all clamoring to hug me. I passed around my cell phone with photographs of Charlie and apologized over and over again for my timing.

After a few long minutes, Charlie’s maternal grandfather rescued me and escorted me to a corner so we could speak privately. He thanked me for coming. He thanked me for caring for Charlie. He confirmed the details of some of the stories we had been told. He apologized that the family was not able to be there for Charlie when he was born. He said they had wondered and worried and wished that things were different, but had faith that Charlie was being loved and cared for. We compared notes on the children and I was given a few snippets of medical information on the family. We exchanged email addresses.

At one point, the funeral director interrupted our conversation to ask him to pick out music to be played at Charlotte’s funeral the next morning. He asked my advice, we laughed, and he selected a hymn. It was one of my favorites from my childhood days at Mass.

A few days later, we received an email from one of Charlie’s biological siblings with some family photos. That evening, my husband and I sat down to talk to Charlie. And together we drafted a reply.

Heather Cole lives outside of Boston with her family. Her writing has appeared in Transitions Abroad magazine, The Boston Herald, The Star-Ledger (NJ) and several local history books.

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Enveloped By Love

Enveloped By Love

By Melissa Hart

ARt Enveloped by LoveI found the seven mangled manila envelopes on my bookshelf; someone had recognized them—with their crude drawings of flowers and birds—as repositories for a devotion strong enough, no, interesting enough, to ward off a 5-year-old’s fear of losing her mother. I’d received the bizarre diagnosis, a cancerous lesion on my tongue, by cell phone at the playground. My first thought after stepping away from the swing-set and determining in quiet hysteria that I wasn’t going to die: Would my daughter survive?

Maia had already been through a lot. Her biological mother relinquished her to the state at birth. Her foster mom cared for four infants synonymously. Our daughter finally knew focused attention and affection when my husband, Jonathan, and I brought her home at 18 months.

“I don’t want her traumatized,” I told Jon when oral surgeons informed me I’d be a week in a hospital, encumbered by a feeding tube and trach, unable to talk after they’d excised a piece of my tongue and replaced it with tissue and muscle from my wrist. “No one tells Maia. I don’t want her scared.”

I, myself, felt petrified. Tongue cancer, my surgeon explained, is affecting more and more middle-aged women like me who’ve never smoked and who limit their alcohol to a few glasses of red wine a week. It’s sometimes linked to the Human papillomavirus, but I tested negative. “You’re an anomaly,” the doctor concluded and snapped pictures of my poor besieged tongue while my husband distracted our daughter in the waiting room with Superwhy on his iPad.

At home, after a four-mile run to remind myself that no one had offered me a death sentence, I called in sick to work and baked muffins—zucchini and chocolate chip, sweet potato and peanut butter—more muffins than Maia could eat in my absence. And I bought the manila envelopes, one for each day of my hospitalization.

I’d been away from my daughter before. At conferences, I’m gone for days. But a week in the hospital felt dangerous. People die under anesthesia; they expire from infection. “She’s already lost two mothers,” I wailed to my husband on the couch at midnight. “What if she loses a third?”

He allowed gently that I might be veering into drama queen territory. “People have surgery all the time. I’ve had six, myself.”

“Yes, but . . .”

It wasn’t just the surgery that frightened me—we knew that. I’d received the dreaded diagnosis, the C-word forever linked with my name in medical records, and though doctors termed it Stage I, who knew what they’d find once anesthesia bore me under and they could go poking around.

To calm myself, I focused on creating care packages for Maia. I borrowed her markers and decorated each envelope with a drawing. Then, I bought seven picture books. One each went into the envelopes along with a tiny box of Junior Mints, a Tootsie Pop, a gold-foil wrapped chocolate heart.

I’d bought seven postcards at the bookstore, each with a picture of a cat or dog or pig in some comic pose. “Mommy loves Maia,” I wrote over and over, hoping—if disease spirited me away from this earth—that the repetition would burn itself into her brain, assuring her that she was a child adored.

For levity, I added toys: Slinky, kazoo, pipe cleaners to bend into animals. The night Jon and I headed for Portland to keep our 5:30 AM date with surgeons, I read Maia bedtime stories and handed my mother the envelopes with firm instructions. “Put one a day on the doorstep.”

For days, post-surgery, I lay in a fog and pictured Maia running up the porch steps to discover her care package. The image cheered me, inspiring me up and out of the ridiculous hospital gown. The moment I could swallow a sip of water, I demanded that surgeons remove the feeding tube from my nose, yank out the trach, and allow me to quit the hospital.

“Drive faster!” I urged Jon home, preparing myself for Maia at the door tear-stained or red-faced with rage. Would she hate me for falling victim to a random diagnosis I’d done nothing to deserve? Or would my gifts redeem me?

A Welcome Home drawing greeted us at door, but Maia herself wasn’t there. Through morphine’s blue haze, I saw the silly postcards on the mantle. The kazoo lay in a corner; picture books peeked out from under couch cushions. A pipe cleaner horse gripped one lamp.

“Where’s Maia?” Tongue throbbing, I scrawled on my whiteboard, bewildered. “Is she scared of me?”

Jon stroked my head. “It’s okay—your mom’s gone to get her from school.”

I collapsed on the couch, longing for our meeting, dreading it.

We can’t keep our children from life—I know that. Accidents happen and cells divide and our babies must deal with reality sooner than we’d like. All we can do is try, creatively, to lessen their fear. And here’s the surprise—in helping them, we sometimes teach them to help us, as well.

Maia ran inside that afternoon and pressed her forehead against mine with shocking tenderness. Her brown eyes looked into mine. “You’re back!” she said, as if I’d gone to the market for bananas. I saw then that my surgery was but a blip in our life together, akin to the toothpick arrow stuck into a ring in the cross-section of an oak on our favorite hiking trail.

“Mommy…” My child didn’t recoil at the bulky blue splint on my arm, at the bandages on my throat; she didn’t question my inability to speak. Instead, she pulled the books out from under the couch cushions, sat down beside me, and tucked a blanket around my feet. “Let me read you a story.”

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches at the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.

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 Photo credit: Jonathan B. Smith

Eight Months Later

Eight Months Later


0Sugar Biscuit’s birth mom, Starla*, has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m not really sure why, as we have slipped into a pattern of days that leaves our new son’s origins an afterthought, something that flutters across the back of my mind every so often. I no longer think of Sugar Biscuit as anything but my own child. He fit into our family like the final piece of a complicated puzzle that took weeks to assemble, with a sense of relief and accomplishment. Now, we are able to sit back and see the whole picture, complete, and with everything in its rightful place.

Still, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that, two weeks before the trial that would completely terminate her parental rights, we offered Starla a shot at shared custody. CASA, the baby’s volunteer law guardian, was beginning to waver on terminating her rights, based on the fact that while she hadn’t completed her service plan, she did have housing and a job (even though that job didn’t pay her bills and we never could figure out what she was doing for money). In addition, our CASA worker was completely without boundaries and good judgment at this point in the case, allowing her sympathy for Starla to overwhelm her professionalism. With those facts in front of us, we knew that there was a greater possibility Sugar Biscuit might be returned to his birth mother. Also knowing that parental termination trials are brutal, emotionally as well as financially draining, we offered a deal: Joint custody, with us having conservatorship and being able to make all decisions regarding his education, healthcare, and living arrangements. Starla would be allowed once a month all-day Saturday visits, supervised at a foster home, for which we would split the cost. The flip side of this was that she would still retain parental rights and would always be able to come back and sue us for more visitation, assuming she could raise the money to hire a lawyer. It was, according to all parties and not just our biased selves, a very fair deal.

The offer was made. Terrified, we tried to let it go and put it in the hands of God. Starla refused. She stated she wanted all or nothing. She was determined to go to trial as she planned, at some point in the future, to tell Sugar Biscuit that she had fought for him. Hearing this, CASA, along with Sugar Biscuit’s official law guardian, officially filed a recommendation to terminate her parental rights.

So, we wrote a big fat check out of our retirement, and headed to the courthouse. It was a devastating week. It was the worst thing that my husband and I have ever lived through. We sat through six days of testimony and legal wrangling, keeping a tenuous hold on our emotions. I know there are other foster adoptive parents out there who judge what we did, intervening in the case and fighting for Sugar Biscuit. To that I say, you don’t know what I know, and I hope you never have to hear of such things with your own ears, watch them live and in color. To have to listen to the acts Starla committed, even while 9 months pregnant, how sick our boy was the first two months of his life, the bottomless pit of sorrow that was Starla’s childhood, the mud being slung at us, dirtying everything we’d try to do for our boy.

However, during that trial, an important thing happened. It was there we heard everything that we needed to know to make our decision regarding what type of relationship Sugar Biscuit could have with his first mom. As awful as it was, we were given the gift of the Big Picture, more piece of the puzzle. It was trial by fire. We were cleansed by this fire, able to walk across the coals with new eyes, clear vision. As sad as it is, we now know she just isn’t safe for him to be around. Someday, a long time from now, she might be. Honestly, I doubt it. Something in her is so broken, so fractured at the very root of her core, that although it pains me to say it, she will probably never be truly okay. At any rate, I certainly can’t fix her, but I did I try my damnedest for the better part of a year. All I can do now is hope for the best and try to move forward with grace.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time processing what happened in the many long days it took us from placement of our son to finalizing his adoption. I wonder what the process has been like for her. I wonder if she thinks of us as often as we think of her, if she hates me. Has her pain lessened? Is she still in recovery, on her way to wellness? Has all of this, the court battle and the worst pain a mother can endure, having her child taken, being found unfit, finally given her the impetus for real change? Or has she begun to backslide, give up, go back to her old familiar ways?

When I think of Starla, I hope that she is well. I offer a quick prayer, asking for peace for her, for joy. Perhaps she has forgiven my trespasses, as I have forgiven hers. I never in a million years thought it would end this way. Never dreamed I’d have to close and lock the door on her, turn my back. I truly thought together we could watch him grow, united in our dreams for his future. But I’ve accepted what is my new reality. It is one in which I honor the people who gave life to my son, and I sorrow for their many, many losses, but keep them tucked away in a corner of my mind, no longer at the forefront of my thoughts. It is one in which I know better, and try to do better. It is one in which my boy, my beautiful, precious boy, grows strong and brave and whole. For after all, he is our missing piece.

*Not her real name

About the Author: Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus.  She is currently working on a book about the realities of foster care. As an advocate for foster youth, Sarah devotes her spare time to educating others about the system. Read more about her daily life at

Also by Sarah Green for Brain, Child:

Signing the Adoption Papers


To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.

Signing the Adoption Papers

Signing the Adoption Papers


Art TrenchesIt’s a Tuesday, and I’m driving past the Child Protective Services (CPS) office a few towns over. Getting close to this place always makes my heart beat a little faster, and I will myself to feel calm. Today, I am not stopping. I am not dropping the child in my backseat with a person wearing a badge, trying not to cling to him as he holds fast to me when taken from my arms.

 This Tuesday is a good Tuesday. I’m on my way to sign the last of the forms needed to finalize the adoption of my son. The day we finalize, he will have been in our care 635 days. It’s been a long road, and there’s years of healing left to do.

The first struggle was keeping this baby safe, giving him a hope and a future. We’ve accomplished that goal with the help of lawyers and the legal system. We’ve removed as many landmines from the road he will travel as possible.

The next battle is my own. I must, for the sake of my son, come to peace with his story. The story he had before he came to me. His time in the womb was not a time of shelter. It was a time of danger, and of poison, and of violence. I know that, for my son’s sake, I must come to some as-of-yet nameless place with the person who carried him into this world. I must be able to speak of her and feel no anger, only compassion, if not love.

I also have to find the balancing point in my son’s relationship with his birth father. How much is too much? How often is reasonable to send pictures? For phone calls? I’m not able to be objective about this. We are not angry with this young man. He too, was a victim of a terrible storm, sucked into a vacuum. But there are answers I just don’t have.

I joke that I have foster care PTSD, but there is some truth to this. Every time my son’s birth father calls, every time an unknown number comes up on my phone, my heart beats faster. I go immediately into fight or flight mode. It makes no sense, my son is my own, I call the shots now. I pray for the fear to fall away.

I feel, that since my son’s birth father is still having daily contact with the woman who gave birth to my son, that he should be removed from our lives. It is as if this woman carries a fatal disease, and I want to protect my family from any possible contagion. My husband disagrees. He finds him harmless. We argue.

I was the one who carried our boy into all those weekly meetings at CPS, who felt him hold so tightly to me, and heard him wail, as I handed him to a person who was a mother in name only. I was the one who prepared for trial, who was in the front lines. I am still tainted by the dust from the fight. I am just now able to stand, shaken and wobbly, and walk into the future with some measure of confidence.

Since there is no manual for foster parents on how to grieve the things your child lost before you even met him, before he was born, I am stumbling along. I don’t know how long it takes, but maybe it will take a lifetime to come to terms with what we’ve been through, all of us.

For now, I am hoping that my intent to continue doing the best I can with what I have is enough. I am blindly feeling my way, wanting to make each step the right one for my new son. I know from past experiences that time does indeed make everything better. I trust I will be shown the way. I might falter. However, I know now that I will get back up, and keep moving.

As I pull up to my lawyer’s office, and see the gap-toothed grin in my backseat, I am reminded of all that is good in life. Throughout our battle, we’ve been given so many blessings. The greatest of which is the reminder to take each small moment and cherish the miracle within it. The miracle of a good Tuesday is one I will never, ever take for granted again.

Author’s Note: We adopted our son, who we call “Sugar Biscuit” on National Adoption Day in November 2012.

About the Author: Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus.  She is currently working on a book about the realities of foster care. As an advocate for foster youth, Sarah devotes her spare time to educating others about the system. Read more about her daily life at

Also by Sarah Green for Brain, Child:


Eight Months Later

To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.