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 StraightNoChaserMom.com.




Art GuardiansI’m headed out I-30 into the nothingness that is East Texas. Antique malls, hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants, truck stops. Several hawks circle overhead, taking their time to survey what’s beneath. I take note of them, never having seen this many hawks on one stretch of road before. They are glorious with their wingspans silhouetted against the sky, but they do nothing to abate my sadness. It’s late January 2012, and a weak sun shines upon my journey. In the car with me is Sugar Biscuit. He’s my foster son, and he’s been with our family since we brought him home from the NICU almost a year ago. He is a fat cherub of a baby with an angelic demeanor and a quick temper. The type of baby that everyone takes notice of when we are out in public. He’s all blue eyes, blond curls, and dimples, with a gap between his front teeth. I nicknamed him Sugar Biscuit when I’d had him about two days. In those first few weeks Sugar Biscuit lived with us, I had no idea of the mountainous journey of faith, miracles, and sorrow upon which I was about to embark. Today, I’m traveling though one of the dark valleys on this path. In the wake of legal motions that will likely terminate the parental rights of the woman who gave birth to the boy that I’ve come to see as my own, I’ve been instructed yet again to deliver him to his maternal aunt. So, with hawks circling above me, I drive and tamp down the grief that weighs so heavily upon me that it becomes its own entity, making it impossible to get air deep into my lungs.

The call to become a foster mother had been with me since I was fifteen years old, and my travels around the world, seeing the suffering of so many third world children, cemented that desire. Seeing children in Tanzania who were at risk of death from dirty drinking water or a simple mosquito bite, spurred me into action. As I got older, I knew I could make a real difference right in my own home, and I set out to do so. My husband and I decided we would be a new breed of foster parents. We wanted to support the family of origin and be mentors to the birth mothers and fathers that had lost their way. We wanted to work with them and help them get their children back. So, with the blessing of our older children, ages 15, 11, and 8, my husband and I started classes in September 2010. We were licensed as a foster only home that December, and placed with Sugar Biscuit two months later.

There is no way class facilitators can fully prepare you in foster parent training for what it’s like to bring home someone else’s child from the hospital, to bring that child into your home, to meld him into the framework of your life. Though we were called last February to pick up an eight-week-old infant, what I brought home was a sunken, depressed old man of a baby who had to be given phenobarbital every four hours to ease his withdrawal and cut down on muscle tremors caused by being born addicted to methadone and pain pills. What I brought home was a baby who wasn’t present in his own body, who refused to make eye contact even at two months old, and who screamed and refused to sleep for the first six months we had him. We started calling the baby Sugar Biscuit after a sweet treat my Grammy used to make for us kids on Sunday mornings. But he was anything but a sweet treat at the time he came to me. He was grumpy and miserable. I instinctively knew this baby needed to spend as much time as possible strapped to my body and in my arms. He needed to learn that the world could be safe, he was loved, and he was going to be okay.

In the beginning, the caseworkers had asked us if we wanted to adopt, as it appeared that the birth parents weren’t going to be able to complete their service plan, get sober, get well, be able to parent. We had planned only to foster, going back to our old lives as world travelers and food connoisseurs in between placements. But it took a mere two and a half months for Sugar Biscuit to weave his way into the fabric of our lives, for us to decide that yes, we wanted to make a family that included this fitful, frustrating, wondrous child after all. My husband was the one who spoke it out loud first. He said he’d dreamt about Sugar Biscuit being carried out of our home, and the baby looking into my husband’s blue eyes with his own, wondering where we were sending him. My husband knew after this he would never be okay sending this baby away with strangers. Sugar Biscuit was part of us, and we of him. We then changed our license to be a foster/adoptive home.

About that time was when Sugar Biscuit’s aunt decided she wanted him. We waited months for the homestudy on his aunt to be completed, then packed him up to be sent away. Then picked him back up to come home again when she decided that caring for him and her own new baby was simply too much.

Then we discovered there is not only a legal father who signed the birth certificate, but also a biological father. The legal father committed murder, ensuring his lifetime would be spent in prison with no possibility of parole. The biological father came forward, then disappeared, then came back. The trial for the termination of parental rights in early February 2012 was delayed, the birth mother still did not have her life together. The judge gave her extra time, along with time for the biological father to work his required service plan and get custody. The biological father then relinquished his rights. Concerned for Sugar Biscuit’s future, and for his safety, we hired an attorney.

There were times since then when I found myself collapsed in a heap on the leopard print rug in front of my door, making deals with God, the Virgin Mary, begging for an end, for release. I was glad my older children were not at home, and my husband at work. My husband became lost in his own world of worry and despair, for he came to love this boy as his own, just as our children had. The fury of my grief scared me, and I did not want them to bear witness. I learned how soothing a good cry can be and became a master of quick storms of tears as an outlet for my anguish. More than a year of soul crushing blows mixed with glimmers of hope made me a master of putting one foot in front of the other. No matter what they teach you in training class, you cannot soothe, diaper, snuggle, feed, and lullaby a child without becoming, in whole or part, his mother. I became what I said I would never be: a foster mother who wanted to keep the child who was placed with her. Sugar Biscuit fit into the curve of my hip as I carried him, just as my birth children did. He smelled of me, and I of him. We had our own fragrance, Byredo’s Gypsy Water mixed with powder and baby hair lotion. I dreamt the same dreams for him, sang the same songs as I did for each of my daughters and my son. Each piece of news that came to tell me he may not be mine forever made my heart pound, my hands shake. I lost twenty pounds. I remember sitting in the parking lot at Chik-Fil-A, desperately trying to make a Chik’n Biscuit go down my throat, knowing I must sustain myself, but unable to do so.

At times like those, I thought often of Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother, of her own pain. I marveled at addiction, the power of the opiates that ruled her life, and damaged childhoods. These things can be so powerful that they can render a woman unable to do what she needs to make a life for her child. Years of watching her own mother struggle with addiction, her abusive father in and out of jail, saved from CPS herself by a grandmother who raised her as well as she could, did not prepare her for motherhood. I wondered if her pain at losing her child was greater than my own, and if the bonds of blood were greater than the bonds forged over hundreds of ounces of formula, and bedtime stories, and endless rounds of lullabies. I searched for compassion and begged for grace.

Over the course of that first year, in an effort to reunite Sugar Biscuit with his birth family, I reached out to Sugar Biscuit’s mother. In case he was returned to her, I wanted her to have a mentor, someone to show her how to be the best mom possible to this child. I offered her encouragement and talked her into going to rehab. I visited her in jail. I felt it was my duty to try to heal Sugar Biscuit’s mother so that no matter what happened, even if she lost him, I could tell him I tried to help her. Tell him what she looked like and how she spoke and how much she loved him, despite her illness and limitations. There was a brief period early on in which we all thought she might make it. She might pull it out and be able to hold a job, find housing, surround herself with healthier people. But the cycle of poverty, and her unmet hierarchy of needs were stronger than her desire to parent her son. She offered to relinquish and we made an open adoption plan.

And then she changed her mind.

This happened four times in December 2011 alone.

From February through May 2012 I would enter the most difficult part of this journey yet. Sugar Biscuit’s mother would get angry that we’d hired a lawyer and we would have a falling out; she only saw that we, along with the state, were trying to take her son. At the same time, I would realize that we could not lose sight of doing what was best for the child simply because we felt sorry for the mother. This boy needed stability, a home, a family.

Through the process of trial preparation, I would learn horrible things about Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother. I would be told about the thefts, the threats, the choking of her own grand- mother. During one particular meeting at our lawyer’s office, I would have to hold onto the table. Bile would rise in my throat as I read the case notes and found out what my aunt calls “the bad truth,” the history of the family of origin, the acts committed, the sins of the fathers and the mothers. It became even clearer that the circle needed to be broken, that Sugar Biscuit needed a chance at a clean slate. Though this type of no-holds barred battle would shame me to some degree, the new knowledge we held would free us from guilt while imbuing us with sadness for Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother.

Today though, with the hawks circling above me in the January sky, I don’t yet know this. All I know is for now, I drive Sugar Biscuit east to strangers, away from me yet again, honoring the request of the court to return him once again to his aunt.

As I drive, I cry. I am already disheveled, having left the house late, not willing to strap him into his car seat and make this journey. I spent too long in our blue rocking chair, singing him songs of mercy, and hope, and strength. I sing his favorite, “This Little Light of Mine.” I sing as much for me as I do for him. My face in my rearview is oily, my eyes swollen and wet. I beg again for mercy. Just like Sugar Biscuit’s mother, I am powerless in the face of this challenge, and I must admit my weakness. This is my own First Step.

My family has spent so much time putting one foot in front of the other on this journey. We are tired. We cannot do this for another second. It has simply become too hard. The pain too much and too constant. The rollercoaster takes the life from me, one dip at a time. It is stealing me away, bit-by-bit, from my other children, my husband, who need me more and more.

But as I drive and cry I notice again a hawk. He is majestic with wings spread, almost spectral. His indomitable size and lazy shadow is hovering over my car. He swoops down and lands on the median, watching me pass. And then there is another landing. And another. Red-tailed hawks, one after the other, are lining the road. They circle overhead, land gracefully, and line the median, paving my way. Somehow, I know at once they are there for me. They are playing sentry, paying respect. In amazement, I stop for lunch and call a friend who tells me that hawks are symbols of our guardian angels. They are protecting me. We both begin to sob. I know at this moment how loved my family and this baby are. There is no more room for worry. We are safe. We are shielded. He will legally be our son someday soon. I do not know where this knowledge comes from, but it fills me, pushing out the worry and fear and allowing in hope and light. I now know that this time with Sugar Biscuit has been a testing of faith, and of strength, and of the limitless bonds of love. This painful process has made all of us stronger people. I realize our family is now impenetrable, our circle of friends woven tighter. The ability to find joy in simple things is amplified. We’ve learned to persevere, to do the right thing. We have experienced grace in its truest forms. These are the things I will tell people when they ask me how I do this, how I go on. However, I have a secret. I know the truth, pure and simple.

The truth is that the very first moment I laid eyes on this child, a voice whispered in my ear. I dismissed it, but now I know it was true. Perhaps it was a guardian angel, perhaps it was God, perhaps I am crazy. But perhaps I am more sane than I have ever been. Still, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what this voice said.

“This is your son.”

And he is.

Author’s Note: I wrote Guardians in an effort to share with people an honest portrayal of foster care. Many foster care stories focus on the roses and sunshine, and neglect to show the dark days and nights that being involved in the system can bring. I hope to portray that while it stretches your limits to unimaginable borders, mothering our foster youth is extremely worthwhile and rewarding.

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 tumblewieds.tumblr.com.

Also by Sarah Green for Brain, Child:

Signing the Adoption Papers

Eight Months Later

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