The first time I held her in my arms, she was only weeks old. Her tiny body nestled between my arm and my belly, contorted in that squishy way newborns often look. It was an outdoor party in the summer, and she was wearing a short-sleeved onesie over her itty bitty diaper, her limbs visibly limp as she slept. Her dark mocha skin and wispy coarse hair reminded me of my oldest child. I looked down at her sleeping, peaceful face, and I saw endless moments of her idyllic childhood-to-be:
Cake smeared all over her face, some of it making its way into her mouth, as those around her celebrated her first birthday.
Running through a grassy meadow, wearing nothing but overalls and a smile.
Trudging through snow, so bundled in a snowsuit she couldn’t easily move.
I saw her, too, with my three boys – the little sister they always wanted. They would spoil and protect her, hold her hand as she was learning to walk. They would splash with her at the lake, delight in her first steps, eventually eye boyfriends distrustfully. All these images flashed through my mind in the few minutes I held her, as I kept thinking, You could have been my daughter.
I’d known her since before she was born. Which, of course, is strange because I’ve never met the woman who gave birth to her, nor any of the relatives who presumably welcomed her into this world, or at least should have. I don’t actually know any of them. But I know of them.
The children her mom had previously given birth to – this baby’s older siblings – are in foster care with an incredible foster mom who hopes eventually to adopt them, and likely will. In the years since those kids have been in foster care, their birth mom has done little to address the concerns that led to them being removed from her custody. Enough time has passed, that the Department of Children and Families has begun the process to terminate her parental rights, so the children could be adopted. They were inching toward that eventual outcome when their foster mom learned of this baby’s impending arrival.
“She’s having another baby,” she said to me. I could hear myself thinking what she said next before she even said it. “Maybe you guys should take her.”
I knew this foster mom was not in a position to welcome another sibling into her family, as she was stretched pretty thin already. And I knew this baby would likely move toward adoption, the way her siblings were doing. I also believed it was important to ensure the kids knew each other as they grew up, even if they were in different families. And with three boys, I always wanted a little girl to join the crew. There were lots of reasons we should have pursued it.
But we didn’t.
Because I also knew we weren’t in a place to add to our family, and I wasn’t sure we ever would be again. And so it was months later, when the baby was finally born, that I felt a pit in my heart as I stood idly by, never speaking up to say, “Hey, we would like to be considered as a foster family for her.”
I thought about her a lot, as I heard bits and pieces of her hospital stay, her discharge, her placement with a single mom about an hour away… Her name was even close to the name I would have given my daughter, had I ever had one: Leyla. And I couldn’t help thinking, Was this supposed to be my daughter? Should we have reached out, made space, welcomed her into our family?
And so it was that the experience of looking down on this child I’d thought about for months, now in the flesh, here in my arms, was just surreal. I saw the parallel of my life play out in my mind, if only we had raised our hands to say, “We’ll take her.” You could have been my daughter.
A part of me wanted to let her foster mom know that I felt this connection to this baby, that I had known of her existence longer than she had known of her existence. A part of me wanted to carry her right out of the party, into my car, and into my life. After all, she could have been my daughter. But I also knew nothing had changed from the day she was born. We weren’t in a position to welcome her into our lives. Nor did that matter. Because another mom already had. She could have been my daughter. But she wasn’t.
It’s a mind-bending realization when you gather with a group of foster and adoptive families and look around at our children. Because the reality is, they could have been mine. My children came to me because I said yes to those particular calls on those particular days. But I could have said, “it’s not the right time,” and gotten a different call the next day, week, month. And then I might have a different child. Other people were asked to welcome the children I now have, and they said no. If they had said yes, my child would likely be in a different family right now, perhaps calling another woman “mom.” The thought of that is so unsettling to me, yet it’s so very palpable.
But that’s how I think of the foster and adopted children in our community: They could have been mine. And in some ways, they are mine. They are all of ours. They are all the children of our community, and we have a responsibility to them. We have a responsibility to support their families, to ensure their well-being, to set them up for a healthy and happy future. They’re All Our Kids.
So as I put this sweet girl back in her foster mom’s arms, I silently told her, I will always hold you in my heart, Little One. But I can see your mama loves you. You are safe. And you will be happy.