When Your Baby Comes Back

“When Your Baby Comes Back” by Heather S. Cole
Fostering Families Today, July/August 2018 & September/October 2018

PART ONE

The veteran foster parents in my online support group all said the same thing: I should mourn my loss and move on. Even if Jackson came back into foster care, they said, it would be better for me not to know. They warned me that he would not be the same child. That he wouldn’t remember me. That the intervening weeks or months would transform him from a happy, easygoing toddler into an angry, detached stranger.

Yet, still I wished, prayed, imagined the phone call from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) asking if we’d take him back. I crafted in my mind a story that would leave no question as to Jackson’s future. There would be a late night brawl, maybe an overdose; the adults would be arrested, the sleeping children whisked into a social worker’s waiting car. I spared no sympathy for Jackson’s biological parents. I just wanted enough evidence for DCF to be able to permanently terminate their parental rights so that he could come back home for good.

In the fall of 2007, my husband and I welcomed into our family a 10-month-old baby boy who had been in foster care since shortly after his birth. Jackson was our first child. He was the light of our lives and our son in every way but one: the legal one. DCF was at the beginning of the long legal process to terminate his birth parents’ parental rights, but assured us that it would just be a matter of time before we could finalize Jackson’s adoption.

Almost a year later — after months of delays, postponements, continuances and lawyer reassignments — a family court judge determined that DCF had failed to prove Jackson’s birthparents unfit. Ten days after the judge’s decision, we loaded Jackson’s things into the trunk of a social worker’s car, buckled him carefully into an unfamiliar car seat, and said goodbye.

At first we sustained ourselves with the belief that Jackson’s departure was only temporary. His birthmother had a newborn baby that she was, reportedly, barely able to manage. She had no job, no family support, a history of domestic violence with her live-in boyfriend and a pretty serious substance abuse problem. We figured that one long, hot summer weekend in public housing with two children under the age of 2 would do her in. They’d get drunk or high, get in a fight, the police would be called and our little boy would be back in our arms before his last sippy cup of milk had a chance to sour in our fridge. We kept his crib set up, his car seat strapped into the back of our Subaru, his tiny toothbrush in its holder next to the sink. Then we waited. And waited. And scoured the police logs in the local newspaper.

Summer turned to fall, and then to winter. Slowly, I began packing keepsakes into a plastic bin in the attic: photographs, board books, a pair of tiny faux-leather shoes. The car seat came out when we needed room for visiting relatives, as did the crib. When our social worker started emailing with information on other children available for adoption, we updated our paperwork and said yes. We finalized our son Charlie’s adoption in 2009 and brought home our son AJ in 2011. We were parents again, to two vibrant, active, beautiful toddlers whom we never would have met if Jackson had stayed. Yet, even as we moved on as a family of four, we insisted that our social worker keep our homestudy active. Just in case. In the end, it would be nearly four years before we would set eyes on Jackson again.

It was the spring of 2012 when we finally got the call from DCF. I recognized the number on my cell phone and knew instantly what it meant. My heart pounded as I answered, but there was no hesitation in my response: of course we would take Jackson. And, yes, his younger brother, too. I would like to say that I took a few moments to consider the impact their arrival would have on our other two children. I wish I would have at least called my husband at work and let his logic temper my emotions. Instead I rushed home, the only thought pounding through my brain: He’s coming back. My baby’s finally coming back.

A few hours later, the four of us were sitting around the dining room table, lingering over a frozen lasagna dinner that none of us had really tasted, when finally a brown Dodge Caravan pulled into the driveway. My chest tightened as we all scrambled from our seats to the front door.

“Let me go first,” I whispered, gently pushing past my husband and children and stumbling down the front steps.

It was dusk, the streetlights just starting to come on, with a light drizzle of rain. My hand shook as I opened the car door and peered into the backseat. The first thing I saw was a head of blonde curls. Patrick. We had seen him just once before, during his birthparents’ trial. I had commented then on his curly blonde hair — how much he looked like his father. The child nearest to me had matching blonde hair, but straight, with just a slight wave where it touched the nape of his neck. He had already climbed out of his car seat and was rummaging on the floor gathering up papers and crayons and putting them into a filthy gray backpack.

“Gimme that,” he said, grabbing a small plastic toy from his brother’s hand. When he spoke, Jackson’s voice was lower, raspier than I imagined it would be. When he looked up at me and accepted my hand of assistance out of the car, his sky blue eyes flitted across my face then looked away. I was a stranger. My stomach sank and I had a moment of doubt. But just as quickly, I forced the thoughts out of my mind.

Once inside the house, Jackson and Patrick stood silent in the hallway, looking small but surprisingly fierce. Charlie and AJ stood and stared back. This was it: the moment we had hoped and wished for, for so very long. I crouched down to their level and made the introductions, trying to keep my voice as light and cheerful as possible. After a few moments, the universal language of toys won out and Jackson and Patrick followed Charlie and AJ into the family room to play matchbox cars. I breathed a small sigh of relief. Their social worker handed me their sparse belongings: oversized winter coats and a backpack each with a few school papers and a change of underwear. Everything reeked of cigarette smoke.

“I picked them up right up from daycare,” he said, a bit apologetically.

“That’s OK,” I said. “They’re the same size as our boys. We have plenty of clothes. How long will they be here?”

“I don’t know. We’re in court tomorrow. Could be a few days; could be longer.”

He said his goodbyes to the boys and left.

Josh and I sat on the couch and watched the kids play. Four little boys. Four blonde heads bent over tiny toy cars. I was too filled with joy and relief to give any thought to the long-term consequences of what we had just done. All that mattered was that our son was home. A little rough around the edges, but we’d get him a bath and a haircut in the morning. We congratulated ourselves on never giving up on Jackson, on believing, in the words of John Lennon, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

If this were a fairy tale — the kind that social workers tell to prospective adoptive parents — then Jackson and Patrick would have been fast-tracked to adoption and never left our home again. We would have bought a bigger house and a bigger car and I would have happily quit my job to raise a gaggle of loud and crazy boys. It would have been hard, financially and emotionally, and friends and family would have thought we were crazy. But we would have known that it was meant to be, and would have thanked the fates that gave us four handsome, loving sons.

But that’s not what happened. I don’t know if that is ever what happens.

***

As I write this, it has been more than six years since that cool spring night when Jackson came back. In the end, he and his brother would stay with us for exactly 184 days. Six months. March through August.

At first I was just so relieved to have Jackson back that nothing else mattered. We bought the boys new shoes and new clothes and piles of books and toys. Four years of bottled up love poured out and it felt amazing to finally be able to give things to Jackson and do things for him and make sure that he had a belly full of healthy food and a warm bed to sleep in each night. Then there was the steady stream of well-wishers — friends who had known Jackson from before or who had heard his story — who brought banana bread and lasagna and bags of groceries straight from the store. A work colleague dropped off a truckload of bikes and scooters. A friend of a friend took up a collection among her book club members. In those first few weeks we were enveloped by a cloud of love and support and floated on the confidence that at last things were working out the way they should.

But the honeymoon was so very short. Then came the rages and the tantrums and the sleepless nights. The myriad doctor and dentist appointments. The weekly visits with birthparents. Plus the regular challenges of feeding, clothing, entertaining and cleaning up after four active preschoolers. I was exhausted. My temper was short. It was everything I had wanted, but nothing like I had imagined.

Read the rest of the story in the September/October 2018 issue of Fostering Families Today.

***

PART TWO

When 20-month-old Jackson was reunified with his birthmother after nearly a year in our home, my husband Josh and I were devastated. He was our first foster child, the one that social workers assured us we could adopt. Eventually we adopted two other children, but for years we held onto the hope that somehow Jackson would return to our lives. Four years later that finally happened: DCF asks us to take Jackson (now 5) and his 4-year-old brother Patrick as a foster placement. They join our adopted son Charlie (age 4) and our pre-adoptive son AJ (age 3). I am thrilled to have Jackson back, but devastated by how different the reality is from what I had imagined.

At first we assumed Jackson and Patrick would go quickly to a family member. They had an 18-year-old half-sister and an aunt who was now in their lives. We imagined a relationship like we had with Charlie and AJ’s former foster parents: visits, phone calls, exchanging Christmas cards. We’d be like extended family. When no relative stepped up, we let ourselves start thinking about the boys staying with us for the long term. We bought an SUV, started looking at larger houses. Then a social worker mentioned rehab, and suddenly we realized that DCF was going to give their birthparents another chance. And, as the “few days” that the boys were supposed to stay turned to weeks and then months, my feelings toward Jackson got complicated. I loved him. He was mine. Yet we had both led separate lives these past four years. He had formed attachments to his birth family; I had two other children to consider. We had promised that we would always be there for Jackson, no matter what. But at what cost?

My husband, Josh, and I have radically different memories of our six months with four preschool boys. When asked, he speaks of long sunny Saturdays at the beach; crowding into a sticky booth at the local pizza parlor with a large pepperoni and two large lemonades; and a game we’d play called “little ducks” where the boys would line up behind us, hands on their hips, and make quacking noises as we filed across the street or into a store. Despite the uncertainty about the boys’ future, Josh was able to remain in the moment and take each day as it came. I, the inveterate planner, was unable to cope with the unknown. I was constantly both planning for forever and bracing myself for the trauma of Jackson’s departure. It was an impossible mental exercise, and my memories of those months exist only in fragments, in moments fraught with anxiety — even panic — as I tried to reconcile my fantasies with the reality before me.

We are at the beach. The boys are running along the piles of rocks that form the border between the sand and the sidewalk. A child falls. There is a crack, followed by a high-pitched wail. I gather him into my arms and see blood and a gap in his front teeth. My first thought is of their birthparent visit in three days and I am overcome by panic. How will I explain this to the social worker? What will I say to prevent them from taking him?

It is 8 o’clock on a Sunday night and I am sitting on the floor of the boys’ bedroom, my back pressed against the closed door and my hands in front of my face as I try to protect myself from the toys and books that are being flung in my direction. It is roasting hot in the room but I have closed the windows so that the neighbors don’t hear the expletives that are spewing from Jackson’s mouth. When he eventually exhausts himself, more than an hour later, I join Josh downstairs where the other three boys are watching the end of a movie with the volume turned up too loud. My heart is pounding and my hands shake as I open a bottle of Chardonnay, drink three glasses and pass out on the couch.

We are sitting on the same couch, a few weeks later, and open between us is a photo album. I turn the pages slowly, pointing out people he doesn’t remember, places he doesn’t recognize, events that he has no memory of attending. In each of the photographs, usually front and center, is a baby — then toddler — with a wide smile and sparkling blue eyes. “Is that me?” Jackson whispers, and I nod and pull him in for a hug. For the rest of the time he is with us, whenever we meet someone new he will ask me, “Did I know them from before?” He seems pleased when my answer is yes.

It is a Tuesday morning and I wake early to make the boys a special breakfast. Things have been rough the past few weeks, but I’m determined to make a fresh start. They’re only kids. They’ve been through so much. I’m the adult. I can do better. I set the table with cloth napkins and lay out a spread of blueberry muffins, fruit salad and chocolate milk. Three children gobble down their breakfast, but one refuses. Jackson has eaten nothing but cold cereal and peanut butter sandwiches since his arrival and I’m determined to get something nutritious into his little body. I insist that he eat something. He refuses. I tell him he’s not leaving the table until he does. His eyes shoot daggers at me. I yell. I plead. I try to force small bits of fruit between his clenched lips. But he will go hungry before he relents. I finally send him to play with the others and clear the table.

We are at the dentist’s office. Not the one we usually go to, but the dingy one located next to the DMV in a neglected shopping mall. The dentist—the only one who will take the boys’ insurance—looks at me with disgust as he tells me that the boys will need surgery to remove their rotten and infected teeth. He gives me the address of a hospital in a nearby city and mutters something I can barely hear. My face flushes with anger but all I can stammer is, “I’m just the foster mom.”

I am sitting on the floor outside the bathroom and wiping the bottom of a pale, skinny 5-year-old Jackson. As I tug a pair of size 3 training diapers up his legs, I beg him, again, to let me know the next time he has an accident. “I’m not mad,” I say, trying to mean it. “It’s just not good to sit in that all day.” He refuses to make eye contact and shoves past me. As I watch him descend the stairs I slump against the wall and remember the first time I changed his diaper more than four years ago: how he giggled when I didn’t get the new one on fast enough and I ended up with a damp shirt. How I tickled his feet and blew raspberries on his tummy, then swept him up into a hug as we laughed and laughed and laughed.

I am on the phone with DCF, again. The boys’ social worker has not returned any of my phone calls or emails, but this time I have finally reached a district supervisor and I press the phone to one ear and my palm to the other as I try to hear her over the chaos of four preschoolers. No, she tells me, they can’t provide funding for daycare and the only child therapist they can refer me to is an hour and a half away. “But I have a job,” I say, my voice cracking under the strain of staying calm. “And two other kids. They’re having crazy tantrums, and pooping their pants. I don’t know what to do.” There is a pause on the other end, then I hear her cold response: “I can put in a request to have the boys moved if you can’t manage their behavior.” My stomach sinks and I assure her that we don’t want that, we’ll figure something out.

It is a beautiful summer Saturday and Josh is at the beach with the four boys. Throughout the day he texts me photos of the boys playing in the surf and building sandcastles. I spend the day doing laundry, grocery shopping, sending emails to social workers and seething. When they finally pile in through the front door later that evening — sandy and sunburnt — I scold. The car is filthy. They need baths. They’ve eaten nothing but junk food. Josh looks at me in bewilderment. “I thought you’d be happy that I got them out of your hair for the day.” I glare back. “I can’t do this all by myself,” I snap, then storm out of the room.

I am sitting in the front passenger seat of our Subaru with my arms wrapped around Jackson as he screams and thrashes. It is late — past 10 o’clock — and I had been afraid that the noise would wake the other boys. Usually I am not able to predict what will set off their rages, but tonight I know: we had received word that they will be leaving — within the week — to live with their birthmother in a residential rehab program several towns away. When his screams soften to sobs, I relax my grip and reposition him so his head is on my chest and I can stroke his hair. “Will I see you again?” Jackson asks. I can feel my eyes fill with tears but know that I can’t lie to him. “I don’t know.”.

This time, Jackson helps me pack up his things, selecting his favorite books and toys. We visit the playground of the school that he will attend and do a drive-by of the facility where they will live. This time when we say goodbye, there are no tears. The four boys exchange fist-bumps, we hug, and the boys buckle themselves into the social worker’s car. I am sad, but relieved. Shattered, but hopeful. Whatever happens, there are still two other little boys who need me.    

It is the fall, the boys have been gone for several weeks, and I work up the courage to call their birthmother. My plan is to suggest a meeting at a local park. The four boys could play and I could pass along some winter clothes that I picked up on sale. She is polite, but dismissive. I offer to call back again in a few days, to give her some time to think about it. I try not to sound too eager, too desperate. Later that week I receive a letter from DCF stating that I’m in violation of their confidentiality agreement and demanding that I cease contact. I am floored. I’d like to fight back, make the argument to DCF that it’s in the all the boys’ best interests to keep in touch. But we haven’t yet finalized AJ’s adoption — thanks to a two-year-long legal snafu — and I’m terrified that they’ll try to take him, too.

Six months go by and Josh and I find ourselves in the hallway outside a therapist’s office, paging through old issues of Newsweek and Yankee Magazine. Things should be better: we’ve finalized AJ’s adoption and I’ve quit my job to spend more time with our boys. This should be a time to rebuild our family, to reconnect as a family of four. But I am now the one creating chaos. I yell, scold, pick fights. Josh describes all this to the therapist and I shrug, unable to justify my behavior any more than I can control it. The therapist calls it depression and prescribes meds. But I know that the therapist is wrong: I’m not depressed, I’m angry. Furious. As full of rage as a traumatized 5-year-old tearing apart his bedroom. This is not what is supposed to happen. This is not how our story with Jackson is meant to end. We waited. We did our best when he returned. What are we supposed to do now? This time he’ll remember us.

I am not a religious person. I suspect the journey of foster-adoption may be easier for those who believe in a greater plan, who can turn their grief over to a higher power. I also recommend the support of a good therapist who understands that there is no such thing as a “foster” child, but only a child and a parent and a bond that reaches beyond genetics or the law. For me, the solace eventually came in the form of the two little boys who stayed and a husband with infinite patience. And time. Lots of time.

***

The day we brought Jackson home for the first time was a beautiful fall day in October 2007. Giddy with the excitement of new parents, we tucked his arms into a bright red fleece jacket and strapped Jackson into his new stroller for a walk. As we paraded proudly down the street, a neighbor who we had only barely met stopped us, exclaiming “I didn’t know you were pregnant!” We explained, and it turned out that he and his wife were new parents to a pair of 4-month-old twins. Kate and I became fast friends and spent most of the next year watching our three little boys crawl, then toddle, then walk around each other’s family rooms and back yards. We imagined lifelong friendships between the boys.

When Jackson came back four years later, Kate and her family had moved out of town. But as soon as she got word, she showed up on our doorstep with a pot of beef stew and a loaf of Italian bread. The four boys were playing matchbox cars in the family room and we stood in the doorway, watching them, for several minutes. “He’s small,” she noted. I nodded. “Did he recognize you?” I shook my head. She looked away from the boys and our eyes met. Unlike our other visitors, I suspect Kate understood the complexity of what we were facing even before I did. After a long moment, Kate pulled me into a hug and whispered, so quiet that I could pretend not to hear, “Is it good to have him back, or does this only make it worse?”

Even today, more than a decade after the first time I held Jackson in my arms, I’m not sure how to answer.

###

Copies of this essay are available from Fostering Families Today.

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