The first time I held my daughter was the day she was born. I was even given the amazing opportunity to be in the room when she was born but I did not give birth to her. I did not even know that she was my daughter. Had I known then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have been able to experience that the same way. I so often, desperately at times even, wish I could have the insight to what the future holds but I’m so thankful that in that moment, I had no idea what was about it come.
I stood to the left of this young woman and held her hand, counted her breaths, supported her legs, encouraged her strength, and told her how proud I was of her. I was her mentor after all. Some of that might have been expected in that role of mentor but I was also really proud of her. I believed she had the strength to make it through anything. She was such a pain the ass and yet one of the bravest people I knew. I was honored to be there with her.
After Charlie had been cleaned a bit and wrapped in the all too familiar hospital blanket it was my turn to hold that beautiful baby girl. I sat in the hospital chair holding her close, kissing her, and gently rubbing the softness of her little head. I was just staring at her in my own little world with her and in my mind asking myself over and over and over again, “did we do enough this time?”
I had learned that it wasn’t possible to totally fix the amount of broken in every young woman I worked with. I learned that there was pain and trauma that exceeded not only my ability but the ability of many others. I learned that no matter how hard I tried for them, for her, that she had to put so much more into it. I couldn’t heal for her although Lord knows I tried. Oh how I tried.
She had given birth to her first child when she was 16 years old. No one should be a mother at 16 but she definitely shouldn’t be. It was too much. She wasn’t able to cope with life before baby and oddly enough, having a baby doesn’t increase coping skills. She broke down. Eventually baby was removed and parental rights were terminated. Her first baby had been adopted into a family that was able and ready to care for her and love her. I still believe that Brandy loved her baby but love alone doesn’t fix what is broken either. I’ve tried that approach too.
The time between her first baby and having Charlie almost felt long enough that positive changes could have been made. There were moments of promise. Brandy was in a safe home and she was even enrolled in school. She had separated herself from individuals of bad influence and had maintained relationships with some of us who weren’t giving up on her. So many moments of promise. It’s what gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, she could do it better with this baby. I believed she could. My heart was telling me that she was a “success story” on the rise but my brain wasn’t too sure. As I held that baby asking if enough had been done this time, replaying in my mind how far Brandy had come, I was also replaying in my mind how far she still had to go. I knew that whatever journey she needed to be on in order to become that “success story” that it just got harder and that whatever that entailed, this little innocent baby girl was going to be forced to take that journey too. I held Charlie and as a million thoughts were running through my head, competing with the emotions in my heart, I just looked at her tiny little face and from my heart to hers I told her that I was going to be there. That I was going to do what I needed to do to help her and protect her. That I had been there for Brandy all along and I would be there for her too. Again, had I known then what I know now, I may not have been brave enough to even think that…or I might have been more specific as to what that looked like instead of just throwing it to the universe for it to be interpreted.
Around the time I met Brandy for the first time I had decided I did not want to be a mother. I had always thought I wanted to be a mom but that was because I was told I was supposed to be a mom. I was told that it was my responsibility, my duty, my purpose. I loved children and I was a woman so it just made sense that what I was told is what should happen. Then I started to learn all about the world in which we really lived in and I saw what some parents and children really experienced. I saw children with severe mental health issues and those who suffered deeply from abuse. I saw children with hungry bellies and those with drug addictions. I saw parents fight so hard for their children and those who appeared to not care. I heard painfully detailed stories of rape and kidnapping. I watched the impact of bullying. I heard moms desperately working with others to save their children from their own self-destruction and parents who too quickly gave up on their kids. I took children to drug treatment centers after their parents had been their drug dealers and I saw parents who gave up jobs to stay home or took out second mortgages to pay for their child’s rehab after learning that they had gotten mixed in with the wrong crowd. I saw what happened to the children who had been forced into sex slavery and what happened to their families and saw the evil that is drenched in this world. I comforted parents during their own child’s funeral. Do you know the sound of a mother’s cry after their child had died? I do. I can’t imagine the pain that produces that sound. I know how much my heart hurt and how much I cried for other people’s children and how angry I had become at the world around me. My heart and my brain were on the same page – I was not going to be a mom. I couldn’t handle it. I had accurately assumed that what I felt for someone else’s child was only going to be worse than I could imagine if they were my own. It was decided. I was not going to be a mom. I didn’t have the strength that I saw so many others have. I don’t even know how they did it.
So I had decided to help those who had decided to help other people’s children by being foster parents. Some of the strongest most amazing people I had met along my way were foster parents. I saw how much they gave of themselves for other people’s children and I saw that they so desperately needed a break at times so I decided that I would do respite foster care. That would allow me to offer help to foster parents every now and then to give them some time off while hopefully positively impacting a child. It would also still allow me to participate in working with victims of sex trafficking and spreading the movement of awareness, which had become my passion and my purpose. Being a mom wouldn’t allow me to do that as much as I was – just another reason why I knew I was doing the right thing.
After Charlie was born and went home with Brandy, it became a group effort to stay in contact with her. Working with any high-risk population and especially teenagers came with many challenges including staying connected. Locations and phone numbers change often. At times, there was just comfort in knowing that when a crisis hit, she usually reached out to someone if she thought we could help her. Understanding the dynamics of this specific situation and the behavior patterns she had, we knew when she was getting ready to bolt on one of us and we’d let others know so that someone else could touch base with her as we knew that we would have to wait for a crisis to hear from her if we didn’t strategically stay connected. I had promised that little baby that I was going to do what I could to make sure she stayed safe and I was doing everything I knew how to make that happen. In the moment, it was just making sure that we could stay connected with Brandy. That meant that she was as safe as she could be under the circumstances.
A point had come when we started to become very concerned with Charlie’s wellbeing and development. We knew that if it wasn’t handled correctly, Brandy would stop talking to everyone and we’d probably never see her again. We apparently weren’t the only ones with concerns as someone had actually called CPS and reported concerns of child abuse – and no, it was not me who made the call. In fact, I was shocked when I found out for many, many reasons! But I am so thankful that I was still in contact with her and that in her moment of crisis when she found out that CPS had been called, I was the one she called. She called me crying and scared but the fact that she called showed incredible progress in some of her coping skills. I was so proud of her. I told her that she needed to call them back and do whatever they tell her to do and that if she needs me to call me back. She called me back and told me that they were requesting her to bring the baby to the office. I told her to do it and asked if she needed a ride, which she didn’t but I gave her rides everywhere else, why not the CPS office? I went through the same steps I always did with her in reminding her how and when to use what coping skills to ensure that she did not get angry or say or do something that would result in her getting angry. We rehearsed it like we had many times before in different situations. She went to the office. I was so proud of her. This showed amazing growth as at any time she could have just up and left with the baby. I told her that if at any point she felt like she wasn’t able to handle the situation to call me and that I’d be down there. She did call me. I did go. She was able to leave and return home with the baby and CPS said that they would schedule a home visit since at the office they did not find any immediate substantiated evidence of the direct reason of that CPS call, which had been physical abuse. In the CPS land, they must first investigate the reason for the report to determine if a child needs to be removed. Then they are allowed 72 hours to complete any additional investigation to determine if removing a child is the best course of action. I returned home thinking to myself that this event showed how much she has grown and improved in how she handled the situation. I don’t even think she said “fuck” until we were in the parking lot! HUGE success! My heart was hopeful.
However, during the CPS investigation that takes place between the initial office and the home visit, there was substantial evidence found that she was severely neglecting her child and was not providing her a safe and stable home and was not meeting her needs that would have allowed Charlie to thrive. The CPS investigator had contacted me as I had met her during the office visit and she had found out that I was a licensed foster home without a current placement. I didn’t have a placement because I wasn’t going to have a child in my care full time so it isn’t surprising that it showed I had a vacancy. She called me and asked me if I would consider being a placement. I had told her no but that I would do whatever was necessary to work with Brandy and assist in reunification. She called me again and told me that they were headed over to the house to pick up the baby and wanted to check to see again if they could place her with me. Again, I said no. CPS went to the address in which she was staying and removed Charlie from the home. When they arrived and were able to better assess the situation the investigator decided that Charlie needed to be placed in a medical observation foster home which is a higher level of care than most licensed foster homes. CPS called me, filled me in on what was happening and where she was going, and again and asked me if I would consider as they felt that it would be the best placement for her once they gave the “ok” from the medical observation she was in. I didn’t give her an immediate “no” this time. This time I called my mom and my best friend and they both seemed to believe in me more than I believed in myself. I called CPS back and I told them that my role was to be a mentor to this young woman and that I would be a placement for the baby if they assisted in helping me set boundaries that allowed me to hold both roles as mentor and foster parent. The only way I could do it is if it appeared that someone other than myself set those boundaries with her. They gladly did so and even assisted in directing the conversation so that it appeared that Brandy had the choice in me being the foster placement. Making things seem like it was her decision was a tactic I knew well.
I ran around as quickly as I could to get a few items in order to bring her home. She was coming with nothing. As often the viewpoint of a parent, if CPS is going to take their child then CPS (the foster family) can figure out how to provide her clothes, diapers, food etc. Charlie was coming with the pajamas she had on and a blanket that was sent by the medical observation home she was in. I was so ready. I knew what I was doing and how to do it. I was a professional. I was trained. I was ready.
I was not ready. Not only was I not ready to go from single to having a 6 month old full time which included sleepless nights, child care drop offs and moving work schedules, CPS visits and foster care licensing visits but I wasn’t ready to see the full extent of how much neglect this sweet baby had already experienced. My heart was broken. My heart was angry. I felt like I had not only let her down but Brandy down as well. Although she had shown such incredible improvements in different areas of her life, her ability to parent was not improved. I thought that things were better than they were. And they were, actually, but yet still really bad. I had come to learn how little Charlie had been held and that she hadn’t been held for a bottle since she was two weeks old. I learned that she couldn’t be held toward me and that the only way to calm her down was to leave her alone and that actually holding her stressed her little body. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I should have done better by both of them. Even though I know in my heart that I couldn’t and that I did more than I could at times, it is different and frustrating to have what you couldn’t fix sitting in front of you. I can’t tell you how many times I cried in the waves of emotions I was feeling. I wanted to do whatever I could for this young woman because I still believed in her. I still loved her. But I had promised that baby the day she was born that I was going to protect her. My heart and soul were torn.
It didn’t take long, as anticipated, for Brandy to be angry with me. That was expected. A court order was quickly put in place that said I was not to have any direct contact with her and that my first role was now foster mom and not mentor. I felt like I had let her down while at the same time feeling like I was doing what I was supposed to do for that little baby. Brandy stopped participating in all efforts to reunify with her child. I haven’t seen her since.
It didn’t take long for CPS to ask me to consider adoption. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. My role was foster mom and to support the plan of reunification. I wasn’t going to be a mom. I was temporary. I agreed to this because I did what needed to be done. I agreed to this because I loved that baby and I loved her mom. I did this because I could and because I was blessed with amazing support of friends and family. I did this because it was the right thing to do. I did not do this so I could be a mom. The only emotion I could compare it to be like was what I expect a teenager who was on birth control and used a condom and had sex for the first time and became pregnant. That feeling of being not ready and taking every precaution possible to avoid a potential outcome of behavior only to have it fail. My heart was in my stomach. I was devastated. I was crying. I had these waves of emotions that directly connected with every reason why I didn’t want to be a mom. I was so worried and terrified. What was I going to do? I called my mom and my best friend. I don’t know (and at times still don’t know) how they could believe in me so much. I just knew they had to be lying. After all, would they actually say, “Nope – you suck, you can’t be her mom”? No, they wouldn’t because they are nice people and that’s not a nice thing to say even if it was the truth. I think I asked them a million times just knowing that at least once they’d slip up and tell me the truth, that I wasn’t ready or capable and saying yes was going to be a bad decision. But they didn’t. The time came in which I had to say yes or no because if I said no, they needed to find a different home for her. They needed to find her a family. But I was her family. I can’t explain what happens in the space between the fear of being a mom and the fear of not being her mom. I can’t tell you how many times I had to call my mom or friends or how many times I cried and how many times I played out the every single possible scenario of “what ifs” (I’m a pro at those!). I can’t tell you how many nights I didn’t sleep or that no matter how certain I was that this was in fact the most right thing I could ever do in my life, it felt wrong to be so happy with her. I like to tell people this part of the story sometimes because people think that saying, “yes” to adopting a child is a no-brainer but it isn’t. For some, it’s complicated.
The past two years are almost a blur of emotional chaos. I now can’t imagine not being Charlie’s mom. I don’t feel like it was an accident. I feel like she’s been mine all along. I wouldn’t have picked this journey for Charlie, for Brandy, or for myself but it’s the journey that created my little family. Charlie has seeped into every little broken piece of my heart caused by watching other children hurt and filled in all the space. I don’t even know how she did it. I’m now a mildly paranoid and over protective mother in some ways, but I’m a mom. I’m her mom. When I held her the day she was born, so tiny, so perfect, and promised her that I would be there for her and that I would do what was necessary to keep her safe, this was not my plan. This was a way better plan than I had.
I can’t fix the broken that brought her to me. I even know on some level that I can’t keep her from becoming broken. Who knows what life will bring to us along the way – no doubt there will be some moments that are going to make breathing hard and my heart hurt and hers too but for now, she is my reason for breathing and the reason my heart is whole.
I love you Charlie!