Baby Jennifer's Story
Baby Jenn’s birth mother had been addicted to heroin for six years when Jenn was conceived. Halfway through the pregnancy Mary* finally told her parents. Her dad gave her five hundred dollars to abort the baby, but Mary used the money for drugs and hid her pregnancy from her parents until she was in labor.
Jenn was born full term with thirteen different illegal substances in her system. She was addicted to heroin and began to scream and shake within hours of birth. The doctors immediately transferred her to a hospital with a newborn intensive care unit. Mary tried to make an adoption plan for her baby. She signed all the appropriate papers with an adoption agency, but with no birth father sign off, Jenn went into foster care.
I was called in when Jenn had been in the hospital for two weeks.
“I have another baby for you,” our licensing worker told me over the phone. My sister, who was helping me clean the attic at the time, began jumping up and down.
“Say yes, say yes!” she whisper-yelled.
“We’ve just been hit with so many newborns this month,” the licensing worker went on. “We’ve run out of homes for them. But I thought of you for this one because you’re willing to adopt. Megan’s (our other foster baby) future is uncertain, and this baby is definitely going to adoption. It will be good for you to have one you know will stay while you go through everything with Megan.”
It was an insane idea. We had five birth kids ranging from two to thirteen, and we were homeschooling them. We had brought our first foster baby home only two weeks earlier. But, somehow I couldn’t say no.
The first time I saw Jenn her legal name was “Unknown.” (After a few days, her child protective services worker called; he was thrilled that he had gotten her name legally changed to “Baby Girl Williams” instead. He was surprised that I didn’t think this a vast improvement.) She lay in a clear plastic bassinet, wrapped in a hospital issue blanket, wearing a hospital issue hat. Thanks to a paperwork snafu, they wouldn’t let me hold her. In fact, no one but the occasional overworked nurse had held her for her entire life, because birth mom hadn’t signed a paper allowing it. Jenn lay there alone for lack of a simple form, and thanks to caseworker incompetence, I couldn’t hold her either for three days after we were called.
“Why does her ID bracelet say BUFA?” I asked a nurse.
“It means ‘baby up for adoption.”
It seemed cold.
I signed the papers saying everyone and their uncle could visit and hold this baby as much as they pleased. My parents, in laws, siblings, siblings-in-law, and friends were there with her around the clock, holding her, feeding her, advocating for her. I was there every day, bringing along Baby Meggie and one of my sons. We would sit kangarooing with both babies and reading aloud to them. (Someday Jenn and Meg will wonder why they have this great love of Jane Austin.)
A baby who has had no name for more than two weeks needs a name with meaning, carefully chosen by people who love her. Matt and I struggled and prayed over what that name should be. After a few days, praying over her, holding her, looking at her, researching meanings, we knew that she was Jennifer Elizabeth. Jennifer for my sister, Elizabeth for Matt’s mom, a name that claimed her, connected her to us. I wrote it on the white board beside her bassinet while Matt rocked her in the chair.
But, a question niggled. Were we what was best for her? Were we crazy to bring home a second newborn? Jenn was a mere twenty-two hours younger than Meggie. For days I prayed and held her, prayed and drove home, prayed and cared for Meggie overnight, prayed and drove back to the hospital. And God answered. Out loud and clear as day. Call me crazy, if you want. Call me sleep deprived. Call me a hallucinator. I still know what I heard today, as surely as I did that day, gazing down at her tiny form in her little bassinet:
“Take care of this baby and love her as your own.”
And we did. We fought for that baby. She was difficult. She spent four months going through drug withdrawal. There was every indication of early and severe autism. She didn’t want to be held, but we held her. She didn’t want to be cuddled, but we cuddled her. Her body was stiff and unbending, we worked her limbs. We snuggled her, wore her everywhere close against us, skin to skin. We wrapped her up with Meggie, put them together in the swing, in the bouncer, in the stroller seat. Meggie would pat at Jenn’s face and gnaw on her hands or hair. And slowly Jenn began to come out of it. She cried less. Her twitching decreased. Her digestion regulated. She calmed and settled when we picked her up, rather than crying to be put down. She stared at human faces instead of avoiding eye contact.
I cried when she first smiled at me and sobbed even as I rejoiced over her first laugh.
Then Meggie left us. At five and a half months the inseparable babies, who had been like twins, were torn apart. Jenn grieved with me. She stopped smiling. She grew stiff again. She regressed, but we pulled her back. I don’t know how I would have survived Meggie leaving without Jenn there needing me to be strong.
Then, when she was six months old, Jenn’s birth father, never interested or involved before, showed up at a court hearing. He and Mary were getting back together. Mary had changed her mind and wanted the baby back. He was the way for that to happen. I knew then that we were going to lose her, but I fought it. Why would God have told me to love her as my own, if she wasn’t going to be my own?
The caseworker did a lot of very evil and painful things at this point. The hardest was when eight month old Jenn was sick and needed special care and daily physical therapy. The caseworker, angry that I filed a complaint over her violating policies and breaking laws, sent Jenn on a five day visit with her birth parents.
Until that point Jenn had never been away from me for more than two hours. The caseworker carefully orchestrated it so that I wouldn’t have warning, would show up thinking I was just bringing Jenn to her scheduled two hour visit, so the caseworker could suddenly spring the news on me that Jenn would actually be gone for five days. She sent Jenn off sick, against doctor’s orders, without training the birth parents in her care or physical therapy. And she smiled as she did it.
My heart still breaks when I think how happy Jenn was to see us again after that visit. She couldn’t talk yet, but she made a soft hooting sound when she was happy. She saw me coming and began hooting and squealing and waving her little arms and feet. She was giddy for the rest of the day, but wouldn’t let me or most of the kids out of her sight without screaming.
And then the end.
An emergency court hearing with the goal of reunification. Now a seven year heroin addict, Mary had been out of rehab for a full week. This had been Mary’s fifth trip through rehab. The caseworker told the judge she was certain Mary wouldn’t relapse.
The judge ordered that she be given to the birth parents, but that given how long Jenn had been with us and how strong her attachment was, the move should be gradual, “taking longer than ten days.”
The next morning, the caseworker called and told me to have Jenn at the office (an hour away) in an hour. I packed up her clothes, her formula, her toys, and a case of diapers. I tried to lay her teddy bear in the top of the box, but I couldn’t. I needed to keep that little piece of her. I set it back on the rocking chair.
Two of my sisters came with me. My other sisters and my parents stayed home with my kids. I handed Jenn to her birth father, and stroked her cheek. She didn’t meet my eye. I took in her pink helmet, her huge blue eyes, her chubby body clothed in purple polka-dot pajamas, and I turned and walked away.
I never saw her again.
Today is the two year anniversary of that day. It’s hard because I feel there is an acceptable amount of time society allows for us to grieve. One year, and then you better be over it. But, grief never ends. It changes, but it doesn’t go away. That empty hollow feeling that lightly covers a well of pain is always there. It’s there when I see Jenn’s little outfits being worn by my niece. It’s there when I look into Jenn’s crib and see a different baby (one I love just as much, also destined to leave me). It’s there when I reach for the phone, but can’t force myself to call and see how she is, because I’m so afraid of the truth. The grief will always be there. And that’s okay.
And once in a while I let myself dream, imagine a day in the future… I answer the door to find a teenage girl, slim and a little shorter than average, with familiar blue eyes and sunny smile. I recognize Jenn at once, come to meet the family that loved her first.