Longing for a child and faced with infertility, couple looks to foster care
By Yvonne Wenger
Without a hint of alarm, the doctor told me to go ahead and sit up on the exam table. The procedure was finished. I stared at the white-and-gray image on the X-ray monitor. The physician tried to gently explain what was wrong with me.
Walking back to the parking lot, I felt like I was sinking. I climbed inside my car and Googled the diagnosis for a congenital condition I’d never heard of. I started to scan online links, horrified at the mentions of surgeries and miscarriages, babies born with deformities because they did not have enough room to grow.
The tears came quickly and spilled down my face. I slipped the phone in my purse and tried to stop crying on my drive to work.
Then 35, I’d been on the journey to becoming a mother for a long time. The years brought other people’s baby showers, month after month of romance-killing scheduled sex, therapy, disappointment, waiting. The empty bedroom across the hall. It nearly tore my husband and me apart.
Shortly after we closed on our first house nine years ago, my husband, Artie Nordstrom, and I knew we wanted to start trying to have a family. I made our plans official one night at a book club, announcing to my girlfriends why I had skipped the wine: We were trying to have a baby.
By the time I found myself at the infertility clinic in 2015, nearly every one of the women from that book club had gotten pregnant and had a child. Some had two.
My gynecologist had told me to be patient. Forever optimistic, I had believed, sure that my turn would come. I was certain nothing was wrong. But inside our small rowhome near Hampden, with each passing month and negative pregnancy test, an emptiness was growing.
I would see the families in my neighborhood, rushing past me after work. In the alleys behind our rowhomes in Baltimore, parents would be wrangling their children from their cars. They would be lugging backpacks and basketballs and science projects. Or they’d be holding each other's hands. They would give me a quick nod or a wave.
Meanwhile, at my house, all the lights would be off. My husband would be sleeping upstairs before his early-morning shift at a shipping terminal. I had no reason to rush home from work, and he had no reason to wait up for me to get home.
After doctors discovered what was wrong with me, Artie and I were at a crossroads.
We wrestled over what to do. We could decide on surgery to repair my malformed uterus, which had developed with a muscular wall cutting it in half. It would require two or three surgeries, each with at least a six-month recovery. Even then, there was no guarantee I could conceive.
We considered not having children. But I thought back to my warm and busy childhood inbucolic Lancaster County, Pa. In the evenings, my mom would usually be finishing up dinner in the kitchen, just as I would feel the rumbles on my bedroom floor from the garage door opening, welcoming my dad home from work. My parents, brother and I would gather around a wobbly Formica table for a meal and a conversation. Before or after, we had a whirlwind of activities: homework, walks with the dog, Little League, yard work, dates and fights over the phone. My mom packed our lunches, and my dad came to every one of my basketball games, even though I was mostly on the bench.
I’d always envisioned a life like that as an adult, with Artie. One day, when we were old, would we regret not going to greater lengths to have children?
For his part, my husband wanted to carry on a legacy. He is Arthur Hugo Nordstrom IV. The first in the line, a U.S. Army colonel and lawyer, is the named plaintiff in a 1965 Supreme Court decision. The second helped send rockets into space. The third, Artie’s father, had risen to be a senior scientist before he died of cancer in his late 20s.
On the way to our wedding, Artie’s grandfather told him it was his dream to see a fifth in the succession.
“I had this name; my dad had this name,” Artie said. “I was supposed to carry on this tradition — it just wasn’t going to happen.”
And he remembered the big beach gatherings his family had when he was a kid. It hurt that we didn’t have children, that the house was so quiet.
Our decision emerged gradually, in the small moments. Seeing a child clasp his mother’s hand, scrolling through Facebook and finding photos of kids on their front steps on the first day of school.
We yearned for that.
And we were being broken, bickering and retreating to different corners of the house. This was not the life either of us wanted.
We decided that we wanted photo albums bursting with school pictures, trips to Disney World and ordinary life — blowing out birthday candles, jumping in a pool. We knew we wanted children and grandchildren, a home filled with love and memories.
I am a reporter, assigned then to cover City Hall and politics, so I started making calls, searching online and digging into data. I needed to understand our options.
International adoption could take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. The situation was similar with domestic adoption. To me, it seemed that each one of those healthy babies had a home ready for them. There were couples waiting and praying for their chance to adopt.
About the series
When reporter Yvonne Wenger set out to become a foster parent, she looked for an honest story that would open up this complicated world. She couldn’t find one. So she set out to write it. “The Wait” began with 73 pages of journaling about life as a foster mother — and the moral dilemmas she navigated over two years. The father of her foster sons granted permission to include them here. Yvonne's story draws on her journal, medical records, interviews, pictures and documents. “The Wait” comes amid a shortage of foster parents nationwide, as the number of foster kids awaiting adoption — 123,437 — hits a nine-year high.
All this time, across the hallway from our bedroom was anotherroom, an empty one, waiting like we were.
More and more, I found myself thinking about foster care, even to the first time I heard a mention of it. I was maybe a fourth-grader, and it was a searing moment, to understand that some children were in temporary care and might never be adopted.
I looked up the numbers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 120,000 children in foster care were waiting to be adopted — and the number has only grown. In Maryland, thousands needed homes, most temporarily and some permanently.And with the opioid epidemic, more children are entering the system. Yet there are not enough foster parents. Experts call it a significant shortage.
But was I strong enough? I could fall in love, and the child would likely be taken away, possibly sent back to challenging conditions. I could run out of time to become a parent. My 40s were rapidly approaching, and giving the next few years to foster care might mean losing other options.
In my head, I kept hearing: This will only break your heart. This will only break your heart.
At the same time, another voice, in my soul, was answering: I can do this. These children are right here in the same city. Why would I go anywhere else?
When my decision came, it was like a switch turned on. I could do this. I wanted to do this.
In my head, I kept hearing: This will only break your heart. This will only break your heart.
I needed Artie’s commitment to do it together. He agonized over the state of the world that would be left to the children of this generation. We also talked about where we knew we could make a difference. He felt as I did: There were children right here who needed safe and warm places. Maybe one day we could find one, or even two,foster children who could join our family forever. He agreed to start taking classes.
We found ourselves in a dark room, with videos playing. On the screen, a 4- or 5-year-old girl in a kitchen chair was stringing together curse words in a tirade before dinner. A little boy was pulling up his foster mother’s flower beds in a fit of emotion.
It was part of the 27 hours of training, done through the city Department of Social Services, that teaches the basics of becoming a foster parent. The process reinforces the ban on corporal punishment and tries to prepare you for the worst damage a person can do to a child.
Most children enter foster care because of neglect, but the workers tried to expose us to unimaginable scenarios. They played audio of children speaking about being raped or beaten.
Many of us there were hoping to adopt, but agency staff and experienced foster parents made it clear:The point of foster parenting is to keep children safe and healthy until their parents are able to bring them home. Whenever possible, the goal is to reunify children with their parents. Today, across the country, more than half of children in foster care will ultimately go home.
It’s a philosophy that’s been emphasized more, as officials recognized that some children are removed from their homes too quickly, and that children of color are disproportionately put into the system. The calls are tough. When social workers misinterpret or overlook the risk, kids can be left in dangerous situations.
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More recently, advocates and officials are intervening earlier with at-risk families, giving support and, if possible, keeping families together.
But more than a quarter of these children will wind up being placedfor adoption. In fact, most children adopted nationwide are placed from foster care. Social workers and judges decide to do this when the parents have not met the agency’s criteria or fulfilled goals to care for the children. The parents can also voluntarily sign away their rights. Other children live with long-term guardians, like relatives, or age out of the system. Many of those awaiting adoption also essentially age out, because they never find families who will take them in.
To become a foster parent
Prospective foster parents must go through a licensing process that can vary based on where they live. For details, call the state Department of Human Services at 888-635-4372 or click here.
Even though we wanted to adopt, I knew in my heart we could be good foster parents. We could take care of someone else’s children, until their parents were able to take them back. We were willing to gamble, and we felt we still had a window of time for other options, if we were not lucky enough to build a permanent family through foster care. Our room was empty, and our hearts were open.
We could wait for a forever child, or we could give that space to foster children who needed it.
We charged forward. As part of getting our foster-care license, every part of our life was scrutinized: The agency required references, ran criminal background checks, reviewed our finances, sent us for psychological exams, physicals and tuberculosis tests.
Then, days before we were to start accepting children, we got a call from one of Artie’s family members. He was worried that foster care might be a long and painful route to build a family. He had $30,000 he was prepared to put in an account for us, if we wanted to adopt through a private agency.
I put him on speaker phone. Artie and I exchanged knowing glances. We did not even need to discuss it. Artie told him we were grateful for the offer, but for now we knew what we wanted: We were going to be foster parents.
In May, after I finished covering Baltimore’s mayoral primary, we got our first call, for a pregnant teenager. We said no, because we only wanted to accept children 5 or younger.
The next day, I got another call. It was about 5 p.m., and I was at my desk at work.
“Can you take a 15-month-old boy abandoned by his mother?”
I forgot the questions I had planned to ask. “How long is he committed to care?” “Is he a known fire starter?” The word “abandoned” signaled to me the possibility that he could be available for adoption. We wanted to take a pair of brothers, but this placement was an exciting start.
I rushed home.
In preparation for this moment, I already had pajamas in various sizes tucked in a dresser, as instructors told us that the children often came with nothing more than what they were wearing. I stopped at the store for diapers and milk.
Walking up to the door, I felt a great light inside. I knew that, for the first time in my life, there was a child waiting for me.
The boywas sitting next to Artie on our red sofa. His eyes were big and red from crying. He was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, the collar stained with purple juice. In a plastic bag, he had a Star Wars hoodie, an extra T-shirt, a bottle and a diaper. Though we did not express a preference for the race of a foster child, the little boy was white, as my husband and I are. His hair had a touch of red, a mix between my auburn hair and Artie’s dirty blond. He looked a little like us.
He did not smile. He pulled on our old beagle’s legs and looked around, searching for something familiar.
That cool spring night, it felt like I was stepping into the role I had dreamed of all those years. We filled the bathtub with lukewarm water and plastic toys, washed him and dressed him in dinosaur PJs. We tried to feed him, but he wasn’t hungry.
At what we thought was bedtime, I carried him into the room that had been empty for so long. Now, therewere children’s books on the shelves, buckets of stuffed animals on the floor and a classic white crib. In the corner was the tan glider I’d found at a yard sale. I sat in it tosnuggle and read to him. I turned off the overhead light and tried to hold him while he finished his milk.
He seemed agitated, not able to be comforted.
I reached for the one lullaby I could think of. I started to rock him, and the melody that had long been buried inside of me came out. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star ...”
But my whispery, off-tune voice was cut off as he thrashed around in my arms. I put him in the crib, and he wailed even more. He was getting sweaty and red-faced. I knew he was scared. I found myself thinking about the parents who weren’t there that night. Was this the start of our family, and if it was, was it going to be built on the worst day of someone else’s life? Could this chubby little boy, with his reddish hair, one day be my child?
He finally fell asleep in my arms. The next morning, he was roaming the kitchen like a wrecking ball, pulling out plastic containers from the cabinets. As I followed, the phone rang. It was the agency.
Would we take his 9-year-old brother?
My mind searched for the answer. We wanted to take in siblings, but we had no idea how to handle a bigger kid’s fears or potentially troubling behavior. Separating brothers when they needed each other so badly seemed wrong, but we had agreed to take only young kids.
Yvonne Wenger formerly wrote about poverty, social welfare and all matters that stand in the way of a thriving Maryland. She’s written about veterans affairs, Baltimore politics and governance and communities working to overcome the legacy of structural racism. Wenger grew up in Lancaster, Pa. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and daughter.