The Wait

Was love holding on or letting go? As foster sons reunite with father, couple open hearts to possible daughter

The baby was sleeping in a cradle, flush against my bed. I could easily reach in and feel her tiny chest, rising and falling with each breath.

Up until that night, the bassinet had been in the corner, an extra piece of furniture filled with running gear and laundry. Now, it held an infant, just two days old. I tried to sleep, but my mind was jumbled with questions. I plugged the straightforward ones into Google: How much formula do newborns eat? What happens to the umbilical cord?

Other questions weren’t so easy: Could this really be happening? Was it possible my husband and I might be able to adopt this beautiful baby girl? And what if this whole thing was just a big mistake?

Chapter 2: ‘Will I be here forever?’ With foster brothers, they stitched together a temporary family »

I stared at her for hours that night. She had a tiny mouth like a rosebud, dark eyes she barely kept open, soft brown skin and a head full of curly black hair.

Across the hall, our 2-and-a-half-year-old foster son cried out from a nightmare. As I walked into his room, the infant in my arms, he looked incredulously at me and asked, “Baby?”

She was just coming into our lives. And our foster son, after being with us for more than half of his life, was likely to be reunited with his father and brother. My husband, Artie Nordstrom, and I had spent nine years trying to become parents, confronting infertility and ultimately deciding to become foster parents. We knew it was a risk, to give our late 30s to a process that emphasized reunifying families, instead of finding a direct route to building ours.

Now we might finally be getting what we’d yearned for: a chance to keep a child forever. But the joy of every milestone in the coming months would be tainted by sadness in the certainty that the toddler we adored was headed home — and by the fear of losing this baby. All the emotions and heartache of my journey to becoming a mother were colliding in space and time.

At first, with this baby girl, it seemed all we wished for was coming true.

When the placement worker called me about the baby the night before, she told me that the birth mother had wanted to place the girl up for adoption. All we knew was that the woman was young, was not able to care for the infant and had one request: that the baby be placed with a loving family. But the mother had also named a possible father, who had been contacted. If a paternity test was positive, he had said he wanted to raise the baby.

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I prayed to be able to accept it, if God decided that going home to a natural father was best for the baby. She would never have to wonder where she came from, or what it would be like to have parents who were black, like her, not white, like us. Artie and I never had a preference for the race of the child we might be lucky enough to adopt, but we realized raising an African-American daughter would come with challenges, especially for her. Would we be able to teach her, comfort her, support her in the ways she would need as she moved through this life as a girl, and eventually as a woman?

But as the days passed, and I spent more time staring in her eyes, my prayer changed: I was desperate to keep her. Please be mine. Please let her stay. Please let the paternity test be negative. I said it 5,000 times a day in my head.

Two weeks later, the social worker called. I was at work.

“Brace yourself,” she said. “He is not the father.”

I felt shock waves; I had been certain the test would be positive. The pain of all of those years I spent trying to build a family was leaving my body. I started to sob.

But relief was short lived. The next morning, the social worker called. She told us to bring the baby to the courthouse.

I knew adoption of a newborn from foster care was not typical. Most foster children will return home, like our older foster son did. I was terrified there had been a mistake.

Walking in, holding the baby, I looked around. It turned out that the birth mother had received a notice about a hearing, and even though she’d been assured she didn’t have to go, she had unexpectedly shown up. I was shuffled to an office to wait. I cradled the little girl, wondering if I would have to hand her back. Was this the last time I would hold her?

Soon, an attorney ended my anguish. This young woman hadn't changed her mind. She wanted an open adoption. We wound up sitting down with a mediator and social worker to draw up the agreement.

Even though the baby couldn’t legally be ours for months, we came up with guidelines. The mother could see the baby each year on the child’s birthday, and we set up a way to share photos. Later, we all went into a courtroom, where the mother stood before the judge.

She looked so small, so vulnerable. I felt like I should go up and stand next to her. The judge asked her three times if she was sure of her decision. Artie had not squeezed my hand so tightly since our wedding day.

Did she have any regrets? I worried. Is this what is best for her?

She seemed so brave. She wanted to go to college. She said she was certain.

Afterward, in the hallway, I asked the young woman if I could hug her. She said yes. I held her close for a moment. Then I looked into her eyes — the same eyes as the baby I would love forever.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

She whispered back, “Thank you.”

It was a heart-stopping turn of events.

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As soon as I exhaled, I realized I was confronting another timeline, another wait. I felt clobbered by the heaviness of it all. The birth mother still had time to change her mind, and the birth father could step forward. Several more months would pass before their parental rights were terminated. Even when that day came in mid-winter, it would take another five months for the adoption to be finalized.

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But every day, every week, I got better at caring for a newborn. Soon enough, as I had with our foster boys, I came to know this baby by heart.

Only I knew she spit up the minute you buckled her into her car seat. Only I knew she sucked her right thumb, not her left, and pounded her legs when she was happy. It was Artie and me she looked for when she was in anyone else’s arms.

The baby had been given a legal name, one picked out by a social worker. But my husband and I had one in mind to give her: Adeline. It was a name we picked out at dinner nine years ago, when we first decided to start trying to have children. But I did not dare say it out loud yet.

Until the adoption was finalized, the child was officially a ward of the state. That meant, to my understanding, social workers could take her from us at any time. And just as I’d analyzed every detail about whether we might get a chance to adopt our foster sons — which seemed a possibility at one point — I now found myself anguishing over possibilities with the little girl.

I had no legal protections for her while her case moved through a strict protocol to make her free for adoption.

Terminating a parent’s rights involves a complicated legal process, even when the mother and father voluntarily forfeit their rights. The process can stretch for months or years and involve hearings, lawyers and social workers. Sometimes, the workers have to search for the parents to ask whether they want to be reunified with their child or free them for adoption to family members or foster parents.

In situations where children have been taken from their parents, foster care workers develop case plans with goals for the birth parents to reach. Unless a parent waives their rights, workers must give the mother or father more than a year to work toward the goals. That could include anger management classes, rehab and sobriety tests, supervised visitation or steady employment and a reliable home free of dangers. The length of jail sentences can be a factor. The parents also can challenge any findings in court.

Though we didn’t face a court battle, I was afraid. If I fell down my steep wooden staircase with Adeline in my arms, and she was hurt, would they take her from us? If Artie died in a car accident, and I became a single parent, would they take her from me? Would a social worker decide on personal prerogative that she would be better off with other parents and take her from us?

Our foster toddler’s situation also weighed on me. After almost two years, he felt like our son. Compared to that first night when I couldn’t comfort him in the nursery, we knew every detail about him. He called us “Mama” and “Daddy.” We knew his favorite book, an oversized one filled with colorful pictures of Thomas the train.

When the life-size version of Thomas visited the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, we were there. We looked like every other family, ordinary parents taking pictures of their son, hugging and kissing him. But our family was only temporary.

We always tried to honor the boys’ relationship with their parents and help the family stay connected. Before the toddler’s older brother was reunited with their father, I had him text his parents each night and call when he got his report cards. We took the boys shopping to pick out presents and flowers on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. I picked up a used crib and stroller for them, to help them get ready for the kids’ return.

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And the boys’ parents let us know they appreciated it. In a letter their father wrote us, he asked us to be their godparents. Later, he texted me a picture of photos on a wall at his home, including ones of us with the boys. The pictures were hung in the shape of a cross.

Still, I began to wonder: If I loved this toddler, how could I be preparing for him to go back to a situation the state once feared was so unsafe he had to be removed? If I loved this child, what lengths should I go to for him?

For a long time, I mulled a possible path forward. Could we all raise the boys together? Then one day, during a Sunday pick-up after the toddler’s weekend visit with his father, I mustered my courage.

“Would you ever consider, if life got too overwhelming, an open adoption?”

But even as the words came out, I could feel myself wanting to disappear. Who was I to suggest that? He was their father, fighting to bring the boys home.

He met me with kindness, pausing to let me finish, tears welling in his eyes, too. He said he would keep the offer in mind. Later, he told me that losing his boys frightened him, but as our bond grew, he said there was no one else he would rather see his sons with than us, “if it ever came to that.” My words were not threatening to him, he explained — they were comforting to know he had more people he could count on.

I started to question what love is. Was love holding on, or was it letting go?

And if I did have to let go, was it smarter to hold back, to protect my own heart? I hadn’t been able to with the boys, and I discovered I couldn’t with the baby either.

On many nights during the long, cold winter, whether she needed to be fed, or was asleep, I’d be up with her, trying to bond with her and soak up every inch of her. I thought about her mother. I researched how adoption affects children. One book, Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, addressed the pain children feel being raised away from their natural parents. If this was real, if she would really be my daughter, I wanted to help this baby navigate her feelings from the beginning.

Rocking her as she took a bottle one night, I read a passage to her.

“I am sorry I am not the mommy you expected,” I read. “I don't smell like her, and I don't sound like her. But I promise to love you always and never leave.”

By the time I finished, the baby had stopped drinking her bottle. In the soft midnight light, she looked up at me, and a smile started to fill her face. In my heart, for the first time, I was a mother speaking to my daughter.

I began to say her name, if only in whispers. I had discovered that babies start to recognize the sound of their names in their first months.

“Adeline,” I’d speak softly. “Hi, Miss Adeline. Are you finally here?”

Slowly, I started to call her Adeline out loud. I practiced saying “our daughter” in texts with Artie. I wrote “Addie’s doctor’s appointment” in my calendar. I decided I would live like I wasn’t afraid.

I had missed out on many experiences expectant parents have — seeing a child on an ultrasound, learning the gender, decorating a nursery for a specific child, your child, the one you’ll raise. I wanted to feel like a normal family, to celebrate the glorious blessing of a beautiful daughter, to show my world this light was here.

So, with assurances from agency workers that things were on track, we began to tell more people the news. In Federal Hill park, overlooking the city, with Adeline in a matching red dress and velvet bow, we posed for a Christmas card. It would double as a kind of birth announcement.

Even then, I had to temper my joy. I crafted wording that acknowledged the uncertainty — that the adoption would be finalized in late spring, “if all goes as planned.”

My husband and I also began to consider how we should raise Adeline, given that we are white, and she is black. We knew enough to realize that wasn’t something we could figure out overnight. If we were able to adopt her, we would likely be asking ourselves that question for the rest of her life.

So far, we’ve taken practical steps, like putting African-American role models in her life: her pediatrician and her godmother, my reporter friend who had counseled me on this road. We made sure her baby books featured black characters, and we joined a local group of white adults raising black children. We made a commitment to continue living in the city, where the population is majority African-American.

I also got a glimpse of what we might face. Some people shouted at me in disgust when I was walking on the street with the baby, her dark complexion and my fair skin an obvious mismatch. A few African-American adults asked if I was her nanny or demanded to know our relationship to each other. White women sometimes remarked on how “lucky” she was to be adopted, no mind to the catastrophic loss she had suffered of her natural family. In a beautiful cross-cultural experience, I was also invited into a world where black women began teaching Adeline the beauty of her skin, which had developed into a deep brown shade: “Aren’t you as chocolate as you want to be?” one woman said, smiling.

In another case, a little girl innocently asked me why the baby and I didn’t match like she and her mother did. It stung, for me, but more for the baby, who may never know what it would feel like to “match” her mommy.

Inside our home, I didn’t have to worry about what others thought. And for awhile, with Adeline and the toddler together, it was mayhem. In the evenings, he would hear my keys turning the lock, and he would peek around the corner to see that it was me. Like the town crier, he ran to Artie and the baby, shouting, “Mama’s home!” Adeline was in the jumper, babbling and bouncing.

In those moments, we had everything we could wish for.

I could see this perfect family, the four of us. Neither Adeline nor the toddler had my smile or Artie’s blue eyes. I wouldn’t pass down my auburn hair. And the line of Arthur Hugo Nordstroms, passed down from Artie’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father, wouldn’t be shared with another generation.

But we could raise them as our daughter and our son. They could create a pillow fort from sofa cushions on a rainy Saturday. Or, together, they could survive their insufferable parents on vacation at Rehoboth Beach. How old would they be when they made the sacred pact, like I did with my brother, to keep each other’s secrets safe, especially from Mom and Dad?

Watching them, I daydreamed about what it would feel like for these moments to stretch out before us for a lifetime.

Instead, one day, our time as a family of four stopped.

The call came at 11:17 a.m. the day before Valentine’s Day. The judge decided this was the day the toddler would go home.

I left work and started to pack. I hauled out the old blue suitcases my parents had used on our family trip to Disney World. In a little Star Wars bag he could carry in the car, I put his favorite trains, Thomas, Diesel and Percy, and a rubber fish he loved to hold. I put it with his favorite blanket, the one he called “my red.” Sitting on the living room sofa, I hugged him. I tried to smile when I told him he was going to be with his brother and father. The boys’ mother was still involved in their lives, but she did not have custody.

I did have some peace. Two weeks before, I’d come across a pair of Thomas the train pajamas in the toddler's laundry — ones that his father had just bought him. To me, they were a sign that he, too, knew his son in all the ways that mattered.

We decided to make one last stop at the little park we loved, the first place I’d taken him. He tore off for the playground. When he first came into our lives, he was a baby. Now he was a full-fledged little boy. I pushed him on the swing.

“Higher, higher!” he called. As he looked up at the sky, I watched my hands release him. And I let go of the dream that he would be mine.

When we pulled up in front of his father’s house, we found his dad sitting on the stoop, waiting. I squeezed the toddler goodbye.

As I turned with Artie to leave, we spotted the older brother rounding the corner on his way home from school. The toddler blew past us, screaming “Brub-ber! Brub-ber!” He ran up and threw his arms around his brother’s legs, just as he had when the older boy had first come to our home.

It was over. They were home, together.

In loving the boys, we had played a role in healing their family. I knew, even as my heart was breaking, this was the whole point.

Now, we see the toddler on some weekends and special occasions, but life is so different. His ghost is everywhere. His chair at the dinner table is empty. He left a handprint on a mirrored closet door and a Thomas train, Toby, in his old toy basket. I can still see him standing on the end of his twin bed, reaching to turn on our song, the one we sang and played every night, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.”

I absentmindedly turned on the sound machine for Adeline at bedtime one night. The little star melody started to fill the nursery. I could almost hear the sound of the boy’s voice singing the words. I turned it off.

Eventually, I would sing it to Adeline.

She is our light, our joy. Our forever child. The one we get to keep, to raise. She’s gone from sitting to crawling to standing, from formula to pureed food to bits of bread or banana. From smiling to cooing to giggling. I hung a sign in her room that reminds me: “It was always you.”

With her, I’ve had some of the best days of my life. On a Saturday in May, my family and friends filled the Chinese Pavilion at Druid Hill Park. Adeline and I wore coordinating dresses under pastel streamers and an overcast sky. We were celebrating her adoption, and the promise felt as bright as a wedding day.

Soon after that, we stood before a judge who made Adeline legally ours. That brief ceremony gave my soul a security I had not felt in the months since I had fallen in love with this child, like the first deep breath you’re able to pull into your lungs after struggling to breathe.

As we were leaving the courthouse, I noticed a woman on the sidewalk nearby. It was the social worker who called me that night in September when the baby, who was born to be our daughter, was ready to leave the hospital. The coincidence of our passing each other in that moment confirmed for me the belief this life is preordained. Flooding my mind were images of the children we interviewed for, but we weren’t selected to parent. I thought about our two foster sons, the child we never conceived, my unanswered prayers, every decision Adeline’s first mother made and didn’t make.

But I felt the peace to know, finally, how this part of my story ends.

We booked a family vacation to Ireland where we spent the night in a castle, just so I could tell Adeline one day she did. We recently lit a candle for her first birthday. And in a few years, we will walk her into her kindergarten classroom, and I’ll be holding her hand. We will watch her graduate from college and start a career as a scientist or an archaeologist or a lawyer. I’ll cry with her at her wedding, maybe one day rock her children.

And somewhere nearby, under the same sky, the two boys we will love forever will also be growing up. Will the vocabulary words I tried to use with the older one someday help him on his college admission tests? Did living with us change his trajectory? Will the toddler hear the words, “Who loves you, baby?” and feel a sense of happiness? I pray that maybe our time with them will buffer them, support them. And what I gave them, even if it’s not DNA, will stay with them.

Along with their father, Artie and I stood with the boys this year when they buried their mother. She had tried many times in rehab to quit her addiction, but died of an overdose.

Now, we are improvising our own extended family with the boys and their dad. Soon, we will all gather around their table for Christmas dinner.

The heaviness in my heart, the days I still grieve for them, are worth it. And having Adeline to hold, to love, has helped heal some of the pain.

After all, I was strong enough. Strong enough to love, and let go. So when an agency worker called, with a 4-month-old boy who needed a safe place to stay, I took a second, and then I answered.

“Yes.”

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