We are at a Jack-in-the-Box.
It’s me, David, our foster son’s bio mom and the baby’s dad. We are stuffed into a tiny booth. A group of school kids are all around us, gossiping and drinking Cokes. Every booth is filled with people. A bunch of kids hang out by the soda machine. It is loud and raucous. Not the kind of environment you imagine for talking about such a serious thing.
Mom is late. She is always late. And not by a little. Not like 5 minutes or something. She is 45 minutes late to everything. But I get why she is late this time, dragging her feet.
This is not going to be fun.
We are a half hour into the wait and David and I are sipping on coffee, talking to bio dad about what it’s like to work as one of the costumed characters on the Strip. He shows us photos of him dressed as Spiderman or Captain American or whomever, and tells us he can make $90 for a few hours work.
“That’s pretty good money,” I think. Better than I thought they did.
He is living in a weekly hotel, dubbed “Roachland” on TripAdvisor, because it’s overrun with roaches, bed bugs and the occasional scorpion. Like, I’m not sure the reviews could be any worse. Reviewers are writing “Run! Before the roaches get you!” He lives with a few other people in a one bedroom there. When someone leaves, he will bring bio mom in, so she can live in Roachland, too. I get this vision of my foster kids living there. It makes me scared for them, and maybe scared for all the other kids I know are living in Roachland.
Bio mom shows up. But she doesn’t come in. She stalks the sidewalk in front of the door. She smokes and stalks. She is palpably nervous. Bio dad goes out to her. They stand outside, talking and stalking until she drops her butt on the ground and comes in.
We are negotiating the open adoption of the boy and the baby. She starts to cry before she sits down. Bio dad grabs her leg in support. I grab her hand. I don’t have any words to describe this moment, except that she is giving her children to us. But it is not a gift. She would take them back to live in Roachland in a minute. She knows the courts will take away her parental rights this year. An open adoption is her only hope of seeing them, of having any kind of meaningful contact. She is stuck between two hard, unwavering places.
We talk for a bit about the kids, and I show her a video of the baby trying to say the word “pumpkin” which comes out “pom-pom”. It is so ridiculously adorable, we all have to laugh, and it pops the boil of the moment, and gives us space to breathe.
Then, we do the business. We meter out the terms of the open adoption. They get pics and videos of the kids, and updates on how they are. And visits, when the children want to visit. We say, it is up to the kids, not any of the parents. They want every holiday with the kids. They want us to give them overnights with the kids. They want to join us for Christmas dinner and birthday parties. They know these things cannot be promised, but bio mom cries when she finds out we won’t be co-parenting, making decisions together, sharing the children.
She cries, the hard relentless, can’t catch your breath crying. Head in her hands. Tears on the table. Bio dad, squeezes her knee some more. He is wiping his eyes. I hold her hands with both of my hands now, as if that will hold her from falling off the cliff of her despair. We are locked in this moment. All connected, but also at odds with each other. We are what Lucy and Edie might call “frenemies.”
And then bio dad says he just wants the kids to be happy. It is part selflessness and love, and part experience. He has already lost all of his other children. But these are the first for bio mom, and she can’t breathe or continue on.
My heart hurts for her. But it also hurts for the kids. Their story isn’t just about poverty. It’s about willfull neglect, constant chaos and transience. Their story is about drug addiction, mentall illness, and family dysfunction so thick and stubbornly intergenerational that it probably won’t shake out over the next century.
I had practiced for this moment. There is a part of me, as an adopted child, that feels bio mom’s pain. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I feel on some visceral, invisible, wavelength that she might be my bio mom, and feel all the ghost feelings I imagine my bio mom felt. It is classic Transference 101. These feelings make me want to forgive all her sins against the kids, and hold her, and tell her it will be okay, and invite her to Christmas dinner. But I know that’s me. That’s my shitty-ass baggage that I carry around like a tramp on a train.
What I really need to do here, and I know it, is offer her compassion and my empathy, while protecting her children from her. We need to save the children first, David reminds me of this often. And she needs to save herself, if she even can. So, as I said, I practiced for this moment. I opened up this giant well inside me to hold her feelings, to see them, and take them in, and deliver back to her, kindness, love and listening. But I make it my mission to keep her feelings jammed into the well, with no hope of them lapping over the edges.
I am all boundaries.
I muster all of my directness, and tell her what we are prepared to give and not give. We can have visits as long as the kids want them, and when they want them. As long as it is good for them. As long as they are not hurt. We cannot promise any of these visits in a contract. But we will make it happen, if they want them. We will send videos and pictures. (I always do, several times a week. I feel happy to share these with her. This is easy for me to give, one mom to another, with no downside for the kids.)
They listen and absorb. They stop crying. There is banter now. Some lightness in the middle of the storm. A mention of the baby and how she is the spitting image of bio dad. How they have the same dopey eyes. We smile, all together, just thinking of her. No matter what, we have this one ginormous thing together – we all love the hell out of these kids.
This unites us. Always.
Somehow, we all see this. We decide to sit on things. Think about them. But we also silently agree to proceeed. We hug. I tell mom to text me later if she needs to talk. She will. She has no one in her life besides bio dad, and they are no longer together. She needs to talk sometimes, and she calls me when she does. Her stories are always filled with betrayals by the people she loves and unthinkable levels of saddness and loneliness in the world.
David and I leave Jack-In-The-Box.
They stand outside and smoke.
It takes me days to shake off their saddness.