January 9, 2014
A Tale of Two Mothers
Every time I hear the glass doors slide open, my eyes lift with a twinge of apprehension, wondering if it is her. Because I had been warned that she would be here today, I have purposely arrived early for this appointment, so that I could check in at the front desk, fill out the necessary paperwork, and get settled in the waiting room before having to face her.
Inevitably, the doors slide open once again, and this time she storms in. She takes one look at the child – her child - sitting on my lap, and scowls daggers at me before choosing a seat far enough away from me to ensure that we won’t feel the need for small talk. I mean, what could we possibly have to say to one another? In spite of her strongest objections and denials of any wrongdoing, Child Protective Services has taken her child away from her and placed him in foster care. In my home. In a white woman’s home! She is furious that I am caring for her child. Furious that someone somewhere considered me a more “fit” parent than her. Even though she has never met me, in her mind I am the enemy.
While we are waiting for the child’s name to be called, I discreetly steal glances her way, trying to size her up and form an opinion. I have been told that she can be confrontational and spiteful, so naturally I am wary. She is smaller than I expected. Short and extremely thin, with hands that fidget nervously. Her tiny braids hang down her back and partially cover her face, a face that might be pretty if it wasn’t so clearly filled with anger. I know the reasons why her child is in foster care. I have heard about her faults as a mother. I have little tolerance for parents who do not properly care for their children. Why is she angry? It’s her fault that her child is in foster care. Even though I have never met her, in my mind she is the enemy.
Finally, after an agonizingly awkward wait, the child’s name is called, and we both stand and make our way through the wooden door, in for the appointment. The doctor asks us to introduce ourselves.
“I’m his foster mother,” I say first. I want to immediately establish that I am taking charge of this appointment. That I am the responsible adult here, the one who will do everything I can to provide good care to this child. Perhaps if I act confidently enough, I can forget that his mother is sitting just inches away from me.
“I’m his mother,” she emphasizes icily. What she means is, “It doesn’t matter who this other woman is. I am his mother, and I know him better than she possibly could. I have a right to be here, and I dare anyone to say differently.”
The doctor gets her notepad and pen ready; gathers her questionnaire, toys, and equipment; and sits down across from us. The child’s developmental evaluation begins.
“Tell me about the pregnancy,” invites the doctor, looking at her notes. “Were there any complications? Was he born full-term? How much did he weigh at birth?” I open my mouth to say what I always say at doctor’s appointments: that I don’t know anything about his prenatal history. That, as a foster parent, I do not have access to that information. But before I can respond, his mother answers confidently, giving a detailed description of her prenatal care and the exact number of weeks of his gestational age. I am unexpectedly surprised. Of course she would be able to answer those questions. She was there when it happened! The tiniest glimmer of respect for her surfaces in my heart.
“Let’s see how much he weighs,” the doctor says, taking him from my lap. She places him on the scale and then declares, “Oh, great! He’s gained a nice amount since his last visit.” His mother looks momentarily resentful, but quickly recovers and comments, “I’m glad that he is finally putting some weight on.” I am secretly thrilled at this objective proof of my parenting skills. How humbling it must be for her to admit that perhaps this white woman is indeed taking good care of her son.
After we are seated once again, the questions from the doctor continue.
“How old was he when he first rolled over?” I have no idea. I look at his mother, who answers without hesitation.
“At what age did he start sleeping through the night?” She answers that one also.
Again and again she offers details to the doctor that I do not know. Information about their family’s health history and his early months of life. I start to realize that maybe she’s not such a terrible mother after all. I begin to see her with eyes of compassion. Mother to mother. She has lost her child that she obviously knows very well! If I was in her situation, perhaps I would be every bit as furious and spiteful. I feel a stab of guilt for being so quick to judge.
“What is his normal daily routine?” the doctor asks. His mother recognizes instantly that she can’t answer that question. She has not been a part of his daily routine for quite some time. She looks at me expectantly, giving me a brief nod of acknowledgment. She concedes that this is a question that only I, the one who lives with him every day, will be able to answer.
For the first time today, we make eye contact. And in that look, we mutually agree to a truce. Without uttering a word, we both agree that perhaps we are not enemies after all. Perhaps, we privately admit, we are on the same side. We had circled each other suspiciously like lionesses, and had even snarled a bit as a challenge for the position as alpha female. But now we reluctantly accept that we should collaborate. We are in the same pride, and this little cub needs us.
Although we both love the same child, we each have a unique role to play in his life. Something different to offer him.
She knew him first; I know him now.
My care for him is experienced and skilled. She wants to learn.
She has loved him longer. A love that is fierce. A love that she will defend to the death. My love for him is a choice. I love him with a love that is deliberate and conscientious. Nurturing and tender. And every bit as passionate and protective as hers.
The doctor takes the child and begins to assess his various developmental skills. Lying on his tummy. Putting weight on his legs. Balancing himself a sitting position. Regardless of where he was living when he developed these skills, we are both proud of him, and together we celebrate each milestone that he demonstrates. We alternate making comments about his personality, likes and dislikes, his quirky facial expressions. When he tries to grab the doctor’s stethoscope, we both laugh.
“Does he recognize mommy’s voice?” asks the doctor, reading from her questionnaire. “Yes,” we both answer at the same time. We look at each other in surprise, and it takes us a moment to realize the truth: this isn’t a competition. It’s a collaboration. As much as we both hate this thoroughly unnatural situation, we can accept it for what it is. For now, perhaps this child can benefit from having both of us on his team. Maybe we can cooperate to provide him with the very best care possible. It could be that, for this season at least, it’s okay for him to have two mothers.