"You suck," the surly teen growls at the boisterous infant before bending down to kiss her downy head as it bobs up and down in the Exersaucer.
Both of our daughters, our biological children, have been remarkably loving and accommodating with this baby – far more so than they were with the puppy they promised to care for when my husband and I relented to their begging five years ago.
"If we're going to become a foster family, we have to be all in," I told them when the discussions began nine months ago. "Everyone has to help, especially if we get really little kids. If any one of us has doubts about this, then we just can't do it."
Our girls have made good on this promise.
She is perfect, this smiley little Ana with the enormous blue eyes. Though the fatigue that comes from waking at night to attend to a six-month-old has confirmed my belief that babies are a young person's game, the awareness that she will eventually return to her parents offers a sense of relief that is both optimistic and wistful. The thankless drudgery of caring for a tiny, helpless human won't drag on for years, but neither will the pure delight.
Ana's parents, Sandra and Tim Thompson, are always in the back of my mind, like a low-grade headache. Did she sleep through the night for them? Would her dad take her out in this cold? Will her mom like this outfit? For some foster parents, particularly those interested in adopting their charges, I imagine a tepid or antagonistic relationship with a child's biological parents might offer a protective emotional barrier. My husband and I are not looking to adopt, however, and I bear no ill will toward Sandra and Tim. I want to do right by them.
Every Wednesday, I take Ana to the Children and Youth Services office for a one-hour visitation with her parents. I am humble and gracious when I see them, always striving to make sure they know that I understand this is their baby, not mine.
The Thompsons sent a good-sized wardrobe along with their daughter when she was forcibly, unexpectedly removed from their home, but the seasons were changing and she needed warmer attire. I purchased several new outfits with a clothing voucher from CYS, but when I'm getting Ana ready for visitations, I always make sure to dress her in something Sandra and Tim sent so they don't think that I think their clothes aren't good enough.
One Wednesday, as the Thompsons and I rode together in the elevator to the third-floor CYS office, a stranger inside the cab was fawning over the infant in my stroller and asked her age. I consciously stopped myself from replying and allowed Sandra to explain that Ana would be six months old the following week.
That day, answering questions about the cute baby in the soft, floppy hat was her mother's privilege, bragging rights she hadn't enjoyed for weeks. I have plenty of opportunities to gush about Ana, but on visitation days, I'm just the stroller jockey.
The Thompsons lost custody of their baby because CYS found evidence of drug use in their home — what types of drugs and how much, I'll never know. Her caseworker initially told us that Ana would be with our family for at least a month, when her parents had their first custody hearing. If the Thompsons attended scheduled visitations, passed their regular drug tests, and received substance abuse counseling, they could regain custody of the child after the hearing. If not, Ana could remain in our care for an additional six months.
This is the story I repeat to friends and acquaintances I encounter when I'm out with the baby in our town, a sleepy suburb west of Philadelphia. My words are often met with a sad, sympathetic gaze at Ana and an eye roll that silently conveys disgust at the child's situation: How could her parents be so irresponsible? How could they choose drugs over their baby? The response often smacks of hypocrisy.
While our family has provided care for the children of individuals making bad life choices or failing to put the well-being of their children first, it's wrong to assume that every child in foster care is there because his or her parents don't love them or aren't trying. Sometimes, there's a lot more to the story.
When the Thompsons, a low-income working family, asked for assistance from CYS, they willingly opened themselves up to a kind of scrutiny that the financially secure parents of our community don't have to endure and would certainly never tolerate. The fact that there was evidence of drugs in their home doesn't necessarily mean Sandra and Tim are bad people or incompetent parents; they clearly love their daughter and took great care of her, despite their substance abuse issues. When their baby came to us, she was in excellent condition: alert, healthy, and above average weight, with the disposition of an angel.
The privilege enjoyed by the residents of our community doesn't make them better or worse parents than Ana's. They are not saints (neither am I) and I bristle at their blind assumptions. Though I am not a religious person, I've had a single phrase stuck in my head since the day I first met Sandra and Tim Thompson: There but for the grace of God go I.
"Will it be hard to let this little girl go back to her parents?" people always ask me. "Don't you want to keep her?"
My answer is always immediate and unequivocal: No. When the time comes, we will happily surrender this baby to the Thompsons. They are decent people and competent parents, and I have no reservations about returning their child to them. Though we will miss Ana's joyous screeching, downy head, and enormous blue eyes, she was never ours to keep. Ana was always a borrowed baby with a strict repayment schedule, here with us for a little while before returning to live out her own unique story, separate from ours.
Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.