Published on April 10th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein0
The Making of a Grownup: Part II
The first part of this piece appears here.
This was the plan as of March 11: Our counselor, Chavvi, would drive to Fresno on March 16, meet with Ellen and Max, and have them sign their Termination of Parental Rights on March 17. It would take months for the adoption to be finalized, but TPR was the biggie, the document that would shift the power. It wasn’t that I wanted them to be powerless. But I wanted a piece of paper declaring me Wolf’s Real Mom.
On March 12, Wolf ran a fever, and I rushed him to the ER, terrified we’d pick up coronavirus in the waiting room, terrified he’d get a spinal tap to check for meningitis, terrified I’d lose the baby Ellen and Max had trusted us to care for.
It was just a UTI, fixable with antibiotics, and after I breathed a sigh of relief, I still had six hours to kill in our little curtained room, kissing Wolf’s tummy and contemplating all the things that could pounce on you like a tiger waiting in the wings.
Worry was my family’s love language. And there was no turning back: I loved Wolf now.
On March 13, schools closed. Dash came home with a packet of worksheets, and I abandoned my writing-with-a-newborn-on-my-lap dreams.
That afternoon, we had a long FaceTime call with Ellen and Max about our “contact plan.” They gushed about how they wanted to come to birthday parties and holiday performances and Little League games. Not just Wolf’s, but Dash’s too, they said.
After we hung up, C.C. bristled. They were too intense for her, too needy. Open adoption came in so many flavors and degrees; C.C. had agreed to vanilla, and Ellen and Max were serving up green tea bubblegum cookie dough.
On March 15, Phoebe called us: “I had Ellen and Max over tonight to go over the relinquishment paperwork. I wanted them to know what to expect.”
I wondered, vaguely, if it was time for Phoebe to stop playing counselor and let Chavvi, an actual LCSW, take over. But she was trying to be a good friend to Ellen and Max, and she was the reason we had Wolf.
“I think they’re going to sign,” Phoebe said, “but Ellen kept saying ‘When I sign, it’s going to be forever.’ And she didn’t like the phrase ‘termination of parental rights,’ because it reminded her of when her dad signed her over to foster care.”
Fair enough, I agreed, as fear bolted through my chest.
“So I straight-up asked her: ‘Do we need to call them and ask them to bring Wolf back tonight?’ And she said a firm no. She said, ‘In my heart, I know this is the right decision. But at three in the morning, I second guess myself.’”
Again, I saw myself in Ellen: the ruminator, the person who questioned her qualifications and rights as a mother.
And I was banking on her to question them and conclude she was unqualified, to sign away her rights. I felt mildly evil, a fairy tale witch who could only have a child by casting a spell on an unsuspecting maiden.
But even that reading assigned me power I didn’t actually have. I didn’t have the right or the ability to talk Ellen into placing Wolf, or to talk her out of it.
On March 16, Chavvi called us: “I talked to Ellen, who talked to her therapist. Her therapist thinks she’s having postpartum issues and maybe some mania, and recommended waiting two or three months before signing anything.”
“Oh dear,” I said. Oh fuck, I thought.
“What Ellen told me is that would be too long for her, and for you guys. So I’m proud of her for pushing back a little. This is what placements tend to look like after birth parents have parented for a bit—it takes a few weeks to really make that transition. And I think she just needs to do it on her terms.”
C.C. and I were reeling, exhausted, confused. Anxiety always wracked my body when I felt myself losing control, and then—when it became starkly clear I had none—I let go, and something that was not quite relief, but not not relief, rushed over me. A more religious person might call it giving it to God. I didn’t believe in God as patriarch, operating the controls. Maybe God was just our collective, desperate longing, vibrating so hard it became a life force.
We needed someone to be a grownup, so we looked to Chavvi. If she said this was happening, if she said Ellen and Max would settle into a more chill form of contact after a few months, we would believe her. Because what other choice did we have?
That evening, I talked to my therapist on the phone. He was getting over a respiratory thing and you had to be extra careful these days.
“I think Ellen and Max are idealizing you a bit,” he said. “They didn’t have mothers who could take care of them properly, and here come these two empathetic moms, and they can see how you are with Dash. But remember, your job is to be Wolf’s mom, not theirs.”
I thought of myself as Dash’s mom, but rarely a mom, let alone anyone’s ideal mom. Maybe it was because I was queer, or because I spent 37 years being no one’s parent, or because I’d always earned accolades for academic pursuits, not relational ones. Maybe it was simple imposter syndrome, which is another way of saying grownups are always surprised, I think, to discover they’re grownups.
On March 17, the day after getting his staples removed, my dad’s incision reopened. Another chasm whose origins were unknowable. It would only require a “minor” surgery to repair, but hospitals had become a kind of war zone. This time, my sister had to drop him curbside, after answering a barrage of questions about coughs and fevers. This time we weren’t allowed to visit.
I kept thinking about my dad’s dad. In 1944, in his early thirties, he’d gone to the hospital for “routine” surgery to address an intestinal problem. But he’d gotten an infection, and because penicillin was being diverted to the war effort, he’d died. My grandmother was left to raise my four-year-old uncle and one-year-old dad on her own.
I’d known this story as long as I could remember. I thought of the current intersection between routine surgery and a public health crisis, and wondered if history would repeat itself. When my dad was in the hospital the first time, he’d told me: “They asked my mother if she wanted to see his body. He’d had such horrible stomach problems, so she said yes, because she wanted to see him out of pain.”
He’d thrown in out there casually enough, but we were carrying these memories like a suspension bridge across generations: pain, the witnessing of it, the helplessness of where we landed in history.
But again he made it home, and my sister and I half exhaled. I’m only letting myself take everyone’s temperature twice a day, she said.
Home with two kids, C.C. and I found small rhythms. Dash helped scoop formula into bottles. He kissed Wolf’s forehead. He pressed the nature-sounds button on the bassinet to help Wolf sleep, then woke him up by thundering into the room twenty minutes later. We were careful to say “Ellen and Max get to decide whether Wolf will stay with us.” We were careful not to use the word “brother.” But how else to describe what was happening?
We couldn’t post pictures of Wolf until TPR. We couldn’t take him anywhere because he was a newborn and we were in the midst of a pandemic. A few friends suggested I avoid taking leave and “just work from home because everyone is doing that now anyway.” Sometimes I felt like I was harboring a fugitive. I wanted to scream, I know I’m not his real mom yet, but he’s still a real baby. He still needs my minimally divided attention.
On March 23, I took Dash and Wolf to a park without a playground. Dash kicked a soccer ball around a tagged-up skateboard ramp half reclaimed by urban wilderness. We waved to people with dogs and teenagers with fast food and kept our distance.
That afternoon, Chavvi texted C.C. and me: Call me when you can.
We exchanged looks that said, Here goes. The pulse of adrenaline, the thump of another shoe dropping. I’d come to expect it.
“How are you?” Chavvi asked.
“You tell me,” I said.
I paced the driveway and listened to Chavvi, her voice bright, professional, and apologetic: “I spoke with Ellen, and she said the medication she’s been on has really been helping. This period has also given her a chance to talk things through with her family, and they’re ready to help in ways she didn’t expect.”
I stared at the roof of our carport. Weeds had sprouted in the open gutters. It was one of a thousand household things my parents never would have let happen.
“This is how foster situations go sometimes,” Chavvi said, as if that had been the story all along. But we hadn’t signed up to be foster parents.
I broke the news to C.C., who was cradling Wolf on the couch. How could I possibly hold him again? How could I manage another twelve or twenty-four hours with a baby who would just remind me that I didn’t have a baby?
His eyes were just beginning to shift from newborn silver to hazel gray, except for the left half of his left eye, which was a committed dark brown. Ellen had pointed it out to me first, and it had taken me a few days and the right light to see it, and now I couldn’t stop noticing.
C.C. gave me the green light to call Ellen.
“Chavvi told me,” I said. “And I guess I kind of want to say congratulations? I’ve really related to the way you process things, and…I mean, the only reason we’re in a place to adopt is because we have supportive families, and I’ve thought a lot about how you and Wolf deserve the same. So I’m glad your family is being supportive now.”
I didn’t try not to cry as I talked, though.
I walked up the hill, past the hoarder house on the corner, past the house with the barking beagles, past the shut-down high school.
“My dad lives in a condo now, but he’s going to look for a house so we can all live together,” Ellen said. “And Max’s mom, who is the last person we thought would be helpful at all, is going to come stay at our apartment for a couple of months.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. But part of what amazed me was this: What kind of parents would ignore their grown children’s needs until threatened with adoption? What had made them MIA for Ellen’s teenage years, and for nine months of pregnancy more recently, and had it really disappeared, just like that?
Like us, Max and Ellen were searching for grownups in this situation. But unlike me and C.C., they’d never known any. They’d bounced around among nominal adults who were reeling from their own pain and addictions.
For a minute, C.C. and I became the parental stand-ins, but we hadn’t saved them. Now, their actual parents were promising to save them, and what could be more appealing?
I used to work with former gang members and felons, and I saw, many times, how families could be broken and repaired over the span of generations. But it required the parent or grandparent in the story to do time literally and figuratively, to go to therapy and NA meetings. It didn’t sound like Ellen’s dad or Max’s mom had done that. It sounded like they’d made a handful of starry-eyed promises over the phone. I was a skeptic.
I didn’t want to be right. To send Wolf home to a dysfunctional family was the worst of all worlds. I knew we would be sending him into love, but I wanted to send him into peace, too. Or, I wanted him to stay with us. But it didn’t matter what we wanted.
Ellen and Max pulled a U-Haul into our driveway at 9AM the morning of March 24. They showered Dash with more Paw Patrol gifts, and gave C.C. and I five bouquets of lilies. Ellen recited the meaning of each color. Something about thankfulness and friendship.
Max asked about a second car seat, one that had still been in the box. I climbed into our attic twice to look for it, but I couldn’t remember ever having seen it.
“Maybe someone took it out of the back of the truck when I stopped on the 99,” I said. He seemed skeptical. I did not apologize. I also did not say, Do you really think we were in this so we could sell a car seat on eBay?
I reviewed Wolf’s antibiotics protocol with Ellen. I fished dirty bottles out of the dishwasher and rinsed them and put them in a plastic bag. I kissed Wolf’s warm forehead and, for the first time in days, didn’t ask myself whether he seemed feverish.
They left, and the house felt empty, like a clear sky after a hurricane had flattened a city block.
Dash, like me, had a tendency to get sentimental at bedtime. That evening, he planted his face in our comforter and said, “I miss Wolf. I didn’t want them to decide that. I wanted to be a big brother.”
In the days that followed, he would draw Wolf as a baby, Wolf as a big kid, himself with Wolf and “Wolf’s little nose.” I missed Wolf’s little nose, too.
My old feelings of maternal unworthiness, the ones that had steered my life before Dash came along, bubbled to the surface. I felt duped and desperate, like one of the Love is Blind cast members who’d been left at the altar, forced to make a speech to an audience of drunk family and friends and TV viewers. This is the speech, I suppose. The story, the only thing I get to keep unless you count a couple of onesies that were still in the washing machine when Ellen and Max headed back to Fresno.
The old feelings were there, but they didn’t fully take hold. They were like a ratty sweater I’d been carrying around, bound for Goodwill, but hovering in the liminal space of my trunk. I felt small and stupid and gutted, but I was a mother.
Dash had been living on YouTube and packaged snacks for weeks. I felt distant from him; when I picked him up, he seemed the wrong size all of a sudden, now that my arms had shaped themselves around a ten-pound baby. Between Wolf and my dad, Dash had become my neglected middle child.
On March 25, I started working again. Every email filled me with rage.
On March 26, I took Dash and the girls who lived next door, the only people we were seeing IRL these days, for a “nature walk” around our neighborhood. We leaned into the wind and chased after leaves. We found a broken bird egg the size of a teaspoon on the sidewalk. I handled it tenderly, then Dash crushed it under his red rain boot.
“Now we all get a piece,” he declared, and we each picked up a shard of the shell.