Michael was born on the floor of a bus station. He was abandoned, withdrawing from drugs and in pain. He spent three weeks in the NICU, and was discharged weighing only 5 lbs.
Since the launch of Generation Justice, I have read hundreds of these stories, maybe thousands. But this one is different. This one I saw first-hand.
When Michael was discharged from the NICU, the agency called my friend, Darcy, and asked her if she could open her home to another drug-exposed infant. This would be her 7th foster child.
Darcy was in baby mode, a blur of positive, organizing energy, chatting and creating space for this baby that had been dropped off to her home with just a few hours notice. I stopped by and met Michael on his first day with Darcy’s family.
I did a double take at the baby carrier because, at first, I didn’t realize he was in it. He was so, so small. If I had been gutsy enough to pick him up (which I was not), he would have fit in my hands. He was bundled up in the carrier, smaller than the baby doll that had been there the day before.
He was pallid, almost translucent. I don’t know squat about babies, but I knew one thing: this baby is not well.
I intended to help organize, join in baby fever, help Darcy’s feisty kids in preparing for this little guy – you know, do all the things you do as a friend – but all I could do was look up at Darcy and see if she saw what I saw. The worry on my face was evident because Darcy paused mid-blanket folding and met my eyes.
“He’ll be ok,” she said. She reached down, pulled down the tiny preemie hat that was too big for his head, and stroked his hand with hers.
Darcy had seen this before. I had not.
“Girl, he is so little,” I said. “Are you sure he should have been discharged?”
She nodded. “It’s the drugs. He’s had a very hard few weeks. We’ll get him there.”
If this was how Michael looked post-NICU, after three weeks of live-saving medical intervention, I wondered how ill he must have been at birth. A day or two later, the pediatrician diagnosed Michael with failure to thrive. Michael, one month old, had given up his will to live.
I was worried for this baby. I was worried for my friend.
But then –
I watched Darcy feed this baby every hour, sing to him, swaddle him to her heart every time we met for coffee. He gained weight, he became downright chubby, he blossomed into a smart, bobbling baby of hilarity. It’s one of the most defining things I’ve had the privilege to see. I watched a child get loved back to health.
Foster parents are asked to do the impossible. The unwritten rules are really, really tough.
We ask them to help these children heal, thrive, attach – but don’t attach too much because that child won’t stay. Protect them, guard them, keep them safe – but be totally fine with the fact that this child visits a parent with a raging meth problem. Hold them, snuggle them, love them – but don’t love them too much because while this child eats, breathes, sleeps under your roof, cries on your shoulder, and laughs at your jokes, this child is not your child and you are not to hope otherwise.
Love them – but do not love them too much.
And we wonder why there are so many horrific stories of foster parents in it for the money.
Darcy ignored the unwritten rules. Thank God she ignored the rules. She loved this child with her whole and entire heart from the moment he landed in her home. I saw it in her eyes. Truthfully? I felt it in her soul.
She still did what a foster parent is supposed to do and worked toward reunification. Birth mom and Darcy texted and talked and FaceTimed. Birth mom scheduled visits, sometimes she showed up, and sometimes she wanted to get clean. At the end of the day, it was too much. I remember when Mom told Darcy that she knew she couldn’t raise a child and that she was so grateful Darcy would. It was a happy ending we don’t usually see in this broken system.
I spent last Legislative Session listening to a handful of people say that children always “belong with their own kind, their own blood” even if it takes years and years and years. I disagree. I think children belong where they are safe, I think children belong where they are free from harm, and call me crazy, but I think they have a right to belong somewhere before the trauma of the system permanently disables them.
Today, at 18 months old, Michael is a force of happy energy. He lights up at music, really loves blackberries, loves his siblings and his mom, Darcy, even more than the blackberries, plays hide-and-seek, steals sparkling water, is scarily bright, and is about the happiest kid I’ve ever met. I barely remember the tiny, sick baby.
Darcy was right. Michael is going to be fine. Some rules are meant to be broken.
Rebecca Masterson is a writer, speaker, and an advocate for children. For more from Rebecca, follow her on Instagram.