The weekend went on forever. The minutes of the morning seemed as torturous as walking across a tar road in the heat of summer. Finally at 12:03 on November 14th, 1983, the buzzer to my 4th floor brownstone apartment announced the baby’s arrival. I looked out the window and only saw a nondescript colored Gypsy cab (an unlicensed taxi). I buzzed them in and waited impatiently while I heard quick steps on the stairs and was flabbergasted when a taxi driver lay a tiny bundled infant in my arms. The baby was accompanied by a small nondescript brown paper handled bag containing two four-ounce bottles of baby formula and a packaged red preemie nipple.
As quickly as the baby arrived, the taxi driver was gone. I signed nothing to prove I had received him and was given no instructions. I found myself compelled to undress him from his swaddling of two blankets and pink Beatrix Potter sleeper to examine his fingers and toes. I counted them. Then I removed his diaper to confirm he was a boy. I can remember holding his naked body, scrawny and lifeless like an old rag doll in my arms while I rocked him with tears flowing down my face. I was overwhelmed with joy, fear, and disbelief.
Within minutes of his arrival panic set in. This baby was much smaller than I expected for a four-month-old and the diapers I had were much too big. I also had full size bottles and nipples and it seemed obvious that it would be a very long time before this baby needed that size. I redressed the baby, taping on the diaper, and bundled him into a red corduroy Snuggli baby carrier and set off for the Red Apple Supermarket down the street where I was a recognized customer. I explained my predicament and was allowed to exchange the medium diapers for newborns and the regular sized nipples for preemies. Everyone oohed and aahed over the baby.
For months I had been harboring my secret desire to be a mother, and now I was. I wanted to call everyone I knew. My excitement was equal to any new mother, and yet the response I received was indifferent. The baby was my foster child, and few people considered him to be anything but my charge to take care of. I truly have no idea what my mother thought when I called her, I only recall thinking she seemed to have no idea how excited I was or why. I hadn’t a clue that I would subsequently adopt him, but from the first second he lay in my arms I began to bond to him.
I had already called in sick that day for my work at a local day care center, but I still had a required meeting that night for volunteer work I did doing child abuse intervention . To this day I can remember the excitement I felt taking the baby out for his first excursion. I can still hear in my head the first time someone asked me about my baby, and I didn’t have to explain that I was only baby-sitting.
The baby had been named by his mother Little Edwin. I hated the name Edwin and could not bring myself to call him that. The adoption agency required that I call him by his given name, but it could be a similar nickname. I spent the next day asking people I encountered about possible nicknames. I was always a fan of Winnie the Pooh and had even named a dog of mine Christopher Robin, but could not quite bring myself to call him Winnie or even Win. I considered calling him something totally unrelated to Edwin. In the end, it was listening to the day’s radio news on the bus home that would inspire his name. Edward Kennedy was nicknamed Teddy, why couldn’t my Edwin be Teddy too? And so from his second evening with me onwards the baby was nicknamed Teddy.
Teddy was not a very happy baby. He spent much of day exhausted and sleeping, but the rest was torturous feeding times, followed by vomiting, and then equally torturous defecating. With no muscle tone, I had to pump his legs to force what was trapped inside out. He showed no interest in his environment what-so-ever. He did not clutch my fingers or follow my movements with his eyes. He seemed totally unaware I had become his consistent caregiver. Using child development books I had, I assessed him on a developmental scale and his levels did not even make it to the chart as a newborn.
After two weeks in my care, I received the first communication from the foster care agency. I needed to take Teddy to a medical appointment. I learned a few new things about Teddy as I peeked a look at his chart while waiting for the doctor’s arrival to the examining room. I had no idea that the reason his arrival to my house was delayed over the weekend was due to his having pneumonia. Nor had I been made privy to the fact that although Teddy’s birth was considered an ‘uneventful vaginal delivery of a child suspected to have Down syndrome’, he was found to have cocaine in his system. (I would never be told either of these facts orally or in writing, officially or unofficially.) I also did not know he was diagnosed with failure to thrive with an expectation of only a few weeks to live unless his life took a different turn.
I expressed my concerns about Teddy’s health by showing the doctor the notes I had taken, and he was not impressed. He seemed to slough off my concerns and simply sent me on my way with instructions to return regularly for shots and check-ups.
My life would take dramatic changes with Teddy’s arrival in my life. For a time I took Teddy with me to my part-time day care work, and he lay in a doll’s cradle immune to the surrounding noisy preschool classroom. I gave my notice and agreed to work until a replacement could be found. Thankfully one was found quickly as it became clear to me that Teddy was in dire need of some type of crisis intervention.
How I arrived at my idea to retrieve Teddy from the grave he seemed to be destined for is lost to me now. I do know that I thought he needed a chance to start his life over. I decided to cover my windows with black construction paper, and put towels in front of the door jam to keep the sounds of the stairway muffled. I turned off the lights, and took refuge on my waterbed layered with disposable diapers under a comforter with a supply of peanut butter and crackers. I decided I would keep silent holding a naked Teddy next to my naked body in an attempt to recreate a womb environment. Over the course of days I began to hum, then sing while I nuzzled him. I slowly peeled back the black paper to allow in more light. From the rag doll who first lay motionless in bed with me, he became a reborn infant whose fingers wrapped around my finger, whose body nestled between my breasts in search of a heartbeat, and eyes began to follow me when I moved out of bed into the bathroom or kitchen.
Teddy was hardly recognizable as the baby he had been when we emerged from our self-imposed exile. I took the first picture of him that day. Until that day I am not sure I completely thought of him as real. He smiled his first smile. He also had his first visit with his birth mother since I had taken him into care. (photograph in yellow snowsuit)
Teddy was a very floppy baby. At five months of age and eight pounds, he still could not hold his head up. Unlike what I had been told to expect, Teddy’s visit with his mother happened in a small office with her, him, and me – no social worker. It was an awkward hour in which I tried to encourage Teddy’s mother to hold him. I was so excited about how much he had developed in the past month, and she seemed totally uninterested. I was still committed to her someday being his custodial parent again, and her lack of interest greatly concerned me. I wrote in a 1985 Single Mothers by Choice newsletter, “ the civil libertarian in me believes she has a primary right to her child, which a lack of education, social status, and income should not abridge (p. 1.)
I decided Teddy needed to hear that he would always be loved each and every day. I started to develop a repertoire of songs whose lyrics imparted special meaning including “ You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, please don’t take my sunshine away.” I also invented one that he still requests I sing to him, “ Who’s the best baby? Whose the best boy? Whose is his mommy’s pride and her joy? Who is the one that mommy loves the best? Teddy is the one!”
I worried that he might not always be with me and however unrealistic it might be; I wanted him to have a sense of basic trust that nothing, even our permanent separation could change.
Being a foster parent versus a birth parent was an unrelenting struggle. As much as the term might imply otherwise, you are not a parent, you are a caregiver and the care you give is according to instructions not choice. As little as the adoption agency and the welfare system seemed to be concerned with Teddy, they were very quick to discredit anything remotely unconventional I wanted to do.
Teddy drooled incessantly. He also let his tongue hang out. Both are common in babies with Down syndrome, but I was intent he did neither. Training him not to let his tongue hang out was reasonably easy – I chucked him on the bottom of the chin, and he pulled his tongue in or bit it. I did this once in front of the social worker, and it was made quite clear I would never be an adoptive parent if I continued to do this. I continued to do it (although careful never in front of the social worker) and in a few months I found it was very rarely necessary.
I read about the use of gooseberry stalks cut and dried into beads and worn as a necklace as a way to reduce nasal dripping. I considered that it might also help reduce Teddy’s drooling and ordered a necklace through the Home Business section of Mothering magazine. It was rawly constructed, so I sanded the beads smooth and restrung them on elastic. I was ecstatic that his drooling ceased within days. At first, I thought this was coincidental, but when the drooling did not return, I decided to conduct an experiment. I removed the beads and after only two days the drooling returned. I put them back and in a few days the drooling ceased again.
The next time I had a medical appointment, Teddy was wearing the beads and it was insisted that they be immediately removed and discarded. I protested, but as the caregiver had no choice. I went home and ordered another necklace, and it too provided the same results. After about six months the necklace broke. We were in the park, Teddy was in the sandbox, and when I discovered the necklace was broken, the beads had scattered everywhere in the sand. I again ordered a new necklace, but during the time we waited for its arrival the drooling did not reappear. We abandoned the necklace, and Teddy never drooled incessantly again.
Teddy consistently fell at the negative 15th percentile in height and weight on a growth scale for children with Down syndrome. No matter how much I tried to convince the adoption agency medical staff, they did not agree to any hormonal therapy. I decided I would take Teddy to a pediatrician of my choosing and would pay for his care myself. I took a long train ride to Long Island to a specialty clinic for children with Down syndrome. They were absolute in their belief that he would benefit from thyroid therapy. My taking charge of his medical care was counterproductive in one small way. Teddy slowly began to near the zero percentile in height and weight, so it was obvious to the adoption agency medical clinic that I was wrong and Teddy did not need hormone therapy as he was beginning to grow more normally.
Another reason for proceeding with medical care independently was a change in my perception of who I was to Teddy. In the beginning I was content to think of myself as a transitory parent. I was more disappointed than angry when his mother inevitably did not appear for her bi-monthly scheduled visits. I tried to problem solve her transportation issues with her when she would come at 2:50 or 3:10 to our two o’clock visit. The adoption agency was resolute that the visit was from two to three and if she showed up late – she missed her visit. Nothing I could say would change this rule. In all the time I cared for Teddy, she actually only visited with him more than a few minutes three times.
My perception about who Teddy was changed during the second visit Teddy and I had with his mother. She arrived early and saw Teddy arrive with me inside his bright red corduroy Snuggli. His mother was very upset that I carried him in this cloth baby carrier. I tried to explain to her that he was secure in it. It tied around my waist and had double shoulder straps. He was in no danger of falling out or of it falling off me. Her response was, “ What if someone shoots you?” This never occurred to me. I knew that this was not a risk that existed in my life. Teddy was never going to live with this risk.
I stopped thinking of Teddy as her son that I was caring for, but he was in that instant now my son. I stopped being Teddy’s mother’s advocate with the social worker and began to tell the adoption agency worker I wanted to adopt Teddy. I grew angry that his foster care status lingered on, although she showed no improvement in her ability to care for her son. She continued to not appear for scheduled visits and even missed court hearings. The mood of the day was to keep families intact – no matter what the risk to the children.
On June 20, 1985, Teddy’s mother finally lost her parental rights. (The father named on the birth certificate, who visited him only once, had never responded to any request to assert his parental rights.) I was taking a graduate school education class, and used the pay phone during the break to call to see how the hearing had gone. I expected, like the two before, she would be given yet another chance to get her act together. I was stunned when I was told both their rights had been terminated. I returned to class and was so emotional and in tears that I had to leave class and go home to Teddy to hold him. I don’t think I have ever been as emotional as I was that day. It took 18 months to get to that point, and emotions I had been holding all that time flooded the streets of New York as I ran home.
Being approved as a foster care parent and an adoptive parent are not the same. A home study that had been done almost two years before had to be updated. I was asked questions that before had been glossed over. The agency demanded more information about the two men that I claimed were Teddy’s role models. New references from people who had seen me with Teddy were wanted. My finances were reevaluated. I felt confident that I was the best thing to ever happen to Teddy, but not so confident that the adoption agency and a judge would see it the same.
Mark and Jim were both interviewed. Mark was brutally honest, and expressed his fear that Teddy would change my life in ways I could not or chose not to imagine. He did tell the agency that he loved Teddy and would do everything he could for us if we became a family. He also told them he hoped I would change my mind. Jim was as always the more effusive father. Jim described me as having wings and a halo. He also vowed to always be there for us both whenever we needed him.
Kjellaug was also interviewed. She was a woman from Norway I had hired to help me in my family day care home. I was paid to be Teddy’s caregiver, but the amount was not substantial, so I continued to take care of other people’s children on a part time basis. With Teddy in my care I needed backup. Kjellaug and I rarely socialized together, but spent our days very intimately involved in the care of children. She knew better than anyone what kind of mother I was to Teddy. (photo of Kjellaug and Teddy)
The social worker told me that these three interviewees were so forthcoming and positive that she felt no need for further interviews and would recommend the adoption. Little did I know that from the date of Teddy’s mother’s loss of parental right to his adoption day would be another two hundred and seventy-nine days.
In the end, Teddy’s adoption was not the exciting day I had hoped it would be. During the intervening months, the relationship between Jim and Mark soured. The differences between them created stone walls that nothing could tear down. Mark had HIV and how the two of them faced this impossible situation was one of the larger stones in the wall. Mark moved to San Francisco. Jim and I became closer than ever. I was not always sure who missed Mark more. Then Jim, too, developed HIV. Even in crisis, Jim was a good to Teddy. His indomitable spirit helped him to forge a new relationship with a man who was equally loving to Teddy.
The day of Teddy’s adoption I dressed him in red plaid pants, and a blue sports jacket purchased for the occasion. I took pictures of him standing atop a climbing frame we kept inside our apartment. He was all smiles. I imagine he knew this was an exciting day, even if he had no idea the reason. (adoption day photograph)
Sadly, Jim, who should have been there to share in the occasion was not. His HIV status was causing him to have more and more days when he suffered with the consequences of a disease ravaged body. A few days later we had a spectacular party in celebration of his adoption. In attendance were friends from the neighborhood, from my work with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, from the day care I had begun in my home, but most especially Jim. It was a day of celebration where all things seemed possible and dreams became real.