A Perfect Mother
For me the catchiest tune in primary is “The Family is of God.” I can’t get it out of my head. Along with the tune come images of families from my time as an adoption social worker that contradict the lyrics as written. Images of nurturing fathers and mothers that provide and preside. Images of the most needy and rejected children.
Too often as an adoption recruiter I observed that the more a child needs a parent, the more terrible the behaviors they express, making the neediest children the least adoptable. As the tune trips through my head I keep thinking about the children that I struggled most to match with an adoptive parent/parents.
Anthony’s life was a series of disasters. An unexpected pregnancy to a drug addicted mother placed him in foster care upon her testing positive for methamphetamine at his birth. His mother lost custody of his two and three year old brothers before Anthony was born. Infants are generally easier to place for adoption, but Anthony was part of a sibling group and it took some time to find a home that would adopt the sibling set of three boys.
The four and six year old brothers were legally adopted by their foster parent, but three year old Anthony’s adoption had not yet finalized when awful physical abuse was uncovered. The older siblings with the adopted last name were removed from the home and sent to one foster home, while Anthony with his birth name went to another home. Unknowingly, the siblings with different last names were assumed to be unrelated and separated.
The older boys were legally freed from their adoptive parents and fortunately went almost directly to the home of a young single woman who fostered the boys for about a year before adopting them. Anthony was not so fortunate. In his new foster home he became the victim of an older teenage boy who befriended him and brutally raped Anthony repeatedly for over a year before the sexual abuse was discovered.
I was assigned Anthony’s case just as he was concluding his testimony in the criminal case against the perpetrator. A beautiful young boy with a wide smile and contagious laugh the bright five year old was the youngest victim I have ever had qualify to testify in court. Others could see the intelligence and light hearted joy of Anthony and many expressed an interest in adopting Anthony until they learned of his history.
For a year I spent at least a weekend a month taking Anthony to adoption recruitment events at pizza parlors, carnivals,and parks where I would introduce him to families hoping to adopt. I was new to adoption and imagined for Anthony the kind of family I learned about in church. Two parents of opposite genders, unconditionally loving, and adherent to traditional gender roles. Anthony met what looked to me like wonderful couples, but none wanted to adopt him after they learned he struggled with the behavioral problems associated with sexual abuse and a lack of a healthy attachment figure. Nightmares, violence towards other kindergarten students in his class, enuresis, tantrums, all these were too much for his foster parent and discouraged potential adoptive parents.
While Anthony was experiencing abuse and moving from one foster home to another, Anthony’s two brothers were adopted by a single woman named Antoinette. The boys prayed for Anthony every night, but called him by a nickname that caused confusion when trying to find him. They asked Antoinette to buy clothing, toys, and a toothbrush for Anthony to use when he came home. Every day they asked Antoinette when their brother would come to live with them. Antoinette asked social services about the younger brother her children couldn’t forget, but was not able to confirm that a younger brother existed. Until I called Antoinette to ask if if Anthony’s siblings would want to meet him, she believed that Anthony could be imaginary or an unrelated foster child the boys had formed an attachment to while in the abusive adoptive home.
A few days before I tracked down Antoinette, Anthony’s foster mom called to give her ”seven day notice” a request that Anthony be removed from her home in the coming week and placed in another foster home. The team of behavioral specialists working with Anthony’s foster mother helped convince her to delay removal of Anthony from the home for at least a month in the hope that we could identify an appropriate adoptive family where he could be placed instead. Added to the pressure of a first meeting between Anthony and Antoinette was the hope that Antoinette would consider adopting Anthony.
Antoinette was excited to meet Anthony. She’d heard so much about him from his now six and eight year old siblings. But I was wary. So much had gone wrong for Anthony. I did not want to be the social worker responsible for the next crime against a child who’d already experienced too much pain in his short life. We set up a Saturday meeting at a park an hour from the desert community where Antoinette and the siblings lived. Watching Anthony play alone on the slide as we waited for his brothers and Antoinette, I worried. Anthony had experienced too much abuse and conditional love in his short life. I wondered how Antoinette was managing the needs of the two brothers she had already adopted. Would it mean less love for them if she adopted Anthony? I wondered if she could handle his needs. Would she want to parent him?
Along with my concerns I brought a lot of judgement to my first meeting with Antoinette. Platform sandals, a denim skirt, tank top, long fake nails, a dozen gold chains, I thought Antoinette looked more ready for an evening of clubbing than a visit with a social worker. Her language was peppered with slang and grammatical errors. I was not impressed. My mind started to wander to future adoption recruitment activities. Who could be a safe loving home for Anthony? But Antoinette was so remarkable as a person and parent that in fifteen minutes my opinion flipped.
The boys came well prepared with toys and snacks to share with Anthony. They played easily in that way of children meeting on a playground and did not appear at all jealous or insecure that they were sharing Antoinette’s attention. She prompted the boys to share their stories about Anthony. They told him how they had been looking for him. Antoinette took time to play with Anthony, but also gave him space to come to her. She redirected the boys when the play got a little wild. As the boys played she talked to me about their therapy, nightmares, recovery from physical abuse and how her parents and extended family were helping her to cope with her responsibilities as a parent.
In the coming weeks we met for many more play dates and eventually Anthony spent a weekend with Antoinette and his brothers. Upon returning from that first weekend visit, Anthony’s foster mom demanded that Anthony be removed from her home in the coming week. Antoinette scrambled to rearrange furniture, enroll Anthony in school and day care and set up therapy for Anthony. A week later he moved in with Antoinette and his brothers.
In subsequent months during my regular visits with the family I completed an adoption homestudy for Antoinette and she was approved to adopt Anthony. I learned more about what made Antoinette remarkable. She decided as a woman in her early thirties that she had a lot of love to give, but was not ready to start a family with her current boyfriend. She felt spiritually called to adoption and related how her experiences as a step-daughter and step-sister helped her prepare to be a parent. She made a moderate living as a civil service employee, but invested her resources wisely moving out to the desert to provide her adopted children with a comfortable home and spacious backyard with quality service providers in the area.
Antoinette got so much right. Good boundaries with the children, clear instructions to protect them from sexual abuse and acting out sexually with each other. She maintained a daily routine for the children balanced between structure and play, but was not a stay at home mom. The boys went to daycare. She followed the recommendations of therapist, but also used her own intuition to guide her in the care of her boys.
Anthony wet the bed for the first few months he lived with Antoinette and cried when he went to school, but was never violent. Nightmares persisted for many more months. Antoinette daily reminded Anthony that he was safe and that she would be his forever mother. All of Anthony’s problem behaviors stopped long before the adoption finalized.
I have thought of Antoinette often as I have pondered the face of good parents while singing “The Family is of God.” For Anthony there was no set of parents willing to adopt him. His mother provides, presides, nurtures, she is the sole source of parental love for Anthony. She has resiliency, confidence, coping skills, and well defined self care routines that enable her to take the pain of three wounded young boys upon her. I can not imagine a more Christlike act than to take the sorrows of children upon you and shine unconditional love into their lives.
Over 100,000 children in the United States are living in foster homes waiting for a good parent or parents to adopt them. Many are siblings that will be separated in foster care and in adoption. Many are older youth and teens. I believe that the family is of God, but that the perfect family can look radically different for each of us.
Antoinette has not abandoned her gold chains for soccer mom gear. She is not married. She does not look at all like the Mormon image I was raised on of the perfect SAHM. But she is perfect for Anthony. She is perfect for three brothers that did not forget each other during two years apart. She combines love with a willingness to learn, ask for help from others, and the capacity to suffer the intense sorrow of young abused children and manage that pain.
As a single woman just a few years younger than Antoinette, I have pondered if I could adopt children on my own. After serious soul searching, I don’t feel that I could parent alone, and I’m OK with that. I am grateful for the Antoinette’s of the world that give a face to the biblical command to “Be ye therefore perfect” making the broken whole, completing the incomplete.