I thought that it would take a miracle for me to become a mother. Turns out, it took a court order.
In January, my mom called to share the news we had been dreading. The local Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) had removed my 1-year-old nephew from his parents’ care, citing neglect. We weren’t shocked, given the household history of substance abuse and volatility. But we weren’t prepared for what came next. Based on his mother’s thoughts about family members who might take him and agency preference to place children with relatives, CFSA asked: Would I be willing to take him in—immediately?
Less than 12 hours, stacks of paperwork, an interview, a home inspection including lead testing, and an assembled crib later, he arrived at my door, tired and confused. His possessions had been stuffed into two bags—one hurriedly packed by his mother and reeking of cigarette smoke, and another provided by CFSA. He was given the things they determined he could need right away–a single outfit, sleepwear, a pacifier, toiletries, wet wipes, a towel, washcloth, copies of his medical exam, and a date for his follow-up appointment—and sent to stay with me indefinitely. I still don’t know how we made it through that first night.
Becoming a single mother overnight required a level of self-sacrifice I did not know I was capable of. I had no time to prepare or grieve for what I was giving up. I had to change every aspect of my life—from the time I wake up in the morning and how I cook my vegetables to the kind of car I drive. I relied on my sister for child care until we got lucky and found a quality daycare without a waitlist.
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Discussing my new parenting responsibilities with people at work felt like a betrayal to my family, whose business I guard fiercely in an office where oversharing is part of theculture. The few people I told were very supportive, but it pained me that I needed to ask for any help.
If I’m being very honest, I did not ask for as much help as I needed—things that I was entitled to like family leave or telework—because with everything else falling apart, I couldn’t afford to show cracks at work. Black people are often taught to “be twice as good,” not to ask for special considerations. I honestly didn’t know how. My supervisor let me shift my work hours so I could get him to and from daycare on time. A few trusted colleagues shared parenting advice and overnight diaper recommendations. But I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed to reveal that underneath my professional demeanor, my Black family fit the dysfunctional stereotype.
I think I made it three days before I broke down. As I lay on the floor sobbing—quietly, so I didn’t wake the baby—I asked myself, “What did I do?” The answer, of course, was that I did what I had to do.
In my family, I learned early there are certain things that should not find their way outside of the family – secrets, shame, recipes, and children. And Black families tend to try to find homes inside the family for children who need them.So I agreed, without feeling like I had a choice, to become a lifeline for my nephew’s sinking family ship. The weight of it almost drowned me in the process.
Though I hadn’t been sure that I wanted to have a baby (and certainly not a boy), or if I would even be able to conceive, I ended up with the child who needed me, not that one I sometimes thought I wanted.
My nephew is now in “the system.” And because I am his kinship caregiver, so am I. My entire life has to be made available to be viewed, inspected, questioned, and assessed. My home, once my sanctuary and my respite, has to be accessible to a steady stream of strangers coming by for monthly visits, inspections, and safety checks. They open my refrigerator and my closets, asking personal questions—the answers to which some of my close friends don’t know: What was my biggest disappointment in life? How did I deal with it? Do I plan to have children? Do I have fertility issues?
I am being judged on my fitness to raise a child, based on how I was raised and how I have lived my single life. I am being asked to meet a higher standard to qualify to temporarily raise a child than his own parents were, from whom he was removed for neglect. It is galling, and yet I am grateful that he never spent a night living with strangers.
Raising a toddler for family members who have not accepted responsibility for their roles in his removal is draining. While they appreciate that their son is safe and with family they trust, they still resent that he is not home and that decisions are made without consulting with them first.
His parents have supervised visits once a week and can call or video chat with him by phone. I am raising him the way that I would raise a child, which is very different from how he was raised by his mother and father. We have different lifestyles, and I don’t want to give the impression that I think I am better than they are. I’m just doing things differently. At times, I resent having to tiptoe around their feelings while I am already doing the important work of raising their son.
Finding the right balance is tricky. He is not my son, but he is in my care. I don’t sleep through the night because when he awakes needing something—a diaper change, a bottle, to be held— it’s my job to be there. Idecide what, or how many layers, he will wear. I fret when he’s running a fever, hold him all night when he can’t sleep because he’s teething. I pick out his snacks, brush his teeth, and decide how to style his hair for school pictures.
Sometimes when he calls me mommy, I wonder if correcting him confuses him, when he’s partially right. I do my best, knowing that sometimes that the thing he needs is the one thing I cannot give him: his parents.
This chapter of my life could be called The Things I’ve Lost—privacy, freedom, sleep, autonomy. But I’ve also lost my FOMO: fear of mothering others. I’ve been peed on, coughed on, slobbered on, coughed on, thrown up on, hit, bit, and kicked. I wipe faces, noses, butts, and have discarded chewed-up food dropped onto my hand. None of these things bother me the way they once might have.
Seeing his smile every morning makes my heart sing. Every day when I leave work, I know he’s going to be excited to see me, run to greet me. It may only last a minute, but sometimes it’s the best minute of my day.
Even writing this article and telling my story means doing so under an assumed name. Being a good temporary mother to him means protecting his family’s privacy over making sure that the world knows these words are mine.
This Mothers Day, I won’t get a card or flowers. In fact, I will probably spend it making sure that his mother gets to spend time with him. And that’s OK. It’s enough for me that I am able to provide most of what he needs for the time being—standing in the gap and mothering until his family is able—even if I know that he won’t always need me.
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