Christmas day 2016 — How a baby boy touched so many lives in so short of a time
It was a new twist on a very familiar story, if I saw it reenacted in a made for TV movie I’d think it was too manufactured to be believed. Having it play out in my own home, however, underscored both the truth and truths of this Christmas story.
On the first Thursday in December around 6:30 pm the phone rang. A social worker asked if we could step in and take on a ten-month old baby boy, let’s call him “Joshua”, who had just been removed from his mother. Most traditional couples have nine months (or longer) to plan for a baby to arrive, we had about ninety minutes. We had many reasons to say no to this request; I was in DC leading a series of seminars and was headed to Arizona for a week to take a different workshop. My husband’s a minister and was coming into the busiest season of his entire year: Christmas. On a long distance call from a noisy bistro in DC we acknowledged our concerns and fears, prayed through it, sought the agreement of our teenage son, and conferenced the social worker back in to say “Yes, there was room at our inn.”
My husband Ken and I have a blended family: an 18 year old mixed race son who joined us at 16 first as a foster son, now fully adopted; and a nearly 18 month old Hispanic daughter whom we adopted at birth through open adoption. We dreamed of having her grow up with another sibling closer to her own age. We’d been impressed with the many professionals we encountered in the foster care system with our son and so declared that before 2016 was over we’d finish the mounds of paperwork, fingerprints, references, coursework, and interviews needed to be re-certified as a foster family in California. Then at some point, we hoped in 2017, we’d have a chance to first foster and eventually adopt a third child into our family. Our past experience, and that of many friends and relatives, is that it can be a slow process for the right placement to occur. Our documents were all in order by the first Monday in December, were submitted for approval on Tuesday, and signed by the director on Wednesday, and the phone rang on Thursday.
We had little idea what we’d gotten ourselves into. He arrived with one bottle, five diapers, and the clothes on his back. Ken had just gotten our daughter to bed and he began to get to know Joshua’s needs and eating/sleeping patterns. For the first day in our home the little boy never cried once; he was affectionate, but reserved at the same time. Unsure where he was, and what was safe. We had many of the basics we needed from our daughter who was barely seven months older than him, but we recognized how much more we lacked.
From DC I posted on our neighborhood list serve what was unfolding. In a few hours strangers had pledged to give or loan us a double stroller, an extra high chair, a pack-n-play, and several bags of clothes. My friend Paul said he had two questions for us: “have we had our heads examined?” and “how could he help?” He got in his car and picked up all the donated gear and made a few runs to Target too. Another friend went to Amazon and ordered several pairs of new shoes in a range of likely sizes. Our next door neighbors brought us an extra car seat. Our communities really enveloped us with love and support as we ventured into the unknown and unexpected.
I postponed taking my week-long seminar and spent that time as stay-at-home dad while Ken prepared for the Christmas celebration at his church. Somehow a routine of raising “near-but-not-quite twins” evolved. Our daughter, who had learned the concept of sharing at daycare, now had to practice it in her very own home! She’d essentially been an only child for the first seventeen months on the planet, so “No! Mine” came out of her little mouth a great deal in the first few days. Ken joked that “our baby bird would push other chicks out of a crowded nest if she had too.”
We returned to the sleep deprivation we’d known earlier in her life and openly questioned each other if we could really do this. One social worker advised us to consider what six to nine months might look like of this care. A bit shell-shocked we began to look for daycare to start in January when I’d need to return to work. Both of us LOVE Christmas, but agreed to scale it back to make room for Josh in our lives. Ken decorated a smaller tree in just two days, not the usual five day affair. I put off our Christmas card until New Year’s (if even then) and put out none of the nativity sets or Christmas villages from my collections.
But, there was an unquestionable joy that came into our lives too. Like when Josh fell asleep on one of our chests nuzzled against our neck, snoring contently. Or when his silly laugh would break forth from a smile as our dog licked his fingers clean of spaghetti sauce. Or when he’d awake and reach out for us with his trademark open mouthed kisses as we picked him up to start the day. We quickly found a new normal to all this. Our daughter transitioned into being a little helper, bringing “baby” his bottle, offering him a pacifier, and hugging him when he cried (which started on the second day when he realized he could let us know what wasn’t working for him.) Our son, thrilled to have an African American male in the house, even got into the act helping us manage Josh’s hair care and advising us on which of the donated shoes and clothes were “on fleek.” We requested and were granted permission to take Josh with us on an in-state road trip to see some of our family between Christmas and New Year’s. I even wrapped many of our presents with Josh in the Bjorn, a feat that took some effort.
Just about when we thought we could pull this off for half a year or longer, one of the social workers began to discuss transitioning him back to his mother. She was making great strides in her recovery, had obtained placement at a facility that specializes in helping reunite parents with their children and was meeting all the expectations there. We began to discuss a mid-January return. A day later the social worker called back and shared that they thought it would be best for Josh to return to his mom even sooner, in fact if we would agree, on Christmas Day itself.
As foster parents we are completely aligned with reunification, and we trust the professionals who make these tough choices. We had come to know his mom and see her courage and commitment. We knew that her parenting would be under scrutiny in this environment, but that he’d also be in a loving community of families on the same journey. His home was indeed with her, and since his safety and well-being was assured we had no reason to object other than that we’d become attached to him in a very short period of time.
We enjoyed having him with us for the Christmas Eve candlelight service at Ken’s church. The entire congregation celebrated this baby boy in our midst as we sang songs of the birth of Christ in the manger. We all blessed him on his journey and shed some tears together. He slept with us one final night, awoke and witnessed the chaos of our Christmas tree, gifts, and family breakfast. Somehow the presents didn’t quite mean what we expected, it was his presence that we enjoyed more. I gave him a bath, Ken attended to his hair. We both teared up as we packed the mountains of clothes we’d received as gifts from friends and strangers alike. We had a box of gifts, some he’d unwrapped already, others for his mom to enjoy seeing him open.
Our teenager bid him goodbye, then we loaded the luggage, our daughter, and this little guy into the minivan and drove the few blocks to deliver him to his Mom: truly the best Christmas gift she ever received. The other residents and staff joked that the “Black Messiah” had come on Christmas just as predicted. His new community enveloped him immediately…and we knew our work was done. Our Christmas was about making room for him and meeting his needs for this short chapter. This baby, wrapped in a single blanket and lying in a borrowed pack-n-play in our bedroom, brought out the best in us. He cut through the noise of the holidays and vividly reminded us what truly matters in life.
Yes, it was a new twist on a very familiar story, but the lessons my family and I learned were ageless and profound. When we make room for the infant to come and live among us, we have no idea how we may change. Sharing our toys, our lives, even our sleep with one so needy and yet so loving shows us that we are never diminished when we give of ourselves. Paradoxically we have more when we give like this…as does Joshua…and his mother. That’s what I think Christmas may all be about.