Mother’s Day will pass this weekend like any other day for Linda Owens, who never married and doesn’t have children of her own.

But she has never felt she missed out — over the past 34 years, she has fostered 81 infants.

“I have enjoyed each and every one,” said Owens, 78, who lives in Hayward, Calif., and is a retired human resources manager.

She took in her first newborn in 1987 for the Alameda County Department of Children and Family Services in Northern California.

“What I do comes from my heart for every fragile infant who needs a good start in life,” she said. “I remember them all.”

She is called several times a year to pick up newborns who cannot live with their birth mothers by court order. Many of the babies were exposed to drugs in the womb and stay with Owens until a judge rules they can be reunited with their parents or they are adopted, she said.

Her most recent foster infant — a girl who was with her for seven weeks until she was adopted last month — was the 81st child to get a closely held hug and a kiss goodbye on the forehead, said Owens.

“Nurturing these babies has been my calling — I feel like it’s a gift God handed to me to do,” she said. “When they’re ready to leave my home, my hope is that what I’ve instilled in their lives for the future will go on with them.”

The babies are generally with her for a few days or a few months; a few have stayed longer.

“I’ve had some who were 22 months old before they were adopted into their forever family,” she said. “My oldest girl would now be 34. I think about her often.”

The work Owens has done quietly in her apartment for more than three decades has not gone unnoticed. She was recently honored by a local television station and is among the longest-serving of Alameda County’s 500 foster parents, whom officials call resource parents, said Sylvia Soublet, public affairs director for the county’s social services agency.

“Linda has impacted generations of children — and perhaps even their children — because of the personal care she was able to provide when they were most vulnerable and needed it the most,” Soublet said.

In the foster-care system nationwide, about 7 percent of children — more than 30,000 babies — are under the age of 1, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While caring for infants is demanding, Owens said she doesn’t mind catching only a few hours of sleep, night after night. She is licensed to have two infants at once, and has cared for three sets of twins over the years, but generally takes in one baby at a time, she said.

“The small babies who come to me under five pounds are required to eat every two hours,” said Owens. “They need as much love and care as you can possibly give them. You get through one feeding, a diaper change and a burping, and it’s time to start all over again.”

She added: “I sleep when I can.”

Owens grew up playing “house” with her older sister on a farm near Oakland, Calif., and developed a love for newborns early on, she said.

“My mother was a nurse, so if a baby was sick, people would come to her to find out what a rash was about or why they had a fever,” said Owens. “I always carried those memories with me.”

When her grandmother came to visit from Illinois, they would go shopping at Montgomery Ward in Oakland and usually end up in the baby department, she said.

“I was always inspired by baby things — I’d look inside the buggies and I loved the soft colors of the baby clothes,” Owens recalled. “Then as I grew older, my sister and I did a lot of babysitting. I always enjoyed it and it was something I was good at.”

Her older sister, Karen, eventually married and had six children of her own, but Owens said she never felt an urge to follow the same path.

Instead, she moved into an apartment and went to work, first as a cook, and then in human resources for a local grocery store chain.

In 1986, after she met a woman who had been a foster mother for several years, Owens looked around her empty living room and thought she could do the same.

“It seemed like a really rewarding thing to do,” she said. “I’d always wanted to do something with children, and babies were my passion.”

The day after Thanksgiving in 1987, she took in her first infant. As the years passed and dozens more were entrusted to her care, Owens said she felt that it was what she was meant to do.

“Some of them have had pretty rough journeys in utero, and there are very few who haven’t been drug-exposed,” she said. “There is a lot of nurturing, sorting-out and structuring to do to get them a good start in life.”

When Owens had a full-time office job, her sister volunteered to watch the infants for her during her shift, she said.

“I would drop them off at her house at 5:30 in the morning and she would watch them with her own kids,” she said. “My sister knew how important it was.”

Owens is paid a stipend for each infant in her care but said she isn’t motivated by that. Much of the money she receives is used to buy clothing, diapers, toys, food and baby gear.

She said she treats the infants like her own until it’s time to send them to their forever homes.

“Yes, it is very emotional to say goodbye, but I never intended to adopt them,” said Owens. “I take them in and get them started and ready to be sent wherever they need to go.”

After they leave her, she thinks about them often.

“I always imagine what their lives are like now,” she said. “I did the very best I could for them. And now I hope they have fallen into a good life.”

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