When I was growing up, my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Felizzi, took a special interest in me. She gave me a jumbo chocolate bar every Halloween and always listened to all of my stories. She even taught me the secret of making perfect pizzelles (leave the cookie batter in the iron for exactly the amount of time it takes to say one Hail Mary).
My mother said Mrs. Felizzi did all this because she couldn’t have kids of her own, and I told my mother that was silly; Mrs. Felizzi should just adopt. My friend Krista was adopted, and if it made sense for her family, it made sense for everyone.
I was so convinced of this that on my first date with the man who is now my husband, I told him I planned to adopt if I couldn’t have biological children. Ten years later, we found ourselves in just that position. My husband grieved that there would never be a baby with his eyes and my nose, but I didn’t feel the same kind of loss. I’d known my whole life what I would do in this situation, so when my husband was ready to move forward, we pursued foster-care adoption. Kids would stay with us while their parents tried to get their acts together. If they succeeded, the kids would reunify; if the parents failed, their rights would be terminated and we’d adopt.
We got the call to take two sisters right before Christmas a few years ago. The oldest was 2½, the youngest not yet a year. We were told it was likely their parents’ rights would be terminated, but when we met Mom for the first time that New Year’s Eve, we had our doubts about that. Whatever her flaws, it was clear she loved her daughters and was doing everything she could to bring them home.
One week after my husband’s paternity leave ended, Mom gave birth to a third girl. Legally, we could have only two foster children because we had only one bedroom for kids. Despite this, the social workers asked us to take the newborn, and we did. Even though we already loved the older two girls and wanted to adopt them, we didn’t want to feel as though we had stolen them; we thought Mom’s chance of success improved if she had the security of knowing that “las tres hermanas,” as we came to call them, were together with one loving foster family.
For the next 16 months, we changed diapers and cuddled and mastered the art of finger foods; we searched for preschools and peewee camps and wondered if we’d ever get a decent night’s sleep again. And then, just like that, it was over. Mom had made progress, and a judge ordered las tres hermanas back home.
Through one of the girls’ service providers, Mom told us she wanted to preserve the relationship we had with her children. We fell into a routine where we saw them every Sunday, and sometimes in the middle of the week for a special event or if Mom had a child-care issue.
We put off bringing in new foster children, wanting to be certain Mom was secure. Our biggest fear was that the girls could end up back in the system and that, if we had new foster kids, we wouldn’t legally have the space to take the girls back in. The longer we put off new kids, the harder it was to imagine how it would work with las tres hermanas dropping in for regular visits. We decided we had to talk to Mom about this, to see how she saw our relationship playing out. Easier said than done, because our Spanish is minimal and Mom doesn’t speak English.
When we couldn’t find anyone in the child welfare system to help us, my husband’s co-worker agreed to interpret. In that meeting, it became clear that Mom didn’t just value the relationship we had with her daughters. She told us we were her second parents. We’d been told by a service provider that she sometimes called me her “otro Mommy,” but this was the first time she’d expressed this directly to us.
We began making a plan to help her. She needed assistance with finding a new job and getting reliable child care. We offered to expand our relationship with las tres hermanas to include their older half brother, who had moved to Los Angeles from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and the new baby half brother that Mom gave birth to after the girls reunified. Mom agreed that this was something she wanted.
We knew then that there would be no new foster kids coming into our home, there would be no adoption and no family of our own. And that I did grieve, in a way I hadn’t when I learned we couldn’t have biological children.
A few weeks ago, we went with Mom and las tres hermanas to our neighborhood pizza parlor, the sort of place where the staff knows your regular order. Mom’s brother came, too, as did the girls’ two half brothers. The oldest girl had been asking for this dinner party almost since the day she went back to Mom. The owner of the pizza parlor knew how much it meant to her, and he came out from the kitchen to greet Mom and to take a picture of all of us.
The next day, I sent that photo to a couple of friends and wrote, “This is what our family looks like now.”
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