By Angela Erickson
On what should have been one of the happiest days of my life, discomfort was my only focus.
My husband Kyle and I have fostered eleven children over the past seven years. At the time when this story starts, we had adopted two: our daughter, now 7 years old, and our son, now 5 years old. Seven of our foster children have been reunified with their biological families. Our most recent case involved a 4-year-old girl and her newborn sister. After a year of caring for them, with caseworker visits, monthly reports, and court appearances, we were finally at the trial date. The caseworkers decided that the birth parents’ rights would be terminated and moved forward with us adopting the girls.
I was mostly nervous about testifying in court during the trial. (I was there by myself, as my husband was teaching. The kids aren’t normally required to be present at the court appearances.) As the foster mother, I would testify to the girls' conditions when they first came to us and our interactions with the birth mother at the visits.
On top of those physiological nerves, I was feeling anxious wondering if the birth mother, “Michelle,” would attend. Michelle hadn't seen the girls in almost five months. Only a few months back, she signed relinquishment papers to voluntarily surrender her rights. This is a somewhat common occurrence IF termination of the parents’ rights appears inevitable. The birth parents sometimes sign relinquishment papers voluntarily to avoid a termination being put on their record.
However, Michelle had recently declared that signing was a mistake, and that she was requesting a new lawyer to help her take back the relinquishment and continue fighting for the girls. Obviously, it doesn't work that way, but I still wondered what she would do if she showed up to court. However relatively polite Michelle had been when we had met in the past, these recent actions led me to dread whatever confrontation we might have.
When I walked through the hallway and found our courtroom, I saw Michelle sitting on the bench outside. The nerves kicked in again along with feelings of worry, sadness, grief, and anxiety.
And so, with my heart pounding and stomach churning, I went to the restroom to get it together. Honestly, it probably was due to cowardice; I wanted to stay removed from all of these emotions and thoughts rapidly flowing through me.
Jody Landers said: “A child born to another woman calls me Mommy. The magnitude of that tragedy and the depth of that privilege are not lost on me.” How true this is. Although incredibly joy-filled with knowing that the girls would be part of our forever-family and that the court proceedings would soon be done, my husband and I were aware that our joy would come at someone else’s great misery. Nobody was playing the “us versus them” game, but on that day the path would be permanently chosen: us versus her. Not a comfortable day to be living through, from anyone’s perspective.
Once I took some deep breaths and collected myself, I calmly exited, ready for our case to be called into the courtroom.
My foster children’s birth mother was standing there washing her hands at the sinks.
She looked up as I walked out and our eyes met. I blandly smiled, and she gave me a watery smile back and looked away. I began washing my hands at the sink next to hers.
Ugh. Could this be any more awkward?
At this point, something became crystal clear to me. Yup, it was awkward--the birth mother on the day her parental rights are terminated washing hands next to the adoptive mother going home to them after court concludes. We were “supposed” to be on opposite “sides.” Shouldn’t she be angry at me for stealing her rightful place as her children’s mother? Shouldn’t I be judgmental and condescending, knowing everything in her life and lifestyle that led to the removal of her children? Shouldn’t we hate each other as adversaries?
But at that moment it truly hit me that Michelle was not the “other side.” She was the mother of my children--or, rather, the children who, by God’s goodness, would soon be named part of my family forever. Here was a young woman, only a few years younger than I was, who had been torn up by life’s hardness and trapped in a deep hole of her own making, with each day proving more difficult to overcome. She was without support of family or friends, much less a committed husband. She had enjoyed no steady home life growing up and was now a single mom going from job to job, and from place to place, with unhealthy influences all around. My modest life seemed palatial in comparison. Today was the day on which her last link to her two daughters would be forever severed. It mattered not that she was facing the consequences of her actions. She wasn’t a rival in some game but someone hurting.
At that point, my nervousness and anxiety about this day seemed selfish. How could I stand there silently, because I felt “awkward,” when someone was aching beside me? Chastised, I threw up a quick prayer for forgiveness. And then the thought surfaced, “Well, if it were me, I’m sure I could use a hug.” Then, “Do it. Can’t get any more awkward.”
I dried my hands, walked over, and threw my arms around her. I told her that we recognized how painful this day was for her. That for today at least, hurt for her was overshadowing any excitement we could feel. I told her how much we loved those little girls, and I choked up as I vowed to care for them to the best of my ability all my life. I told her she would always be in our prayers.
Her tears now flowing as well, she thanked me. She humbly expressed gratitude for us loving her children as much as she did. She acknowledged that her life was currently unstable, and that she knew she was unable to care for the girls the way she would like. She went on to say an abundance of kind affirmations for my husband and me that soothed my soul. We stood there, talking, bonded by our love for our children, the conversation comforting each of us, if even just a degree.
We hugged again as we exited the women’s restroom. She turned to me and said, “I’m not going to fight the relinquishment papers today. If I can’t be there for my daughters, at least I know they have you in their lives.”
Our case was called into the courtroom soon afterwards. Michelle was the first witness on the stand. She stated that she was voluntarily relinquishing her rights and supportive of an adoption by our family. As soon as she was dismissed, she walked out of the courtroom without a backward glance, out of our family’s lives.
I am pro-life. And this encounter with Michelle expanded my view of what that means.
We have been incredibly blessed through the gift of adoption, with two children already adopted and two more very soon. But before this, we experienced years of praying and hoping for a child. Naturally, that made us extra sensitive regarding children who need a home, who are neglected or abused or unwanted. But caring for babies is not the only way to live out pro-life truths.
(In Part II, I’ll talk more about this).
A graduate of Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, Angela served as Director of Christian Education and then middle school teacher in Texas before moving back to her home state of beautiful Colorado. She and her husband Kyle have fostered eleven children and adopted four. Reading, writing, running, and singing are a few of her favorite things.