I watched another baby leave yesterday. She was buckled in her carseat and munching contentedly on her goldfish. Happily oblivious that this moment was another goodbye in her growing line of goodbyes – and another in mine.
She was our fifth foster baby.
We have said goodbye to babies in treatment center hallways, fast food parking lots, hotel lobbies, and our own front yard. I have stood as minivans pulled away, after a day of trying to seal every moment into my memory. I have packed little bags with tiny clothes that I have folded one last time. I have kissed tiny cheeks quietly and quickly before letting them go.
When a baby comes into our home, we get nearly no information. We might be told an overarching reason for why they came into care – but sometimes we don’t even get that. We often don’t know what they eat, when they sleep, or where they have been living. Sometimes, nobody remembers to tell us how many caregivers they had before coming to us, if they have received any medical care, or even their last name. We piece together their broken histories.
One of our placements arrived with medical equipment, medication, and a diagnosis that we weren’t aware of until we dug through the giant trash bag carrying his belongings. Another had been hospitalized just weeks before coming to us, and we didn’t know until we saw it written on one of the pieces of paper hurriedly handed over to us when she came.
Some babies have arrived with bright smiles and open arms, immediately willing to trust us. And some we have won over. Some babies have arrived not knowing how to eat. Some have slept through the night for a few nights until they realize there is someone here who will wake with them, feed them, comfort them – and then it’s months before they sleep through the night again.
And so, we begin learning. We soak in this little human. Everything takes on a baby orbit. We try to learn his signals, his preferences, his fears all as quickly as we can. It is a crash course in tiny form.
We study her. We sit with her through therapies, medical procedures, and diagnoses. We become her voice in the middle of so many voices. We remind the social workers that scheduling needs to accommodate baby naps. We fight for evaluations when a little one still isn’t able to eat like a typical baby her age. We make phone calls and send emails, we research and seek out resources, we get louder when no one is listening.
And we do the mundane. We wipe messy faces, we change oh-so-many diapers, we hunt for missing sippy cups. We show him what it feels like when grass tickles the bottom of his feet, we blow bubbles on the front step, we wrap her in thick towels after bathtime and call her “fishy.”
Love quickly pours in and fills the empty places left by the last goodbye.
And then the time comes.
A plan is made for baby to return home, or to a relative, or to an adoptive family. So I fold the clothes, I pack the bag, I gather the photos. I sing the song, I give the kiss, I hand the baby to waiting arms. I turn around and walk away.
And the line of goodbyes grows longer.
We willingly enter baby orbit – again and again. And then we say goodbye – again and again.
Because that is what love does. Love breaks itself open so that the beloved can break a little less.