A stiff wind prevented Grace from opening the social workers car door, and as she waited for help, she peered out of the window. We were equally curious, craning our necks from our perch among the picnic tables across the park. The social worker offered her hand, and three-year-old Grace took small, hesitant steps toward us. Our stomachs twisted. What if she saw us and ran screaming for the car? What if we couldn’t become her mom and dad after all?
We had role-played this meeting with the social worker for weeks, discussing Grace’s possible reactions. We had also agonized over how to introduce ourselves. This little girl had lived with an elderly couple, friends of her birth mother’s grandparents, since she was two weeks old. Grace referred to them as Evelyn and Harry and had never called anyone Mom or Dad. Hers was a very adult world.
Following the social worker’s advice, we had decided to use our first names, though we wanted desperately for Grace to experience attachment and know us as her parents.
But as we knelt down to say hi, Grace was oblivious to any awkwardness–she had noticed the swing set nearby. “Can I swing?” she asked, her eyes sparkling. “Sure,” we replied. She turned her beautiful face to my husband, her wispy brown hair swirling around her ears. Smiling, she asked, “Can Daddy push me?” I choked back tears, and Daddy could only nod.
One Step at a Time
For the next eight weeks, we called Grace every night. Evelyn would say, “Grace, your family is on the phone!” and soon we’d hear her bright little voice chattering about the squirrels she watched in the backyard and the robins that gobbled the grapes she tossed. Every weekend, when we came to visit, Grace would pop open the screen door and prance onto the front stoop, her hands clenching excitedly.
Still, we worried that, in Grace’s mind, we were nothing more than fun weekend company. Though she called my husband Daddy, she called me Mama Gail. One step at a time, we thought, as we began to move some of her toys to our house and planned a date for her to return with us. During these two months of transition, we also got to know Evelyn and Harry. We began to understand that our joy was going to cause them terrible grief.
They were in their eighties, and this childless couple’s life revolved around Grace. Evelyn held countless tea parties and baked peanut butter cookies. Grace joined them when they made social calls and buoyed them up with her funny chatter and spunky spirit. This special circle of people had taught Grace to hug often, love life, and always use a handrail.
Evelyn’s and Harry’s pain was obvious to the perceptive three-year-old. On leaving the only mother figure she had ever known, Grace said quietly, “Evelyn will be so sad when I’m gone.”
A New World
On the day we took Grace to her new home, there were just a couple of things left to pack. One of the items was a new bike given to her by her birth mother, via the social worker. We were indebted to the woman who had given birth to our little girl, but we feared it would confuse Grace to hear of a birth mother when she didn’t yet have a grasp of what mother really meant.
Striking a tone I hoped was breezy, I told Grace that the bike came from her birth mother. Grace cocked her head and asked, “Who is my bird mother, anyway?” The four adults searched for words, but Grace found the answer herself. “I think it’s an eagle,” she declared, then, without another thought, bounded to the car and hollered, “Let’s get going!” We laughed at her fearlessness.
Seeing the trip home through Grace’s eyes was like watching an adventure movie. She had never been out of her little town, and her eyes soaked up all she saw in the three-hour drive to our house. As we approached the edge of our city, spread before us in a valley, she breathed, awestruck, “Is this my new place?”
As we got ready for bed that night, Grace finally felt the loss of the familiar. She had long ago assigned us all nicknames. Perhaps appropriate for her adjustment to a household with older siblings, her nickname for me was “Mine.” That night, as I got her ready for bed, her eyes filled with tears. “Mine,” she asked, “aren’t you going to put on pajamas, too?”
“Sure,” I replied. But when I returned in my standard boxers and T-shirt, alarm flitted across her face.
“No,” she protested. “A nightgown. You have to wear a nightgown.”
I rummaged through my closet and finally emerged wearing a flannel nightgown that reached my ankles. Grace smiled, happy that tonight I looked like Evelyn.
“Let’s read books,” I suggested merrily, thinking the crisis was over.
“Oh no, Mine,” she protested, the panicked look quickly reappearing. “First we have to have a cup of tea together in the front room.”
That summer night I snuggled with my daughter, sipping boiling tea and sweating in flannel, and marveled at the gift of this child who could not yet call me Mom.
Several months later, I leaned over Grace’s bed to tuck her in and hug her goodnight. She turned to me and, with wonder in her sleepy voice, sighed, “Oh, you are my mother.” My tears fell right onto her tiny face. Grace giggled and responded with a phrase I’ll never tire of: “Aww, Mom!”