I first met my son in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where he had been since birth. He was born addicted to cocaine and heroin as a result of his biological mother’s chronic use of those substances throughout her pregnancy. Two-and-a-half months after my son was born, on a clear, sunny Tuesday morning, a caseworker called me at work. She relayed the harsh facts about my son’s arrival in this world and the emergency hearing when he was three weeks old, when a judge appointed the state my son’s “sole managing conservator.” She cautioned me about the physical, developmental, and emotional side effects that can become apparent years after prenatal drug exposure. The caseworker hesitated momentarily, then said that he was stable enough to be discharged and asked if I would accept placement.
I had begun the foster-to-adopt process more than three years prior. After finally receiving my certification, I routinely checked in with the caseworker, even though I knew that single-parent homes were typically not viewed as ideal placements for infants. But, as one month stretched into two, then four, then more than a year, I stopped waiting, stopped hoping. So I was indeed surprised by the caseworker’s call that morning.
Typically, I would have spent weeks, if not months, gathering information and exhausting every possible scenario before I’d even contemplate making such a big decision. There was so much I still needed to understand about this little boy, starting with the two-inch-thick medical file he’d already accumulated. But there wasn’t time for analyzing. My son needed me to be ready to assume his care now. I said, “Yes.”
The caseworker made arrangements for me to spend one night in the NICU before my son was discharged, so the staff could get me acquainted with his care, the drug withdrawal symptoms, and prescription medication administration and side effects. “We’ve been expecting you,” said the nurse when I checked in at the NICU. “Come back and meet him.”
I had long since stopped believing that a “first meeting” would ever happen, and my heart was beating fast as I followed the nurse down the hallway. Two other staff members were hovering over him, smiling and laughing. I noticed my son’s eyes first. They were so big — deep, endless chocolate brown, with sparkles in the centers, over two plump cheeks. As the nurse picked him up, I extended my arms, creating a path that safely cradled him from her arms to mine.
My son was an obvious favorite of the staff. They had nurtured and doted on him for 10 weeks, trying, I’m sure, to somehow make up for the circumstances into which he was born. The staff shared every detail about my son that they could — a cascade of information that was both overwhelming and reassuring at the same time. He was loved by many wonderful people during his first months.
I vividly recall the 24 hours I spent with my son in the NICU. He was asleep when the nurse left the room, but a few minutes later the cries emerged. I still had no clear idea of what drug withdrawal symptoms would mean for this tiny being. Prenatal drug exposure interferes with a baby’s self-soothing mechanism, so the traditional ways of calming a baby weren’t effective with my son. I caressed his back, swayed him gently from side to side, humming to him all the while, but his crying only intensified. We started early in the evening, as I stood holding him in the middle of the room the nurses had prepared for us. And I remained there with him — swaying, singing, wishing, and praying I could somehow trade places and take away his discomfort — early into the morning. My son went through cycles of tremors, crying, and occasional lulls as the drug withdrawal symptoms subsided after I administered powerful medications. I was exhausted, but it could not compare to the tumult I imagined was racing inside him — and my son needed me. As I lay on a blanket on the cold, hard floor next to my son’s crib, keeping my hand on him so that I could feel his heart beating, it was clear to me that we had embarked on a journey.
A little more than 10 months after I brought my son home from the NICU, a judge granted his adoption order. “Congratulations,” he said to me on that clear, sunny morning, “you’ve embarked on a wonderful journey.” I smiled and hugged my son as we followed the path leading us out of the courthouse to continue on our way.