“She could not hide him any longer, so…she placed the child…and the boy grew…and he was a son to her.”
This week’s biblical narrative is the story of my children: Bat Paroah, Miriam, and Yocheved.
My eldest daughter is 12, her younger sister is 10, their younger brother is almost 7. Over the past few years, they have helped us care for 17 babies. They can parent as capably as you or I. That doesn’t mean they love the unglamorous diaper changes or seemingless endless burping sessions. But with years of experience as an “interim boarding care family,” they are probably better at it than you OR your mom. For the past four and a half years, they have helped feed, hold, and rock babies to sleep–babies who were in our care prior to being adopted or before going home to their biological families.
When I say “help,” I mean they actually take part in the parenting. One of our interim babies was once scheduled for a visit with her birth mother. (Birth mothers can schedule visits to take place at the adoption agency while the babies are in our care.) We were going to be leaving her for a few hours at the adoption agency after her doctor’s appointment and before her birth mother visit. All three children were with me so we could “staycation” in the city that day but we really didn’t want to leave Baby Adira* before she was asleep. “Don’t worry,” our case worker said. “I’ll put her to bed. You guys have fun!” The children looked at me skeptically as Adira started to fuss. Gavri was 10 then. She walked over to Rona, the case worker, and held out her hands to take Adira from her. Rona shrugged, having trusted my children and their expertise with babies for a while. A few minutes passed then Gavri found Roma in her office. “Excuse me? Rona? I’ve swaddled Adira and put her to sleep. She’s in the crib. We’ll be back after her visit.” Even Rona was dumbfounded. But Gavri was experienced. She had been helping to parent Adira for more than a month and had been helping with our other babies for a couple of years. She knows babies; she knew Adira. She knew how to comfort her and put her to bed.
“Tell them about the time I couldn’t go to sleep and Tatte had to help me brush my teeth in the living room because we had a baby who would only sleep when I was holding him!” Sariti always demands when she catches us telling people what an integral part of the boarding experience our children are. But that isn’t even my favorite “Sariti parenting a baby” story. My favorite is from the time I caught an early morning nap on the couch while one of our babies rested in the swing next to me. I awoke to the sound of some rustling from the end of the couch and I opened my eyes to find Sariti following the house rules of getting dressed first thing in the morning…only she was doing so with a four-week-old in her arms because, unbeknownst to me, the baby had awakened and was ready to be held again. Rather than wake me, Sariti scooped him up and I found her, sitting at the edge of our glider, holding a one-month-old against her chest while she struggled to pull her skirt on with one hand.
Even my seven-year-old son, Rami, has an intuition and connection to babies that rivals even the most experienced nanny’s. At one of our interim babies’ doctor’s visits, we were joined by a couple of other interim moms, “their” babies and some of the agency’s social workers. One social worker was sitting in for an interim mom who couldn’t attend the appointment with “her” baby. The baby started to fuss a little but the social worker hadn’t yet finished her lunch. “Do you want me to pick him up?” Asked one of the interim moms. “No, he’s not really crying, yet,” the social worker answered, bagel in hand. The “fussing” started to get a little louder and I glanced at four-year-old Rami standing a few feet away from us. He started to walk towards the baby with a concerned look on his face that quickly turned to panic as the baby began to squirm in his seat. “Um, I think if you don’t pick him up, Rami may just come over here and do it for you,” the closest interim mom suggested. Needless to say, when a young child appears prepared to step in and parent, adults act quickly.
My children help us care for these newborns but they also help others understand what we do, using language that is staggeringly beautiful. Gavri was eight years old the first time I heard her explain to an acquaintance, “Birth mom doesn’t know if she is able to parent, so the baby is staying with us for now.” No judgment about the birth mother’s decision or lack thereof; no unnecessary pity for the baby.
Rami was baking with me before Shavuot one year. “I think Baby Uhnari’s tummy mommy would like these cookies. Can we bring her some the next time we see her?” Uhnari had already been with us for more than a month. We had met his birth mother on a couple of occasions during her visits with Uhnari at the adoption agency. Still, I was nervous about possibly crossing boundaries inappropriately so I texted my case worker, “Rami wants to know if we can bring some cookies to Uhnari’s tummy mommy at the next baby visit?” “‘Tummy mommy,’” she wrote back. “I love it!” Our daughters have started to identify “birth parents” and “adoptive parents” but Rami still talks about “tummy mommies” and “forever parents.”
A lot of their language choices come from the thoughtful speech their father and I use when talking about “our” babies. We inherited some careful phrases from the employees and volunteers at the adoption agency. We never discuss a birth mother not “wanting” or “loving” her child. We explain that they are unable to parent. We don’t say biological parents “give up” their babies. Just as Yocheved in the Torah, we say the birth parents place their babies. Our children have been practically spoonfed those lines. But that they continue to keep their cool and speak thoughtfully in the face of some of the less-than-thoughtful questions they field is impressive. “Is that YOURS?” “No…my parents are fostering him.” “Is that a doll?” “No…he’s blinking.”
Our children don’t just make funny faces at the babies in our care from time to time. They don’t merely offer pacifiers to crying babies or blow on their tummies. They swaddle, diaper, hold…they parent.
They are Bat Paroah, seeking the best care for the babies that come our way.
They are Miriam, fearlessly advocating for the babies we are trusted to watch.
They are Yocheved, parenting for only a short time, often wondering if they will see “their babies” again.
I wonder, too. Have I parented a future starter for the New York Liberty? A future supreme court justice? The next Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, or Jonas Salk, perhaps? Or maybe another Moshe–leader of a great nation? I don’t know. It will be some time before we find out. In the meantime, we wait.
*Names have been changed.