I’m unpregnant, but my labor will last 72 hours.
“All you can do is wait”, Nurse Trish advises. When waiting in a 6 by 8 foot Maternity Ward bonding room, with your husband, mother, sister, another woman’s newborn and a rotation of cheerfully Republican nurses, while BabyMama has three days to decide if she can give her newborn up, one might like to advise waiting to go fuck itself. My mom murmurs to me.
Mom: This is your labor.
One day after giving birth, Babymama leaves the hospital alone. I imagine leaving one’s newborn behind must feel like an amputation. This young woman left a living part of herself with a middle-aged white couple she met at Red Lobster two days ago. She calls us from the hospital lobby, sobbing, begging us to do right by Baby. We promise we aren’t capable of anything else.
Hospital Social Worker Jan visits. Not to rain on Jan’s parade, but Social Workers’ job is to rain on everyone else’s parade with as much distant diplomacy and efficient empathy as possible. We must sound eager while asking Jan when our 72 hours of parental limbo might end, because Jan smile-shames us like a grim nun.
Social Worker Jan: “Don’t be heartless. She must be free of all medications, which law determined is 3 days, for her surrender to be legal. So, Saturday at 5pm. Or later.”
10 am, Thursday. Nurses let us know if we want to shop, rest or relax outside the hospital, Baby can stay in the nursery, sort of like a very sterile daycare center. But we are either leaving with her or without. Why should a newborn live in a heat-lamp legal limbo?
Nicknames are conjured, poopy diaper songs composed, and cautiously optimistic love blossoms. Canada and I steal away to the hospital cafeteria with the always-on TV staring down at us like a mounted moose head. Watching whales get milked at the Atlanta Aquarium helps somehow. Life does go on. It just has to.
BabyMama texts: Do u both really love Baby?
Since two men have walked away from their babies with her, she’s struggling to believe people can love another’s baby as if it were their own. Hopefully, she will learn.
I reply: We both love her vvvv much. I’m so sorry for how hard this must be.
BabyMama was so resolved in giving up Baby that she’s overwhelmed by a grief she didn’t expect.
She asks for photos. Sneakily, I send her one of Baby sleeping on Canada, but she’s onto me. She asks for photos of just Baby. Ashamed, I comply.
All the nurses tell us Baby is their favorite, which means she’s a survivor baby, effortlessly making everyone love her. Which is nice, but will be extremely painful for someone in 72 hours. Thursday night. Every poop’s an Olympic gold medal; every two-ounce bottle imbibed a Rhodes Scholarship, every burp a concerto. So far, it’s been a successful baby transplant. We are quietly stunned how naturally we’ve all taken to each other.
When nurses take Baby away to do nurse-y things to her, I yearn to feel relief. After a lifetime of near-success, I excel at taking loss on the chin and moving onwards with limping optimism. I don’t enjoy wanting anyone this much.
BabyMama texts: Can I see her Friday?
Friday we have to do legal adoption stuff with Social Worker Deb sixty miles away. Scared that Babymama will change her mind, I let go of the control I never had and text BabyMama when we’ll be gone.
Friday morning. 36 hours left. Exhausted but exhilarated by a night spent in love and purpose, an unhelpfully thorough blizzard further blankets the city, guaranteeing a treacherous drive to Social Worker Deb.
BabyMama texts: How was ur 1st night w Baby?
Wagering she’ll be relieved at not having a newborn to care for on top of the two kids she’s already raising alone, I attempt sneakiness again:
Me: It was so long and hard.
She replies fast: O. R u not up 2 it?
My subterfuge backfired. As much as we worry about her resolve in giving Baby up, she worries about our resolve in loving Baby. Of course she does. Realizing I suck at being sneaky, I confess we loved every moment.
February’s insistence on more snow and early darkness shoos the day away. Nurse Trish takes Baby back to the nursery as we steeling our selves to leave.
BabyMama texts: Changed my mind. Won’t see Baby. Job-hunting instead.
This woman gave birth two days ago, left that newborn to give her son a birthday party, and is now looking for a job. This 21 year-old woman I’ve spent three hours with is teaching me what being a mother truly means.
Since we finally know what it feels like to have someone to live for, Canada drives as slow as a Boca retiree and by the time we arrive, icy road conditions and blinding snow have made us too old for the AARP. Scurrying from the car, the Midwest wind bitterly pelts freezing buckshot of snow at us.
4pm. While signing a tree’s-worth of paperwork, Social Worker Deb tape-records us swearing aloud to everything we sign and initial. Numb, we sign, swear and name Baby, (a secret name we haven’t dared utter aloud).
Since BabyMama has 27 hours to change her mind, we are parents, if only in triplicate double-spaced print.
Canada suddenly asks Social Worker Deb if she can sense whether a birth mother is able to surrender. While I think, ‘What a dumb question no social worker in their right mind would ever answer to desperate parental wannabes who’ve flown thousands of miles for a baby’. But Social Worker Deb leans in, all gossipy-like. She makes sure her tape recorder is off.
Deb: Just today a mother gave birth that I just know won’t surrender. And the adoptive parents flew in from California, just like you guys!
We must look nauseous, since Deb quickly adds:
Deb: But this is her first baby, unlike yours. Don’t panic until tomorrow night.
As we drive back, snowflakes the size of cheerleader pom-poms fall.
BabyMama texts: I had no idea how much this would hurt. Dunno if I’m doing the right thing. I can’t stop thinking about Baby.
Belly in ropes, I reply: Wish I could ease ur pain. ur bravery amazes me. U do what U need 2 do.
Bearing witness to her sorrow, I realize BabyMama is also experiencing three days of labor. As we text and grieve, we experience the contractions of the heart and body and mind together.
Then I tap: Just keep her. U deserve her. U r her mother.
But I don’t hit send because I can’t stop thinking about Baby either.
Back in hospital, with 18 hours left, we spend our possible last night parenting Baby.
Saturday am: Snow has fallen in car-swallowing drifts. Mom and sister arrive for the last 5 hours. No texts from BabyMama. Time is ours to kill or be killed by.
5 pm: Heart racing, I must walk. My sister and I tour the hospital chapel, temple, library, cafeteria, coffee shop, and every wing. In Fetal Monitoring, we study framed photos of babies with parents who belong to them.
My phone rings. It’s Social Worker Deb.
Deb: She surrendered.
Sobbing, my sister and I hug, other family photos our only witnesses. Labor is over.
Holding Baby Canada and I sob, our greatest joy coming at the expense of BabyMama’s greatest loss. Nurses congratulate us while we pack as if on fire. Mom dresses Baby in outfits she brought from NYC, crazy-shopping for her hopeful granddaughter as if she had all rights to. Social Worker Deb arrives. Social Worker Deb explains that she is the baby’s legal custodian until the adoption finalizes. So, Baby is officially hers, but she will hand her to us, once we step outside the hospital doors.
Frosty air feels like a warm hug after inhaling hospital for three days. As Canada runs to get the car, Baby flinches as February startles her lungs. She stares at the starry sky with huge mysterious eyes.
Canada has to dig the rental car out from four feet of snow with his bare hands. Deb hands us Baby and teaches us how to snap the car seat successfully into the base.
Baby falls asleep as we inch back to the motel, where we finally utter her secret name. Grace.
BabyMama, a woman I owe the rest of my life to, texts us:
Glad 1 of my kids has a dad.
Even if I had to give her away to do it.