Friday, February 1, 2013

What Makes a Mother a Mother?

When do a child’s rights supersede her mother’s rights? 

When do we stop giving chances to mothers and start giving chances to babies instead?   

Or can we give them each a chance at the same time? 

So the questions ran through my mind as I drove to visit nineteen-year-old Alexis*. She had just given birth a week earlier to baby Myra*, her third child in as many years. Her premature newborn lay in the NICU at the local hospital, recovering from a blood transfusion. Alexis lay in her nearly empty apartment, recovering from childbirth and pumping bottles of breast milk for her baby. 

A single, drug-addicted mother raised Alexis until she was 11 and her mom's boyfriend raped her. She was placed in foster care and never returned home to her mother. She bounced around in foster homes and group homes for a while until her behavior escalated out of control and she posed a risk to herself and others. She had difficulty controlling her anger and once punched a therapist in the face. She then went to live in a locked hospital-like unit for severely troubled teens.

Alexis was in such a locked unit for troubled teens when she gave birth to her first daughter at 16.  Her little girl went to live with the father’s mother, who eventually took legal custody of her. 

Alexis made progress emotionally and behaviorally and was moved from the locked facility to an unlocked group home. She immediately ran away and stayed gone for eight months.  She returned belligerent and aggressive, pregnant for the second time. She was placed in another locked facility. One day she became so angry with her therapist that she took her anger out on her belly, beating on it so severely her body was thrust into labor a month early and baby number two emerged. He went to live with his one-year-old sister.   

Alexis eventually was discharged from this facility and placed in a different group home. She ran away after two weeks and emancipated from foster care on her eighteenth birthday with her whereabouts unknown. Somehow she managed to pull herself together, seeking help for aged-out teens and moving into an apartment on her own even though she picked up one criminal charge for prostitution which was dropped. She gave birth to Myra, baby number three, six months later. Myra was born premature. Alexis tested positive for marijuana.  

This time, she insisted, she was going to do it. She was going to be a mother. She had a place to live. She was attending classes to obtain her General Education Degree and had started parenting classes on her own. She was willing to do drug treatment, anything, in order to bring her baby home.

Alexis and I sat and talked in her apartment.  Tears streamed down her face as she talked about not being able to get herself together for her first two children. She accepted responsibility for her mistakes and was determined to do better. All she wanted was a chance to do right by this baby.  Would I give her that? Please? 

I looked around her apartment that sported one threadbare couch and a chair. A flower arrangement sat on a scratched up table with one broken leg, dried old petals littering the table and even the floor below.  It looked as if had been there for months and when I asked her about it, she indicated it was.   

“My public defender sent those to me two months ago.”  She lovingly removed the card that accompanied them and read it to me.   

“Congratulations on your new apartment.” She looked up at me with a smile of innocence. “That was the first time I ever got flowers.  I didn’t know they could be sent in a vase by a man who rang my bell and handed them to me.”  She delicately replaced the card while three more petals fell to the floor.   

I saw her pain medication sitting on the counter in the kitchen and thought back to the times I delivered my three children.  Unlike Alexis, I had a husband to hold my hand through labor pains and friends and family who delivered dinners to my house in the days after I brought my babies home. Alexis delivered her baby alone, then returned to a nearly empty apartment, greeted only by the months old dead flowers that sat on her table. I sighed. There are never easy answers. Things are rarely black or white in this line or work, only endless shades of gray.

How could she successfully raise this vulnerable, precious new life? Who deserved a real chance?  

*name changed to protect identity