By Wren Bellavance-Grace
“Since writing this piece, I accompanied my younger goddaughter on her pregnancy checkup and heard the baby’s heartbeat. Babies will continue being born; it has always been so. This baby, my goddaughter, and all my children are a living testimony of survivors. Their ancestors survived the Middle Passage, enslavement, the Irish potato famine, and the Khmer Rouge. I look to the helpers and to the survivors and I throw my lot in with theirs. We will get through this. We can do hard things—together.“—Wren Bellavance-Grace
Our corporate lobby, festooned for the winter holiday party, buzzes with conversation and inoffensive jazz—the annual gauntlet for us introverts who telecommute to survive three hours with headquarters extroverts.
“How many children do you have?” asks Headquarters Colleague with blinking wreath earrings.
I do the mental math before answering. It’s a holiday party with colleagues I won’t see for another year. She’s just making small talk. This is not an invitation to explain.
“It’s complicated,” I smile, and excuse myself for the buffet.
Later that night I remember another question. Many years ago, standing at an intersection in late spring waiting for the pedestrian signal: How many kids do you want?
I barked out a laugh before turning from the traffic light to see in her face that my wife was not joking.
“I want ten,” she said, holding my eyes and waiting for my answer.
I managed to croak, “Um, zero?” as the light changed and I gratefully focused on the crosswalk taking us from Main to Pleasant Street.
I never wanted to be a parent—I had no role models whose footsteps I’d want to follow. I didn’t want to add to the number of humans in the world. I was selfish; I did not want to share my love beyond my beloved. Children were never in any of the futures I imagined. I chose childlessness.
Kyle was six and living at the halfway house where my wife worked. She adored Kyle. He was thriving in school and in the house where his mother worked at staying sober. One day she slipped. She had to leave. Kyle got sent to a faraway foster home in a small rural town where he would be the only Black child in his new school. He never got to say goodbye.
That’s how we learned about the lack of foster homes in our community. That’s how we became foster parents, testing the parenting waters. Naïvely, I thought we’d learn how ill-suited we were, and we’d go back to my original child-free plan. By now you know that’s not what happened.
Our first “trial run” toddler became our first legally adopted son four years and four days later. Nearly four years after that, our second son’s adoption was legalized. We decided to stop fostering and pour ourselves into these two humans and our two goddaughters. But I told anyone who asked, When they grow up, I’m going back to foster care. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
The kids did grow up. The marriage came to an end. I got the house and dreamed that when they moved out I would have room for foster kids again.
My youngest son graduated high school just as the oldest returned home after his first foray into adulting. No empty nest in sight, and I’m not getting any younger. Still, I tell my new partner, When the kids finally launch, I’m going to foster teenagers. I feel like there is a daughter out there waiting for me.
When my youngest son turned 20 we invited four of his seven birth siblings over for a cookout. The following year, all eight of the siblings come together for the first time ever to celebrate sibling number six’s high school graduation. Their birth mother is proud of her English. When we first met she spoke mostly Khmer, and did not know she could ever be free. She is grateful her oldest five children can call me for help she does not know how to give. We two mothers split the tab at the Chinese restaurant.
Since the divorce, my house has been home to our two sons, one son’s best friend, one goddaughter, two stepkids, one first generation college kid from Boston, one trans youth with unsupportive parents, and three of my son’s birth siblings. They tell me they know I’m here for them. They tell me their stories and let me love them. They come and they go. They sometimes need money and text emojis full of gratitude. They worry about each other and ask for life advice over sushi. They pile into my living room on Thanksgiving. They make vegan pudding, add cayenne pepper to the turkey meat, and rock the rafters with laughter.
Just a week after that Holiday-Party-of-the-Awkward-Question, this happens: It’s Christmas night and Lulu, my son’s 24-year-old sister, has just arrived from visiting her boyfriend’s family. She hands me a gift bag. Lulu is the last of the siblings to let me into her sphere. She is cautious, having learned too many hard lessons to extend trust easily. To tell you one small part of her story would break your heart; to share more might compel you to Do Something.
She watches me as I take colored tissue out of the bag and withdraw a wooden block. “You always stand taller when you kneel to help a child” is painted across the top. Involuntarily my hand goes to my chest. It rests there over my heart as she says, there’s something else, and I reach back in to discover a thin charm bracelet in a delicate mesh bag.
“I have one too,” she says, holding out her wrist. “When you wear it and look down, you’ll know that we’re connected.”
I slip the bracelet over my hand. Lulu’s sister helps me pull the maroon cords snug.
“Oh, don’t cry!” Lulu says.
“I told you she would cry!” her boyfriend chimes from across the room.
“I love it,” I say.
Now do you see how meaningless that original question is? I do not ‘have’ my children. They are people, not possessions. I carry the names of every child I’ve loved etched on rooms in the chambers of my heart; I close my eyes and conjure memories of time they spent in these walls, whether for a matter of days or years.
The more meaningful question by far is, How many children know they have me?