The call arrived late one afternoon in August 2010. Similar phone calls had been made for thousands of other babies across NSW over the years and would continue to do so. But for us, this was our family’s first experience of such a request.
Becoming foster carers had felt like a long wait, but now all our training was complete, we were considered accredited for the task.
‘He’s 2 days old and heroin-addicted. The phone call continued…
I fell in love right then. That inexplicable love that would come with every phone call like this, from here. It’s a fierce love. That love that feels trail-blazingly unique and yet is common and felt by all parents. It took me by surprise, a little. I had not seen or even held him, but my feelings were undeniable.
Within hours of this call, we were headed to Royal Women’s Hospital, Randwick, to collect him. Such a strange thing… heading into a hospital, pushing an empty stroller, with the notion that it would be full upon departing. Quizzical looks followed us, as we headed into the elevator.
We arrived at the Special Care Nursery. ’His name is Billy’, the nurse informed. He was tiny, wrapped firmly, and fast asleep in his transparent hospital crib. I caressed his cheek softly with my index finger and my eyes filled a little. He was wonderful and almost too precious to touch. My heart longed that he would be well and that he would know that he belonged and was loved.
Our four children fell in love with him as quickly as my husband and I did. They smothered him with cuddles and couldn’t get enough of him, which was good because he would be tough work.
‘His last morphine was an hour ago, so he’ll be due again soon’, she said. I had learned, that when babies are detoxing from heroin, passed through the mother’s placenta, during pregnancy, they are placed on Morphine, at regular intervals after birth. This brings their body carefully off its reliance on the drug. So, for Billy, these drugs would be administered by our family to him at reducing levels until his addiction was conquered.
Some things I learned - bonding and attachment
Bonding and attachment are big issues for a mother/father and baby. And I mean for ALL babies. Babies need to experience safe bonds with their primary carer. This was to be our primary aim, whilst Billy was in our care.
When a caregiver consistently responds to an infant’s needs, a trusting relationship and lifelong attachment develop. This sets the stage for the growing child to enter healthy relationships with other people throughout life and to appropriately experience and express a full range of emotions.
An unsettled baby
Babies are noisy but boy did this one scream! Not a normal kind of newborn noise, either, but a high-pitched, blood-curdling squeal that comes from only a drug-addicted babe.
Billy was unsettled and would need to be held ALL THE TIME. This, of course, is not unique to fostering! I quickly learned to carry him in a sling. The general rocking of my body’s movements and probably being close to the beat of my heart too seemed to soothe him. He slept and was well settled when he was close.
I would sometimes pull my shirt up a little and place his chest close to mine. I knew of other mothers who would feed their babies, whilst being carried close to them. I knew that skin-to-skin contact was very important for all babies to develop a strong attachment. Billy would become familiar with my smell, my sounds, and my touch :)
Minimizing touching by others
By carrying Billy in a sling, it meant too that touching and holding by others (all very well-meaning of course), would be minimal. This meant his vulnerable body was less exposed to disease or infection and that the bonding between him and me could continue uninterrupted.
Bonding with other family members
To ensure my husband and children all developed a close relationship with Billy, and he with them, they would also wear him in a sling. My husband would take him for stimulating bush walks, whilst the kids would sit and cuddle him on the couch in it. These times were coveted! The biggest squabbles my kids had back then was who got to have a ‘go’ of bub in that blessed sling.
I learned that if I carried him in a sling, I could attend to my other children’s needs as well, with minimal interruption. Billy became a very much loved member of my children’s class reading groups and was an adored and anticipated guest at church and school functions(!)
With my hands-free, I could continue with my household chores - I swept, washed dishes, walked to collect children from school, and prepared the evening meal, all with him close.
The ‘spoiling’ myth
I got to spend plenty of time with Billy, carrying him and responding to all his baby cues. I was taught that babies who are given comfort and are held, tend to be more secure and confident older children. I wanted this for him. I would become aware in the years to come, that a baby who does not experience this attachment, can be left wanting. This can have a profound effect on his future development and the ability to form healthy relationships as an adult. So, ‘spoil’ away! we would.
Billy remained, being loved, carried, and ‘spoiled’ for six months by our family where his attachment grew. He knew he was adored and that he belonged.
We waved goodbye to Summer that year. And as the seasons moved on, so did Billy. He was restored to the care of a biological aunt.
We never heard another word about him. Our role in his life was over. Foster carers often refer to this as the bittersweet experience of providing short-term care for a child.
It feels sad to not know what he looks like, what he sounds like, how big he is. I often wonder what his personality is like and what he enjoys doing. I imagine what things he’s good at and what he struggles with. I wonder too if he has any sense of us having been in his life at all.
Whilst I wonder many things, I have confidence for him too - I know he has gone into this new family with all the function and security that a well-held and loved baby possibly could. Fostering can be an extreme example of the necessity to bond. EVERY baby is made to bond. Without exception. Keep those babes close, mums.