A “contact visit” with birthmom

“The inmates sit in the pink chairs, we sit in the blue….oh, and at the end, we’ll stand here again while they turn all the chairs and tables over to make sure no one left anything for one of the women.”

I stood in a group of about twenty people waiting for the inmates to change into red “Contact Visit” labeled uniforms.  The room held 16 evenly-spaced small tables each with a pink chair and 1-3 blue chairs.  Pillars broke into the open space, a podium at the front displayed the American flag on the wrong side (according to the ex-military man I stood talking to), and a scattering of broken toys and books in a plastic bin sat in the corner.

The women filed in and took a seat.  Family members gathered around them, sisters, mothers, children brought to the visit by CYF caseworker or grandparents.  There were many happy smiles.  I stood with Seth in my arms looking for a woman with an empty blue chair. There wasn’t any and I asked of the guard where “H” was.  They called her down from the cell block.  (We almost didn’t have a visit since for the second time, because the birthmother’s name wasn’t on the list for visits.  We were only let through because a sergeant reluctantly cleared it, and yet the case supervisor had called me on Tuesday to make sure I knew that this visit must take place.)

Seth’s birthmother entered, and the guard pointed her out to me.  We sat awkwardly.  She asked how old Seth is and how he’s doing.  She asked how the older two were (using their original names, which I did not correct as I don’t want her to know their new identities).  She asked “what kind of mix is he?” pointing to Seth.  I said, “well, they believe he’s biracial.”  She nodded, paused and said “I was in drugs then….I don’t remember much.”  “I did want to get my tubes tied.”  Awkward moments interrupted by a guard who told me I needed to sit “across the table” from her, not with the chair at the adjacent side.  Seth eventually became restless of playing at the table and I got up to get him a “kitchen toy” with a small blue plastic pot.  He’s one and a half – the joy of tossing that little pot off the table was just a bit too irresistible.  Unfortunately, at the second drop, the sergeant patrolling the room didn’t appreciate his need to explore gravitational pull and took away the toy (“none of that throwing”).  I let the birthmother know that he was just being a normal kid.

Eventually playing with a broken toy at a table became less than enthralling and Seth yearned to roam the floors.  We wandered over to the book bin and he pushed a small plastic chair around.  The birthmother chatted with some of her fellow inmates and I thought about how foreign this world was to me.  They talked about their release dates, about who else they had seen “back in,” and about how cute each other’s kids were.

I felt so guarded.  I didn’t know what to talk about or how much to share with her.  In such a crowded space and on a first meeting, I didn’t want to pry, despite my intense desire to learn more about her.  I felt so torn about what to talk about, knowing that she had just “contested” the termination of parental rights thereby delaying the adoption process.  When she mentioned that she was about to be released in 20 days for “maxing out,” I wondered what her intentions were in regards to Seth.  Was she going to start fighting to get him back?  Was she going to ask for more visits?  She did say she was going to move back in with her father (oh, who has a new child himself.  His girlfriend just had a baby who is two months old and just out of the hospital because of methadone too.  My brain was reeling).  It wasn’t until about 10 minutes before the end of the visiting time when she told several other inmates that Seth was being adopted….and that she was “okay with that” …since it’s best for him, that I sighed inwardly.  And yet, I was still so tense.

Despite how intensely I thought the whole visitation of a child to a stranger was awful, I know it was the best thing for him that I was there.  To Seth, this was just some odd morning when we went to visit a new place and play with new toys among a big group of new people (with a mother who was oddly stiff and kept calling him “buddy” instead of “Seth” and some lady occasionally touched him and called him another name). To me it was one of the most tense, uncomfortable, out of my comfort zone experiences I’ve had for a long time.  We walked out into the crisp air – a welcome relief after the warmth of the basement of the jail – yet I could not relax.  I turned on my cell phone and listened to messages of my mother desperately trying to figure out where Micah’s basketball game was and called her briefly to learn that he had had an explosive fit, had run down the block chasing my sister’s car when she left and was currently in her car and refusing to get out.

I pushed toward the parking lot with feet lifting concrete boots and my body straining under such a mental weight.  I thought of so many things I wished I would have asked the birthmother.  I tried to remind myself that I’m not the perfect mother and didn’t remember to leave directions for basketball, but that Micah would recover from his horrible morning.  I drove in numbness despite the gnawing pain in my head.  I snapped at my kids.  I grumped about rushing off to soccer.  It took hours to start to feel normal again.  I can’t imagine this reality for so many families with loved ones in prison.

Random other snippets:

– walking downstairs toward the visitation room, I overheard a preteen girl tell her grandmother that she was always nervous about contact visits.  When asked why, she replied “it’s hard to actually see the one you love.”

– “She thought it would never happen to her,” lamented the 56-year-old grandmother whose daughter had succumbed to heroin and all the illegal activities associated with it and now she was taking care of the 15- month-old baby.  She’s the one who talked me through some of the process.

– “Whew, whose smell is that?”  Well, it could be any number of these toddlers and babies as there’s no diaper changing in the visitation area – everything had to be locked into a locker and one inmate was amazed that I had brought a sippy cup through.  Hey, someone else walked past the wanding body searching security guard with a bottle, so I figured why not bring along the sippy cup.

– “Does he have Hepatitis C….because I do.”  Um, don’t know – guess I’ll have to have him checked.  “Anything else you want to add?” I wondered.

Despite how incredibly difficult this morning was for me (it really was the first time I’ve ever met the birthmother of my three sons), I kind of wish that the visit had worked out last month.  That way, the “first” time awkwardness would be gone and maybe today I might have had my thoughts about me to ask intelligent questions that might help for the future of the boys.  I might have been more willing to share more about them.  The strange thing is, I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again though I did offer to send her a picture at Christmas (“maybe” of all three boys – though why didn’t I just give her a little peace and say “definitely” of the three?).

It’s going to take me a long time to think through the visit this morning on so many different levels.  But the best thing was hearing her confirm that Seth would be mine, and feeling Seth’s confirmation of that in his tight hugs around my neck.