Child Not Mine

When love is the lesson, biology doesn't matter

| March-April 2000

This child is not my own, but still the words of possession slip from me: “My baby girl. My sweet baby.” Although I’ve never seen her before, I think I know what she needs: the lights at her hospital bedside dimmed, her loose arms girdled securely against her chest. She has no name except “Girl” and a family surname typed on the identification card at the foot of her crib. She surprised everyone, caught her parents without a crib or a car seat, without casseroles in the freezer, without the stamina new parents need. I pat her back, shade her eyes, clutch both of her hands in my palm and hold them against her sternum. She relaxes and makes a sound—not a laugh or a sob, but something in between: a moist sigh of resignation. I coo back to her, and so we converse, our rudimentary sounds vibrating the internal cord that governs reflex. Communication on the infant ward is reduced to this: She sticks out her tongue; I stick out mine. She cries, and my voice veers up in commiseration: “Yes, I know. Everything’s going to be all right.”

Of course, I know no such thing. I know nothing about her except her immediate physical needs and desires. I don’t know which organs might fail, or if there are gaps that weaken her heart, or where her parents might be. I’m a volunteer. Every Wednesday I come to the infant ward, where I put on a blue jacket with a name tag and hold babies for three hours. “I’m just a volunteer,” I say when a parent asks me about medications, or when a doctor arrives to pass his flashlight across a baby’s face. I know nothing, so in lieu of knowledge I cultivate instinct. I slip through the halls, nearly invisible, drawn by a baby’s cry someplace on the floor. I snap on latex gloves and thread my arms through a tangle of IV lines to lift the child from her crib. I back into a rocking chair, by now an expert at holding the array of tubing aloft, hardly noticing the bandages, the bruises, the cuts. The baby promptly falls asleep in my arms, but I go on rocking. I can’t put her down, not yet. The rocking reminds me of the davening of Jewish men at the front of the synagogue: the repeated half bow to an unseen presence, the bodily gesture of prayer. I know she feels me rocking, even in her sleep. Her breath—sour and bitter—becomes my breath, her stuttering heart my own.

The nurse asks me to help pacify a distressed preemie. I slip my hands through the gloves in the incubator and stroke a stomach the size of a newborn kitten’s. He’s crying, but I barely hear him through the plastic walls, and he soon settles down. His arms lie open at his side; his mouth shapes itself to an imaginary breast.

Around me, the infant ward projects an aura of stability—no emergencies here, no alarms. One floor above us is the intensive care: Many of the babies here have descended from that plane, returned from the brink, their parents exhausted and pale. One floor below is the emergency room: Other babies have ascended from there, rescued from seizures, choking, concussions. Sandwiched between those floors of panic lies this realm of equilibrium, where every breath is monitored, every pulse. Nurses slip from task to task, swaddling babies, stripping paper off thermometers, writing every observation in their charts. These actions merge into one, lulling me into feeling that all here is business as usual, and nothing could really go wrong.

When I was 20, I had two ectopic pregnancies, which left me unable to bear children. The fertilized eggs had grown in my fallopian tubes and burst the narrow ducts. After both miscarriages, I woke in a hospital room feeling not only the pain in my groin, where bandages held me together, but also a vague sense of guilt, as if I were being punished for some terrible transgression. I wasn’t a religious person, but still I went to the Hebrew Bible and read about barren women—Sarah, Rachel, Hannah—whose stories confirmed my fears: Infertility was an act of God, who “closed up” the wombs of inadequate women. Conversely, bearing children was a blessing—an opening and an absolution.

Some of these children wear hospital-issue T-shirts and are wrapped in plain flannel blankets. Their cribs are blank, the only decoration an identification card and a densely scribbled chart—no balloons, no photos, no drawings. A naked bed usually signals that the child has been abandoned, left to the care of the hospital or the systems that attend to such infants. The parents cannot be found, or refuse to come, or are under arrest.

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