Hidden Mothers: Sarah Sentilles On What It's Like to Become a Foster Parent
Sometimes the woman in the photograph turns her back to the camera. Sometimes she kneels behind a couch or a chair. Sometimes her face is scratched out or blurred or burned or cut off by the frame. Sometimes her entire body is covered by black cloth or patterned fabric or a rug.
The images—1,002 in all, shot during the 19th and early 20th centuries—were collected over a decade ago by the artist Linda Fregni Nagler for her 2013 book, The Hidden Mother, an homage to an accident of technology. When cameras were still new, they had excruciatingly long exposure times; photographing a child required someone to hold the portrait's subject still. That someone was often the child's mother. In many of these images, all the viewer can see of the mother is her hand, emerging from under a blanket or from some unseen part of the room. The pictures haunt me. They have no caption, no title, no date. The viewer has to turn to the back to find any information at all, and there she will read descriptions like this: 7.5 x 6.5 cm, dark, gem size, ink stain, red cheeks, scratched tintype. To see what's pictured, you must get close, intimate. Nagler's book of images comes to seem like a family album, though one that belongs to strangers.
Family albums and strangers are on my mind lately. My husband, Eric, and I were recently certified as foster parents. In the foster care system, we are designated "nonrelative care providers," also known as "stranger care." We are awaiting a call that will tell us there is a child in need of a home. Our phone will ring, and we will become parents, maybe for a few days, maybe forever.
For some, part of preparing to welcome a child includes creating a photo album social workers can share to ready her for her new home. "Photograph your kitchen table," our social worker said. This is where you will eat. "Photograph the child's bedroom." This is where you will sleep. "Photograph the local park." This is where you will play. "Photograph yourselves doing things you like to do." These are the strangers who will take care of you. The handout she gave us recommended buying glitter and glue, making it fun.
Nagler's work speaks to me as a potential adoptive parent—feeling "pregnant," though no one sees me that way. A woman I know who adopted her daughters told me about registering for a baby shower that her friends threw while she waited for a child to arrive. The red-vested salesperson held a clipboard. He looked at my friend's nonpregnant body, looked at his clipboard, looked back at her body.
"Are you sure this shower is for you?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Due date?" he asked.
"I don't have one," she said.
"I can't register you without a due date," he said, looking skeptical.
At home, we've set up a room with a crib, a bed, a closet full of clothes, a shelf lined with picture books, just waiting for our future child to enter the frame. But at the moment when I am revealed as a mother, the child's biological mother will become a hidden one, her child taken away, whether by force or choice.
In the classes Eric and I are required to take, we are reminded of the importance of maintaining relationships with the child's biological parents. "Put a photo of the biological mother on the bedside table," we're told. "Make it part of the nighttime routine to kiss mama's picture goodnight."
When friends who have babies or toddlers visit, they bring video monitors so they can watch their kids sleep, see when they wake from a nap or in the night. A friend from San Francisco told me that once, after putting her child to bed, she plugged in her video monitor, but on the screen, instead of her own 2-year-old, someone else's child appeared. So many monitors in that city. Signals get crossed.
When I was growing up, we didn't have video monitors. You had to listen for a baby's cry. There were hours when kids weren't being watched, when we were out of view. We were decades from Facebook. No constant stream of shared pictures uploaded by parents. In some ways, being a foster parent returns you to a time before social media, when pictures were taken with just a few viewers in mind.
Our social workers told us we're not allowed to post any images of foster kids on social media. "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take photographs when the child is living with you," one said. "You need to take pictures of significant life events. Birthdays. Soccer games. Graduation. School plays. Because the child's biological parents will miss those events, and they'll want to see them."
Family photos line the staircase to our basement—images of my great-grandparents and me smelling roses, of Eric's family gathered at a cottage on a lake, of my grandfather as a young boy driving a cart pulled by a goat, of our four nephews. There are also trees and pets and mountains and rivers. I've left empty spaces on that wall, and one day our child's picture will hang there, and our child's biological parents' pictures, too, and maybe their parents' pictures and their parents' and theirs. I will not hide any of the bodies that made our child.
I could become a mother tomorrow or the day after or next month or next year. "Do you have kids?" people ask me almost every day. "No," I say, not wanting to explain, keeping myself hidden because, really, it's an unimaginative question, one full of assumptions about what family means, about who counts as kin, and it's a hard question for anyone with a complicated relationship to family-making, for those of us who've experienced miscarriage or failed adoptions or the death of a child, for those of us estranged or embattled or in grief. It's a question I refuse to ask. "Tell me about your family," I say instead, because I know belonging comes in all shapes and sizes, visible and invisible, hidden and made, chosen and found.
Sarah Sentilles is the author of, most recently, Draw Your Weapons.