And through it all, you have to leave them with strangers, watch strangers take them and walk away from you. And it is difficult, of course.
You get used to it.
Because it is always in the back of your mind, that someday they will leave in the back seat of a stranger's car... and they won't come back. The door with the county seal on the side of it will close. And they will look at you through the window, and you will wave goodbye, and they will be gone.
It is happening. For real this time. Not like all the other times, when social workers threw out impossible goals and unmeetable timetables. Gathering strength and speed, it is finally something I can see - and feel. It is time for Ella to live with her biological family.
To be sure, it is not the family we started out working with. The family tree has many branches, and a strong and steady one has been found. It is a relief, but it also means that she is leaving - and my heart is tight in my chest, tears welling up just thinking about it. I shouldn't be surprised. It has been 10 months, 10 lovely months as a family of five, but we are really a family of four and it is important to recognize and embrace that truth from time to time.
That time has come.
That time has come.
I knew it was really happening when Ella's grandmother met me, and the first thing she did was wrap her arms around my shoulders and give me a hug. She thanks me, over and over again. They are grateful. And excited. And getting ready for their lives to change completely.
That is what happens when babies arrive. Especially when the baby is a big surprise.
We know a little bit about that, around these parts.
Ella, under my desk at work the week after we brought her home.
This is what giving two weeks notice looks like.
And as this new little family forms and strengthens and bonds and moves forward, at the same time Ella's connection to our family must loosen until it finally comes undone. It starts slowly: the visits happen at first once a week, and then more often, longer, slowly adding an overnight here and there. A weekend. And while she is with us, I am also very oh-so-carefully you might not even realize it pulling away. I go out at night so that someone else puts her to bed. Other people give her bottles. I start packing her clothes and toys and bedding, and sending them with every visit so that more and more of her things are there every week. Things that smell like me. Things that smell like our home.
I know that it really doesn't matter, but I wonder if she will notice my absence as I slowly fade into the background.
If she can feel the distance I am gently putting between us.
We are staring our first overnight visit square in the face, and I just can't quite imagine waking up and not seeing her wide grin. Every morning for the last 10 months her big brown eyes and gummy smile have greeted me from the bassinet next to my pillow.
And then the crib at the foot of my bed.
And for the past month or so, from the nursery doorway.
Like I said..... the distance between us is growing, slowly and purposefully.
She is toddling around now, cruising along the furniture and even letting go every once in a while.
I am following her example. Letting go for a few quick moments at a time, more and more often, for longer and longer periods of time. And it helps that she is more independent now, and doesn't need me every moment of the day.
She is getting bigger and stronger, and outgrew that infant carseat in no time at all.
She's not a tiny baby anymore.
She learned to wave goodbye a few weeks ago, carefully waggling her fingers slightly as she holds her hand aloft uncertainly. She stares at her palm as her fingers move, mouth agape, not realizing that she herself is the one wiggling them. I make a mental note to discuss this with her occupational therapist next week. It is one of the last appointments I will attend.
I won't be there for her 1 year checkup.
I won't be there for speech therapy in January.
I won't see her walk or run for the first time.
I am realizing all that I am going to miss, and all that I will no longer be responsible for, and every time it is a tiny shock of awareness. A jolt of reality.
I am carefully freeing the end of the string that binds us, and she is lifting up and away from me, a bright sunshiney yellow balloon of joy and laughter, slipping through my hands with a contagious chortle and loud squawks of excitement.
It's time. I know it is time. But oh, it's hard.