The Phone Call
“She is a prostitute and does crystal meth.” David, the adoption attorney in LA who has been connecting me with birth mothers, tells me.
I’m in Chicago at my nonprofit job, ear glued to my phone, in my windowless office. Technically there is a window, but it’s the kind you can’t see through, especially at this hour in March.
I haven’t seen David’s Los Angeles office yet, but he might be gazing out his floor to ceiling window while talking to me, with the sky still bright in California. On this call, and always, David is kind but businesslike and to the point.
I’ve grown accustomed to the brusque and blatantly offensive check list that is usually presented by his assistant when she leaves me a voicemail about a birth mother I should call. Over the four months I’ve been working with David there have been four of these scribbled down lists: race of the mother, how far along in pregnancy, status of the father, race of father, check check check. But this time is different. David has called me directly about this birth mother, not his assistant, because this time the list isn’t so straightforward.
“Given the circumstances,” David continues, “you may want to think about whether you want to talk to her, and if you do, here is her number.”
He reads out the number and I write it down carefully alongside the notes I’ve taken. White, five months, no prenatal care, doesn’t know dad, prostitute, meth.
“As I’ve mentioned before, it is best if you can call her sooner rather than later if you decide to proceed,” David reminds me.
He’s telling me this because every other time I’ve gotten a birth mother’s phone number from his office, I’ve panicked. I’ve ignored the message until after work, until I’m home, have called my sister for a pep talk, then prepared myself by tucking into the corner of my couch, armed with a pen and paper, hands sweaty, ready as I’ll ever be to call this pregnant stranger. Typically hours have passed and it is too late. Half the time, the birth mother doesn’t answer. And nobody returns the voicemails I leave. Turns out time is of the essence.
“Okay, thanks.” I hang up.
What should I do? Should I call this birth mom? Would I be getting myself into more than I can handle? The drug exposure is scary. I can’t say ‘no’ to everything.
I text my high school friend, who is a doctor, for her advice. She is exceedingly intellectual and straightforward, so I know I will get an honest answer from her.
“Actually, I worked at a clinic and treated a pregnant woman who did meth, and her baby turned out fine. I think it could be fine.” She then refers me to some research about the outcomes for children exposed to methamphetamine.
I gather that exposure to meth does not necessarily have significantly negative consequences. I’m surprised since meth sounds very scary to me. The research also mentions that the post-pregnancy environment for babies exposed to methamphetamine can lead to different outcomes. In other words, a calm post-birth world can repair some damage.
Still sitting in my office, facing the dark, non-window, I think screw it. Rather than wait until I am at home and comfortable, I pick up the phone.
This is the third time someone has picked up when I call.
“Hi, is this Nikki? My name is Alex, David gave me your name.”
“Oh hi, yes, David told me,” I’m always relieved to hear recognition on the other end when a birth mother answers.
David has cautioned me not to ask too directly about the pregnancy or the baby so it won’t seem like I don’t care about the birth mother, or like I’m treating her as a surrogate, as if she is pregnant with my baby, because she is not. The baby is hers and she decides what will happen to it. To avoid this I treat the beginning of the conversation like a job interview.
“Um, I’m not sure what you want to know about me so I’ll just tell you I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I have a younger sister and I’m the oldest, though not technically because my dad was married before so I have older siblings too but we didn’t grow up in the same house. I went to law school but haven’t practiced in years. I work in nonprofits…”
The words tumble out in a desperate attempt to fill the air. But then my brain abruptly runs out of things to say and it’s like seeing a dead end but I’m driving too fast to stop in a controlled way, so I just go quiet. Should she say something? Does she have a question? Should I ask her one?
“What do you think about addiction?” She seems ready to ask the question. Maybe I’m not the first person she’s asked.
I aim for a deep breath but feel breathless and shaky as I answer. “Um, I think it’s a disease, not like cancer but I think it is extremely hard to control. While I do think there is an element of choice, it is not that easy to change.” Despite my nerves and worry about whether my answer is a good one, I’m being honest.
“Yes, it is a disease, it’s hard. What do you think about prostitution?”
She’s definitely asked these questions before. I realize later that all three conversations I have with birth mothers tend to center around how I feel about their life circumstances. Like they’re trying to find out if, or how, I am judging them.
“Wel-l-l-l, if someone has every opportunity available to them but in the end chooses to be a prostitute, I guess I’d hope that the person is safe.” I’m not even sure what I mean by safe.
“Yes, it’s about opportunity. I haven’t had a lot of that,” she mumbles.
I learn she has a seven year old daughter who lives with her mother and sister. She raised her until she was three, but couldn’t keep it up and returned to drugs. She sees her when she can. As I listen to this part of her story it’s like she is giving me a gift. I’m peeking through a door that is open just a crack and I can see part of the person who’s inside.
“My daughter is so good in school and she’s always helping other people. She organized a neighborhood clean up!” Her pride shines through the phone and makes me smile.
Then she tells me how she decided to place this child for adoption.
“When I was finally able to get to the doctor I was five months along. I wanted to get an abortion but it was too late. I was so angry with this baby, but then I realized I could give someone a little joy by giving it up for adoption. As soon as I made that decision, I felt better.”
Talking to Nikki reminds me of the abused women I represented when I worked in legal aid. Broken and strong, struggling through pain and challenges I can’t imagine, but moving forward, often staying strong for their children. “I can see where your daughter gets her kindness and interest in helping others from.”
“I guess so. You are going to make me cry!”
We finish our conversation. I grab my coat and rush out into the icy air hurrying to my car carefully on the slippery pavement, full of adrenaline and competing emotions. Could this be it?