COLUMBIA — Six years ago, Melissa Watson noticed something odd: a woman with disappearing babies. For a while, the woman carried an infant around at church, and then, one Sunday, her arms were empty. This happened again and again.
Intrigued, Watson asked around and discovered that this woman provided temporary foster care for newborns. Watson said to herself, “Someday that will be something I can do.”
Several years later, she realized her own children were taking less of her time, and the family might be ready to begin fostering infants.
“(My kids) put themselves to bed,” Watson said. “They can feed themselves when they’re hungry. I (thought) we could do this now.”
So Watson contacted Lutheran Family and Children’s Services, a nonprofit agency in Columbia that does adoptive placement. The agency works primarily with infant adoption. At birth, babies are placed with foster parents until the birth parents have legally ended their parental rights. Then the babies’ adoptive parents receive them.
Termination of parental rights generally takes a number of weeks, says Christine White, director of the agency’s Columbia office. Altogether, the agency placed 11 children in mid-Missouri adoptive homes during 2007, according to the agency’s fact sheet.
A couple months, a packet of paperwork, several interviews, a home study and a CPR class later, the Watsons received their first placement.
In their year and a half as a foster family, three babies have passed through the Watsons’ arms. Their most recent foster baby was placed in an adoptive home on June 9.
For the Watsons, taking in foster babies is a family affair. When Watson had her realization a year and a half ago, her husband Mike was completely supportive of the idea. Her kids, Zach, 13, and Maddie, 11, are now highly involved in the child care.
“I feed it, burp it, hold it,” Zach said. “Everything but diapers.”
The Watson family usually spends Sundays at church and Little League fields. Summer finds Zach biking around the neighborhood or swimming at the pool, and Maddie at summer church camp or in the backyard gardening. Having a foster baby does not alter the family schedule drastically, Watson said.
“We don’t really change our day-to-day schedule much,” she said. “The baby just goes along for the ride, but we might need to adjust our schedule a little bit to accommodate feedings.”Zach agrees.
“Life is pretty much the same, except there’s a baby involved,” he said.
Watson says they’re intentional about showing affection.
“We love (the babies) like they’re our own,” she said. “And we attach to them like they’re our own. The babies need for us to attach.”
The Watsons’ front door is open not only to foster babies, but to neighborhood kids as well. One of Zach’s friends forgoes knocking as he enters the Watsons’ house.
Watson cites exhaustion as the most difficult aspect of newborn foster care.
“Literally the most difficult part is just becoming ... tired, just physically drained,” Watson said. “A newborn is a newborn, whether you’ve given birth to them, or you’re just providing care as of day two.”
She emphasizes it has been a decade since she and her husband awoke to their own screaming baby.
“We’re older,” she said. “We’re ten years older, and it’s harder. I would not do it if Mike did not get up half the time in the middle of the night. I just couldn’t.”
Erin Strong, who recently began providing newborn foster care, says the Watson children are clearly comfortable caring for the babies. Strong appreciates the example they provide her own children, who are similar in age.
The Strongs and the Watsons are part of an informal support group of families who provide newborn foster care. Although all four families attend Woodcrest Chapel, they did not seek each other out. They just kind of found each other.
“I don’t even know how it came about,” Watson said.
The group formed organically and is by no means exclusive, she said. Sometimes the group support is practical: sharing infant clothing and baby-sitting. Recently, the Strongs took care of the Watsons’ foster newborn for four days while Watson visited her grandmother in Iowa.
Because foster children must remain within Boone County and in the care of someone licensed to provide foster care, leaving town can be difficult. The families in the Watsons’ support group can provide this temporary care for each other.
Sometimes the support is emotional. Earlier this year, the Strongs had a baby leave their home after an unusually long stay of five months.
“We are just at the point where we don’t cry,” Strong said.
These families suffer similar losses, and they are there to support each other through the grief.
All three babies the Watsons have cared for were born in mid-Missouri and were involved in open adoptions within the state. According to the agency’s Web site, an open adoption is “an adoption where the birth parents and the adoptive parents mutually agree to share information.”
On the day the baby is transferred to the adoptive parents, a ceremony is held at the agency’s office. The birth parents, foster parents and adoptive parents are all invited to this “entrustment ceremony.” Sometimes the birth parents choose to attend; sometimes they don’t.
The ceremony is the symbolic passing of the baby to the adoptive family. Candles are lit, and the baby’s name change is celebrated. It’s “a little like a marriage ceremony,” White said.
The Watsons do not have the option to adopt the babies they care for. They agreed to these terms from the outset.
“We do become attached to every baby, and so saying goodbye is emotional,” Watson said. “But we just play a role in a much bigger picture, and we know that that’s our role.”
Any admiration expressed for Watson, she deflects to the birth mothers. At every opportunity she has to meet birth mothers, she tells them, “You’re on my hero list.”
Watson said she was surprised to discover that many of these women are in their 20s and already parenting children. Financially and emotionally, they cannot handle another child. These mothers can be perceived as uncaring by their communities, but Watson sees the situation differently.
“Honestly, it’s because they love them,” Watson said. “The world doesn’t see it that way, so it’s really hard for them. They are providing a son or daughter to a couple who can’t do that on their own.”
Watson sees her family continuing to take in foster babies as long as the whole family continues to enjoy, participate and support each other.
“If it weren’t a family ministry, it would be time to not do it anymore, but right now we all love it,” Watson said.