THE PARENT: Kim Clemens, 34, of Hatfield
THE KIDS: Sudan Huntley, 5; Tunisia Elizabeth, 4; and Mali Ann, 2; all adopted Dec. 30, 2016
A MOMENT OF BLISS AMID THE CHAOS: Taking the kids to Ocean City's Wonderland Pier, a childhood favorite of Kim's. The ocean was cold, the carousel mesmerizing.
On Kim's first night of parenthood, she planted herself in a rocker across from her foster son's crib. Sudan, then 15 months old, had arrived at Kim's home after dark with his biological sister, India, 9, and two plastic grocery bags of belongings.
"I sat in his room until he fell asleep," Kim says. "We were staring at each other: Now what?"
When she was young, growing up in a family that included stepsiblings and half-siblings, Kim envisioned getting married, becoming pregnant, perhaps having four kids. She aimed to become a teacher, but found, after working at an Easter Seals day-care center, that she preferred the hands-on aspects of care — even changing diapers on a wheelchair-bound teen — to pedagogy.
That led her to nursing school. In the meantime, she married her high school sweetheart. "We worked, we lived, we traveled. We were going to settle down to have kids … but life had other plans," she says.
After a year of trying to conceive, Kim and her husband sought fertility counseling. She was treated for endometriosis. Eventually, they tried IVF: one unsuccessful, costly — and lonely — cycle after another. "You don't tell people after every disappointment," she says. "It was a lot of pain, a lot of injections. It's hard to take the devastation, every time."
Kim's work as a nurse took up 36 hours of the week. In the remaining time, she wanted to do something meaningful. "I had so much to offer, and I felt like there was a need. We started fostering [through Bethany Christian Services] while I was going through the end of our third IVF cycle."
Sudan had medical needs — he had been born with one femur much shorter than the other, so Kim shuttled him to orthopedists and physical therapists. India struggled in school. One day, after driving an hour to a medical appointment only to find out the office had canceled the slot, Kim dissolved in tears.
"It was so life-altering, getting to know kids you hadn't lived with. As a first-time parent, it was too much." She consulted with the social workers at Bethany, who found an adoptive home for India.
But there was no room in that family for a toddler with a medical condition. After the third IVF failure, Kim didn't want to try again. Meanwhile, she had become attached to her affectionate, determined foster son, who loved to be pushed on swings or chased in a parent-child game of tag.
"He was a little kid looking for a parent's love. And as you're going to medical appointments, sitting through three-times-a-week physical therapy, it grows on you," she says.
Kim had encouraged Sudan to call her "Miss Kim," as his sister did. "He'd come to me, saying, 'Mommy, Mommy!' I'd say, 'I'm not your mom. We visit with your mom.' Finally, someone said, 'Let him call you Mom. Let him attach.' And when you let that wall down … oh, wow."
Still, she had to grieve the dream of having children biologically — seeing her eyes or temperament mirrored in a daughter or son, being able to extrapolate from her own childhood to theirs.
Nearly a year after Sudan arrived, Kim and her husband said yes to fostering Tunisia, his biological sister. "It was déjà vu," she says — and a new level of parenting, with a coil-of-energy 2-year-old boy and, now, a 1-year-old girl with speech and motor delays.
"When Tunisia first came to me, she just sat and stared. She liked to be by herself." Those years — mediating squabbles between toddlers who lunged after the same toy, shuttling kids to swimming and T-ball, and endless doctors' appointments — feel like a blur, Kim says.
She thought her family was complete. But Sudan and Tunisia's birth mother was pregnant again, and Kim and her husband still longed to parent a newborn. "We thought: This is our kids' biological sibling, and [DHS] is 95 percent sure the case will be going to adoption. We called and said yes."
Mali arrived in November 2014, a 6-pound wisp of a baby with a pile of NICU discharge paperwork. The next day, a sleep-starved Kim dragged the trio to one of Sudan's orthopedic appointments. She had asked her aunt to come along for support. Mali, who had been drug-exposed in utero, needed weekly weight checks. All three kids were in diapers.
And then, her marriage quietly crumbled. "We separated the summer after Mali had come, a friendly parting of the ways," Kim says. The children were still foster kids. She hadn't signed on any dotted lines.
"Did I want to be a single parent? Did I want to move forward?" she remembers thinking. She knew what it was like to hope for pregnancy, then feel that vision shred. "I could never wrap my head around saying goodbye to them. That pain … would tear me in half.
"It was a difficult decision to make. But I felt very strongly that these were my kids."
Kim said yes. And on the last calendar day for adoptions in Montgomery County in 2016, all three kids became officially hers. Sudan understood what that meant: Now, no doctor's receptionist would say, "Oh, she's just your foster mom."
For Kim, solo parenting is a frantic juggle, aided by a community of extra hands: the friend who picks up a feverish kid from day care, the cousin who offers to drop off a platter of leftovers.
Last summer, Kim figured there was no way she could attend her family's annual reunion at Spruce Lake Retreat in the Poconos. How would she manage the hike to the mountaintop with three young kids? Relatives insisted.