The first baby stayed only a week. Maybe that's why Maureen remembers her second foster child more vividly: how he came straight from the NICU, a 5-pound peanut swaddled in layers of blankets.
"I remember thinking, 'There's no way there's a baby inside of this,' " Maureen says. "But there he was, staring right at me. I thought, 'What do I do with this tiny little thing?' "
The infant had been exposed to crack in utero and slept for long stretches as he withdrew from the drug. Then he rounded all the usual milestones; he rolled over, crawled, and ate ravenously, growing from 5 pounds to 25 in his first year.
Maureen's father had cautioned her against becoming a foster parent — "What if you get a baby who's drug-exposed and all he does is scream all night?" — but as this one became an exuberant toddler who adored trucks and smiled constantly, Maureen's family and friends couldn't help embracing him.
"I had him until he was 14 months old. Everybody felt like he was there forever," she says. But in the end, it was Maureen who decided she couldn't be this boy's "forever" parent. She was still young; perhaps someday she'd marry and have children biologically. Besides, this child was African American, and Maureen lived in Fishtown, where the public elementary school had few children of color.
"I felt like he needed more than I could give him. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make." The day he left, to be adopted by a mixed-race couple who promised to include Maureen in their son's life, she held the boy for two tearful hours.
Then she sold all her baby gear. She'd thought fostering would be like the nanny jobs she'd held after graduating from Moore College of Art and Design with a degree in interior design — caring for someone else's children and returning them at the end of the day. But this separation was excruciating.
"I realized how attached you get. I had a consignment sale and swore I was never going to do it again."
That vow lasted three months. Maureen's not especially religious, but being a foster parent had begun to feel like a calling. The next summons was a 2-week-old boy whose mother had abandoned him at a pediatrician's office; he stayed with Maureen for a month, then went to live with his grandmother.
After that was a 3-month-old girl, one of seven siblings born to an HIV-positive mother who worked hard to earn the court's trust and regain custody of her children.
And then came Shya, a 4-month-old with a disarming smile and a filthy onesie. She wasn't an easy baby — loud noises made her hysterical, crowds unhinged her, and feeding often became a power struggle — but she was smart and engaging. She talked early. One of her first words was "Mommy."
"I remember her calling me that and thinking, 'Maybe I really am going to be your mommy.' " Maureen was in her mid-30s by then — more confident as a parent and more pragmatic about her future. "I wasn't getting younger, and I didn't see any husband coming along. I thought, 'I can do this.' "
Adopting Shya also meant linking herself to a constellation of family: Shya's aunt and uncle, who had adopted two of the girl's siblings. When Shya's mother became pregnant again, the aunt and uncle agreed they could not take another child. "That's how I ended up [adopting] Lexi," Maureen says.
Lexi had landed in St. Christopher's Hospital at 7 weeks — malnourished, dehydrated, with a heart murmur that would require surgery. When Maureen brought her home from the hospital, at 2 ½ months, she weighed a feather-light 6 pounds, 8 ounces and had a nasogastric tube.
"She was really, really sickly for the first year," Maureen says. But Shya adored her little sister, and the girls' aunt and uncle were happy to swap child care with Maureen, giving the siblings a chance to be together.
Maureen's newest foster child was another emergency placement, a 2-week-old whose mother was addicted and later jailed, but whose father showed up loyally for visits. Over time, he and Maureen became friends; along with Shya, Lexi, and the man's 5-year-old daughter, they troop to the zoo or the playground — "this crazy, modern step-family," Maureen says. No matter what happens — if the boy's mother's rights are terminated, if Maureen is able to adopt him, with his father's permission — "I want his dad to be part of his life."
For now, family means this mom, these kids, this seven-bedroom Tudor house in a diverse neighborhood where Maureen and the children live essentially rent-free; it's the home of a former Moore College administrator who became a mentor and friend to Maureen. The kids call her "Nana."
The parenthood journey has taught Maureen to discard expectations. "Family is what you make it," she says. "I'd still love to meet [a partner]. But the sense of urgency isn't there." She is frank with the children, too — talking to Shya and Lexi about their biological mother's death from cancer in 2015, about how to answer strangers who ask, "Why are you brown and your mommy's white?"
She remembers the naysayers when she first decided to become a foster parent: the people who warned her about drug-dependent infants and the pain of saying goodbye. There was truth in those cautions. But her kids defy predictions. She cherishes the moments when her foster son, now 2, returns from visits with his dad, and the girls rush him at the door, plastering him with kisses and hugs.