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The birth of a mother

Carrie Mahler, who was raised in 28 foster homes, is about to have a baby. But how do you learn to be a mom when "the system" is the only parent you've known?

By KELLEY BENHAM
Published August 14, 2005


photo

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Carrie Mahler, 20, is having her first child.
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Carrie climbs onto the table for her ultrasound, wobbly on low heels. Her feet hurt, but she isn't about to change into something more comfortable. All her life she depended on strangers for clothes, and they never matched, were never pretty. So she will wear these impractical shoes as long as she can.

"Your legs are puffin'," says Laurallyn Segur, the woman holding her hand.

"Aren't they puffin'?" Carrie says.

The ultrasound technician can tell they aren't quite mother and daughter, but something close.

She looks at Laurallyn, who is wearing a business suit and choking up. "And you're her . . .?"

Carrie and Laurallyn look at each other. They're never sure what to say.

The simple answer is Laurallyn is a social worker. She knew Carrie Mahler when she was "the Mahler Case," a bruised and dirty 3-year-old taken into foster care one night almost 17 years ago. Over the years, Laurallyn placed Carrie in 28 foster homes trying to find her a family.

She watched Carrie bounce around the system, never sticking to anything but the system itself. Most kids run away for good when they get old enough. Carrie never did.

Carrie gave up hoping for a real mother when she was 11. Two months from becoming a mother herself, she doesn't fully know what the word means.

"She can call me mom," Laurallyn says to the tech. "I might as well be."

Laurallyn strokes Carrie's hair with one hand and her belly with the other. The baby's heartbeat fills the room.

Laurallyn and Carrie

Like a lot of mothers and daughters, they have some of their best talks in the minivan.

Carrie's pink shoes are in the back. Somebody else's pink shoes are behind the driver's seat, along with candy wrappers, Tic Tacs, Benadryl, ground-up Doritos, a 2-week-old can of Diet Coke. It's in this dingy van that Laurallyn shuttles her three actual daughters to dance class and vacation Bible school. Where Shelby picks on Shannon and Shannon gets annoyed and sings so loudly she drowns out the radio. It is the capsule of true motherhood. The everyday kind.

They're on their way to an appointment. Carrie is giving directions because years of riding the city bus have taught her a useful lesson in geography. Laurallyn is a little frazzled because she just got off work.

"Go that way."

"No."

"Yes."

"I'm right."

"You're wrong. Oh, my God."

Laurallyn's official title is assistant director of licensing and placement at the Safe Children Coalition, which oversees foster care for 1,350 kids in Pinellas and Pasco counties under contract with the state.

In Carrie's time in the system, Laurallyn has worked for organizations with different names and held different titles. She was never Carrie's caseworker but always made the key decisions of her life.

Take her out of that house tonight. Terminate her mother's rights. Take her away from those abusive people. Move her. Move her again.

Lately, she has been hauling Carrie around in this van like one of her own kids. She'll take Carrie to the hospital in this van and bring Carrie's baby home in this van. Tonight, she's holding Carrie's hand and wondering whether Carrie can possibly be ready.

Before she got pregnant, Carrie was working three jobs and taking classes at St. Petersburg College. She has a nursing assistant's license and works as a unit secretary at St. Anthony's Hospital. She has benefits, her own apartment and a paid-off car. The system helps her with money for school, and when the baby arrives, it will help with child care.

But she gets restless. The longest she ever stayed in a school was one year. She got only one set of school pictures. She didn't answer to anyone if she didn't feel like it. She has trouble attaching to men or anyone else. One of her best skills is leaving people behind.

When Carrie worked up the nerve to tell her she was pregnant, Laurallyn felt sick, as if her own daughter were talking.

"That's where I felt failure," she says, still driving. "As a person and as a system, I should have done more."

She says she looked at Carrie and thought, What have I not given you?

"I don't feel like someone has failed me," Carrie says. "I'm grateful I was put into foster care. I'm content with the life I've had."

Laurallyn's mother taught her how to be a mom in small ways. By leaving biscuits in the kitchen before she went off to work. By buying her a skirt at Dillard's for the first day of school. Laurallyn was there for Carrie when she needed something, but she wasn't there to put her hair in a ponytail every morning, didn't read to her or teach her to drive.

The system taught Carrie everything she needed to know about life. But it couldn't teach her what a mother does.

Carrie doesn't know what it's like to ride in a minivan like this to band camp with a pack of friends. To have one real solid parent, much less two.

"You're content with the life you knew," Laurallyn tells her. "We're just the system, Carrie. We're the system."

"That doesn't matter," Carrie says. "That's my family."

Carrie said something about a condom mishap, but Laurallyn knows she wanted this baby. She wanted another family, a permanent one. Lots of foster kids have babies young. Laurallyn doesn't have numbers on it, but she knows it's true.

It's easy for those babies to end up back in the system, because it can be hard to learn to hang on when you spend your life learning to let go. It can be hard to let someone need you.

"I don't know what the hell a mother does," Carrie says.

The loving part will be easy. Laurallyn taught her to buy diapers at Sam's Club, not Publix. She knows about Desitin and Dreft.

But can she shape a child into the person she should become? What are the Brownies, and should her child join them? Can she still go to heavy metal concerts if she pumps her milk first? She talks to her stomach and hopes the answers will come.

Laurallyn thinks Carrie will be okay because the social workers refuse to let her not be okay.

"This child is going to get what it needs through me," she tells Carrie.

If Carrie can't take care of her baby, it will be Laurallyn's job, her official duty, to take the baby from her. She scoured Carrie's family for acceptable relatives once already, when Carrie was small, and she knows Carrie has no backup plan. Foster care is the only option.

Laurallyn has already thought this through. She would take Carrie's baby, but not into the system. Carrie's baby is never going into the system.

The baby shower

Carrie's baby shower was in a beige conference room with institutional carpet and an overhead projector.

The social workers considered Carrie's apartment. Or somebody's house. But they decided, and they know this sounds odd, that the closest thing Carrie has ever had to a home is whatever government building houses "the system."

It was HRS for a while. Then DCF. Carrie always just called it the system. When she was small she played on the steps, and when she was older she would act up at school so someone would come get her and give her a hug.

So right after "boundary training," where they learned not to do this sort of thing, the social workers tossed a paper tablecloth over the oak veneer folding tables, and Laurallyn's daughter Shelby, who is 10, wrote "Congratulations Karrie!!" in wobbly writing on the dry erase board, and someone brought in a Stouffer's lasagna.

Everyone was there, even if they hadn't worked there for years, to see how the girl they'd fretted over had turned out. The first thing they noticed was her hair. Now that she has grown it long, it looks a lot like her mom's, but they whisper that so she won't hear.

"Oh, my God, look at her hair."

Each woman had mothered Carrie at some critical moment in her life, and she'd had a lot of critical moments.

Linda Roberts saw her first. She told Laurallyn she couldn't leave Carrie in that apartment, where the kids were dirty and there was no food. She remembers how thick and curly Carrie's hair was, and how long it took to pick out the lice.

"I can remember you being so little," she said to Carrie.

When Carrie got older, Linda harassed her about drinking and boys and going to the dentist. She picked Carrie up at phone booths all over town and said in her best mom voice, "Girl, what is your problem? Have you lost your mind?"

Allison Callahan took Carrie to get birth control when she was 13 and held her hand during the exam. "I had her for the difficult years," she said.

Allison registered Carrie for high school and charged a first-day-of-school outfit on her Sears credit card because it was the only credit card she had. Allison was Carrie's caseworker when she skipped school and took the city bus to track down her birth mother. She was in the room three years later when, her curiosity satisfied, Carrie told her mother she never wanted to see her again. Carrie didn't cry in front of her mother, but she cried afterward, because Allison told her she was proud.

Missy Irby, a secretary, answered Carrie's calls when she had run away and tried to keep her on the line so they could trace them. Carrie called from as far as Canada.

"Oh, God, Carrie," Missy said, remembering it. She put her face in her hands.

Carrie got her first thong at 11. She ran away from the runaway prevention shelter. She overdosed on NyQuil and ended up in the hospital, then didn't want to leave because the food was good. They worried about her more than some of their own kids. Foster kids will push people as far as they can to see if they are going to quit.

Hope Kleinfeld met Carrie just a couple of years ago. One day Carrie brought her a latte and told her she was pregnant, and she hadn't told Laurallyn yet. It was like your niece telling you something she hasn't told her mom. It made Hope feel needed. At the shower, Hope cried harder than anyone else.

Laurallyn supervised all of Carrie's caseworkers, but she kept her distance at first so Carrie would bond with other people. When Carrie was 14, Laurallyn sat down with her and showed her the five thick files the state had kept on her life. It was unusual, but Carrie has always insisted on making up her own mind about things. She read all about her birth mother, even about her own attitude.

After that, Carrie seemed to realize that someone had been there, looking out for her, all this time. She started bringing Laurallyn more and more lattes.

The harder Carrie's life got, the more Laurallyn tried to fill the gaps. She took her to lunch. She took her shopping for school clothes. She made sure she had a present on her birthday and something at Christmas. She paid for her GED. When Carrie was old enough to run away from shelters and group homes, Laurallyn promised her that if she would please come back she would find her a better place, and the more she couldn't find Carrie a family, the more she became that family, whether she realized it or not.

Laurallyn would have adopted Carrie if she could have, but there are rules against it. There are rules against a lot of things, even the lattes that Carrie brings her, but how do you say no to a thing like that?

Her job barely leaves her time to think about a relationship so unusual and so complex. The system takes in an average of 80 kids a month. Most are reunited with their parents or adopted within a year. Carrie stands out.

"The thing I never was with Carrie is her mom. I am not her mom. But I have all my heart and soul in that kid. For some reason, Carrie and I, I don't know what it is, God knows, we stuck. We just stuck. We didn't leave each other behind."

This year Carrie brought Laurallyn a cake on Mother's Day.

What makes a mother

She remembers her birth mother's Burger King uniform. Most of the rest of her childhood is just stories other people told her.

She knows that when she was a toddler she wanted her grandmother so much she ran toward her with her arms outstretched and smacked into a pole. She doesn't remember needing anyone as much since. Or won't admit it.

She remembers carrying coffee to a foster mother every morning when she was maybe 6, cream and two Sweet'n Lows. She really wanted that mom to keep her. That's why she brings coffee when she wants someone to like her. Laurallyn likes iced caramel lattes.

One mom forced her to eat eggplant Parmesan. That's why she's such a picky eater. One took her babysitting money. One made her sit perfectly still on the living room floor until she fell asleep. One found her a last-minute Halloween costume. One left her little gifts on the bed. One wanted to adopt her after two weeks, which freaked her out. Mom No. 21 offered to keep her when she was 14, and the St. Petersburg Times did a big story about it called "Finally, a home," but that didn't work out either. She met another woman she calls Mom at a Walgreens, and lived with her for a while, but she had to leave there too, and when she calls her Mom, she doesn't mean it the way a real daughter would.

From all these moms she picked up a Southern accent and learned to cuss in Italian. Attended a variety of churches and developed a belief in no God.

She always wanted a daughter of her own. She never imagined a man would be around when she had her. If her baby's father decides to get involved, she won't deny her daughter that. She dated him for about a year, and she says he has her number, but she's not hoping he calls. Lots of moms left her because the men in their lives didn't want a kid around. So Carrie always thought a good mom was one who depended on nobody.

She didn't need a man or anyone else to put the crib together, even if it did take eight hours. She moved the furniture. She painted the nursery yellow. She sat on the floor, painting by the baseboards, and realized that the room was different now. One moment it was apartment beige, and then it was her daughter's room. Alyssa's room. Alyssa Nicole was going to live here and this was her room and no one was going to share it or throw her out or steal her stuff.

Motherhood 101

They're in Target and Carrie doesn't want to buy a pacifier. She's afraid it will make the baby needy. She and Laurallyn have had a number of conversations about this. Carrie had to fend for herself her whole life. She wants to raise her daughter to be strong too. Why start with a binky dependency?

Laurallyn is hoping maternal instinct will kick in when the baby arrives. Carrie's biological mother didn't seem to have one.

Carrie scowls at the pacifier and the woman wielding it. "Are you going to suck on that?"

"Yes, Carrie," Laurallyn says. "I need this."

Next aisle, Carrie wants her child to have matching outfits. Lots and lots of matching outfits. She is not sending her out into the world looking like no one cares.

"I'm going to Baby Gap for the coming-home-from-the-hospital-outfit. That's like, the most important outfit you're going to buy your baby."

"Oh, come on. No it is not."

It's special until the next special thing. The one-month photo outfit. The baptism. The Santa photo.

"Geez, Carrie!"

Carrie's not listening. "I think it's special, and you're going to think it's special, too."

Carrie beelines for the book section, unfamiliar territory. She has a big, empty shelf in the nursery and wants to fill it.

"Just some classical stuff that I never got read to." She's never read Sleepy Time Tales? Golden Books?

"This is what we all grew up on," Laurallyn says. "Here, Dick and Jane. That's how I learned to read."

"Here," Carrie says. "Disney Classic Storybook."

She looks at Laurallyn. "That's a good childhood, right?"

The birth

It still didn't seem real. The baby was still just a squiggly line on a monitor in the corner of the room. Carrie had packed 10 outfits to bring the baby home in. Narrowed it to four.

It was Wednesday, July 20. Laurallyn's birthday.

The nurse was filling out forms. She nodded toward Laurallyn. "And who is this?"

Carrie said, "That's my mom."

Pretty soon Laurallyn's cell phone started ringing. Shannon had ringworm on her face. Sarah was at band camp, demanding a new cell phone because Shelby had jumped in the pool with hers.

"You know what, this is not a time to be telling me this, so you're just going to have to wait."

Alyssa Nicole was still just a steady squiggle, a mysterious promise.

"Breathe, baby, breathe," Laurallyn said to Carrie.

Hope, one of the other caseworkers, arrived with all sorts of cameras. When it was time to push the baby into the world, Laurallyn and Hope both gasped like they weren't sure they were ready.

Carrie looked like she wasn't sure she was ready either.

Laurallyn held Carrie's right leg, and Hope held her left. Each of them had a moment where they thought, who would be here for her, if not us?

Through wave after wave, Carrie made barely a sound. She sweated and maybe whimpered. Laurallyn kept thinking that as long as she'd known Carrie, she'd almost never seen her cry. She's in the most pain she's ever been in her life, and she can't cry.

"Do you want to rest?" the nurse kept asking.

"No," Carrie said. "Let's do this."

That's Carrie, Laurallyn was thinking. That's the girl who hauls furniture up stairs eight months pregnant. The girl who won't ask for help. That's the way the system has made her. The way we made her.

Then the nurse said, "Look at that hair," and Laurallyn peeked around and saw all this thick, dark hair, just like Carrie, just like Carrie's mom, and she burst into tears.

"We're going to have a baby, Carrie. Can you imagine?"

Carrie didn't make a sound.

The baby came out wailing.

Home

Carrie carried Alyssa up the steps to the apartment and Laurallyn followed with all the bags, and Alyssa slept through the occasion in her carefully selected outfit, oblivious to how cute she looked in it.

The baby had slept through Laurallyn's arrival at the hospital, through the trip down the elevator and out into the bright sun, through the complicated strapping and unstrapping of the car seat, the cooing by various neighbors and by Laurallyn's daughter Shelby, the jostling up the stairs, and now she was sleeping through the first diaper change.

"She's alive, right?" her mother was saying. "It's kind of freaking me out."

"Oh, it's okay."

"We're going to need more wipes."

The problem, Laurallyn determined, was the carefully selected outfit was too hot. The baby was groggy, like when you take a hot car ride in the summer.

"Do you have a cotton T-shirt?"

Cotton T-shirt?

Laurallyn's phone rang. It was daughter Shannon.

While Laurallyn simultaneously stripped off the adorable outfit and instructed her daughter to purchase bananas, Alyssa Nicole began to wail. The loud, room-filling, lung-clearing kind.

"She's crying!" Laurallyn said, "Yes!"

Yes?

"Good tears, oh, yes. Let her cry. Let her wake up. I can't believe you didn't get any T-shirts."

She dug through the closet with the cell phone glued to her ear. Carrie stood there, suspended between relief that the baby was in fact alive and a desperate desire to make her stop crying.

"Comfort her."

"Let her cry. Let her cry for a while."

"That's easy for you to say."

Laurallyn said into the phone: "Orange juice?" And to the baby: "It's not going to bother me that you cry."

And Carrie said, "It's easy for other people to listen to her cry, but I'm her mother."

She said the same thing over and over that night.

I'm her mother. She's my daughter.

She said it when the baby wanted to nurse and she wasn't really hungry. She said it when the baby wouldn't lie in the crib.

That's when Laurallyn started to believe that Carrie was going to be all right.

For months, Carrie worried that she would spoil the child if she rushed to every whimper. All that was gone now. The pacifier had been offered and rejected. Carrie's finger was implanted in Alyssa's mouth.

When it got late, Laurallyn dressed her daughter Shelby in one of Carrie's shirts and tucked her into Carrie's bed. Laurallyn crashed on the couch. Shelby sneaked out and peeked around the hall corner and looked at her mom.

"I see you, little mutt." Shelby smiled and scampered off.

Carrie held her daughter alone in the dark nursery, rocking her and memorizing her face. Alyssa would not sleep. She reached for her mother, refused to be put down for an instant. Laurallyn remembered what those nights were like. How those first few days shook her to tears. She saw no sign of complaint in Carrie, no hint of a meltdown. Just reservoirs of resolve.

She knew the life she built for Carrie, imperfect as it was, had made her this way. All her life, who had ever listened to Carrie when she whined?

Laurallyn saw none of the hardness she had worried about all these months. Motherhood turned resolve to patience. Out on the couch, Laurallyn pulled a blanket to her chin and settled in for the night. All Carrie needed, as night bled into morning, was to know she would not be left alone.

[Last modified August 19, 2005, 09:54:10]


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