By Colleen Mastony/Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — She keeps the baby clothes arranged by size in the guest room. The hand-knit caps are stacked on a table near the door. And the white wicker bassinet is always within reach.
Becky O’Connell knows the call can come at any time. And so, when the phone rings shortly after 10 on a recent morning, she crosses her kitchen and picks up on the third ring.
“He was born what day? Mm-hum. Never left the hospital? Mm-hum,” she says, the phone receiver to her ear. “It would just be overnight? Well I can do that, no sweat. See you at 4 o’clock.”
Within a few hours, a social worker is coming through the door with a tiny baby, just 3 days old. The child has big, blue eyes, dark hair and a round, ruddy face. His name is Alex. “Oh,” gasps O’Connell. “Look at those cheeks.”
Labor of love
This is how it begins. At 65 years old, O’Connell is tall and willowy, with coiffed brown hair, gold-rimmed glasses and a no-nonsense personality. And at this moment, shortly after 4 p.m. on a bitterly cold Monday, she is falling hard for tiny Alex.
Officially, O’Connell is a temporary foster care worker.
But love, she says, is her real line of work.
“You know how quickly you attach?” she says. “It takes about 30 seconds. You get a baby in your arms and it’s your baby.”
It is a sad reality that the youngest children are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect, said Dave Clarkin, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Of the 4,454 children taken into protective custody last year, “the vast majority were under the age of 5,” Clarkin said. “And many, many are under the age of 1.”
Filling a gap
There is a huge shortage of people like O’Connell — the human safety nets of the child welfare system. Over the past decade, O’Connell has cared for 77 infants. That is at least seven babies a year. Babies who arrive on a moment’s notice, and who can stay anywhere from one night to four months.
Some have been abandoned. Others have been abused. Most are in the process of being adopted. All are in desperate need of someone like O’Connell, a volunteer who says simply: “My job is to fall in love with these babies.”
On this day, when the newborn arrives, there’s already a 3-week-old dozing in a bassinet set up in the sun-filled dining room.
In the kitchen, O’Connell is waving goodbye to the social worker. “His name is Alex, right?” So many children pass through, it’s easy to get confused. Then, O’Connell lifts her newest arrival — “You’re a big boy!” — and lays him on a foam pad on the counter.
Gently, she cleans his ears, files his nails and clips off the hospital ankle band. All the while, as he wriggles and cries, she talks to him in soft, reassuring tones. “I know it’s cold, isn’t it?” she coos as she begins to change his diaper. “Don’t pee on me!”
As afternoon turns to evening, O’Connell performs a delicate dance. When Alex is bathed and dressed in a blue fleece nightgown, his 3-week-old roommate begins to howl. All evening, O’Connell calmly pivots between the two — juggling pacifiers and bottles, patting backs and changing clothes.
“I’m just an old girl who is doing what I love,” she says. “When you do what you love, you can do it in your sleep — which I sometimes do.”
When she first heard that a local adoption agency was looking for foster parents, she had just emerged from the darkest period of her life.
In 1999, the younger of her two sons, Ian, was killed in a car accident.
“When my oldest was born, it was the happiest day of my life,” she says. “Ian’s death was the saddest.
“For years and years after [his death], I couldn’t concentrate,” she says. “I looked and acted like a normal person, but you don’t feel like a normal person. You’d sleep and you’d dream about it. Then you’d wake up and you didn’t know if you were still dreaming.”
By 2002, she was just beginning to regain her balance. One afternoon, a newsletter arrived from a local adoption agency. In it, she spotted a notice seeking temporary foster parents for newborns. To O’Connell, who had always loved babies, it sounded like a dream job.
At the time, she was helping run a busy parenting program for underprivileged families in Edgewater, Ill. But the notice in the newsletter called to her. Within a few short months, she and her husband, Ed, who had built a 30-year career in adoption law, received their license. On a warm day in the fall of 2002, a social worker arrived with the O’Connells’ first baby.
“Give her an upset baby and it won’t be upset for long,” says Jane Turner, associate director of Family Resource Center, the Edgewater-based adoption agency that O’Connell works with. “She has a gift for making a baby feel calm and soothed.
“Some people,” Turner says, “call her the baby whisperer.”
O’Connell isn’t paid for her work. She buys diapers, formula and clothing herself. As for taking care of babies, she says, that’s always been second nature. From the time she was a young child she crisscrossed her Indianapolis neighborhood, helping mothers with their kids. In college she spent her summers nannying, and after graduation she worked in a day care center. She raised her two sons, and later made a career volunteering at hospitals and other programs for children.
If she has a secret, she says, it is simply giving each child her undivided attention. It doesn’t hurt that O’Connell likes to read medical literature, studying up on reflux, jaundice and colic. She is also a big believer in keeping detailed logs of each baby’s sleep and eating habits, which helps her suss out problems and patterns.
There are other tricks, too. Washing a baby’s hair over the sink — beauty salon-style — while the baby is fully clothed to prevent a chill. Warming the baby lotion in the microwave before rubbing it on the skin. Calming a child by stroking his or her forehead.
“People think that babies bring a lot of disorder and confusion to a household,” she says. “But I’m here to tell you it’s not the babies who are disordered and confused.
“It’s the adults.”
By evening, the house is quiet. Ed O’Connell is away for the week, and Becky is alone with her babies.
Alex is asleep in his bassinet, and O’Connell is sitting in the kitchen, giving the 3-week-old a bottle. He is a tiny baby, with a crown of strawberry blond peach fuzz.
“I love how they get all connected to you. You pick them up and they just nestle into your arms,” she says.
The baby yawns and burps in seeming agreement.
Time to say goodbye
As happy as these moments can be, O’Connell knows she will have to say goodbye soon. Parting is a moment that always comes with a bit of heartbreak. And so, from the day a baby arrives, she keeps a bag packed, with a change of clothes and a few handmade toys.
All around her, the walls and bookshelves of her elegant brick home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood are filled with photos of the kids she calls “my graduates.” Many of the adoptive parents keep in touch, sending photos, drawings, report cards.
“We call them Aunt Becky and Uncle Ed,” said Becky Ward, 31, whose adopted son stayed with the O’Connells for a month before his adoption was finalized. Ward still calls O’Connell for all sorts of advice, from sleep issues to baby sitters. Being close to O’Connell is, Ward said, like having a second mom. “They’re like family to us.”
O’Connell keeps a stack of index cards on which she records every child’s name and the dates the baby stayed with her.
All of them will grow up and go their own way. None will remember the woman who cared for them in the first days of their lives.
“Of course, I remember them,” O’Connell says. “Any mother would be the same way.”