When I spoke to Austin mom Misty Berryman recently, she used the word “chaos” more than a few times to describe her life. It’s not the bad kind of chaos – it’s a happy chaos that kids can create in a home. It’s the type of chaos Misty and Melanie, her partner of 12 years, manage well in a life that can at times get complicated. The couple has one adopted son and two young foster children, both of them boys.
We met at Misty’s home for our interview, in a ranch house outside of Austin with lots of room inside and out for three boys. Her adopted son’s baby book sits on their kitchen table filled with pages detailing his first year of life. For every month, there’s a new picture and a paragraph or two about the highs and lows during that time.
Her son, who is now 9, was born with serious health problems. He was HIV positive – a year and a half later he tested negative – and addicted to cocaine and heroin. As a newborn, he spent the first two weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit to detox. His medical status made his case challenging for adoption, but Misty was undeterred. They adopted him when he was an infant and have loved him dearly ever since.
In January, the two other boys, a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old, joined Misty’s family as foster children. They both came from neglectful homes where no one – not even an extended family member – was willing to properly care for them. The 2-year-old is sitting at the table with us. “I just love his hair,” Misty says, twirling his brown curls around her finger. “I can’t wrap my brain around them not having family to help or take care of them. Family is so important to me and for them not to have that – it’s so sad.”
Less than two weeks after the boys arrived at their home, Misty had emergency appendix surgery. As we were talking, a friend came rushing in to drop off a lasagna. Her parents hired a nanny to help with the children. Their life is filled with support from family and friends. Already, the 2-year-old calls her “momma.” That afternoon, we talked more about being a parent to foster children and adopting a baby with such a rough start at life – all amidst the good kind of chaos in her home.
Q: What was the first year like with your son?
A: It was scary. All of the doctors’ visits. We had to go to the doctor every month. He was on so many antibiotics and he was sick a lot, because he wasn’t building up the immunities. When he was 2 months old, we were evacuated from our home. We were living in Beaumont, Texas, at the time and Hurricane Rita came through. We were gone for a month. I had to find new doctors. It was overwhelming being a new mom and having a sick child. That set the stage for the years to come, because it was never like it is on television.
How did you cope?
I just did it. I stay home, so that helps. I pray and work out a lot. It’s always chaos. I can’t feel sorry for myself and say, ‘ Oh my gosh, this is such a horrible life.’ This is the life we wanted. We wanted foster kids. I’m thankful for the life we have. I have friends who are foster parents. Having the support from people who know what we’re going through helps make me feel OK.
Have you told your son about his biological parents?
At one point, he will know the full story. He knows his birth mother was very sick, but he doesn’t know the extent of the sickness that she had. We don’t know anything about his father. We celebrate “gotcha day” every year. I don’t care how I got him, I got him and he’s ours.
What is he like today – his health and his personality?
He’s very smart. He’s a straight A student. He’s funny. He loves to dance. He’s a typical boy who loves his parents and his family and anything to do with sports and video games. The parts of the brain cocaine and heroin affect – it’s like speed. It affects how your brain develops, making the child hyperactive. He has the label of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactive disorder). We have therapies to rewire his brain. Prescription drugs didn’t help. Now he is on a homeopathic treatment.
How has motherhood changed you?
The first night I held him in my arms I was bawling. I called my mom to tell her that I loved her. I was thinking about when I snuck out of the house when I was 16. I’m worried. I worry about things I never thought I’d worry about. I say or do things I never thought that I’d say or do. I’m the only lesbian who never played softball and I find myself actually enjoying football now and it’s totally changed me.
What kind of relationship do you have with Melanie?
We fight. We love each other. We are in it and there’s no option but to stay in it. We balance each other out. Melanie is very quiet. I’m very much the extrovert. I have about five group texts going on in my phone right now. We talk about date nights, but it always gets put on the back burner.
How would you describe the 2-year-old when he first arrived at your home?
When he came to us, he didn’t know how to play at all. He would roam around the house. He doesn’t know the function of play. We converted the dining room into a play room. He picks up a truck and throws it. It’s a lot of retraining. Today, we went for a walk and he held my hand. He didn’t want to get on the couch and cuddle during our movie night, but he picked up on the love and he now likes to cuddle with my son. These things he didn’t get – he was in a home that had no heat, electricity or food. Everyone there was high on drugs. When he came here, he ate and ate.
And the baby?
He was holding his own bottle at 4 months. That told me that he had to or it was being propped up. He didn’t sleep the first week he was here. I had gone somewhere and had him in the infant carrier and he slept for two hours. We figured out that’s where he probably slept. His development is advanced. I was always told that if they have advanced development that it’s a sign of neglect (she was formerly a child developmental specialist). He is already pushing his head up and turning it around. I think that he was just left to his own devices.
Do you prepare for the possibility of losing them?
I don’t think there’s any way to prepare. I pray a lot. I don’t’ want to take anyone’s child away from the parent. If the child is with me, they get love and attention that they probably weren’t getting. I want these parents to get their stuff together and raise these kids. They are cool kids. The 2-year-old was throwing the ball and catching it. I’m sad for the parents. They are missing it, because they can’t get off meth. The baby had a double ear infection and he’s still smiling and laughing. He’s so happy. How can you not get it together for these kids?
I love them, but I’m not in love with them like I was with my son. It’s my own way of protecting my heart. When we got my son, he was mine, no one could take him from me. It would be heart wrenching to see them go. It’s my coping mechanism. They’re great kids. We would be ecstatic if we could keep them.
How does the fact that gay marriage isn’t legal in Texas affect your life?
It’s just a piece of paper. That’s really all it is to me. I’m not getting married until it’s legal in the state of Texas. There are normal American things I want to happen. I want to file taxes together. We can’t be on the same insurance together. We can’t adopt together. We can’t draw up a will. Things people take for granted. This house is in both of our names – the cars are in our names. We are (still) tied together. We just don’t have a pretty piece of paper. If it were to become legal, we would have a big shindig.
Does your son understand your family’s dynamic?
I’ve always told him that families are made up of all kinds of things. When he was 3 and we were living in Beaumont, he had a teacher who would not make him two Mother’s Day cards. It enraged me. Who cares? Why can’t you make 17 Mother’s Day cards? That’s why we came here – where it doesn’t matter. The first daycare here, a little girl came up to me and said that my son had told her, “he has two moms and he also told me that there are families that have two dads.” He was repeating the stories I told him. It’s the adults who pass judgment, not the kids.
How’s Austin been as a place to raise a family?
We don’t get the crazy looks here. We don’t get the, “well, if he had a dad.” We all make judgments and say, “if that was my child.” It’s a little bit different when it’s happening to you. We have just found friends here who are like family. They accept us and love us for who we are, not what we are.
What’s your parenting style?
She’s the good cop. I’m the bad cop, because I’m here all day. I’d say I’m strict. I like things orderly. I’m very southern in the sense that I want my son to say ‘yes ma’am and no ma’am’ and open the door. I’m not a helicopter mom, but I am a short-order cook. I said I’d never do it, I say I’m strict, but then when he starts to whine, I can give in.
What do you worry about?
With my son, I worry about his self-esteem. He is his worst enemy. He can give himself more punishment than I could ever give him. I worry about him getting involved in drugs because of his history. That’s why I promote sports so much. For the younger boys, I worry about if they go back home, are they going to have a life like they have here and be loved like they are here? Are they going to get all of their needs met? I pray for their parents daily to get their life together. But I want to make sure that they are doing right by them. I just have to have a lot of faith that whatever is best for each one of them is going to happen, whether it is with us or with their biological parents. I guess it’s the fear of the unknown.
When will you know if you will be able to adopt the boys?
They (Child Protective Services) said it could take up to a year. It really depends on the parents and if they follow through. The 4-month-old is at risk, because the mom has already had two kids taken away from her. Still, children who are at risk can go back. The 2-year-old has had two visits with his parents. They can get him back in 180 days if they follow through on the plan given to them. They need to stay drug free, provide a home and have a job. I’m not opening my heart up to that (getting to adopt them) yet.
If you know of a mom who could be featured in this series, reach out to Abby on Twitter @AbbyRoedel.
Featured photo courtesy of Bert McLendon.