The baby felt light as a feather and made no sound. With tiny lips pursed in sleep, she did not even whimper for nourishment. Mistaking silence for satisfaction, the naive new mother allowed hours to slip by without attempting to nurse her newborn. "What time did she eat last?" I asked while dropping off a bassinet on Saturday evening, the baby's third day of life. The mother and child shared a single bed inside a dark, windowless room with two other roommates and I was concerned for sleeping safety. "This morning," she replied and I tried not to gasp when math revealed nearly a dozen hours had gone by without a feeding.
"It's very important that you wake her up to eat every two or three hours," I urged. The darkness and stench of the unkempt and overcrowded residence smothered me when I entered, and the airless little bedroom felt hopeless. She was utterly alone with no family or support, nor anything of beauty to welcome this precious new life. "Have you eaten?" I questioned, and of course the answer was no. Without kitchen privileges and still stiff from childbirth, she dared not venture out into the street with her diminutive cargo. My own children were waiting impatiently in our car on a busy street, as this was to have been just a quick visit to our FLORECE client. It was near dusk in a questionable area of downtown, but without nourishment herself the mother had nothing to give her child. "I'll be right back," I promised.
Feeling strained, I drive around the block in search of a legal parking space and issued strict instructions to the children to wait calmly as I went in search of food. I prayed as I walked a half block to the corner and looked in either direction. Another half block to the left, I found a small restaurant offering meals to go. Quickly I carried one back to the cramped lodging and having done all I could for the moment, left the mother and child with concern in my heart.
The next day, I asked a volunteer who lives downtown to check on the pair if possible. She found the situation mostly unchanged and shared the same concerns. On Monday, my husband generously made time to chauffeur (and our pre-schooler patiently tagged along) as we picked up the mom and newborn to complete multiple errands. First we alighted at the crowded hospital for a brief class introducing the free layette that she would receive, then we waited in line under the sun's intense glare to gather the items and deliver them back to the car. Next, we took a number at Registro Civil where the baby's information would be recorded and her birth certificate generated. Navigating the tight streets and traffic took us to our third stop which was the local health service to register the baby and obtain medical appointments for mother and child within the next few days. Finally, as Pedro circled another block I ran into a pharmacy for some items to assist with nursing challenges that had arisen. It was a long, hot summer morning in an non air conditioned car - yet fruitful by God's grace!
We delivered the two of them home but some hours later received an urgent request for help. The mother was reaching the end of her rope and having no success with nursing. The baby was finally crying for food and the mother was feeling desperate. I later learned that she'd seen her landlord toss a pregnant woman out in the street and she feared they would do the same to her if her daughter continued to cry. It took visits to three stores but I found a pump that we hoped would help her, and that evening another volunteer and I arrived at the mother's lodging place. This time we were ushered to a small but neat room at the back of the property where a kindly older gentleman lived. He offered us seats in the tiny space he called home. I was moved by his humble hospitality. While our visit encouraged the client and some progress was made with pumping, it was clear she was becoming emotionally fragile and the baby physically so. In tears I returned home, unsure of how to proceed but certain we had a moral obligation to intervene for the sake of the child.
It was under these circumstances that we stumbled into what we later would name our Programa de Hospedaje Materno (Maternity Hosting Program.) Spurred by the urgent needs of this situation, I called the only place I could think might satisfy the conditions for hosting a new mother and child. One of our volunteers and her young adult daughter (who previously volunteered with FLORECE) did not hesitate to offer a bedroom in their own humble home in response to this need. From that point on, everything proceeded so quickly that it remains something of a blur. The client had some personal items to move with her, so the next morning we enlisted our thirteen-year old son Owen to help Pedro hoist boxes and a couple of furniture items into the back of our faithful old minivan. It was not a comfortable assignment, and certainly eye-opening for him to see the rough circumstances under which so many people live. Awkwardly, as another woman slept under a mound of covers in the same room, I helped Pedro with the final task of taking apart a wooden bed frame while our son stood guard over the van on the busy street. If I had been uncertain about the need to remove the baby and mother before then, the flood of tiny roaches that poured from the screw holes left no room for doubt. It was a physically and emotionally taxing day.
Nor was the move to a new home an easy fix to the situation. Cultural and personality differences often hindered communication between host and client. The kindest of hearts and the best of intentions still resulted in some frustrations and hurt feelings. The lack of a prior plan had us playing "catch up" from the beginning and I recognized that the weight of responsibility was mine to bear for putting this all into play. Yet when the baby's first follow up visit to the doctor revealed a significant loss of weight and her second appointment almost led to a hospitalization, the real need for support continued to be clear.
It is a story with an as-yet unwritten ending. Soon the client by her own choice will transition from the host home to independent living, renting a room with her tiny baby and working long days while the child remains in someone else's care. Did we do enough? Time will tell. Did we make mistakes? Certainly. Was this still the right decision? I honestly do not know how the child would have survived otherwise. I believe the most important question we must ask is: Was God honored by our actions, attitudes and intentions? If we can answer yes to this, then we can leave the outcome in His hands.
There are many more needs before us. If anything, this experience has only served to confirm our desire for FLORECE to provide safe housing for pregnant moms in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We continue to pray for God's provision for a permanent home which will serve our current ministry and this additional dream as well. He is Jehovah Jireh!