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[Memoir]

Good Mother

Custody and care in the shadow of colonization

Photograph of Lissa Yellow Bird © Kristina Barker

[Memoir]

Good Mother

Custody and care in the shadow of colonization
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I am alone in my apartment wondering what makes a good mother. Three days ago, on the eleventh of October, a packet arrived from a county social services department in North Dakota. The cover letter explained that a friend of mine was applying to be a foster parent. The department hoped I would answer some questions regarding “what you feel they can provide for a Foster Child.” The letter did not say so explicitly, but I understood it was asking me to determine what kind of mother my friend would make.

I use the word “friend,” though this is perhaps the first time I have referred to Lissa Yellow Bird this way publicly. “I came to know her better than anyone I’ve ever known,” I write in response to the second question, What is your relationship to the applicant? To the first, How long have you known the applicant? I reply, “Since November 2014.” That was when I first interviewed Lissa, for an article I was writing, before I knew that the article would become a book, and that the book would be, in large part, the story of her life. I am a journalist, and journalists, I have been taught, do not befriend their subjects. Lissa believes this is a dumb, reductive, “colonized” way of going about the work, though she agrees that “friend” inadequately describes our relationship. It is more accurate to say that I am a person who asked for her story and to whom she then chose to divulge her secrets. I don’t write this on the questionnaire. Instead I write, “We speak regularly on the phone, often for hours each week.”

It was over the phone that Lissa told me she might become a foster parent. The possibility surprised me. She had raised five children, and when the last recently left home, she vacated her three-bedroom apartment in Fargo, where she had been living when I met her, and moved to White Shield, a district on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, where she is from and where many of her relatives still live. The tribe hired her to work at a women’s sober house, where she led addiction recovery meetings and shuttled new residents to detox and treatment. In the evenings, she kept her grandmother company, relieving her own mother of caretaking duties. Lissa is always taking care of someone. “This is the year I do me,” she had said after she moved home, and I hadn’t believed her, until I visited last winter and found her sleeping a rare eight hours a night, eating avocado toast for lunch and dinner, and drinking, instead of coffee, nettle tea.

Then, in March 2020, she received a call from a social worker looking for a home for two boys, twelve and thirteen, whose mother had lost custody. Lissa had met the boys years earlier, in Fargo, while visiting a friend in the apartment building where they lived. The boys were Native, members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. They acted curious about Lissa, peeking into the hallway when she passed by, so Lissa had asked their mother if they could join her on errands. The boys spent a lot of time with her after that, but when Lissa moved away, she lost contact with them. This was the first she had heard of the mother’s request that the state place her sons with Lissa.

“Are you going to say yes?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.”

Some days later, she called again. “My head said no but my heart said yes, and my heart came out of my mouth,” she said.

The boys arrived on the reservation in late August. I met them not long afterward—shy, giggly, one a little more serious than the other. They had been living with a white family until Lissa could take them, during which time the more serious boy had been prescribed antidepressants. Lissa stopped giving him the medication. “Who wouldn’t be depressed going through all that?” she said. “He needs to heal, not numb his pain.”

We spent my visit on her balcony, eavesdropping through the windows of a bedroom where the boys were attending virtual school. The school building was two miles away, and Lissa drove there each morning to pick up breakfast and lunch. In the evenings, she made dinner. I realized I had expected chaos; instead, I found her life uncannily in order. When Lissa asked whether I would answer questions from the state so she could become certified as a foster parent, I agreed without hesitation.

But already I am stuck, on the second question. What is your relationship to the applicant? I have a feeling this is a bullshit exercise and that I should expect no one will read my answer; yet like every bureaucratic formality that may or may not decide someone else’s fate, it is an exercise that must be taken seriously.

I do, and as soon as I answer the question, I notice what I haven’t said: I am white, and Lissa is not. I have no criminal record; Lissa is a felon. I have no children; Lissa has five, all of whom were taken from her and placed in foster care for periods of her life. What I haven’t said, but what I see is implicit in my careful language, in my self-assurance, is that in matters of the state I have power over her, and for the first time, she is asking me to use it.

I tell this to Lissa when she calls one night. I can hear her in the kitchen, the boys washing dishes. I am aware of the emptiness of my own apartment. I say I feel uncomfortable that a state agency has asked me, a white woman who has never been a mother, to judge whether she, a Native woman who has been a mother five times over, is fit to be a mother. “Just say that then,” she says. “If I were you, I would write that in there.”

But already, in answering the third question, I have caught myself in a lie. Describe the relationships within the family. “Lie” is not the right word here, actually. Rather, I have selected some facts while omitting others. “She has five children,” I write. But where Lissa would point out that they all have different fathers, I skip over this and add instead, “all of whom have their own particular relationship with their mother.” I continue, “Some of them are incredibly close, some harbor more resentment, but all of her relationships with her children I’ve witnessed to be deeply loving. She is also close to her mother and grandmother, who live nearby.” Then I run out of space.

“What do you think they’re looking for?” I ask Lissa.

“My guess is that they’re looking for someone to fit into their little corny box of what makes a good parent,” she says.

“And who’s that?”

“Certainly not someone who talks like I do.” I hear Lissa pull away from the phone. “You’re running with a knife?” she says. “Weirdo. Put the knife down.” Then she presses the phone to her face again and resumes our conversation as coolly as any mother I know.

She says that her former addiction counselor also completed a questionnaire on her behalf, and that he assured her he didn’t mention her former drug use. He didn’t think it was “pertinent.” “That says a lot right there,” Lissa tells me. “It says he knows what they’re looking for, and therefore he’s shaping me to fit inside that box.”

Suddenly, I feel guilty for having left out the fact that her children have different fathers. I know this has nothing to do with Lissa being a good mother, but I know also that I left it out because I suspect many people consider having children with five different men shameful, and I know it’s precisely for this reason that Lissa uses every opportunity to mention her kids’ varied origins. She’s honest like that—more honest than I am. Her honesty is political: it has stakes.

Lissa Yellow Bird’s great-great-great-grandmother SteštAhkáta teaches children to make baskets from willow saplings on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, North Dakota, 1923. Photograph by Melvin R. Gilmore (NO8708)

The first woman in Lissa’s lineage deemed unfit for motherhood was her great-great-great-grandmother SteštAhkáta. She was born before the Civil War; before her tribe, the Arikara, were confined to the reservation. In 1882, she gave birth to a son, Elk Tongue, who was compelled by federal agents, against his family’s wishes, to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. He was nineteen then, and placed in a school that held children as young as five. I first learned of SteštAhkáta in the papers of a white ethnologist, Melvin Gilmore, who interviewed her in the 1920s about plants that grew in the Missouri River bottomlands, which she gave to women to induce childbirth and to stanch postpartum bleeding. SteštAhkáta, Gilmore implied, was holy—a keeper of medicine bundles, and the most skilled midwife in her tribe. I don’t know much about her, nor does Lissa, but I have come to think of her as a mother of mothers, willfully delivering women into motherhood even as a government resolved to take their motherhood away.

In 1860, federal agents started separating hundreds of thousands of children from their families and placing them in missionary- or government-run boarding schools. These institutions have lately been in the news, due to the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of children at similar Canadian facilities, known as residential schools. The ethos of the schools is most often attributed to Richard Pratt, a U.S. Army captain and founder of Carlisle who coined the phrase “Kill the Indian in him and save the man,” but the architecture of that ethos was a woman’s handiwork. President McKinley appointed Estelle Reel as the superintendent of federal Indian schools in 1898, and three years later—the same year agents separated Elk Tongue from his mother—Reel published her Uniform Course of Study, a pedagogical guide to “civilizing” children according to European-American doctrine. Perhaps no bureaucrat so effectively institutionalized the racist falsehood that Native Americans are intellectually inferior to whites as Reel. Instead of mathematics, literature, and social studies, her curriculum prioritized homemaking for girls and manual labor for boys. “Industrial training will make . . . the Indian girl more motherly,” Reel said. “This is the kind of girl we want—the one who will exercise the greatest influence in moulding the character of the nation.” Mothering was the only conceivable role in society for a Native woman, and yet motherhood was at odds with indigeneity, Reel suggested. To become a citizen, a woman had to become a mother; to become a mother, she had to become less Indian.

In 1892, members of the Women’s National Indian Association—a humanitarian group composed of white progressive reformers—met to discuss whether it was prudent to send children back to their families even after they finished their education. “Is it necessary that Indian children should be returned to savage homes?” one member asked. In its literature, the association accused Native mothers of being promiscuous, neglectful, and unloving, in contrast to the members’ own “good families.” The consensus was that Native children would be better off absorbed into white households. At Carlisle, instead of spending summers at home, most children were assigned to a family in the local countryside, for whom they worked as servants. Pratt hoped the children would so assimilate into white society that they would in a sense disappear, and many did so quite literally. When Elk Tongue’s family wrote to Pratt requesting his release, Pratt refused. But SteštAhkáta got her son back. After three years at Carlisle, Elk Tongue, by then renamed Clair Everett, returned to the reservation and stayed.

A 1902 letter from Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, denying Strikes Enemy’s request to release his son Elk Tongue (Clair Everett) from the school. Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration

A 1902 letter from Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, denying Strikes Enemy’s request to release his son Elk Tongue (Clair Everett) from the school. Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration. Click to enlarge.

Every subsequent generation of Lissa’s family attended boarding schools. Her grandmother went to a Catholic school on the reservation; her mother spent two years at St. Paul’s Indian Mission in South Dakota before she ran away with a group of other girls. Not until 1978, with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, did Congress grant Native American parents the right to keep their children out of boarding schools, though by then many families had few other choices, with the reservation schools gutted by lack of funding. Meanwhile, the government had devised other means of denying women their motherhood. Though estimates vary widely, researchers discovered that in parts of the country in the mid-1970s, anywhere between 5 and 80 percent of Native women were forcibly or coercively sterilized. And by the late Seventies, up to 35 percent of Native children were in foster care or privately adopted, the majority living with non-Native families.

If you tell a woman she’s a bad mother enough times, she might start to believe you. Guilt and shame, long used to police mothers, are also tools of fascism—and its endgame, a state in which citizens have absorbed and uphold the beliefs used to control them. “Your whole life you hear ‘dirty, drunk, lazy Indian,’ ” Lissa told me once. “You hear that long enough, you’ll start living it.”

When Lissa was born, in 1968, her mother gave her up for adoption. She felt she didn’t have the resources for motherhood. Lissa lived for a few months with a great-uncle and aunt, until her mother changed her mind and demanded Lissa back.

Lissa’s memory of the separation is opaque, but a conscious mind, scientists submit, is not the only part of us that remembers. In the 1990s, the Lakota professor of psychiatry Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart put forth the theory that the depression, addiction, suicide, and abuse she observed in Native communities had their origin in intergenerational trauma, or layers of “historical unresolved grief”—one of those being the separation of children from their parents. Some epigeneticists have since suggested that trauma alters the expression of our genes, and that these altered expressions can pass from our own bodies into our children’s bodies. In other words, a child’s separation from a parent becomes literally embodied.

“You know how people talk about how DNA remembers from previous generations?” Lissa asked me. “I wonder what role that played with me, because I’ve never been a stable person. I could walk out of my life with young kids and everything. I could walk out of my life and not care.”

In 1994, when her own children went to foster care for the first time, Lissa gave them over voluntarily. Her husband was beating her, and she feared that her children would witness it, or that he would turn his anger on them. The decision, she has said, was desperate, and one she came to regret. She had intended for her three children to stay with a nearby family for a couple of months, until she found a place to live, but once she turned them over to the state, getting them back became difficult. This is how her addiction began: with shame. A year later, the state returned her children, and Lissa learned that her son’s foster mother had abused him severely enough to inflict a traumatic brain injury. This is how Lissa’s addiction deepened: with guilt. When the state took her children again after that, at least three other times, it did so against her will.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was supposed to impede efforts to separate Native children from their parents and place them with non-Native caregivers. But changing the system doesn’t fix what it broke. Native children are four times likelier than white children to be placed in foster care. One of several reasons may be that Native women are six times as likely as white women to be sentenced to prison. Is it a coincidence that the boarding school Lissa’s uncles attended is today used as a prison, the same where Lissa served her time?

A few years ago, I was telling an acquaintance—a white liberal woman in her sixties—about Lissa’s family, and she said, “Someone like that should not be having so many children.” The “someone like that” in this case was Lissa’s daughter, Shauna, who I had mentioned had four kids. The comment took me by surprise. I believe I replied that I loved Shauna’s children, that they were brilliant and kind, and that Shauna was a “very good mother.” Only later did I wonder what my acquaintance had meant. Prior to her comment, I had said nothing about Shauna’s qualities as a mother. I had mentioned that Shauna’s mother, Lissa, had been addicted to crack. Did my acquaintance assume Shauna struggled in the way Lissa struggled? Did she think that because Lissa had been, at times, an absent mother, Shauna was fated to be one, too?

I recall this conversation as I answer the fifth question. Describe any challenges you would anticipate if foster children were placed with this family. I have been asked to imagine what could go wrong in a way similar to how my acquaintance imagined what could go wrong. That is, through some alchemy of what I know about Lissa and my own notions of motherhood, I am to see into the future, divine her mistakes, divine the mistakes of the children she will raise, children who inevitably will lay blame on her shoulders.

If you want to know how a mother has failed, ask her daughter, I’ve learned.

When I first met Lissa, she and Shauna were estranged. I spent a year leaving messages for Shauna before she ever called me back. “I thought you were going to make her out to be a perfect hero, and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” she told me. She wanted to talk about her mother’s absences, about the days she spent watching her brothers as her mother got high, about the letters Lissa later wrote thanking Shauna for mothering her own children. She wanted to tell me about the night she witnessed a man beating her mother bloody with a baseball bat, and how relieved she felt years later when Lissa went to prison, because in prison there were fewer ways to die. Shauna had become, she said, a mother to her mother, in that her mother’s addiction reoriented her own life around the purpose of keeping Lissa alive.

I think about this definition of motherhood, of one life keeping another life going, and the idea of becoming a mother sounds at once more terrifying and more possible to me than it has before. More terrifying because the stakes are so high; more possible because, stripped of all its material infrastructure, and its smaller material preoccupations—of organic baby food and preschool waiting lists, of the unobtainable gloss that has come to define motherhood for many women of my generation with means, and which I suspect has only calcified the standards by which we have long judged mothers without means—motherhood is, at its essence, perhaps not much more than loving your children and trying your best to keep them alive.

I wanted to be a mother, eventually. I told this to Shauna. Maybe because we were the same age—twenty-nine then, born five days apart—or maybe because I was trying to balance the emotional scales between us after everything she had told me, Shauna was one of few with whom I shared my anxieties about motherhood.

“What I guess I’m most afraid of,” I told her once, “is becoming a single mother.” I wasn’t single, but for eight years I’d been dating a man who was not sure he wanted children.

“Oh, that part is not the problem,” Shauna said. She was raising her own children alone, and still she had climbed the corporate ladder to a job as an analyst for a bank, which had afforded her a house on a quiet cul-de-sac in one of the best school districts in Minnesota. “Kids remember the time when you’re there, not the time when you’re gone, so you just have to try to be as present as you can when you’re there,” she said.

I did not feel comforted. I couldn’t say where my fear of becoming a single mother came from, but I could guess.

“A child needs two parents,” Clara Savage Littledale said on NBC radio in the 1930s, while the editor of Parents’, one of the first in a line of popular magazines that would suggest that a mother and father were essential components of a family. My own mother read Mothering, which was billed as an alternative to the mainstream, but still she and my father modeled the ideal Littledale put forth.

It was my father who first suggested that my parents have children, and my mother responded by nearly dumping him. Of course, she changed her mind, and after I entered my thirties, she took to telling me that nothing had ever been so meaningful as raising me and my brother. I believed her. Then, while I helped her paint a shed one day, as I told her about a friend’s wedding I would soon attend, she sighed and wondered aloud if I would ever marry and have children. I’d never before felt that I’d failed my mom, but that day I cried for having picked a guy who would neither marry me nor leave me, with whom I felt in limbo between my childhood and an imagined motherhood—a motherhood I was trying not to hang my hopes on, but on which my mother evidently hung her hopes for me. What she said was innocent; she was not the first mother to say it; but afterward I resented her more for this comment than I did my partner for years of not making up his mind. This is what I mean about daughters.

“What kind of mom were you wishing for?” I once asked Shauna.

“Oh, you know,” she said. “The typical sit at home and cook dinner and wash your laundry and iron your clothes and take you to school and show up at conferences. The PTA mom. Whatever they show on TV.” She had wanted the sort of mother society told her she should have, the sort of mother she assumed others had, a mother unlike Lissa.

Then she asked what my own mother was like, and I said, a bit apologetically, that she had never been an addict.

Still, I told Shauna, in some ways Lissa reminded me of my mom. Both fill rooms with their energy. They always have a mission and enlist you toward its end. They wear their pain and still appear stronger than anyone around them. Their anger surprises you, as does their joy. Their kids are the well from which they draw life’s meaning, and yet motherhood has never defined them.

I told Shauna that I had always wanted to be a mother because I hoped to replicate the childhood my parents made for me, but now I knew that women also became mothers to create childhoods they never had. I was conditioned to be the kind of mother who lived in answer to her own nostalgia, who padded her children against the world, and yet the part of motherhood I found myself craving was the part that remains when it is stripped to the raw, to love, joy, and survival, to making mistakes and forgiving them.

I made a decision, and my partner left in October, six days before the questionnaire arrived. Three weeks have passed since then, and I notice I am mothering myself. Now, I say, you will wash the dishes. Now you will fold your clothes. I have never liked the internet, but I find I am scrolling endlessly and then punishing myself by deleting apps from my phone. Tonight, I say, you will go to bed before midnight, and tomorrow night, by eleven. I am struggling to find a balance of tone between do as I say and gentle forgiveness, or perhaps pity, for myself. Friends and family call to comfort me, and I let them. Lissa texts me TikTok videos, some serious—women talking about leaving their relationships—and others silly, like one of a hula-hoop dancer named Sammy Sunshyne who struts through her suburban neighborhood in a silver-fringed cape. The gratitude I feel toward Lissa for these videos is overwhelming. I am reminded of a night two summers ago when I ran out of gas on a remote highway in North Dakota and called roadside assistance, but it never came. So I called Lissa, who fished a jerrican out of her garage and drove two hours to rescue me.

What is the word for a person not your mother whom you trust as much as your own mother? Lissa would say the word is still “mother.”

In the Yellow Bird family, the words “mother,” “uncle,” “brother,” “grandma” have less to do with a person’s place in your ancestral tree than with their lived relationship to you. Lissa refers to the uncle who helped raise her as “dad,” while the one who cared for her children while she was in prison is called, by her sons, “grandpa.”

I am trying to describe this structure, common in many Native families I know, in answer to the question How do you see a foster child fitting into this family? I have mentioned that her mother and grandmother live nearby—across a wheat field from Lissa’s apartment, so close that when I last visited, Lissa had procured a pair of binoculars to spy on her mother as they each drank their coffee on their porches. I write, truthfully, that I imagine the boys will be Lissa’s “primary focus for the next many years, although she will continue to work and so will likely rely on her network of extended relatives to help raise the boys.” It occurs to me as I write this that in the Yellow Bird family, the antidote to intergenerational trauma—to being near the end of a lineage of mothers denied motherhood—is intergenerational love, a piling on of relatives. Lissa was raised not only by her mother, but also by her uncles, her grandfather, and her great-grandmother. Shauna was raised also by her grandmother and great-grandmother, who live in the house across the wheat field, and whom Lissa, when she’s not spying on them, helps care for. They all believe in a certain fundamental circularity, I’ve learned: You keep your child alive, and one day your child will keep you alive. They also believe that when a mother falls short, the solution is not to take the child away from the mother, but to give the child more mothers and fathers.

I suspect Lissa sees her role as a foster mother differently from the social workers who might read my answers to these questions. Perhaps to the social workers, Lissa is a replacement mother; but in Lissa’s mind, she is like any relative whose turn has come to take the boys. I wonder if their mother understood this, that in asking Lissa to become a new parent to the boys—by choosing a caregiver before the social workers chose for her—she had a lesser chance of losing her sons entirely.

I am reminded of an article I read about a Diné woman who lost custody of her daughter when a court ruled that the protections afforded her by the Indian Child Welfare Act only applied within the bounds of her reservation, which she had left to move to Texas. Losing her child was the result of a “choice” she had made, a judge said. The majority of Native Americans live off-reservation, thanks largely to federal policies. I think how absurd it is for a court—a court of the same government that designed the diaspora that cleaved so many from their homes—to use the movements of a woman on her original land to cleave her from her child.

How easily choice slips into lack of choice. Years ago, as Lissa’s husband was abusing her, she chose to put her children in foster care. And so, was it her choice when the social workers refused to return her kids when she asked for them back? Was it her choice when a foster mother abused her son, giving him the brain injury, or when a foster father molested her daughter? Was it her choice when, after giving up her children to families who hurt them, she smoked crack to dull her shame and guilt?

Lissa sends me another TikTok video one night as I’m still laboring over the questionnaire. The video is of a man reading aloud a definition from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, in which the writer John Koenig has invented words to fill holes in our emotional lexicon. The word is sonder: “The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Lissa is moved by the word. She wants me to “fit that in somewhere” in my next writing project, she says. I am moved by the word, too, and by our shared appreciation of it, but when I try to put the word in this essay, all I can think of is its antonym, which, if it exists, might describe the failure to realize the vividness and complexity of a woman’s grief upon losing her children.

Elk Tongue’s figurine. Photograph by NMAI Photo Services (13/2836). Both images courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution

Elk Tongue’s figurine. Photograph by NMAI Photo Services (13/2836). Both images courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution

I finish the questionnaire in early November. When I call Lissa, it’s the birthday of one of the boys, and she’s icing a cake. His name is Frankie, but she didn’t space the words out right, so the cake reads happy birthday frudie.

“What kind of mother do you think I’ll be?” I ask.

“Honestly?” she says. I sense she can’t believe I’ve asked this question. “I mean, how would I even gauge it? I’ve never seen you care for a child. I’ve never seen you care for an elder. I’ve never even seen you change a diaper. I would have to think about that one. Seriously. I mean, I can say you’re a good person. Do I think you’d be a good mom? Of course I do. But it would all be gut feeling. Considering the space they leave you on that form, I guess I would write just the answers they’re looking for. She’s an awesome person. I’ve never seen her violent. But who determines what answers are correct? Is there a board? Is it one person? Or does this paper just get pushed through by whatever social worker opens the mail? You know, maybe I’d write, Her chances are good, because she’s white. But as far as nurturing, I haven’t seen you with your family. I’ve seen you with your ex-boyfriend, but he’s not around no more.”

Lissa is right. The only thing she’s seen me take care of is her story. I’ve learned this from her too: sometimes we concern ourselves with other peoples’ lives in order to escape our own.

One night in February, I call but she doesn’t answer. She returns my call a few days later, crying. I’ve heard her cry only twice, and it scares me. She was in jail—pulled over for speeding, a routine stop, but the officer, she says, searched her car. According to Lissa, she dug some marijuana out of her pocket, and he arrested her. At the jail, she was forced to take off her clothes in front of a guard, who, Lissa says, searched her vagina for drugs, and she was made to walk in her underwear past the other inmates. She was held for three nights, until the complaint against her was dismissed.

She tells me that during the search, she tried to separate her mind from her body the way she had as a younger woman, but it had been so long since another person entered her against her will that she had forgotten how. She felt the violation fully. Still, the hardest part came afterward, when she was put in a cell with other women, all Native. “You know what those girls told me in jail?” she says. “They told me, ‘Why are you complaining? This is normal.’ ”

Lissa is crying harder now. “Do I sound crazy?” she says over and over, and I reply that she sounds traumatized. “I don’t know how to explain what I’m going through. Honest to God. It’s so fucking fucked up how much of this torture our people go through. I think I’m having a meltdown. What if I can’t take it no more? I think about you, you’re so young—”

I am in my apartment, panicking. Was Lissa saying she was going to hurt herself? I think of the boys asleep in another room. I think of a Natalie Diaz poem: “When we are dying, who should we call? / The police? Or our senator? / Please, someone, call my mother.”

I put Lissa on speakerphone and text her mom. Then I text two of her sons, one of her daughters, a cousin she calls “nephew,” and an uncle she calls “brother.”

“I should go,” she says.

“No,” I say. “Stay with me a little longer.”

She tells me she had believed the book I wrote would inoculate her against the trauma of her past, but in jail, among the women, she saw she was the same body—the same history encapsulated in a body. The book had not mattered. Then she tells me to “write this down.” I am confused, but I go to my computer and type loudly so she can hear, and it occurs to me that it was never the idea of her story being read but the sound of someone listening that soothed her.

I had left one question until the end: Are you aware of any violent behavior in this family? If the social workers were to read my book, they would learn that when Lissa was facing fifteen years in prison, she bought a gun. Fearing what would happen if her sons returned to foster care, she had planned to kill them and herself, but Shauna stopped her.

“Lissa is not violent,” I finally wrote on the questionnaire. “She has been the victim of incredible violence and has no patience for it in her home. When her own children were in foster care, her daughter was sexually abused and her son was beaten. Lissa is keenly aware of the abuses common within the system, and I know she has chosen to become a foster parent in part because she has no doubt she can create a safe and loving home, unlike the one her own children received.” Elsewhere on the questionnaire I wrote, “Lissa has the deepest well of empathy of anyone I’ve met. The greatest gift she can give these boys is to help them not be ashamed of who they are and where they come from, and to demonstrate how one heals.”

When I finished, I folded the questionnaire in thirds and slipped it inside a return envelope. Then I pulled on my boots and walked out to the mailbox, thinking, still, of what I hadn’t written.

I thought of a night in her apartment when her teenage sons mimed for me the ways their mother drove them crazy, and Lissa and I laughed so hard we cried, and she told me she hated teenagers, then tackled her youngest to the living room floor and smothered him with kisses.

I thought of an evening two springs ago in Minneapolis, sitting with Shauna on her couch, Lissa wedged between us. Shauna’s son took a photo of the three of us there, Lissa’s head thrown back in giddy laughter, Shauna grinning as she pressed against her mother’s side.

I thought of a photo Lissa sent me recently. She took it before one of her sons left for basic training, two weeks before the foster boys arrived. Her son was standing in the doorway of her bedroom balcony, his back to her as he looked across the wheat field. When Lissa took the photo, she had been lying on her bed watching him, and he had been telling her his dreams.

I can’t say what makes a good mother, but I know what we keep each other alive for.

I stood in the street, watching the day slip off a mountain across the river, before I drew back into the warm, dim light of my apartment.