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The things you cannot do with a baby

My friend’s new daughter brings back memories of the one she tried to keep when we were teens.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

“HI! SHE’S BEING REALLY FUSSY. Do you want to get in the back with her?”

Marta speaks quickly, checking her mirrors to make sure she is out of the way of the airport traffic. It is my first visit since Adelaide was born seven weeks earlier.

When Marta called to tell me she was pregnant, her husband had just begun his second year of law school and they’d recently bought a house. She had quit her job and her prospects were unimpressive, but Marta was euphoric. She has always been emotional, wild, the kind of girl to whom people flock when she is happy but who is inconsolable when she is depressed, which happens periodically, at seemingly random times. I’ve worried about her for the past nine months.


I place my suitcase in the trunk on top of a stroller and see Marta’s blond curls shoot out the driver’s side window. “Welcome!” she yells. Adelaide, chubby arms poking out of a tiny yellow onesie, looks up at me as I climb into the back seat beside her, and we both begin to cry.

Ten years earlier, the scene had been different.

“I’m keeping her,” Marta had whispered as I leaned over, touching the baby’s head. I looked around the room at Marta’s parents and the couple with whom she’d been corresponding for six months. They’d driven all night from another state. Now they sat in the corner, the wife crying.

“I should probably wait in the hallway, huh?”

Shifting so that the baby’s head rested in the crook of her elbow, Marta put a hand on my wrist. “No,” she said, “stay in here.”

We were 19, and baby Lalaina was 5 hours old.

For the next few days, Marta was confined to the hospital bed, enduring a parade of family friends who cooed over the baby for 30 seconds and then spent an hour listing all of the reasons Marta had to give her away.


The adoptive parents were allowed to come and go. Periodically they approached Marta’s bed, speaking with the hysteria one would expect. “The nursery is all ready,” they said, pleading.

In the end, it was the drive home from the hospital that changed Marta’s mind. “I was in the back seat of my parents’ minivan,” Marta later told me, “and I looked at myself — my ripped jeans, my Chuck Taylors — and then I looked at the baby, and I just thought, ‘Huh. Maybe I’m not the best person to be raising her.’ ”

The birth certificate was changed, and Lalaina got a new name. Standing in her parents’ living room as Lalaina’s new mom and dad packed their car, Marta said quietly, “I want to go before they do.” So we left and sat for hours on the wooden steps in front of my parents’ house. For a long time we didn’t say anything, and then we got up to walk around all night, to smoke cigarettes, to do the things you cannot do with a baby.

Marta and I sit on her couch drinking coffee, passing Adelaide back and forth for hours in our pajamas, gawking at her, laughing at her expressions, lulling her to sleep.

I remember Marta stoned in a treehouse. Screaming on a street. Wide-eyed and defeated on those wooden steps. Like a letter too large for its envelope, crumpled and strange, the images don’t fit with this moment. The leftover anger, the gasping for breath in opposition to this cooing, this softness about my old friend, the pretty rugs and painted walls of her home. Her face is flush with natural color, and it’s like watching a redemption.


Jessica McCaughey is a writer and teacher in Washington, D.C. Send comments to

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