Books

Sarah Sentilles
Stranger Care

Like many before her, Sarah Sentilles had no idea that whole regions of her heart lay dormant until she had a baby. These emotions come in hard and fast and change you physically. It’s like the letting down of mother’s milk.

But there is a wrinkle in Sarah’s story, one she begins to tell via a scholar’s scrupulous marshalling of detail, and unravels in gusts of instinctive maternal ferocity: she is not her child’s biological mother. And as a foster parent, her rights and those of her husband are secondary to the “biomother” of their ward.

Stranger Care is the story of what happens when the unassuageable love of parents meets blind bureaucracy and the incontestable claims of blood. It is also an account of one couple’s ordinary heartbreak that expands outward, testing our assumptions of what kinship may consist of, asking what love we owe those beyond the usual parameters of family.

The book begins as memoir and with a primal urge: the desire, discovered and belatedly yielded to by Sentilles, to become a mother. Those who have read Sentilles’ earlier work will know her as a woman of keen intellect and earnest activist bent. Here we learn that her academic husband, Eric, is the kind to tend hypothermic birds in winter or build backyard shelters for ants as protection from summer sun.

But where Sentilles’ love has selfishly narrowed to a biological singular, an imagined child, Eric, applying utilitarian calculus to issues of overpopulation and climate change, can neither appreciate nor support her urges. So, the early chapters of Stranger Care describe a domestic bifurcation. Eric stands his ground and gets a vasectomy; Sarah’s need for a child hardens into necessity. The saving compromise they reach is to foster.

The disquieting sense of commodification the couple perceives in paid adoption services leads them to decide on fostering. The risk, of course, is that the child they take on will ultimately be reunited with its biological family – reunification, understandably, is the mantra of America’s foster care system, but many parents are irredeemably broken by poverty and addiction and those who foster are often able to adopt the child in their care. Sarah and Eric believe this is a risk they are willing to take.

Sentilles’ account of the preparations she and Eric are obliged to make, whether bureaucratic, logistical or emotional, combines banality and anxious anticipation. The couple have no notion of when or by whom they will be called upon to offer care. And when the calls from authorities do come, they are for children too old, or too damaged, or for sibling groups. Saying no to them feels like a series of betrayals before responsibility has even begun.

Then there is a baby named Coco, a stranger who feels familiar when Sentilles gathers her up: “I’d never held a baby so small. Coco weighed less than five pounds, her legs and arms like sticks, her body thin … She was dressed in a pink onesie with the words BEST LITTLE SISTER stretched across its front.”

The author writes beautifully of the existential sideswiping she and Eric suffer as a result of Coco’s arrival, the dislocation that comes from sleep deprivation and the pleasures and terrors that come from physical intimacy with a creature so vulnerable. The centre of their domestic universe has suddenly and definitively shifted. They are wholly unprepared for the onrush of feeling they discover for this new life in their care.

Throughout all this a stray comment made by a social worker about Coco’s biological mother, Evelyn – that she has a “poor prognosis” for retaining her child in the future – lodges deep. For the following months, Sarah and Eric dedicate themselves to the care of a stranger, daring to hope that she would always be with them.

And here lies the small fracture in the golden bowl, the insoluble moral equation that cracks the narrative in unexpected ways. Sarah turns out to be a good mother, Eric a doting father. They are also white, middle class, educated, healthy – operating with the assistance of support networks of family and friends, and imbricated in a social regime dedicated to helping people like them maintain and replicate this privilege across generations.

That the author is aware of this good fortune, is self-critical and devoted to helping others, does not alter the fact that her domestic felicity is won at the expense of a woman who shared few of her advantages. Evelyn has other children: they, too, have been taken into care. Coco’s father is violent and controlling. Both of them are intermittent addicts. Evelyn’s visits with Coco are limited and surveilled. She is regarded as a flight risk.

But as Evelyn meets goal after goal set by the court that oversees such matters, the prospect of her being reunited with Coco becomes more likely. Sentilles, a woman who left the church but retains an exacting ethical outlook, is torn to the point of breakdown. Finally, during a tearful phone call, a therapist lays out the terms regarding Evelyn and Coco:

“You have to take the high road,” she tells the author, “or you will perish.

“You need to radically shift your thinking. You need to stop rooting against her and start cheering for her, for this human who has suffered so much. Then, if she makes it, if she gets her child back, you will walk away clean. Will you be sad? Yes, but you won’t be sad and mean.”

Stranger Care does not resolve this impossible position – the story of Coco and her family remains open and unresolved – but it does articulate, with intelligence and wrenching honesty, the complex balancing act Sarah and Eric are obliged to perform.

If the book confirms one thing, it is the truth of the words Sentilles quotes from an essay by Elizabeth Freeman:

“Kinship is something you do. It is a practice. It is all the possible ways one human’s body can be vulnerable to and dependent on that of another. It is all the possible resources one body can gather to take care of another.”

Geordie Williamson

Text, 432pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Stranger Care, Sarah Sentilles".

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Reviewer: Geordie Williamson