Unfit Mother's Choice by Nilsa Rivera

When I was 16 years old, I didn’t want to hold my newborn baby. Instead of grabbing Kervin when the nurse handed him to me, I grabbed the white sheets that covered the hospital bed. I rolled a fistful of the blanket into my hands, pulled it under my thighs and held my hands in place. Kervin was born with jaundice three days prior and had been kept under phototherapy. During the first three days of his life, I only saw him for a few moments for feedings before a nurse would take him back to his “bili-lights” crib. I had also developed an infection that would keep our visits short.

It wasn’t until the hospital was ready to discharge us that the realization that I would be solely responsible for the baby really hit me. My discharge papers were already signed and next to me on the bed. Everything was ready for our release, except me.

The confused nurse shifted on her feet. She had wrapped Kervin in a white blanket with pink and blue stripes. The hospital-issued blanket reminded me of all the baby items I didn't have. I didn’t have a crib, diapers, or other items I thought were important. One of my friends had a one-year-old baby girl. She had given me her daughter’s old stroller, a bassinet, and a few unisex baby outfits. I was glad that I had also managed to buy his first baby outfit for fifty cents at Salvation Army. I even bought a dark blue baby bag for a dollar. I glanced around the room. It was just me, the nurse, and the baby. The nurse's brown eyes squared on me, “Get him. Look how beautiful he is.”

The top part of his head appeared nestled in his blanket. She extended her arms towards me for the second time. I could feel my head shake as my whole body resisted his charm. His white pinkish skin looked so soft. The black hair covered his head and ended right on his forehead. He opened his sleepy gray eyes for a few seconds before settling to sleep into the nurse’s arms and putting his tiny fist into his mouth. His button-nose wrinkled as he suckled his hand. He looked so small and fragile I thought he would break. I thought I would damage him.

I knew a mother can screw up a child’s life. My own mother was young when she had me, and she never seemed ready for a child. Her friends, parties, and alcoholic lifestyle took precedence over me. I wondered if I would neglect him as she did with me. I balled up the sheet, reassuring my hands were pinched under my thighs. I fought against the urge to hold him.

The moment took me back to my ten-year-old self when I sat in my room plotting my first suicide attempt. Earlier that night, I stood in my grandmother’s room as she looked through the sky-blue luggage where she kept all her important papers. She slowly pulled each document from the luggage and read it. I ran my fingers over the suitcase’s hinges. They were hard and cold compared to my grandmother’s bed, which was soft and warm. I glanced over the pile of the documents. She kept them wrapped in plastic shopping bags and ziploc bags. I could see my grandparents’ names and my mom’s name printed on envelopes or documents. I even saw some of my school’s certificates for perfect attendance and one for most improved student.

Under one of the stacks, I saw a picture of my mother holding my sister. I grabbed it and studied it. My five-year-old sister Maria and my three-year-old sister Elizabeth had been living with my mother in Miami while my grandmother and I lived in Puerto Rico. But about six months earlier, the Department of Children and Families had threatened to take my them away from my mother because she had left them alone while she went to a bar with some of her friends. To avoid my sisters going to foster care, my mother had asked that my aunt and my uncle each take one of my sisters under their care. I had been elated because my aunt and uncle both lived in Puerto Rico. As a result, I had been spending every day after school with my sisters. After studying the photo, I walked around the bed, climbed up beside my grandmother, and on my knees glared at the documents which held her focus.

“What you looking for, Mami?” I asked.

“Your sisters are going back to live with your mom,” she finally said. “I got to find that paper that your mom signed giving temporary custody to your aunt.”

Something crashed within me. “No! Why?” I whined and my eyes welled with tears. “Can I go with them? I want to move in with my mom.”

My grandmother’s face shifted in an angered expression. “Stop all that whining.”

My stomach flipped with guilt. “Sorry Mami.” I looked down and noticed my fingers were pressing the picture too hard. I didn’t want to break the picture. I didn’t want Mami to feel bad. “I just wish that I could live with my sisters. It’s so fun to be around them. I’m always alone and ….”

“That’s never going to happen.” Grandma’s face held a firm, non-negotiable expression. “The court gave me permanent custody of you, not like with your sisters.”

“Why?” I didn’t understand why my sisters could go back, but I couldn’t.

“The court made that decision when you were born. We can’t change that. You see. Look.” She pulled a manila envelope from under a stack of documents and took out out a beige paper with official letterhead and seal. The document had brown stains around its edge and grooves from where it had been folded before. “It was the best thing for you.”

My grandfather, who stood by the bedroom’s door, walked into the room. “But now your mother’s being stubborn. She should just let your sisters stay here with your aunt. Your uncle too. But no!” His voice started escalating.

“Flor, please.” My grandmother put the document on top of all the papers and took a few steps toward my grandfather. “Ya, leave it like that. They’re her kids. She wants them back. We gotta do it.”

I pulled the custody document towards me as soon as my grandmother turned her back. My mom’s name, my grandmother’s name, and my name were all printed on the paper with a date: June 22, 1977; it was from the year I was born. I was hoping I could take it to my room and look at it. Maybe it had the reason why my custody was different than my sisters. I glanced back to see if my grandmother saw me take the paper.

She was looking right at me. “Give me that,” my grandmother said as she grabbed the paper and put it back into the manila envelope. “Your mom was too young. She’s deaf and she couldn’t hear you cry. She couldn’t take care of you.”

From the other side of the room, my grandfather said, “Tell her the truth. It’s all the parties and drinking. She needs to stop and take care of her damn children.”

At that age, I thought I had two bodies within me – my physical body made of bones and skin, and an invisible body that moved within me like air. The invisible body within me always felt sad and heavy. That day, my invisible body fell to the ground; I couldn’t bring the air back into my physical body. My mind spun in circles. She was still deaf. How could she hear my sisters? Why were my sisters easier to take care than me? Maybe it was me that was difficult. Maybe I cried too much when I was a baby. But didn’t my sisters ever cry? Why did my mom fight for them and not me?

The more the questions circled around my mind, the more worthless I felt. I jumped off the bed and stomped toward my room. My grandmother and grandfather kept arguing in their room. On my way to my room, I stopped at the bathroom. I wanted to see my face in the mirror. I wondered if the mirror could answer any of my questions like it did for the Evil Queen in “Snow White.” My tears flowed. I hated my face, the way I looked so similar to my mother, who didn’t want me but wanted my sisters.

My grandmother’s diabetes and heart medicine pills were on the sink next to her blue plastic container where she kept her fake teeth. Every night, she would take them out before she washed her mouth for bed.

I filled her cup with water. As I was drinking, my eyes traveled towards the pills. I took the two bottles and walked to my room. I sat on my bed, legs crossed. I was obsessing over the date on my custody papers. I needed to know exactly how old I was when my mother gave up on me. Was I three days old, three weeks, or three months? I struggled, but finally managed to open the bottles took every pill. Lucky for me, there weren’t many. My grandparents found me in my room not long after that. They took me to the emergency room, and my stomach was pumped.

Back at the hospital six years later, I knew I had been exactly three months, two weeks, and four days old when the court decided my mother was unfit. I glanced around the room again, wishing my grandmother was there. No one was there to rescue the baby from me.

The nurse got closer. “Are you getting him or are you considering other options?”

A wave of fear burst through my chest and ran down my body. I bit my lower lip, something I did when I was nervous, and glanced at the floor. “Other options” meant adoption. I analyzed the outcomes. If I gave him up for adoption, he might hate me for abandoning him. If I kept him, he could hate me for being a neglectful, unfit mother.

I also didn’t know how to raise a boy and make him a good man. I didn’t even know what a good man was. I didn’t want my son to turn out like my dad, grandfather, or boyfriend. I had only seen my father twice and the last time, less than two years before, he’d informed me that I couldn’t be part of his life because he didn’t have the means to support me. My grandfather had been abusive  against my grandmother for years. My boyfriend was on drugs and abusive to me. I never had even met a good man. What did it mean to be a good man anyway? I thought the qualities of a good man were: that he had a job, didn’t beat on women, and didn’t do drugs. But how could I teach him all that?

The baby was now squirming in the nurse’s arms, impatient with my indecision too. I glanced at the nurse and started to relax. My arms opened, prompted by an unconscious emotion seated deep within me to embrace my baby. The nurse rested him into my half-opened arms. I secured him against me. His body was so soft I couldn’t decide whether to hold him tighter so he wouldn’t fall or to hold him loosely so I wouldn’t break his bones. His formula and baby-powder smell seduced me into keeping him close to my chest. I felt he could almost melt back into my body. Could I ruin his life by touching him? I asked myself.

I questioned the nurse’s decision to give me my baby. My grandmother had passed two years before. I didn’t have a place to live, so I moved in with my mother for the first time in my life. Our relationship was too damaged.  It didn’t take long for me to find a way out of her home – six months, to be exact. So at the time I had my son, I lived with my nineteen-year-old boyfriend who beat me up almost every week. I still had bruises from the previous beating. I didn’t have a job. I had dropped out of high school after my boyfriend got jealous and asked me not to go to school anymore. I didn’t know how to hold a baby, how to feed him, or what to do if he cried. I tried to hand him back. “I don’t know what to do with him.”

The nurse didn’t take him back. She gave me instructions. I memorized them: how to bathe him, change his diapers, and how many times to feed him. She told me how to prepare the formula.

“Will someone pick you up?”

I shook my head and grimaced.

“Are you walking home?” Her concern traveled through her face and eyes.

“Taking the bus.” Then we put the baby in the stroller, securing him tightly. As I pushed him from the room, I glanced back, wondering if I could take the nurse with me too. Then the unit’s doors closed behind me.

As I moved through the hospital people walked to and fro between the elevator and lobby area. Once I reached outside, I felt Miami’s July heat and humidity engulf us. Pushing the stroller toward the bus stop, I noticed the asphalt on the road had a reflective surface, creating the illusion of a water puddle. I didn’t want to fall, as my abdomen was still hurting from the Cesarean. Before crossing the road, I stopped to check if Kervin was okay. He looked peaceful, warm.

Even though my boyfriend had a job, he had been adamant about me not having the baby. He wanted me to have an abortion, but regardless of my lifestyle, I was raised to believe abortion was murder, so that had been the one choice my boyfriend had not been able to take from me. I fought to keep the baby, and our deal was that it would be my “responsibility to take care of it because [he] was already taking care of me and that was a lot.” The truth was, even if he did pay the rent and bought groceries, most of his money was spent on beer and drugs.

I panicked and stopped a few feet away from the bus stop. Time stopped around me, too, while panic rampaged my mind. How was I going to feed the baby? Did I need to learn how to breastfeed because I didn’t have money for formula, diapers, and baby clothes? What did I need to do for him to not get sick?

That afternoon, I sat on the sofa in the living room of my boyfriend’s one bedroom apartment. My boyfriend was at work. The baby slept in the white bassinet next to me. I held the bottle the nurse told me to prepare with two scoops of Similac powder and four ounces of water. I was supposed to feed him every three hours. I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was two hours and thirty minutes after I left the hospital. Two hours and thirty minutes since the baby ate. The drops of milk on my wrist didn’t burn me, so I figured the formula was ready.

At the three hours mark, I expected the baby to cry. He didn’t. He slept so calmly; it rattled my peace. Was he okay? I wondered. I didn’t want to think about the possibility of the baby not waking up.

I waited for ten more minutes. The baby still didn’t move. I placed the tips of two of my fingers on his chest. My heart was drumming and ready to run off. The baby’s breathing was soft and steady like the soft whispers of a lonely night. I slipped my hand under his back and felt his warmth seeped through my skin, radiating into my body. His peaceful energy filled me with a new life source, an unfamiliar strength. He curled his body as I picked him up and embraced him. His mouth turned into an opened circle to receive, from me, his prepared milk. I fed him and made the choice to never let him go.

When my boyfriend arrived from work, he glanced over to me and the baby. As if by instinct, I half-smiled and raised the baby a bit to encourage him to grab the little one.

He grimaced and walked past us. “Did you cook?” he asked.

Deflated, I nodded, even if he couldn’t see me, and put the baby in the bassinet to serve my boyfriend a plate of yellow rice with pink beans, fried plantains, and steak. After all he was my boyfriend, I loved him, and he took care of me.

Six months later, our relationship would end when I walked into our bedroom and found him spanking the baby. We fought as usual, but I left his house the next morning and never returned. That decision marked the beginning of four years of homelessness. My son and I couchsurfed between friends’ homes but mostly lived in motels.

Too soon it appeared to me, my baby started school. While from a young age, Kervin showed kindness toward others, it was during his first year of school that I noticed his love for people. He quickly made friends and took on a protector persona, protecting bullied friends.

At school dismissal each day, the elementary’s courtyard was separated in group of teachers standing in front of their designated group of students who sat on the ground waiting for their parents. I spotted my son among his peers. His blue jacket and black bookbag swung about as he ran in circles around his friends. As I approached my son and grabbed his hand, his teacher walked toward us and waved me to stop. At first I wanted to wave back and walk away because my son was hyperactive and I thought she would complain about his behavior again. She had been complaining about his inability to sit down during class for weeks. I smiled and gave her a hesitant hello.

“Something happened today.” She bent forward to my son’s height. “Kervin defended Joshua, right?”

My son nodded and his gaze fixed on me. His original gray eyes had turned brown. I bit my lip wondering if he had gotten into a fight. She smiled as if she was reassuring me. “Kervin saw another boy hitting Joshua with a notebook. We were on our way to the cafeteria. The boys were at the end of the line. Kervin’s my little helper in class now, right?” She glanced at him and he nodded proud of his new assignment. The teacher had assigned him the task of her little helper because it was supposed to redirect his energy.

The teacher continued. “He ran to me and told me about it. I was gathering all the children so he had to wait until I got everyone out of the class.”

Again she looked at Kervin. “That took some patience. We spoke with the boy’s parents,” she said returning her gaze to me. “He even went to the bathroom with him so Joshua could calm down.” My chest filled with pride. I grabbed his shoulder and pulled him near me. “Come here. I’m so proud of you, baby.” He smiled the biggest smile I had yet seen and I hugged him as tight as I could. As we walked away toward our home, my arm still around his shoulder, I thought, this must be what a good man looks like when he’s still just a little boy.

Nilsa Rivera writes about diversity issues, gender issues, and the effects of socio-economic disadvantage in women’s lives. Nilsa’s work appeared in the Huffington Post, 50 GS Magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and The Selkie Literary Magazine. It’s also been featured at Miami Book Fair’s LipService True Stories out Loud Miami, the Writing Class Radio podcast, and at the “Muses and Music” multidisciplinary event of the Cream Literary Alliance. She lives in Miami, Florida with her husband, teenage son, three dogs, and her cat Lunafreya.

Issue Contents

Issue 15

From the Editor

Two planes

Our feet hovered above water as they dangled from the decrepit pier bruised by a hurricane from nature’s last season of wrath. I wouldn’t feel the sun’s angry impression on my skin for hours, but its intensity would keep me awake for several nights, eventually removing a layer of my epidermis, leaving my skin patterned like a doily.

Before the burn, there was this moment of beauty on the pier’s edge, my husband’s body at my side, his leg pressing into mine, my hand in his. Morning had been spent skimming...

[Continue reading...]


Unfit Mother's Choice

When I was 16 years old, I didn’t want to hold my newborn baby. Instead of grabbing Kervin when the nurse...

Understanding Moonseed

This was truly my mother’s last journey. It started in the morning with her urn placed deep into my backpack. On top...

Green Pudding

The spider jolted up and down like a yo-yo, industriously filling in a gap in the bush by the steps. Two large pine trees...


I tapped my foot nervously on the pavement, feeling the weight of the soccer ball against my instep. It was the only...

Behind the Fiction

I type my name underneath his, then backspace it all. I stare at the blinking cursor, at the 421-page manuscript, at the...


"Mom, can we write a letter to Santa?" Finn, my eight-year-old, asked on Tuesday night, walking over to me at the kitchen...