THE PARENT: Shahidah Kalam Id-Din, 51, of Delaware County
THE CHILD: Ammara Halimatou, 17 months; adopted Dec. 20, 2021
AN EARLY EXPOSURE TO ADOPTION: As a child, Shahidah read — and practically memorized — Anne of Green Gables, the story of a couple who attempt to adopt a little boy and instead get red-haired, hot-tempered Anne Shirley.
There were 10 children, dozens of books, and just one television — in their parents’ bedroom — in the Germantown house where Shahidah grew up. She was sibling number four, the second daughter, and she remembers teaching her younger brothers and sisters to read, playing school in the room they called “the library” with milk-and-cookie snacks.
Shahidah thought she might want to be a psychiatrist, but the idea of experiments on animals repulsed her; while in college, she began to work for a writing program that served public school students in West Philadelphia.
That put her on the path to teaching: graduate school at Harvard, stints at an Islamic school and at George Mason University before returning to Philadelphia and, 10 years ago, to a post in the upper school at William Penn Charter.
“I knew that educating children was the center for me,” she says. “I saw the difference you can make through education.”
Shahidah had grown up with an expansive notion of family; in addition to their 10 biological children, her parents informally adopted others, including a friend of Shahidah’s who had run away from home. “My parents said, ‘Whatever we have, we can share.’ I grew up with that sense that children are to be taken care of and protected.” She thought about fostering or adopting, but her mother’s death in 1999 spurred a desire to become pregnant.
Despite two marriages and a range of interventions, including donor insemination and IVF, Shahidah became pregnant only once, during her second marriage; she miscarried at six weeks.
The reproductive ordeal was grueling, physically and emotionally. “It’s so hard — taking injections, the feeling that your body has betrayed you, that it’s not cooperating with you. It was really painful because, also, I was constantly being invited to other people’s baby showers, or being asked to be a godmother.”
Shahidah had always been a person who fixed her sights on a goal and pursued it doggedly. But after her second marriage ended, she experienced a moment of reckoning. “I thought: Biologically, this doesn’t make sense. I had to walk away from that particular goal.”
Friends encouraged her to consider adopting on her own. “I had to do some real searching: Yes, this is what I want,” Shahidah recalls. She decided to become a foster parent.
The first baby, just a few weeks old, had already lived in three different foster homes. Shahidah hoped to adopt her, but the infant’s aunt said she wanted to raise the child. “She’d come over and visit. She’d say, ‘You’ve done such a great job.’ The baby I gave back to her was healthy and happy.”
That experience gave Shahidah empathy for all the adults in a baby’s orbit, including the birth parents who had lost children to the foster care system. It also left her with a sense of her own value in that system, even when her role was to support reunification of a child with their birth family.
“I thought: I’m doing something worthy. That’s parenting. You want to give someone to the world who’s going to grow and do good.”
She has another foster child now, a toddler who came to her at two weeks old. The infant was exposed to drugs in utero and slept fitfully for the first nine months. She needed weekly medical appointments: a cardiologist, an endocrinologist, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.
Shahidah has established a relationship with the child’s birth parents; no matter what happens in the future, she sees herself as an essential, enduring member of the child’s family. “There’s something to being a mom that is beyond any legal status or biology. I understand that now.”
And then came Ammara. Shahidah had been working with Open Arms Adoption Network for more than a year; in August 2020, she got a call about a woman who had given birth and wanted her daughter to be raised Muslim.
“They said, by Friday at midnight, if [the birth mother] doesn’t change her mind, this is a go. You’ll have to pick up the baby the next day.” Shahidah’s cousin drove with her to an interim foster home near Hatboro. And when she spied Ammara for the first time, “I just started crying and laughing. I feel like she recognized me.”
Later, Shahidah had a video call with the infant’s mother and grandmother. In contrast to some past experiences, including one adoption agency that rejected Shahidah’s inquiry because “most birth parents want Christian families,” it was a relief to have her Muslim identity welcomed and embraced.
At first, Shahidah’s foster daughter was jealous, shaking her head “no” at the baby.
“I’d say, ‘Both our hearts are big. I love both of you, and nothing’s going to change that.’ Now she is so gentle. Ammara was crying, and she crawled over and put her hand on top of hers.”
Ammara has an “old-soul” gaze, her mother says; she’s a toddler who laughs at her big sister’s antics and who jumped spread-eagle into the pool during her first swim lesson.
“You have what you wanted,” friends say. In one sense, that’s true. But Shahidah never planned on parenting alone through a pandemic: teaching full-time; grading papers when the girls are napping; longing, at times, for her mother.
“That’s been really hard,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I need my mom to come take care of me; I need someone to baby me.”
The upside is watching both girls grow and learning more about herself as a parent.
“I think there’s a mystery to relationships between children and adults that I’ve been inducted into and am still learning about. I had great parents, despite some of the hardships they ended up going through. One of the things I’ve learned is about my own gifts. That love, for me, is unconditional. I don’t need to ask questions; I don’t need anything. It’s just about being able to give love.”