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Wednesday, May 9, 2007 10:06 am

“Why not me?”

A-type career woman becomes an atypical mom

Untitled Document Michelle Higginbotham is allergic to children — not literally, but almost. “I don’t like babies, and you can quote me on that,” Michelle says. “You know when somebody brings a baby into the room and everybody’s like, Ooh, so cute! Let me hold him!? I’m, like, Eh, don’t get that thing too close to me.
 Michelle is one of those overachievers who does volunteer work for the Chamber of Commerce and St. John’s Hospital and Habitat for Humanity on top of her job as a commercial real-estate agent. She’s slim and dressed in a tasteful suit accessorized with patent leather pumps and a strand of pearls. Her hands are perfectly manicured, her face is lovely without any visible cosmetics, and every room in her house looks like it’s ready for the Home & Garden photographer to show up at any moment. You know the type. In high school, Michelle was the girl who got straight A’s and was president of the student council. “I was president of every club you can think of,” she admits, “including the scholar quiz team.”
Combine these two traits — her aversion to children and her ardently upward-arcing life — and you might vote her Least Likely to Be a Mom. But Michelle has a 16-year-old daughter named Alicia. Michelle is 29. You don’t have to be on the scholar quiz team to do this math. It helps to know that Alicia is adopted. See, Michelle wanted a child; she just didn’t want an infant. Three years spent working as a church youth director during college got her interested in teenagers. Then, a few years after graduation, a friend of hers adopted a teenager. “You read these articles in the newspaper and you say Oh, isn’t that terrible, somebody should do something about that. Then one day you look in the mirror and you say, Well, I’m somebody. I can do something about it. I was at a point in my life where I felt like I was making excuses: I can’t do it because I’m single or I don’t have enough money, or I’m busy with my career. But why not me?” she says. She began the process to become a licensed foster parent — required for adoption in Illinois — and completed the classes and a home study in less than a year. With her license, she was handed a photolisting book, a sort of catalog with vague biographies of children waiting for new families. Alicia was listed in the section called “Meet children [ages] 12 and older” — the largest portion of the book. Michelle arranged to meet Alicia. After a few months of weekend visits, Alicia moved in with Michelle. The adoption was finalized in 2004. Alicia was 14; Michelle was 27. Michelle didn’t just become a mother. She became the mother to a girl whose life story would break your heart. Alicia wears a hearing aid in each ear because of injuries related to being dropped on her head — and that’s not nearly the worst of it. Both of her biological parents and her older brother are incarcerated for the abuse they heaped on Alicia and her sisters. Their first year together was one Michelle wonders how they survived. “It’s definitely the hardest thing that I’ve ever done,” she says. Alicia had been tagged mentally retarded. She had just recently learned to use silverware. She didn’t know her multiplication tables. Michelle was encouraged to find a vocational-training program for her new daughter. “I did not accept that. I believe that almost all of Alicia’s issues are environmental and not cognitive, and they can be, if not undone, at least remedied,” she says. “She’s not mentally retarded. She’s delayed, yes, but it’s not written in stone. She can learn. There’s nothing cognitively wrong with her.”
Michelle enrolled her daughter in a summer Montessori program and hired a tutor to work with her twice a week. A month after Alicia entered middle school, her special-ed teachers decided that she was ready for regular classes. But making the switch to mainstream meant that Alicia had to study and do homework — challenges she had never faced before. She responded with what Michelle calls “meltdowns.” Several times a week, Michelle would be called to the school to handle her daughter’s temper tantrums. She stayed in constant contact with teachers, by phone and e-mail, exchanging ideas on what strategies worked best with Alicia. Soon, the hard work paid off. “By the end of her eighth-grade year, Alicia was not only completely mainstreamed, she was on the honor roll,” Michelle says. This afternoon, when Alicia gets home from school, she plops down at the kitchen table to chat with her mom about tomorrow’s show-choir performance and basketball game. She proudly shows me the prick mark on her arm proving that she recently donated blood, then disappears to look for her favorite house cat. Michelle — now married, with three teenage stepchildren — recognizes that theirs isn’t your average mother-daughter relationship, but she doesn’t see why it should be rare. Adopting an older child costs almost nothing (the government pays for everything from attorney fees to medical expenses) and even comes with an $11,000 federal income-tax credit. “If I can do this, anybody can do it. There’s no reason that more people can’t adopt a child,” she says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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