With the confidence of a skilled nurse and the tender touch of a loving mother, Sue Hillman expertly wraps a 5-pound newborn in a pink blanket and smiles intently at the tiny stranger gracing her arms and her home in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “Emily was born on a Tuesday, and we got a call on Friday,” explains Hillman, 71, about the newest baby in her foster care. “They’re called popcorn babies. Sometimes, they just pop up at the hospital when a new mom says she can’t care for her baby.”
Hillman and her husband, Ralph, expect to provide a safe and loving home for Emily for about two weeks until arrangements are completed for an adoptive family. As experienced foster caregivers, the Hillmans have been through the drill about a hundred times—107 to be exact—in the 25 years since Sue felt called by God to become a foster mom to infants facing an uncertain future.
They’ve kept babies for as short as one night and as long as six months. About half eventually are adopted, and half are returned to a birth parent or grandparent. The hardest part, they say, is saying goodbye, especially knowing they’ll likely never see the child again. “You know it’s coming. You plan for it,” says Ralph, 75, taking Emily in his arms. “But you cry, sometimes just inside.”
“Our job,” adds Sue with tears in her eyes, “is just to give them a good start so that they can go from one loving house to another loving house. It’s the best we can do.”
Sue had worked as a nurse and raised three children of her own when, after a church handbell choir practice in 1989, she heard a divine call to “do babies.” She knew of the need for foster parents and, after wrestling with the idea for six months, contacted a local social services agency. The Hillmans’ first foster child was a 5-day-old boy named William. “I was a nervous wreck. It had been quite a while since I had cared for a baby 24/7,” Sue recalls. “But he did fine. We called him Sweet William.”
In the years since, the couple has cared for Leah, Noah, Garrett, Lucy, Bianca, Ximena, Breanna, Jemeria, Pearl, Peter and dozens of other babies. The Hillmans know them all by name. “They’re all kinds and colors, and each one has its own story,” Sue says.
Among them was a baby on a heart monitor and oxygen machine, an infant born with Down syndrome, and children suffering from prenatal exposure to alcohol, cocaine and cigarettes. Some babies arrive without a name, so the Hillmans give them a name.
“It’s more than baby-sitting,” Sue says. “When we bring a baby home, it’s our baby. We care for the baby as if it’s our own.” That means getting the baby on a strict eating and sleeping schedule as soon as possible, even if it means letting the infant cry once all needs are met. “Baby wants structure,” explains Ralph, who became an active partner in Sue’s ministry after retiring as a university professor in 2001.
The Hillmans’ knack for babies is legendary at Miriam’s Promise, one of two pregnancy, parenting and adoption agencies that rely on the couple for interim care. “Sue and Ralph give them a wonderful start,” says executive director Debbie Robinson, 59. “Our staff teases that we wish our own children had spent their first few months with the Hillmans to get on a good eating and sleeping schedule.”
The Hillmans are modest about their methods. “You just have to listen and pay attention,” Sue says. “You have to remember that babies are fresh from God.”