An Accidental Mother



Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Originally from People Magazine

Issued December 2014

On a summer night, Jennifer Knutson, 32, and her daughter, Tiva, 12, trade news of their day over dinner at their favorite Thai restaurant, near their Minneapolis apartment. As Tiva rests her head between courses on Jennifer’s shoulder, the intimacy between them is palpable. Still, strangers often ask how they’re related. Jennifer is petite, and Tiva is tall for her age. When Jennifer dropped Tiva off at camp that morning, another kid asked Tiva why she’s blond and her mom’s a redhead. “It’s because I’m adopted!” Tiva explained proudly.

While every adoption story is unique, the way Jennifer took Tiva under her wing a decade ago is especially remarkable. Jennifer’s life dramatically changed the day the day she met a troubled mother and her infant daughter. At the time, Jennifer was just starting college, with little money and no partner. Parenthood was the furthest thing from her mind.

But that baby had another path in store for them- one paved with many obstacles. “I look back on everything that happened in those days,” says Jennifer, now an assistant to the president of an addiction counseling, resources, and services company in neighboring St. Paul. “And I think, ‘How did I not break?'”

A Baby in Need of a Bath

In the spring of 2003, Jennifer, 20 years old, was just getting her life back on track after struggling with teenage drug and alcohol abuse, followed by rehab. She was a newly sober fresh at Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, enrolled in a program for students recovering from addiction.

One afternoon, Jennifer visited a friend who works at a coffee shop, and she struck up a conversation with the mother of a 7-month-old girl called Sativa (the name of the common marijuana strain). Being a seasoned babysitter with a natural affinity for kids, Jennifer, sensing the mother had significantly more on her hands than she could manage, volunteered to look after the baby some time. “I casually offered to help her out, to take the baby for a night so she could have a break. And she was like ‘Okay. How about tonight?’ So I brought Tiva [as she called her] home with me,” Jennifer says. “Home, at the time, happened to be my dorm room.” Jennifer didn’t pause to think about potential ramifications. “I was just eager to give this beautiful child living out of a moldy stroller a good bath,” she says.

The next day, Jennifer brought Tiva back to the coffee shop, where she and the birth mother had planned to meet. The mother asked Jennifer to keep Tiva overnight again, and thus began an informal arrangement, with Tiva spending much of her time with Jennifer. “In one sense, I knew it was crazy. But Tiva was so cute. And I think I knew intuitively that she was in need,” Jennifer says. “I wasn’t analyzing then. There was a lot of adrenaline flowing. Day by day I didn’t know what was going to happen. Still my bonding with Tiva happened pretty quickly, even if I wanted to deny it to myself a little bit.”

For a while, Jennifer and Tiva’s birth mother shared parenting tasks. (Tina’s biological father is unknown to Jennifer.) Together, they went to a homeless shelter to pick up diapers, which Jennifer could barely afford on her students budget. Tiva’s birth mother also took Tiva for overnight visits, and at one point kept the baby with her, at another shelter, for about two months. Yet Jennifer grew more concerned about the birth mother’s instability and felt compelled to look after the baby. “I wanted to keep things very amicable with her,” explains Jennifer. “I didn’t want her to all of a sudden run off with Tiva.” As time passed, though, Tiva’s birth mom became increasingly less involved.

Meanwhile, Jennifer plunged into caring for Tiva with a college kid’s spirited, and occasionally comical, ingenuity. She enlisted fellow students living in her dorm to babysit while she went to class. As Tiva slept in Jennifer’s bed, which she barricaded with chairs to create an impromptu crib, members of the wrestling team who lived across the hall would quietly tiptoe past the “baby sleeping” sign Jennifer hung on her door. When Jennifer couldn’t find anyone in her dorm to babysit, she wheeled Tiva over to Augsburg’s quad in a new “cheapie” umbrella stroller, looking for a familiar face. Once Jennifer found an acquaintance in the crowd, she’d plop Tiva down while she zipped off to class for an hour. “In hindsight, I can’t believe I did that. I would never do that now,” says Jennifer, wide-eyed with amused disbelief at her younger self.

Amazingly, no one seemed to mind helping to watch over the exceptionally calm, curious baby. “She was so beautiful that she just drew people to her,” recalls Jennifer, who says she was still hopeful that Tiva’s mother might pull her life together. Jennifer recalls actually whispering words of caution to herself: “Don’t get too attached; don’t fall in love. Don’t fall in love.”

Forging a Life Together

It would have been easy for the college administrators, who weren’t happy with the situation, to pressure Jennifer to turn Tiva over to foster care, but the famous baby living on campus was in fact thriving in Jennifer’s care.

Dave Hadden was the assistant director of Jennifer’s recovery program and when he approached her about the baby, she told him that she’d already contacted Child Protection Services (CPS) the first night Tiva was in her care. She explained that they could not intervene because Tiva showed no signs of physical abuse and her mother knew where Tiva was and how to contact Jennifer. Hadden made several additional attempts to involve CPS, but because of the informal arrangement made between the two women and the fact that Tiva was being well cared of, it was not a child-protection issue but a family-custody issue. Hadden also went along with Jennifer to meet Tiva’s birth mother and tried, without success, to get help for her.

Over time, it was clear that Jennifer and Tiva were well matched. “I felt the best chance this child had was with Jennifer,” says Hadden. “Of course it’s not the college’s policy to allow students who find homeless babies to bring them back to the dorm to take up residence.” So Jennifer found an apartment off campus, but not without Tiva’s presence leaving a mark on the student body. Adds Hadden: “I saw how Tiva changed all these college students. With this child around, their attitudes and behavior shifted. She brought maturity to the community.”

After nearly two years of being Tiva’s primary caregiver, Jennifer was granted temporary sole legal guardianship and physical custody of Tiva in December 2004, and permanent legal and physical custody in April 2005. Yet, according to Jennifer, after making little effort to contact Tiva for almost two years, her birth mother petitioned to regain custody of her daughter in 2006. This ushered in a new set of legal wrangling, which included motions, petitions, and court dates. Ultimately, however, a judge denied the birth mother’s request. And the moment that Jennifer was eligible to fully adopt Tiva, she filed the papers. In May 2009, when Tiva was 6, the adoption was granted, and the child’s name was officially changed to Tiva Mary Knutson.

Aside from the legal challenges of adopting Tiva, their day-to-day life had its own share of struggles from the beginning, recalls Jennifer’s mom, Mary, who lived in Lakeville, a Minneapolis suburb nearby. “Jeni had classes and this baby and her rundown car, which was all that any of us could afford. Then at one point the car was stolen. I saw her crouched down on the floor, crying because she didn’t know what to do,” she says. At different times, everyone second-guessed the practical feasibility of Jennifer looking after Tiva long-term.

In fact, Jennifer had had and opportunity, a few months after she’d met Tiva, for a fresh start when she was offered a full-time nanny position in Florida. But not knowing what would become of the baby she’d grown to love, Jennifer turned down the job. Looking back, the decision to stay in Minneapolis and keep a close eye on Tiva’s well-being was easy. “How can you say no to love?” says Jennifer. But she also felt that she was protecting herself by committing to Tiva. “Tiva gave me a sense of purpose and stability,” explains Jennifer.

Although Jennifer may have questioned in hard-pressed times precisely how she was going to care for Tiva, her best friend, Julia Grovum, says there was never any doubt in her mind that she was going to mother Tiva. “I’ve always just seen this steadfastness in Jen and her being adamant about giving Tiva the life she deserved- whatever that took,” says Julia. Jennifer has provided Tiva with a remarkably fortifying childhood, she adds, one that’s rich with travel, special movie-and-mall expeditions, summer camps, and a wide circle of friends who treat them both like family.

The Next Chapter…And a Special Surprise

Jennifer knows that she will never could have raised a child without the help of many people, including her parents, who stretched their limited finances to help pay lawyers’ fees for the adoption and always happily babysit Tiva. Other help came from the director of a child-care center, who was flexible with Jennifer about payments so Tiva could attend preschool there, and Jennifer’s devoted mentors and fellow students at Augsburg, who encouraged her. “When I arrived at Augsburg, I thought staying sober just meant going to meetings,” says Jennifer, who has been in recovery for 12-plus years. “But I started putting a lot of effort into papers and having serious conversations with my professors, who took an interest in my work. It reminded me of the smart girl I used to be.” Working babysitting jobs until landing her current position in 2006, she scaled back to two evening classes at a time and graduated with a degree in media writing in 2010.

Between school and parenting, there was little time for or interest in dating, but in the summer of 2013, Jennifer met a special man, Ron Winslow, through mutual friends. On their first date, they sat in a restaurant and talked for hours. Still, Jennifer wasn’t sure how Tiva, 10 at the time, would react to her mom’s first serious relationship.

Then on the fourth of July, Jennifer lamented to Ron on the phone that she was too tired to figure out where to take Tiva to watch fireworks and battle for a spot to park. “Ron said a kid should go to see fireworks and told me, ‘I’ll be there in five minutes,'”says Jennifer. It was the first time he met Tiva. “They spent a little of time talking in the car, he dropped us off, and I thought, ‘Hmm. This really could be something.'”

That fall, Jennifer and Ron bought his grandparents’ former house, and the three of them moved in together. Last March, Jennifer and Ron got married. Their wedding was a low-key affair, with Jennifer’s parents, Ron’s mom, and, of course, Tiva attending. Tiva has a backyard now, where she’s planted corn and pumpkins, and plays with her dog, Louis (named after Tiva’s favorite singer from One Direction). Last summer, Tiva, a gifted-and-talented student, began devouring Harry Potter books. “She’s a voracious reader!” her mother sweetly boasts.

And there was another occasion to celebrate: Jennifer became pregnant. “I procrastinated about telling Tiva for a couple of weeks because I wasn’t sure how she’d feel. For years, it had been just the two of us,” admits Jennifer. “But one morning I told her the news, and she had tears in her eyes, she was so happy. She couldn’t wait to get to school to tell her teachers and friends.”

In August, Jennifer had a baby boy, named Mason. “From the moment she met him, Tiva’s loved Mason. She shows so much confidence holding him,” says Jennifer. That love for a baby- instant, protective, unwavering: It’s a feeling Jennifer knows well.

An Interview with Tiva

By Roosevelt Journalists, Spring of 2018

When asked what has changed from the time the article was made to now, Tiva simply said “Not a ton actually. I have a little sister [now].”

She went on to talk more about her two younger siblings. “My brother and sister are a handful, but they’re fun.”

As the interview went on, Tiva was asked if anyone ever asked her questions about being adopted, and if there were any specific types of questions that she doesn’t like having people ask about her adoption. “I don’t know,” Tiva answered after a small pause. “I usually don’t get many questions. I would say, probably don’t ask if [I] feel less loved than [my] other siblings.”

Finally, Tiva was asked if she felt that her life would have been different if she had not been adopted. All she could say in return was: “Yes, definitely.”

Leave a Comment

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.

Navigate Right
Navigate Left
  • Opinion

    Music Review

  • An Accidental Mother


    66 Gay Things in Popular Culture

  • Showcase

    Daily Coffee and Provisions Review

  • Showcase

    Opinion Piece

  • An Accidental Mother


    Your Story, Our Story

  • An Accidental Mother


    Area Of Expertise

  • An Accidental Mother


    Your Story, Our Story

  • Showcase

    Samia’s Article

  • An Accidental Mother


    Your Story, Our Story

  • An Accidental Mother


    Your Story, Our Story

An Accidental Mother