The Most Magical Day of My Life Was the Worst Day of Yours

Dear Foster Love,

I hope by now you know how delighted I am with every brilliant, amazing, difficult, kind, fragile, damaged and perfect piece of you. I love you in a thousand ways. I love your silly sense of humor, and your beautiful smile. I am in awe of your perfect little soul that has been so hurt but remains powerful and good capable of so much. Being your momma has forced me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. I am proud of the things I’ve learned and done and the feelings I’ve felt since knowing you, but I have only done those things because your wonderful little self has inspired me to it.

This is where it gets tricky.

Your arrival in my world is one of the most magical things I could ever experience, but the circumstances that brought you here are among the most terrible any person could withstand. Your agony and behaviors tell a heartbreaking story. I’m so sorry, sweet little foster love. I’m so sorry that these things happened to you, and I’m sorry for the days that followed and all the things that layered trauma on top of trauma as you were moved from one home to the next. I’m sorry about what brought you here, and if I could wish it all away and erase your trauma and put you back safely in your home of origin, I would do it in instant.

But I can’t.

And I rejoice in you every day. I love taking care of you. I am happy to have you sweet baby, but I am so so sad you’re here. It’s a cruel world that made the most magical day of my life the worst day of yours, but if anyone can overcome it, it’s you.

With all my love,

Momma

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Stop Asking Foster Parents These 3 Questions

It’s okay to ask questions. Most foster parents really want to be understood and like to educate others about the nature of foster care. That being said, please first consider your motivation for asking. Are you interested in the drama, or are you seeking understanding? If you let empathy and kindness be your yardstick for these conversations, then please ask! Here are three questions to definitely avoid (and some more appropriate alternatives):

1.  What happened to her? Social media, crime shows, 24 hour news and popular TV that glamorizes drug use and abuse have created a sense that it’s acceptable to consume the stories of other people’s personal tragedies. There are a lot of people who ask foster parents about the abuse/neglect/domestic violence/drug exposure/whatever that led to their foster child being placed in state care. Most of the time these asks are couched in a conversation to make it seem like the question is coming from a place of empathy: “Oh that poor baby! I can’t imagine what she’s feeling. What exactly happened to her?” I think if we’re being honest with ourselves, though, it is perfectly possible to have empathy for a child who has been torn from everything familiar and left with strangers without hearing the gruesome details of their trauma.

Try this instead: What happened to her?  How is she doing? This gives foster parents a place to start from that doesn’t violate the child’s right to privacy. We can tell you how the child is doing in the here and now because the present is when this child’s story merges with our own. This question gives us enough space to be as vague or detailed as we think is appropriate, and it still makes the point that you care about our new placement.

2. Where are his real parents? Ouch. I urge you to stay away from words like real and pretend when talking about kids in foster care–real does not equate to biological. Bio parents are very real parents to foster children, but so too are foster parents. Beyond that, many children in foster care imagine a fantasy version of their home of origin that could never become reality, and in so doing, reject the very real and nurturing (if possibly temporary) home they’re living in right now.

Try this instead: Where are his real parents?  Will he be able to reconnect with his family of origin?** Children come into foster care for many reasons. The most common story is of the child who is removed by child welfare for abuse or neglect, and the parents are out there somewhere trying (or possibly not trying) to make things right and get their kid back. However, children can also come into custody when their parents are deported, when their parents are incarcerated, or in some rare instances, when they are orphaned by the passing of their parents and there are no appropriate kinship homes from them. Beyond all that, children can be placed into a new foster home at any point in their journey. A foster family might get a child who is right on the brink of reunification and is spending every weekend at their home of origin. On the other hand, a family might get a foster child after parental rights have been terminated, and that child might be legally free for adoption. Regardless, whether it’s the biological parents, the foster parents, or the future adoptive parents, all of these parents are “real.” Also, phrasing the question so that it is centered on child’s outcome takes out some of that judgmental sting (there is very much an accusation implied in asking where a child’s real parents are). **Depending on the nature of the case, foster parents might still not be able to answer this question without violating privacy, but this is gentler and more respectful way to ask it.

3. Are you keeping her? *Facepalm* Please stop. This question can illicit feelings in foster parents that run the gamut from agony to confusion. There is typically a long process that takes place before a child would even become available for a foster family to adopt, and that process includes exhausting every available resource to return the child to their biological family, seeking a kinship or fictive kinship placement in the state, seeking a kinship or fictive kinship placement out of the state, and only then asking foster parents if they are interested in adopting. Even at that point, it is completely possible (and NOT wrong) for a foster family to not want to adopt a child in their care, but it’s a big decision and can be embarrassing and painful to explain. Lastly, there are foster parents who desperately hope to adopt but time and time again do not have the opportunity to, and the flippant wording of this question belies the pain of loving a child with an uncertain future.

Try this instead: Are you keeping her?  What’s her permanency plan? This is a much less emotionally loaded question. The goal of every single child welfare cases is permanency, and the permanency plan is the current expected outcome. A child’s permanency plan will generally either be reunification with their family of origin or adoption, though in some states there are alternatives, such as legal custody, legal guardianship or alternative permanency placements (such as group homes or institutions). Asking this question gives the foster parent the room to answer simply (she’s moving toward reunification or she’s moving toward adoption), but it is also possible to give a more detailed explanation (she’s moving toward adoption, and if we are eligible to adopt her, that’s what we hope to do). Permanency planning is complicated and emotionally charged. It’s made even more complicated by a myriad of other factors, like ICPC, ICWA or the placement of siblings and half siblings in other homes. Permanency planning is the subject of much worried speculation and sleepless nights for foster parents, so please be gentle and respectful on the topic, or better, wait for the foster parent to bring it up first.

4. The perfect question to ask a foster parent any time is simply this: What do you need right now? Being a foster kid is brutal, and being a foster parent is challenging in a thousand ways. Support the kids by supporting the family. I have a friend who occasionally picks up my oldest foster love from school and who regularly lets us pick a grocery sack full of amazing vegetables from her backyard garden. I have another who routinely listens to my pissed off, paranoid, confused rants about everything that’s wrong with the system without ever discouraging me or minimizing my feelings. If you truly want to know the details of foster life, start by being a friend such as these–the best way to know our story is to be a part of it.

A Battle on Many Fronts

I want to tell you a secret about foster moms and dads. But first you should know that the reaction we hear most often when we tell people that we are foster parents is “Oh, I could never do that. Love a child and then give them up? My heart would break.” Well, yes. You could do that. You could decide that the pain and anxiety and stomach churning fear of the future are a worthy trade for keeping a kid safe and loved for however long you have them.  Here’s the secret: even though we agree to these things, they are still unbearably hard. Foster parents don’t have some secret weapon against heartbreak.

At one of the kids’ therapeutic appointments recently, I was explaining our successes and struggles from the previous week. Every inch of self-love and good behavior for this child is hard won, and I count the smallest moments of joy that this kid experiences as major victories. The therapist offered a new framework for seeing foster care. She told me that this is a battle on multiple fronts. And with those words, the veil came down and I saw clearly every fight we were fighting. Every day we advocate for these kids to their schools, to the court, to the caseworkers. We fight to accrue resources and mental health providers for them. We fight their demons. We rock them for hours at night when the trauma is lurking just behind their eyelids. And then we sometimes are fighting with the kids themselves, especially fighting for them to see themselves and love themselves the way that we do.

Seeing this as a battle was helpful to me. It justified my feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion. It helped me visualize our therapeutic practices at home as weapons against the darkness; our team of caseworkers and therapists as allies in the fight. It helped me understand my own tension and occasionally grim outlook.

The problem is that when the battle is won and the dust clears, if we truly have a victory, our only reward will be heartbreak. The win will be if these children are able to return to a safe, nurturing and stable bio home. A loss would be the kids staying in my home where I could love them forever. Never has there been a more bitter victory or a sweeter loss, but that doesn’t mean I get to turn my coat and fight for the other side. My love and my heart are for these children, but my energy and my fight is for their whole family.

The reward for this work is heartbreak. Acknowledging this makes people uncomfortable. There is always an instant rush to identify intrinsic rewards: you’ll be happy knowing you helped a family, you’ll be satisfied having worked so hard for a worthy cause. I challenge you to think back to a time that you grieved and imagine when people tried to comfort you by saying that this person was lucky to have you. I always think, lucky to have me? I am blessed beyond words to have them. There is simply no intrinsic reward great enough to eclipse the searing pain of losing a a cherished child. Battles only have two possible outcomes: If we lose, we will mourn a broken up family and all of the heritage that will be lost with it. If we win, we will grieve the loss of children from our home who have our whole hearts.

As it turns out, the biggest fight in the foster care battle is the one that’s happening in my own heart.

All The Things I Control

After any major behavior episode at my house has been fully resolved and the children are calm and the issues have been discussed, I need 30 minutes or so to be alone. I used to characterize this time as a period of rest–just half an hour to boost my energy back up. As the tantrums have grown worse and the behaviors more outrageous, I have come to understand this time as recovery and rediscovery. It’s the time I need to remember who I am outside of a crisis, when there is not a child hurting me or hurting himself or hating himself.

These episodes might last only a few minutes or they might be an hour or more, but they often leave me feeling disconnected from myself. Twenty minutes attempting to soothe a child who is reliving his trauma, screaming out his rage, throwing wild punches and kicks can feel like a lifetime. Sometimes afterward I wonder if I’m still the same person. I’ll ice a bite on my arm thinking whose arm is this and sweep up a broken plate wondering whose home is this.

This meditation has come together over time as my path back to myself when I begin to feel lost. Please feel free to adapt and use it. I’ll usually get some Frankincense oil diffusing to help set a meditative mood. I tuck myself into bed, and then I begin my inventory of all the things I can control. Not the universe, nor the weather. Not my city or my kid’s school. I can’t control the teachers, doctors or therapists. I can’t control my foster kids’ family. I can’t control the judge or the attorneys. I can’t control the kids. All these things I can’t control, and what’s left? Just me. I can control only me. I let a feeling of smallness sit for a minute.

But I am smart and kind and mighty. Controlling only myself is not a limit; it’s an invitation. I wiggle my toes and feel my nails scratch the threads on the sheet. I slide my feet left to right, in and out of the pocket of warmth from where they’ve been resting. I flex my calves and feel power and energy there as my muscles bunch almost to the point of cramping. These legs have chased a child through a parking lot and out to the street, just in time to snatch him from in front of a car. I flex my thighs and my lower abs. These muscles create the lap where my kids sit for stories at bed time. They power strollers down sidewalks at the zoo. I stretch and extend one finger at a time, first my left hand then right. These hands have blocked punches and tied shoe laces. I flex and stretch my arms, rolling my shoulders. These arms hold them when they cry.  These shoulders carry diaper bags and hold small bodies up to see over the crowd. I breathe deeply, holding my breath to the point of pain and exhale. This breath fuels my blood, calms me when I’m angry,  gives volume to shouts across the playground. This tongue, these teeth, these lips speak life, sip wine, blow kisses. This nose detects dirty diapers and absorbs the musky, grounding scent of the frankincense. These eyes cry and cry and see too much and see too little.

I think my name, not mom or momma or honey or wifey, but my true name. I visualize things that bring my joy: my dogs, my sister, my husband, my garden, diet coke, books, the lake, the river, the ocean. I visualize things that hurt me: a four year old holding a fistful of hair ripped from my scalp, shocked and sick at himself over his own anger. A two year old screaming through night terrors. This mind has a great capacity for thought and feeling. This mind holds sadness and joy, empathizes and problem solves.

I finish my meditation looking inward, celebrating all that’s in my power. All I control is me. I control all of me.

Child Free by Choice (with kids)

Recently a popular article on the benefits of being child free has been recirculating among in my social network. I liked it and began to comment that This! This is exactly why I don’t want to have…. when I realized that I do. I do have them. They’re right down the hall in their crib, toddler bed, and twin sized bed, respectively. There’s a preschool calendar on my fridge and something sticky on my coffee table and whole laundry baskets dedicated to dirty clothes that aren’t even mine.

There are a lot of really good reasons to be child free. Some of these reasons could be characterized as selfish (I’d hate to give up traveling); some are serious considerations (I can hardly afford to pay off my credit card debt–why on earth would I assume I could pay for a child?). Personally, I think all reasons for making this choice are equally valid. The value is in evaluating your needs and knowing yourself.  Here are my reasons for choosing to be child free:

  1. I feel no biological imperative to have children. The prospect of the future marching on without anyone to carry my genetic material forward bothers me not at all. There are 7 billion people on this earth, and I feel with certainty that my genes will not be missed in the coming generations. I’ve inherited some lifelong diseases, and my preference is to not gift them to anyone else.
  2. Parenting culture is intimidating. Guys, the mommy wars are real, and they’re scary as fuck. Literally every single thing you do as a parent has been thoughtfully considered by eleventy-thousand parents before you, and each one of those people did the thing you’re about to do in a different way than you’re about to do it, and your way is WRONG, and you’re probably going to ruin your kid’s life. That’s just science.
  3. Having a child leaves a massive carbon footprint. If you have a child in an industrialized nation, there is literally nothing you can do re-balance your negative impact on the environment. One study found that with each child a US woman births, her carbon legacy is increased by nearly six times.  Sure, the earth is dying anyway, but I’d rather not be any more culpable than I already am. And that butts up against my next point:
  4. It’s not a very nice world we live in. Just this week I had to confront the difficult truth that essentially half the voting population in the United States doesn’t believe sexual assault disqualifies someone from highest office of the land. I read the news with dread and find myself visualizing a terrifying future that I feel little to no control over. One thing I can control is that no biological child of mine will have to fight these fights to come or be hurt by a culture of hate and intolerance.
  5. Finally, I believe I can serve my community better if I don’t have children. I don’t feel called to have a baby, but I absolutely feel called to leverage my strengths to benefit others in my community. Without a child, I can take on riskier jobs, work longer hours and have more emotional energy.

There are lots and lots of reasons people choose to not have children. This is my own list and it’s not better or worse than anyone else’s. No one’s reasons for being child free make them more or less righteous; the important issue is that people are taking the time to consider what’s right for them. (For what it’s worth, I would love to add that having a child would cramp my style as a world traveler, but if I’m being honest with myself I will probably never have enough expendable income to be a world traveler. #thetruthhurts)

Here’s the kicker: Somehow I have kids. Three of them. I can hear nay-sayers and apologists out there already thinking but they’re foster kids, they don’t really count…But they do count. They really, really count. It was when I was reading the recirculating piece about being child free that I first realized that I still identify myself as child free, but also now as a parent. It’s absolutely paradoxical, and I’m sure there are members of both camps who will insist that you can’t have it both ways, but you can, and I do.

I’m still wrestling with it, but here’s how I think this works:

  1. I’m not concerned about sending my genes on to future generations because these children don’t have my genes.
  2. Parenting culture still sucks, but being a parent doesn’t mean you have to buy into it. There are aspects of mommyhood I really enjoy, and there are other parts that I just abstain from.
  3. I don’t feel guilty about the carbon footprint of these children because I didn’t bring them into this world, and as long as they’re with me I can use as many sustainable practices as possible (remind me to tell you guys about our cloth diapering experience).
  4. It’s still not a very nice world we live in, and these children have had a profoundly rough experience of it so far. However, while they are in my home we will navigate their challenges together. I might not be able to protect them from this life, but I can build up their resiliency and health and self-worth before they have to face it again.
  5. Finally, taking care of these precious human being is the greatest act of service I have done so far. I’ve never felt more vocational than when I make it through another hurdle with my babies. Parenting them does drain my emotional energy and leave less of me to give to my community, but these kids are of my community.

There’s a really good chance these children will be leaving our home at some point, and when that happens I might appear to be more child free again, but just as my child free identity was not lost when I became a parent, my identity as a parent will never go away. I’m child free by choice. With kids.

***

The most influential resource for me in helping me weigh my feelings and determine to be child free or a parent was Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? I highly recommend it.

child-free

Image credit: Mommyish.com

The 14 Reasons My Kid Refused to Nap Today

  1. His shoes were on.
  2. His shoes weren’t on.
  3. His hair hurt.
  4. What if he gets a cavity in his teeth while he’s asleep?
  5. The dogs weren’t napping (they were).
  6. He needed to trim his finger nails.
  7. His laundry basket was too full.
  8. Napping makes him throw up.
  9. He’s allergic to napping.
  10. The mail might come while he’s napping.
  11. He forgot to wash his hands when he went to the bathroom this morning, even though he’s gone to the bathroom several times since then and has remembered to wash his hands those times.
  12. We don’t have any books about napping.
  13. They don’t take naps on Blaze.
  14. What if there’s a volcano?

nap-time-meme

But we all know the real reason: I wanted that nap too badly and he sensed it.

The Three Foster Mom Phrases I’m Rocking This Week

A major component of our struggles as a foster family come from behavior management. Due to the profound trauma many of these kids have suffered, discipline tends to look and feel a little bit different in foster families. Traditional disciplinary methods, like grounding, timeout, spanking (though you should never spank) and even removing privileges can be too emotionally intense for children in foster care to respond to positively. In the absence of those strategies, we do a lot of talking about feelings, talking about safety, breathing exercises and reinforcing positive behaviors.

Real talk though: If I’ve just been smacked in the face by a toddler or watched said child purposefully dump her oatmeal on the floor and roll in it when we were moments from walking out the door to school, it can be a real struggle to whip out one of those nice guiding phrases or have a truly fruitful conversation about the consequences of our choices. So, in the spirit of setting myself up for success, I’ve been trying to build up my repertoire of strategies just a few phrases at a time.

Here’s what I’ve been working on this week:

Are you choosing to be safe right now? The foundation of our behavior plan at home is safety: physical and emotional. Our four year old Little Man can tell you forwards and backwards what safety looks like and why it’s important. It’s the job of the adults at home to keep the children safe, and ultimately that’s why they should follow our directions (not because I told you so or because you’ll be in trouble if you don’t). For example:

The toddler is chewing on an unidentifiable object she found on the floorboard of your car, and even if it was edible at one point it certainly isn’t safe for consumption anymore. Are you choosing to be safe right now? It’s mom’s job to keep you safe, and that thing you’re chewing on will probably make you sick. 

And that brings us to our next one:

 Would you like mom to help you to be safe right now? Even for adults, it can be hard to choose safety over fun (which is why jet-skis, motorcycles and casinos exist). This phrase still gives agency to the child: They still have the power to choose to be safe, a parent is simply helping them in that process. Also, some children have come from homes or situations in which it wasn’t always easy to make a safe choice. Kids in foster care often need detailed coaching on what it feels like and how it looks to be safe. Back to the toddler:

I can tell you really want to eat that, but it will definitely make you sick. Would you like mom to help you to be safe right now? I’ll take that icky thing and find you something better to  chew on. 

I’ll let you choose. This only works if you give your kid two really great choices. Giving them the choice of handing you the contraband or you snatching it from them doesn’t count. Also, you have to be ready to live with whatever choice they make. When you offer a child a choice, disregarding it is basically the same as saying their opinion doesn’t matter and you weren’t serious about them having one in the first place. I made the mistake once of telling Little Man that if he really didn’t want to get in his car seat our only other choice would be to walk all the way to the store. You can guess what he immediately chose. I lost some credibility with him on that one.

I’ll let you choose what to chew on instead of this possibly radioactive thing you found in the car: Would you like a teething ring or apple slices? 

***

The trauma informed care gurus out there will know that these strategies are really just the tip of the ice burg, and I’m operating a pretty novice level in using them. Still, it’s a step up from because I told you so. Give one or two of these a try in your home this week. Why? Because I told you so.

His Tantrum Tune

We have to be very intentional with our four year old foster son. He needs to know what’s happening tomorrow at night before bed, and first thing in the morning he needs another briefing on the day. Sometimes, if he has a lot of appointments or will be having to do lots of transitions from one activity to another, we will color a visual schedule with him at the beginning of our day. We set timers, we discuss boundaries, we explain step-by-step what’s coming next for every single part of his day in an effort to mitigate tantrums.

Still, the best-laid-plans of mice and foster moms go oft awry, amirite? We went to Chick-Fil-A this weekend. As I sat in the car with my aunt, 4 year old foster son, 19 month old foster daughter, and 7 month old foster son reciting exactly what was about to happen, I knew in my gut It was coming.

“First we’ll go inside and order, then we’ll sit and eat, then we’ll play at the playground for fifteen minutes. How much time is going on the timer, Little Man”

“Fifteen minutes?” His reply was distracted as he stared out the window at the doors to the play area.

Fast word ten minutes and I’m walking away from the table, the 4 year old in my arms kicking my stomach and pounding on my back, leaving my aunt and two other children open-mouthed in shock. Over the course of the next hour, a full blown tantrum takes place. Kicking, hitting, scratching, ripping car seats off their anchors and slamming them against the window–Everything outrageous a 43 lbs person can manage took place in the back seat of my car that hour.

I’d walked away from the table with nothing more than a child and my car keys, and my aunt had been left to manage the other two children as well as a table full of food, two purses and a diaper bag. Another parent had seen my exit and kindly helped my aunt gather the stuff and get the kids to the car. She helped everyone (and everything!) into the front seat with me, and was nice enough to not offer commentary on the tornado taking place in the backseat. Her non-judgement and calm demeanor was powerful and affirming. What was happening with this child was, if not exactly normal, certainly not an apocalyptic event. We would get through it.

Little Man has his own tantrum rhythm. The opening lines sound like sustained whining. He struggles to produce words to describe what he wants or how he’s feeling. The first stanza introduces his Herculean strength and applies it toward escaping. Once the escape attempts are all played out, the next few lines are all about aggression: adults and objects (both large and small) are targets. The last stanza is just heart-wrenching tears and screams for Mommy. As the last cries for Mommy vibrate through the air, something special happens. There’s a pause, and Little Man makes eye contact with me and takes a deep breath in through his nose. He waits until I do the same and then we blow it out together. We take ten deep breaths in utter silence.

The last few notes of Little Man’s Tantrum Tune is just a small voice quietly apologizing for being unsafe and asking if we can go home now.

***

For fact-based information about tantrums, check out this article from TheScientificParent.org: How to Survive When Your Toddler Throws a Tantrum in Public.

Life’s a Beach

This past week my brother-in-law died. He was a wonderful man who dedicated his life to caring for children. He was a good uncle to my (foster) babies, though they didn’t have nearly enough time to get to know each other. The day he passed, several of my friends generously took my dogs so that Daniel and I would have fewer things to take care of for a few days. Today I went to pick up Sabrina, my oldest dog, from a friend’s house.

I adopted Sabrina at a really dark point in my life four and a half years ago. I had just left my job as a teacher–the job that had brought me to Oklahoma. In abandoning my job, I lost all my friends and security here. I was terribly lonely. Sabrina was available for adoption through the Central Oklahoma Humane Society, and she caught my eye. I took her home after a twenty minute introduction. Within hours of being at home, it was clear that there was more to her than I’d realized. Her separation anxiety was severe–she would destroy the house if I left for even just a few minutes. Raise your voice and she’d go flat-bellied to the floor and cry. I later found out that Sabrina had been adopted and returned five times before coming to live with me. Those first few months together weren’t very fulfilling to me. We were constantly at the vet looking for a solution to her anxiety. Every time I became irritated with her I had to spend hours rebuilding her confidence. It was frustrating. She was so ready to be rejected, and I was so ready to be loved by her, and neither one of us were getting what we thought we would.

The night before my brother in law passed last week, Daniel and I welcomed a third child into our home. He’s the older sibling to our two younger ones, and he has been averaging about one home per month. This little man has some serious difficulties, and Daniel and I took him in with the commitment that we wouldn’t ever ever give up on him. Little did we know what was in store for the rest of this week. He’s angry, and he wants to prove to us that we will give up on him. He hits and bites and kicks and says hurtful things.

Earlier today I sat crying  in the hallway following one of his tantrums, and I felt like there was less of me. His trauma and pain and anger crash over me in agonizing waves, and each time it recedes bits of me are drawn away with him. I see the whitecaps rushing in and know that when they’re gone I will be changed.

When I walked in the door with Sabrina this afternoon, Little Man was over the moon to see her. He asked me where she had been and what she’d been doing and if she was going to have to leave again. We were in a calm, and I could see past the breakers out to his horizon. A while later I was thinking about my late brother in law, trying not to cry, and Little Man sat down beside me and began patting my back without a word. Again, I got a glimpse of his depths beyond the waves.

In the years since her adoption, Sabrina has flourished. She’s a happy, affectionate dog. She’s funny. She waits until she thinks Daniel and I are asleep to get on the bed, even though she’s allowed on the bed any time (a throwback to her former anxiety). I look at her and conveniently forget my frustration from four years ago. How could five families have rejected her before she came to me, I wonder. I like to imagine that our years together have been full of loyal doggy love and nurturing human care, but it’s not like that at all. In reality, our early years together were her taking from me the things that she needs, and me finding peace in loving her just the way she is–not for what she could give to me.

Little Man
is not his trauma. He is not his pain, and he is not his anger. Little Man is a vast vast ocean of feeling, and right now I’m the beach where he crashes. In his moments of stillness or joy or comfort, I let myself hope that the bits of me he draws away are taken right to the heart of him, to the lie on the floor of his ocean waiting for the time that he’s a beach for someone else.

This week I have been crashing into others and doing some erosion myself. To the friends and family who brought us food, provided childcare, helped with our dogs and listened to me cry: Thank you. Please know that what I have taken from you as my anger and pain have crashed and receded I will give away again.

A Professional Parent

They’re carried in the door followed by several boxes with their stuff. It’s uncomfortable while the caseworker is sifting through their things on the floor: bottles in one pile, infant clothes in another, toddler clothes, toys, pacifiers. She’s working fast, hands dipping into boxes and pulling out the detritus of two little lives while sharing the intimate details of these two tiny strangers: their medical histories, drug exposure, domestic violence exposure, social services they’re eligible for, religious preference, allergies…

The toddler is awake, and with a glance at me, my husband, Daniel, picks her up and walks to the kitchen. He trusts me to absorb the details of their case, and I trust him to protect her from the methodical dismembering of her privacy. This child has seen her boxes unpacked in three homes before ours. She’s heard the details of her life relayed to strangers like a shopping list three times before this. Her infant brother is asleep in my arms, unaware that in the last hour his whole world has changed again. I glance at his face and everything I thought I knew about parenting is irrelevant. 

 

I’m a case manager for at-risk families of young children. Daniel has taught early childhood education for low income families for over a dozen years. Neither of us wants biological children, so fostering seemed like the natural next step for us. Daniel has taught hundreds of children under five. I conduct home visits, plan parent education workshops, connect struggling families to services and help them set and achieve big goals. Who could be more qualified than us, we thought. We would be professional parents.  What could be easier than using the skills and information we share with others?

 

Three days into parenthood, and we’re sitting at an enrollment meeting to get our new children signed up for childcare. We’ve been assigned an advocate to walk us through the enrollment process. Her job is to connect us to services, take us through paperwork and help us set big goals. She begins sorting through our documents: medical records in one stack, foster documents in another, emergency contacts, child profile sheets… I watch her work work and feel vulnerability creeping up the back of my neck. Once again, the children’s lives are being unpacked and sorted, but they’re now deeply connected to ours. Our family and our story lays bare next to theirs on the table.

In this moment we’re the furthest thing from professionals. We’re struggling to answer questions about their temperaments and routines based on the 72 hours we’ve had them. I’m frustrated and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of these children. I want to stop the meeting and stand on the table and shout that we really know nothing at all about them that can go on the forms, but we know everything we need in order to be their family: they were miraculously entrusted to us, they’re beautiful, they’re special, and we love them already.

We make it through the meeting without Daniel or I climbing on (or under) the table, and head home preparing to re-enter work life now that the children have child care.

Days go by, and we’re struggling with routines. Breakfast, bedtime, bathtime and school drop off are all producing producing spectacular meltdowns. We try each of them differently every day to try to figure out what will work, and at school we’re gently reminded that a routine only works when it’s done the same way each time. I’m exhausted and emotionally fragile, and this kind advice doesn’t go over well. How many times have I myself preached the gospel of routine to a struggling parent who is just desperate to avoid the next tantrum? How many times have I offered advice instead of empathy?

The next day at work I do an intake on a family that’s new to my program. A parent walks in exhausted with a child on her hip and a manilla folder in her hand. She sets the folder down in front of me, and her anxiety is palpable. I can tell she’s sat in an office waiting to receive services or be accepted to a program before. We both know what happens next: The sorting out of this family’s story. I’ll stack medical records in one pile and income information in another and cut-off notices and bills in a third, and by the end of the meeting have enough data points on the family to fill a fact sheet that will fit nicely on a clipboard. What can’t be tucked under the clip of a clipboard or filed in a manilla folder is the tension of not having slept in days, the fear that rough relatives or a harsh neighborhood will draw your child down the wrong path, the joy when your three year old tells her first joke, the vision you hold close to your heart of your child’s future.

The paperwork can’t be avoided for long, but we have a minute or two to chat before we get started. Her hours at work were recently cut, and now her electricity is about to be cut off. She cried in front of her kid in the parking lot of the grocery store yesterday when the total came out higher than she thought and she had to put the coffee back on the shelf. I tell her that my husband and I welcomed two children still in diapers into our home last week and I had never before in my life changed a diaper. Her straight face holds for only a second before she laughs at me until she cries, and then we’re crying together. There’s really no such thing as a professional parent.