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.