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.

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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.

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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