As adoptive parents we want our children to know that we are constant, secure, forever loving and unchanging. As Foster parents, we want our foster children to know that we will fill in the gap for as long as it’s needed. We are willing to hang on if necessary and willing to let go when the time comes. We are trying to parent two different ways and we often wonder if our involvement in fostering will confuse or damage our children.
We interviewed our two teenage daughters last year on a segment we did on what it’s like to be a foster family. I’ll never forget my daughter’s thoughtful answer. “It’s exciting and fun to be a foster family. There is always someone to play with. It’s like you always have a friend at home. Then one day you go to school and when you come home your friend, your sister or brother is gone. That part is hard.”
My daughter’s words echo in my memory as I think back to some of our most difficult placements. Some of the children we fostered had severe medical or emotional needs. Sometimes we wonder if fostering a hurting child is really creating insecurity in our other 8 children.
Seven years ago we were faced with a call to parent a very challenging child. “Will you be able to pick up an 18 month old girl from the Children’s Hospital? She is failure to thrive but we think her mom and dad were neglecting her. We really believe that with structure and support she will begin to eat on her own and will eventually develop normally.” I believed the caseworker and accepted the challenge without question or hesitation. I firmly believed that this little girl would thrive under our care.
What I didn’t know was that the hospital was only having success with ng tube feedings and that she was having seizures almost constantly. What was supposed to be a quick pick up, turned out to be hours of medical instruction while my children waited at the neighbor’s house for me to return. It was the first of many times my children had to wait while I put baby girl’s needs first.
Once she was home, the kids loved her. She was odd in her mannerisms and it quickly became clear that she had never learned to sit in a chair or sleep in a bed. The first time we buckled her into a car seat she clawed at the buckle as if it were strangling her. Our children were patient with her though and they grew to understand all of her medical needs. They made her smile and she made them laugh hysterically. Baby girl was funny and cute and completely wild. We were happy and completely exhausted.
Baby girl threw up at least once a day and always managed to hit the carpet, the couch or my nice clean outfit. We kept a plastic tablecloth under her car seat so that we could quickly pull the car over, banish the smell of regurgitated Pediasure and return to life as normal. The only thing was, for six months our life was never really normal. Baby girl needed constant therapy, constant feedings and constant supervision.
For six months we didn’t volunteer in our children’s classrooms. We didn’t take our children to the movies or on trips. We could rarely find a sitter qualified to handle the intricacies of caring for our little girl. We tried to go to the park but she was like a spider monkey climbing fast and swift and just out of our reach. We attempted to go to our community pool but we ended up leaving after baby girl pulled her ng tube out, puked on the pool deck and then screamed like a banshee while removing her swim diaper and peeing on a lawn chair. It was like living with a tiny beautiful tornado.
Our children learned to care for baby girl’s needs. They cheered when she ate a bit of real food. They tagged along to home visits. They rejoiced as baby girl’s bio mom and dad learned every skill required to bring the child home. As the days turned to months our children adjusted to our new normal but Mike and I fretted over all that our children were missing out on.
The day she left, we cried. We packed her favorite things and kissed her goodbye. We hugged her parents and wished all of them well. We closed that revolving door and stood in the stillness. We wandered around in the emptiness that baby girl left behind. That’s when my son asked cautiously, “Do you think we could go to the playground today, or maybe the movies?”
Our children craved the normal that was before baby girl’s arrival. They were excited to be able to resume a little bit of freedom. We still ask the question, is foster parenting worth the upset it causes? Years have passed since baby girl left our home but her memory still lingers. As my family tells stories around the dinner table, baby girl’s name comes up often. The stories are not filled with pain or insecurity. They are brimming with joy, humor and the promise that in each relationship we have the potential to learn, grow and become better people. Yes, foster care is worth it. It is in the pain and discomfort that we have the potential to shine.
Have you struggled with the same thing on your journey as a foster parent? Share your story with us in the comment section.