Foster Parenting In a Word

· Reflections on What It's Really Like ·

August 9, 2016

I can’t put my finger on it; can’t shape the words with my mouth, much less cleanly sort them out in my mind. This isn’t one thing or another. It’s everything. One hot mess of good and bad and broken and mending and frustration and filling and and and. I can’t say what foster parenting is in a word, because it isn’t a word, it’s a relationship. This knot of feelings and responsibility refuses to be summed up in a meme or off-hand description of what’s happened to me since last year.

“Hello. This is Sofia from County Foster Care. I’m calling about a baby boy.”

My phone goes off with the recorded blast message whenever there’s a new child needing a home. An eighteen month old girl with visits twice a week. A seven year old boy with no visits at the present time. A sibling set of four, ages ten, seven, six and four months, all girls. Sometimes I get as many calls in a week. Sometimes over a month. It varies.

There are direct calls too. After hours, as I’m getting my own kids to bed or occasionally at 2:00 AM. “Sandra, there’s a baby here in the offices with a worker, could you take him?” In the background I can hear him: frantic, guttural newborn yelps making it hard to concentrate. “He’s hungry, and he’s never taken a bottle before.” Something sinks, while something else rises inside of me; I can’t articulate either. I can only feel it.

“Okay, I can be there in twenty to thirty minutes,” I resolve, committing myself to the unknown.

I’ve done it four times now. (And written about it here and here.) Plus pinch-hitting for a few other foster parents as needed. I wanted to say that by this point, almost a year in, it would be comfortable and I’d feel experienced and capable. I waited for that feeling to come, that my feelings wouldn’t be so unfamiliar, so unable to be articulated. It hasn’t happened. There are too many.

*             *            *

Twelve hours in, circling my arms around a three year old to my bike handles as he perches on the kiddie seat bolted to mine. Having him in this shared space with me somehow bursts open the space inside, expanding, opening, and forcefully shaking confines of who and how and when I thought I could love. 

Packing his things quickly in shopping bags. He’s leaving almost as fast as he came. I tuck one of the marbles he loved so much into his jeans pocket. He may have no memory he was ever here, but he will find the little glass ball next time he gets dressed. I hope.

Getting up every two and half hours with a newborn that my body longs to nurse as one of my own but I. just. can’t. I mix clumpy formula and water, shake the bottle, and whisper to him. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here. But I don’t know how long it will last.

The baby falls asleep against my chest, sticking to my skin. I breathe in this tiny human, smaller than any of my own babies were, awed; I’ve rarely kept anyone else this close to me. Contentedly, he slumbers on, half-smiling in his sleep. I am everything in his two week old sight-line, his person. My knees buckle a bit at the weight of that thought while I easily carry the six pounds he weighs.

I cringe at my jealousy when she swoons for her mother, who will spoil her for a few hours new cheap toys, fast food and a clip of the attention she aches for; then will the visit will end and she’s back home with me. I will clean her when she wets herself; hold her when bangs her head on the floor in sadness and frustration; teach her how to eat real food; and go make twenty-five calls, write seventeen emails and visit the office five times to turn in paperwork for her to start preschool.

Letting go of her bike seat, I run beside her as she pedals free. The soaring shared jubilation swallows almost all those hours of all else.

Singing, dancing and spoon feeding to coax a seven year old to eat vegetables because most all of them are alien and abhorrent to her experience. In her tightly shut mouth silver crowns protect the years of rot and lack of nourishment that have brought her to this point at my kitchen counter now. She parts her lips and the glinting tipped teeth catch my eye.

*          *           *

I can’t properly tell you how hard this work is—how it has demanded so much more of my heart and hard work than anything I could have imagined. I can’t show you how beautiful it is either.

It’s complicated. It’s so messy.

I can’t put my finger on it; can’t shape the words with my mouth, much less cleanly sort them out in my mind. This isn’t one thing or another. It’s everything. One hot mess of good and bad and broken and mending and frustration and filling and and and. I can’t say what foster parenting is in a word, because it isn’t a word, it’s a relationship. This knot of feelings and responsibility refuses to be summed up in a meme or off-hand description of what’s happened to me since last year.

The closest I can get is love.

In depth and demands, it is.

*        *          *

When the glint of those teeth is gone, and phone rings again, it’s be the same and new all over again.  I won’t have any words to put to it, but I’ll probably say yes.

August 11, 2016

3 Comments

  1. Kellie

    August 9, 2016

    And I’ll say yes to reading whatever you write. Lovely, and love-lorn-y piece Sandra.

  2. Rozy

    August 9, 2016

    My parents, mostly my mother, fostered newborn babies for years. This was before “the pill”, and social acceptance of single mothers, and abortion. When asked how she could care for these babies and then give them up she would answer, “I know they are not mine to keep. I just want to give them the best start in life that I can. I want them to know they are loved, to feel secure, and to be happy.” She, and all other righteous foster mothers are my heroes. I don’t know if I could do it. Thank you to those of you who do.

  3. Sherilyn Olsen

    August 9, 2016

    Much of what you’ve written here pertains to my adoptive relationship, too. Another word that describes what you’re doing is sacrifice. I think the sacrifice usually comes before the love in the case of parenting non-biological children, but eventually (sometimes quickly and sometimes not) sacrifice bleeds into love, and you have a messy combination of both. This could be why it’s so difficult to sum up in just one word, and at the same time why you want to try so hard to do it. Besides love, isn’t sacrifice the only other thing we give that emulates what our God has done for us? As he sacrificed life, we sacrifice a predictable life. And foster parenting must take that to an entirely new level. I’m glad you shared this, Sandra.

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