It’s just past 2 am. I’m studying his nose. It’s tiny and delicate, slightly spread like my grandfather’s was. There have been many sleepless nights like this one: spent first drifting half-eyed in and out in of marathon breastfeeding sessions and, later, when he began to sleep for longer stretches, the frequent wake-ups in panic, urgently seeking out the rise and fall of his chest.
I was always aware of how precious and fleeting those moments were but I also see them now as nights of privilege because I experienced them, just like generations of mothers before me, as a mother who is healthy, supported, loved, and therefore able to parent fully as she chooses.
But this sleeplessness is different. We have just made a decision to invite almost the certainty of profound loss into his life and to do so goes against every fiber of my being as his mother.
In the first three years of our young biological son’s life, we have been blissfully and even obnoxiously happy. We chase butterflies. We paint rocks. We climb mountains, discover caves, visit far-away lands. We (literally) sit on blankets in the clover listening to folk music, play with puppies, and soak up too much sun. Our home is filled with light, laughter, spontaneous dance parties, and fireflies on summer evenings.
I went days and weeks without a thought to the tremors of a newborn born drug-exposed or to the unnatural quiet of a toddler who has learned that their cries are meaningless.
Our son’s first birthday came and went and, like so many parents before us, we began to consider growing our family. We talked often about if, when, and then how. Adoption and foster parenting entered those conversations only as a vague concept. It was “a way to consider,” because we always intended to consider it, when the time came.
On any given day, there are over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, over 10,000 of them in North Carolina. Children often wait three years or more to be adopted, move three or more times in foster care and often are separated from siblings.
And so we started this journey. We read books and we met foster families. We imagined ourselves with their lives.
We found that the reasons why many started this journey were as variable as the families themselves. Even my closest friends might find this surprising, but, I myself lived with a few different families as a child and young adult, outside of foster care, starting at not quite two years. I know firsthand just how profound of an influence a temporary caregiver can have on a child’s life. It’s impossible for me to know who I’d be today without them.
And then there was a little girl that I will never forget. We can call her Lucy.
Lucy was in the burn unit at UNC Hospital while I was a college student, squeezing in shadowing physicians in the wee hours of the morning while I spent my days divided between chemistry research, physics classes, and internships. As soon as I walked into her room, her tiny frame stretched itself to reach out to me, a total stranger. (I recognize that now as a potential sign of an attachment disorder – the indiscriminate craving of connection with strangers sometimes demonstrated with young children who don’t have a strong connection to a caregiver.)
Her thin face lifted and brightened expectantly as though she had waited her whole life for me to walk into that room and she said, quite simply, “Up!” But the PA that I’d walked in with had to show me her clinical history and the nurse that followed behind scurried past us to check her vitals. The PA reviewed her case with me, how her entire front side had been scalded by boiling water, how the story provided by her mother didn’t match the clinical findings, how they’d performed x-rays and found dozens of skull fractures and others, since healed. A social worker had been called. I was there a couple of hours later when a young couple walked into the room, her temporary foster parents on the emergency hotline, there until a permanent foster placement could be found.
As I watched that couple walk into the room and offer her a warm embrace, I felt a sudden pang of awareness: What I wanted was a career that afforded me the flexibility to be there for a child like Lucy. I didn’t want to heal her physical wounds and send her off, wishing on a star for the best. I yearned to be the one who changed that little girl’s life.
And yet, a decade later, as we started to prepare ourselves in earnest, we found ourselves turning away, realizing just how naive we were. We’ve turned away many times over the past two years.
The first time, of course, was when we confronted the most cited reason for not getting licensed: the idea of losing a child we might consider our own. We knew of course that unification was a possibility. What we didn’t know is that the average stay in care before reunification or the permanence of adoption in the United States is 20 months, 19 months in our state. Not only would it be possible to be placed with a newborn who is later reunified at nearly two years of age but it wouldn’t even be unusual. The term “foster-to-adopt” is not really a thing in any real sense. Reunification to natural family, parents, or kin, now stronger and more capable, is the point of foster care.
Not only would we have to be prepared for reunification, if we were going to do this, we’d have to support it.
We turned away when we got overwhelmed by the acronyms we didn’t understand to describe the mental health challenges faced more often by children in foster care or adoptees, including those separated at birth. Many of these challenges could not be foreseen at the time of adoption or placement. Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, for example, aren’t yet fully understood and often don’t manifest until 2 or 3 years. It’s relatively common for babies who are born drug-exposed amid a rising opioid epidemic to also have been exposed to alcohol in utero without it being known.
In fact, as we heard time and again from foster parents, not only can a social worker not necessarily anticipate what the behavioral needs of a child might be now or in the future, but they often don’t have an accurate age … or sometimes so much as know the child’s name…when they call with a placement.
We turned away when we considered how forming a relationship with their family might challenge our own felt safety.
Each time, we sat in the discomfort, then leaned into the discomfort until it seemed possible to face again, this time stronger. And we found ourselves turning back.
Over time, we picked up on all of acronyms and saw past the diagnoses to the unmet needs behind the behaviors of those children. We learned about the different ways in which other parents have responded to food insecurity, panic attacks, and other trauma-related disabilities, with acceptance and connection, day after day, hour after hour. We adjusted our expectations to reflect that there is no quick fix, that bringing a child into a loving family, even at birth, does not result in a clean slate, for a child that has, at a minimum, experienced the trauma of separation. We learned about the types of therapies that seem to work best should those mental health challenges manifest, long term, and, most importantly, the ones that don’t. We learned about ourselves and our own childhoods in the process. We became stronger parents.
We talked to former foster youths and to adoptees. We learned that many adoptees grow up feeling adrift, unable to express a hole left by a lack of genetic mirrors to their adoptive parents, a longing for their natural mother, the feeling that a limb is missing. We tried to mentally prepared ourselves for the possibility that all of the love we can offer might not be enough to fill that hole for an adoptive child. We decided that we shouldn’t expect it to, for their sake, because what they need and what they deserve is a parent that can hold that space for them, unconditionally, regardless of our own feelings.
I can feel so acutely, already, just how much easier that would be to say than do.
We learned that it takes only three months, three months of secure attachment, for a young child to be able to transfer that stronger attachment to another caregiver. Forming a trust-based relationship with a caregiver is, in essence, proof to a small child that it’s possible and has the power to change the way they approach relationships for the rest of their lives.
We talked to people who grew up with foster siblings, some reunified, some adopted. We learned that those we met felt as though the losses were hard but they wouldn’t have changed their childhood experiences. A few planned to become foster parents themselves.
We spoke to many long-term foster parents who told us that out of dozens of placements, the vast majority had parents who suffered from mental health or substance abuse problems or lack of financial support. A few foster parents told us that they had at least one case that they felt probably shouldn’t have been in care at all. I heard precious few stories of natural parents who seemed genuinely uncaring or callous – once their story was pieced apart.
Finally, we talked to natural parents whose children had been in care. These conversations, for me, were the hardest. It was hard for me to forgive them, to see them as anything but parents who failed their children, even if the reason the child was in care had nothing to do with that parent, but rather the actions of someone else.
But eventually, I began to wonder about what happened to Lucy, and why. Did her mother have all of those basics supports that I have as a mother? Does she have a village
she can trust, access to affordable childcare, the support of a loving partner, financial security, with mental and physical health intact? Or did she fall asleep on the couch after working double shifts and Lucy reached up to grab a pot of boiling water? Did Lucy get scalded while she was being watched by an over-enrolled in-home childcare provider, the only childcare option her mother could afford, because her mother had to choose between quality childcare and food? Did Lucy’s mother grow up in foster care, moved from home to home, until she grew into an adult, perhaps with mental health or substance abuse problems, who has trouble taking care of herself, let alone children?
Did Lucy’s mother have to endure not only learning that her child had been suffering under the care of a provider but also not being able to be there for her in the hospital, then lose her to the foster care system? Did she get her back? Did she lose her job trying to take the parenting classes required by the state and show up to all of her court dates?
Are we failing Lucy, now a teenager, right now in the same ways that we, perhaps, failed her mother?
Would what happened to Lucy have happened if her family had been white and/or affluent?
I can’t know of course what really led up to Lucy and I encountering one another in that hospital. But I know now to not assume the worst of Lucy’s mother.
Somewhere along the way, it was no longer about growing our family at all. What we hope now, more than anything, is that our future placement has a family that we can rally behind. We hope that we will see the day, for them, that we mourn our loss as they are returned to their natural family, if they can safely do so. We hope that we have the strength to set aside our needs for theirs, to be able for their sake to support reunification – if it is safe. And that we’re strong enough to fight for them if it isn’t.
We hope that we can love their parents as much as we love them.
I wish that I could share with you here that after all of this, we sit secure in our choice. That we feel prepared and that we feel sure that this will be an experience that strengthens rather than weakens our family.
Instead I can offer only this: the journey of becoming a foster parent isn’t about preparation. It’s about mourning. We mourn for the loss of the mother and child not yet in our lives and also for our own losses. We mourn the innocence and naïveté of parenting a child whose entire life we’ve shared. We mourn the lost privilege of enjoying the little moments, decorating a Christmas tree, the first step, without mourning their parent’s loss of the same and theirs of sharing it with them. We mourn the loss of parenting a child that has always known that above all, they are loved and safe.
We mourn at least the semblance of control over our family planning. I miss feeling with certainty, while pregnant with our son, that my instincts will steer me in the right direction.
We mourn celebrating when and if we do adopt a child, because that adoption will symbolize loss for that child and for that child’s family.
We mourn now, because if we mourn now, we’ll be more available to tend to the feelings of our child and our placement when they need us to.
It is a choice. A choice to sit in the deep dark corners with a child, to potentially face with them the tide of their family history – the addictions, abuse, or neglect that have been passed down to their parents and ultimately on to them. And it is a choice to ask our child to do the same.
We can change our minds. We can choose now to turn away for once and for all. If we did, we will have chosen one child over another. One is merely hypothetical, the other is already in this world somewhere, arms outstretched. And the greatest rewards in life come with the greatest risks.
by William Arthur Ward
To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.
Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.
The pessimist complains about the wind;
The optimist expects it to change;
And the realist adjusts the sails.