***Editor’s note: In this guest post, an anonymous author writes about her journey as a foster mom in a concurrent foster home – a family who fosters in the hopes to adopt. Read her story of loving and letting go of her son.
I am a foster mom. This does not make me a saint, in it only for the greater good of children. Nor does this make me a monster, in it for the monthly stipend. Being a foster mom makes me a mom, a mom well-versed in loss. Which means being a foster mom makes me lonely, and not only because he’s not here anymore. I’m also lonely because no one understands and rarely tries to.
We Americans are not good at loss, nor are we good at talking about it or about feelings in general. The most common answer to the question, “How are you?” in this culture is “fine.” I know – in my darkest time the first months following my foster son’s reunification with his birth mom, “fine” was still my go-to answer, even if it was spoken through cheeks smeared with mascara tears.
It’s been over a year since he left, now. And I’m not fine. I spent two years with him falling asleep on my chest every night. Now I’ll never see him again. He’ll very likely never be told my name. I am not fine. This is my – our – story.
The foster care system is complicated, and I do not want this piece to be about the intricacies of its bureaucracy or the failings of its policies. I want this to just be an account of one foster mom and her son – no more, no less.
D was two-and-a-half months old when he came into my life. I had called my worker to check on the status of my license and ask for advice on how to apply for a spot on daycare waiting lists if I had no name to fill in on forms. She told me the license had been approved the day before and asked if I wanted a name for those forms. D had come into care two weeks earlier and was being cared for by a respite foster family while workers determined if any biological family members were viable placement options. Those routes had turned up dry, and he needed a permanent placement. I spent all day trying to get ahold of my then-wife (we have since divorced) to tell her we were meeting a new member of the family.
We showed up promptly at 4:00pm. D was wearing the smallest pair of socks I had ever seen. (Funny what we remember.) It was love at first smile. He was the smiliest baby. Our social worker had told us to let her know if it looked like a placement would work, and that we could make the transition happen sometime early the next week. D’s respite mom took one look at my face and asked if we wanted to take him home that night.
The answer was yes.
I felt like I was a parenting version of Billy Crystal at the end of When Harry Met Sally telling Meg Ryan, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” And so it came to pass that I spent an hour buying baby essentials (diapers, wipes, car seat…) while my wife ran to sign checks at volleyball orientation. We would later laugh at the absurdity of my Target run – what people must have thought – “Did this lady somehow miss that she was having a baby?” No, I just had one hour instead of nine months to prepare. It was worth the frantic running through the aisles and the confused looks at the checkout. It was worth all of it. They would have done the same had they just met the love of their life.
I am spending too long on the beginning of this story. It is on purpose. I know why. I don’t want to get to the end. I don’t want there to be an end. But there is.
We loved him. D came to our family in August of 2012. He left in January of 2014. We loved him. We had times of great joy and laughter. We loved him. We weathered storms, some inherent in the raising of an infant into a toddler, others unique to being a concurrent foster home – a family who fosters in the hopes to adopt. We loved him. We actively cultivated a positive relationship with his birth family. We loved him.
His last day is burned into my memory every bit as specifically as his first. His birth mom and grandma came over for brunch. D was dressed in his Sunday best. He giggled on the backyard swing. We watched Up, one of his favorite
movies. I cried and pretended it was because of the movie. I’m guessing I fooled no one. We spent hours together talking and remembering and making plans for his baptism, for his joint birthday party, for his weekly swimming lessons with us. All of these things happened. We saw him at least once a week, often more, for a full year after reunification. He spent Christmas with us. He was the ring-bearer in my sister’s wedding. We even found a way to all stick together through my divorce.
Then, one month ago, I got a call from his birth mom’s father. He didn’t know why, but she had told him she was cutting off contact with us. I don’t think I’ll ever know why. I don’t think my heart will ever be whole again.
I knew what I was getting into when I became a foster mom. I didn’t know it would hurt this much. I caught D after his first step. I taught him his first word. (It was “book.”) I was his mom. I knew it was probably temporary, but I didn’t hold my love back. Given a second chance, I would do it exactly the same. Every single kiss, hug, and cuddle. Every single second. Everything. He’s the best thing I have ever done. It was an honor being his mom.
When foster children are reunified with their birth families, foster parents create what is called a lifebook, essentially a photo album of the time they were a family, tangible memories to hold on to. I made a lifebook for D. I know his birth mom used to read it with him. I hope beyond hope that she still does, because it is the only way he will ever remember me. He was too young to retain memories of me when he lived with us. On days when I do not know how to deal with that fact, I take comfort in a different kind. In my job as a middle school teacher, we spend so many staff meetings pouring over data searching for trends to better inform our teaching. Around the time D left to live with his birth mom, I sat at one such meeting, studying test scores over the course of students’ entire school careers. Disgusted with her insight, a colleague of mine pushed her chair back and said, “Dammit. From what I can tell, the best indicator of whether or not a kid can read in 8th grade is whether or not that kid passed their kindergarten screener.” The rest of the teachers at the table groaned, feeling hopeless that their teaching was ineffectual. As a fellow teacher, I understood their dismay. But I also knew that screener. And I knew D could practically pass it already. As a foster mom, I couldn’t help but smile.
When people are kind enough to ask how I am and wait for an honest answer, I tell them I’m sad. I tell them I’m trying. And I tell them I’m thankful for every moment I had with him and for the fact that I know he had a solid start for the first two years of his life. I know I made a difference, even if he may never remember me. These people who are so kind to listen to all of this often thank me for being a foster mom. They often hug me. They often add some sort of compliment referencing my strength or bravery, sometimes calling me a saint or even a hero. It is the wrong thing to say.
I smile sadly. I thank them. I let them hug me.
But I don’t want to be a hero or a saint. I want to be his mom.
And there is nothing I can do about that. Except love him. For the rest of my life. Please, I’d rather not go through this alone.
The author of this post is a foster mom, aunt, and middle school teacher.