The nonlinear life of a foster mom and why congratulations fall flat

The nonlinear life of a foster mom and why congratulations fall flat

Life as a foster parent is nonlinear.

When you are fertile. When you have biological children, there are certain things you can expect. You get pregnant. You have a newborn. That newborn turns into an infant. The infant turns into a toddler, who turns into a preschooler, who turns into a full blown kid, who turns into a teenager. There are predictable phases and they will be with you throughout.

With foster parenting this isn’t the reality.

We said yes to a call for a newborn Sept. 22 and picked him up from the hospital the same day. We drove two hours into Chicago to get him and sat in the NICU for the three hour discharge process. Nurses bumbled over paperwork – ‘Wait, do foster parents get this form? Are they allowed to know the parents name? Does the social worker need to be here for this?”

He was a beautiful little tadpole but the case was as brand new as he was and we had no idea what to expect. I withheld hope and chose to enjoy our time with him minute to minute.

When you are a traditional parent you can wonder what to dress your baby as for Halloween. When the girls asked me what he would be this year, the only realistic answer I could give was “It depends on if he is still with us. He may not be” as I restrained myself from spending $35 on a newborn dragon costume/swaddle hybrid (the wings were the swaddle. It was adorable.)

His background story is not mine to share, but it was a case of government overreach in my opinion. There wasn’t any real reason to remove him from his biological family. With that opinion from the start, I tread lightly with my emotions as best you can with a 7 pound baby clutching your chest, watching you with wide-eyes and complaining loudly at 2 a.m. As tired as I was, I embraced almost every minute of it, because I knew our time with little love would likely be short.

We were prepared for him to go at any minute, which is why all the congratulations I heard felt so unfitting.

I walked out of the NICU of the hospital, baby in tow and the security guard said “Congratulations!”

I stood with the nurse in the lobby of the hospital with baby in his carseat, waiting for my wife to pull the car around from the garage. “Congratulations!” A woman said, as she walked by with her beautiful box braid adorned toddler in tow.

I stood there, a white foster parent in a Cook County public hospital, taking a Black newborn to my home away from his family because the government decided his young Black mother was too much of a risk to allow her to parent. Before she had done anything wrong.

I had to put aside my fervent desire for a baby to call my own with this case. And it’s hard. But we do hard things all the time in this life.

I took baby out with my family and other foster daughter to a pumpkin patch the next weekend and strangers couldn’t help but comment on the tiny boy wrapped against my chest in a carrier that has held many before him.

“Wow, how old is he? Congratulations!”

“Aw, I remember that age!”

“I brought my baby here too when he was two weeks.”

Most people know that when they have a baby, they can look forward to raising him or her. They can build meaning and traditions. They can plan holidays. They can bring them back to the same places and say, “We took you here when you were two weeks old.”

With foster parenting, every minute is shifting sand and you exist in this limbo of parent but not really.

When I heard “congratulations” or “Oh wow you look great!” I felt the need to explain myself.

Well he isn’t mine REALLY. I’m just playing pretend until the judge sends him home. I’m not a mom, REALLY. Even though I am experiencing the same awe and wonder, the same sleep deprivation, the same worry and frustrations, the same financial outpour for this new life that needs formula and clothes and bouncy seats and sleep sacks and diapers and and and.

But it’s not the same at all, which is too much to unpack after “Aw, congratulations!” So instead I smile wanly, and say “Thank you, or “He’s a blessing all right.”

In the back of my mind – with every child who comes into my home – I know it may not last. I buy gender neutral and keep receipts in case the baby moves. Who has to worry about their babies moving out? Traditional parents don’t have that in their head. They can embrace the pure joy of a new baby. The people around them can embrace the joy of new baby, without qualifiers.

And it stings, when you introduce new baby and hear “oh, well can you keep him?” Or “I thought you were taking a break?” Or “Oh, well what’s the story?” Or “You’re setting yourself up for heartbreak.”

I am at peace with the fact that he went home, because really I have no other choice. And it was the right thing. I am truly trying to be less selfish and more intentional about fostering to foster, without the expectation of adoption, of forever, on this journey and I’m getting better with each loss. Because it’s not about me.

I am worried for my long-term kids, and wonder if I'm selfish for continuing down this road of hello’s and goodbye’s which are hard on them. I wonder if I should suck it up and go for another round of fertility treatment, which I absolutely don’t want to do. I would rather explore any other avenue than more IVF. But I don’t know what the right answer is. I know what I want and after seven children in a year and a half I’m not sure foster care can give that to me. I wonder if my hope is destroying the family I have, as I push for more and more yes’s.

And in the midst of it all is our 8 year old, who has been with us from the start of our fostering journey, likely headed to adoption next year. The wild enthusiastic troubled exhausting wonderful spirited child, younger than her years, who calls me mommy. Our very first placement whom we have formed traditions and rituals with and is as much a part of our family as the rest of us. The child who has welcomed and said goodbye to so many of our other children. I may not have gotten what I wanted…but when I slow down and look closer I feel like I might have after all.

We need a break and I think I need to force myself to take one. I haven’t texted our recruiters or licensing workers to inform them of our new opening, and I think it needs to stay that way for awhile. My fingers are itching but my soul is so tired.

And I think I may need to find the joy in the family I have, even if my baby never comes.

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