As you may remember, after waiting for a long time for a sibling placement, Eric and I took what was supposed to be a weekend placement of a little boy, M. back in October. We picked him up on a Thursday afternoon, anticipating he’d go to his father on Monday, but for various reasons, that didn’t work out. They had already done an extensive search of extended family, and we were told that M. might be with us for the long haul, until his Mother was able to take him again – and for various reasons, it wasn’t clear whether Mom would be able to take him back.
Now the first rule of foster parenting is never assume. Don’t assume the caseworkers know everything, and don’t believe what they tell you about how long they are likely to be here. We didn’t – we were prepared to have him go home a few days after arrival, and we never have allowed ourselves to really assume that M. would stay with us. His intake worker (M. still doesn’t have a long-term caseworker) is a wonderful and incredibly supportive woman who we really enjoyed working with, and generally speaking, we’ve kept a hard hold on our fantasies of permanence.
This was tough, because M. is a delightful and utterly loveable little boy. He certainly struggles with sadness due to being apart from his Mom, and we suspect (due to his reactions) some trauma from things he has seen that no two year old should have to know about. At the same time he’s a delightful kid who fits beautifully into our family. When I asked Simon how he was feeling about having M. in the family he rolled his eyes and said “Mom, last week I had a bunch of little brothers. Today I have a bunch of little brothers. It just isn’t that different!” All of our boys have been wonderful, kind playmates and enjoyed having a little guy around.
Even as we held hard to any fantasies, repeating to ourselves regularly “ok, this is foster care, kids go home” daily, and reminding the children that this is the reality, we have had to admit to ourselves that we’d be glad if M. could stay. All of us have come to love him deeply. It only took a week for Eric and I to turn to one another and say that if he can’t go home, we want to adopt him.
Today we learned that an aunt who was missed by the kinship search run earlier has come forward, and is seriously considering taking M. This could be a good situation – she’s an experienced parent with older children, has a relationship with him and cares about him. Foster care begins from the assumption that the best place for any child is in their biological family if at all possible. Sometimes this means that kids are returned or left in homes that they really shouldn’t be, or that relatives are pressured heavily into taking kids they can’t care for and don’t want. At the same time, however, in this case his conscientious caseworker is really trying to determine what the best situation is, and she wants it for him. Our job is to help prepare M. to go to a new home (he’s had a lot of transitions and those are hard on kids) with his aunt, if necessary, and to let him know he’s loved and that we want to take care of him. We’ve asked his caseworker to include a note in the file saying that if he ever comes back into care, we want him to come to us, and she has done so.
If M. goes home, he’ll go with a winter wardrobe, books and toys, and the love of not just our immediate family but an extended family as well – grandparents and aunts and uncles who when he came embraced him. He’ll go home with all our best wishes and hopes, and any support we can offer. The thing we most wish for him – that he hadn’t had to experience any of this, that we could spare him another transition, well, we can’t give that, but he’ll go with our love and the promise that our home will be open to him if at all possible.
The most common response to the news that you foster parent is “I couldn’t do that, I’d get too attached.” The answer to that is that in fact, that’s the job – kids need attachments, they need love and care, they need you to get attached to them, and help them attach to you. There’s a reason why this job cannot be done by institutions or robots – they need people who will fall in love with them, advocate for them and stand for them and say “that’s my baby who I would do anything for,” Doing it temporarily for children that might go away is admittedly difficult – but it is harder for them than for us. I understand why M. might have to go. I may grieve, but I chose this – the children in foster care don’t choose this, they don’t choose to stay with us and learn to love us, they don’t choose to move home over and over again, leaving behind friends, siblings, pets, parents, toys – everything they love. To protect myself from pain and leave them to endure seems the wrong way around.
Every foster parent I know (and my parents were foster parents and we know many) tell this story – at some point a child you love very much and felt was your own will go away – sometimes after years and in hardship that makes our pain for M. who we’ve only had a month look like nothing. Getting back up on the horse afterwards and taking another child and loving them is what makes you a real foster parent in the same way that the velveteen rabbit became real – it is the wear and tear that makes you into what you can be.
It helps that we feel that the county has dealt honorably with us (not every foster parent does), and that we have a good relationship with his caseworker. It also helps that we have hope that this is a good situation for him. It isn’t enough, of course, but that’s ok – if it can be any kind of close to enough for him, then we can go forward into the next placement with a little more knowledge and the recognition that we’ve been made real.