Every time my life settles down enough for me to return to regular blogging, crazy stuff happens. First there was the sudden arrival of newborn baby Z. – we were called at 2:30 pm and by 4:30, Eric was picking him up at the hospital. Since normally one gets more than umm…two hours to prepare for the arrival of a new baby, we were a little discombobulated.
Then there was much back and forth insanity as the County and C. and K.’s family attempted to make possible a visit from across the US to our area. We didn’t know until last Friday whether it would happen – and all of a sudden it was. For five days we spent almost all our time shuttling the boys back and forth and hosting their family member to make it possible for everyone to spend time together. On Tuesday, in court, the family member was awarded custody of C. and K. (something that was absolutely the right thing, but that we hadn’t necessarily expected), and two few hours later, the boys were on a plane back across the US. There was barely time to say goodbye.
Fortunately I had packed their backpacks and suitcases, and swore up and down I’d send their things. They came with toothbrushes, one spare shirt each, a pair of socks and one of underwear, and their school backpacks. It will take six big boxes to mail their stuff back home. I want all my kids to leave with more than they came with – I mean that in every sense, emotionally as well as physically, but building a basic platform of met physical needs is critical. Kids who have nothing feel they are nothing. Kids with clean clothes and stuffed animals to hug and books to read and shoes that fit haven’t got all they need – but it is a start. That’s why I work so hard at building a stash of toys, clothes, books, etc… – often the people they go home to have few financial resources, and while we aren’t rich, we have more than we need.
The boys had been with us for almost three months, and in that time, we’d become a family. We are fortunate – K. and C.’s family wants to keep in touch and let us stay in the boys’ lives, but it is a huge change, not just for Eric and I who lost our sons, but for my children, who lost their brothers. We are all sad to lose them, even though we are truly happy that they have gone home and are with their family.
Transitions in foster care are always hard, and almost always rapid. You get a call and the adrenaline starts pumping – they’ll be here in 2 hours with four siblings, or you have to pick them up before things close at 5. The same with goodbyes – in a perfect world there would be visits and transitions. In reality, mostly the kids leave as soon as the judge rules. You know it can happen, but you struggle with what to tell them (not wanting to raise either hopes or fears), and also with what to tell yourself. Then you are gathering up their things and taking them away.
In most cases, my kids have moved to live with family, in something called kinship care. The computer era has made it possible to find relatives that no one would have every known about. A new culture that values familiarity and stability means that relatives, or “fictive kin” – ie, someone the child has a prior relationship with – get priority. I have never yet had to do the thing all foster parents fear – send a child home to a family member that hurt or neglected them. I’m sure it will happen at some point, but generally they go to relatives. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing – family work heroically to get the children. There was the grandfather who spent 36 hours on a bus, the father who nearly bankrupted himself trying to get into a place for him to take his kids.
Sometimes kinship care is less ideal – a relative already struggling takes on children or more children to keep them in the family. It can work, or not. Some of my children arrive after these situations fail. But ultimately the push now to keep kids in their family and community – as it should be. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. But it mostly is right.
I get more praise for doing this than I am comfortable with – the reality is that what I am doing is NORMAL – for most of human history, reaching out and taking in some extras was a natural reality of human existence. If you had a surplus of something – food, shelter, time, love – there were always those in need. For most of human history, short life expectations and high death rates meant that many children lived with kin or fictive kin for part of their lives. Indeed, in much of the world right now what I am doing would be utterly normal. Consider Uganda, where 95% of AIDS orphans were taken in by kin or fictive kin – even with orphanages overflowing, most of the children were taken in by family. In Haiti after the earthquake, the countryside was filled with families overflowing with refugees. This is what people do – we look around, and open up.
What’s different about my role is that I don’t have a biological relationship to the children I foster. But what I’ve found is that it takes less than two weeks for the kids to be as much mine as any I have given birth to. In all the placements we’ve had this year (and we’ve had quite a few), I’ve never had children I wouldn’t have wanted to keep. Biology just doesn’t count for much around here. Where it does matter is often to the children themselves – stripped of everything else they had, their sense of belonging is important to them. Family may be fragile and tenuous, but they have a place there, and they long for it. Sometimes it can’t happen – there is no one for them. In that case, adoption is the right thing. But more often, there is a place for them, if it can be found and facilitated, and when they are old enough to understand, that sense of place, however imperfect, is a gift for them.
I do not like to be told how wonderful I am for doing this, or how saintly. I do this for purely selfish reasons – because I like it. As Asher, my littlest grew bigger, even though he’s only six, as Eli became a near-adolescent 12, I could see the days when my children would be grown coming – and wanted to extend my time as a Mom a little longer. I don’t do it save kids, I do it to save a part of myself that I enjoy. I’m not a saint, I’m selfish – it just happens that what I want and need (more kids, a challenge, a more intimate view of a part of my world I wouldn’t see otherwise) is good for the kids too.
Thus, att the same time we are all missing K. and C., there’s an excitement at the project of cleaning out the room they were living in. I wish I could have them back, annoying packrat tendency to keep every gum wrapper and all, but as long as I can’t, I admit, getting rid of the gum wrappers is kind of pleasant. And it is nice to be able to bring down the dolls that otherwise would have been beheaded as Clone Spies in games of “Sith Lord vs. Jedi Master.” (While some boys like dolls, this batch was no respecter of baby dolls ) I would have the boys back in a heartbeat, but I also begin to look forward to the next kids who need us, and the next reconstitution of our family into something new.
K. and C. gave me a lot of gifts as a foster parent. They taught me how to handle some behaviors that are common responses to neglect and abuse. They showed me how much my boys really do want foster siblings their own age to play with. Their attentive caring for Eli, and the way they included him in the gang of boys made me realize that I could remind my own sons of ways to include Eli. Their pictures sit on my shelves, their artwork adorns my walls, the space they made in my heart is now open for someone else – and they will stay there too.
One of the things hardest to understand about foster care is the question “How can you give them back?” And I won’t lie, it sometimes breaks your heart. But loving children means wanting what is best for them, and as the song goes, “Broken hearts won’t kill you, you’ll just want to die.” That wanting to die doesn’t last, thankfully. Sometimes I’m not sure what is best, or what is best isn’t possible, and that’s hard as heck. But often what’s best for them is for them to go – I can see that what I can give K. and C. does not outweigh that. I can give them back because I love them. For the exact same reason I could keep them.
On Tuesday, when they went home, I called up an elderly relative of theirs who I have gotten to know over the course of court-ordered weekly phone calls. I knew no one would have had time to call her and let her know what happened in court. My first words to her were “Your babies’ plane takes off in 45 minutes. They’ll be home tonight” She cried. I cried. It was one of the best phone calls I have ever made.
They called yesterday when they made it to their new home, full of stories about their first plane ride and how excited they were to see their relatives. I cried, again, of course, although I tried not to. I told them how the baby goats were doing and what we’d been doing since, and promised to pack up all their toys and not forget one. And I said goodbye for now – but we’ll send birthday presents and talk on the phone. It won’t be the same – but they will remain family.
Then I went upstairs and put clean sheets on the beds that are not theirs anymore, and packed up the rest of their toys to mail to them, along with boxes of clothes and shoes, school supplies for fall and everything they will need (much provided my my wonderful extended family so they will never go short). I took down the baby dolls and the preschoolers toys, rearranged the books and swept up the accumulated choking hazards that two little boys leave in their wake wherever they go, snuggled Baby Z. (who will probably also go home at some point in the next few months) and wondered when the phone will ring next. Like the boys, I’m taking with me more than I came with.