Exactly a year ago at the end of a crazy, long week (Eric’s final grades due Tues, thought we were getting three kids Wed., annual “hey, let us look under your beds and in your closets” foster care recertification, which annually gives me PTSD because my limited cleaning skills get close scrutiny on Thursday, heavy garden push on Friday… we promised the kids a completely relaxing, laid back, nothing-going on Memorial Day Weekend. These would be famous last words.
At 3:30 on Friday afternoon as I was shaking off the compost from planting almost all my tender plants (a rare efficiency that would turn out to be incredibly moronic, as we had a suprise hard frost on Memorial Day Monday), the phone rang with the county’s number. We did not particularly want any kids that day. I looked at Eric. He looked at me. “I am sure it is not a placement call. After all, it is 3:30 on the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend – everyone will have gone home. It is probably just Z’s social worker with a question for us. No big deal.” These would be more famous last words.
In fact it was homefinding. They had six kids, 3mos-10 years. Would we take some of them? All of them? It was complicated – we ended up with four, and not necessarily the four we originally agreed to take. Two of my children’s brothers are in a different home together, although it took a little while for everyone to settle to where they were going to be. And so came Q., then 16 mos, K. and R. then-3 1/2 year old twins, and D. 10, going rapidly on 11. With our then-10 month old foster son Z., that gave us four children under 4, and developmentally speaking, five children under 4 (Eli, our autistic eldest operates at about 2-3 years old). The twins had significant developmental issues – at 3 1/2, behaviorally and cognitively they functioned like 18 month olds (K.) and 2 year olds (R.). Both raged and tantrumed for hours every day – they had almost no functional language and were responding to both the incredible trauma in their home of origin and the trauma of being removed. The only words we were sure both children shared on the first day were “bitch” and “booty.” Add in a pre-teen girl who crossed the cusp of puberty thirty seconds after arrival, with all the joys of that mixed up with trauma and removal and well…it was hard.
The last year was really hard, actually – although for the most part I realize how hard only in retrospect, since for a year I had little time for reflection. I was accustomed to saying that nothing I had ever done as a parent – fostering, caring for 7 or 8 kids at a time, dealing with autism, etc… was ever as hard as the first few months of Eli’s life when he had colic, screamed 7-10 hours a day, and slept no more than two hours at a stretch. Indeed, I felt that after baby boot camp, I could handle anything. And we did handle it – but this came close to matching the Eli experience.
In foster care anything can happen and usually does, and well, it did this year. I can’t honestly talk about much of it, but besides the usual traumas my kids underwent (those in their birth home, the trauma of being picked up from your old life and place din a new one, visitation and the back and forth with birth family) there was more. Lots more. If you could have a list of “things that can go wrong in foster care and make both the children’s and the foster family’s life harder” we’d have covered quite a number of them this year – and it ain’t over yet. A year is a very short time in foster care, and while the children are not going anywhere anytime soon, and we will happily adopt them when and if the situation is resolved thus, it will be a while – most likely at least another year.
There have been plenty of wonderful things about this very challenging year. As I wrote previously, Zion’s mother surrendered him, and we will finalize our adoption of this amazing little boy (and I can finally post pictures of the intolerable cuteness) on June 11, with friends and family in attendance. He will be a few weeks short of his second birthday.
In a year everyone made an amazing amount of progress. R. caught up entirely developmentally, making two full years worth of progress in less than a year. She is now a calm, well behaved, bright, athletic, loving 4 1/2 year old. K. has some more serious disabilities, but he made a full year’s progress in a year, so is now behind, but moving forward. He has developed some real strengths – he is by far the kindest of our kids, and is so proud to be our helper with the littler ones. He no longer cringes every time an adult disciplines him.
Q. had spent pretty much her entire life in a playpen and didn’t feel she needed adults – but flowered under the love and affection of our family. She is a very bright, very funny, very loving toddler who adores her almost-twin Zion (she is five months older than he). The two of them are inseparable – except on the not-too infrequent occasions when they both have to have the same toy.
D. had the hardest row, because she was old enough to know what was happening to her, and lord knows, adolescences is hard enough without all the losses that come with removal and foster care. Add into that her move to other relatives and abrupt and painful return to us, and D. has had a hard year – but has weathered that year and made a lot of progress too in managing her emotions and getting along with others, as well as some much needed academic progress. We are deeply proud of her.
Getting four kids was really bad for my farm, my blog and my writing career. It was hard on the boys at first, and has continued at times to have challenges as well as pleasures and rewards. It has exhausted us, stressed our marriage and reduced all of us to tears at times. It was, however, wholly worth it. I used this quote in another post once, but it remains the one I think about in terms of foster care “Of course it is hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great!” (Tom Hanks on baseball, not foster care in _A League of Their Own_) I wouldn’t change a thing, although I am glad I will not have to live through this year again anytime soon.
Now to the future. Last year we barely farmed, and in many respects, just got by. In a way, my first experiences of parenting are what got me through that – when I fretted that I hadn’t written anything in months, I reminded myself that I wasn’t a blogger during my first few parenting years, that you get maternity leave for giving birth or adopting one 8lb baby, and that I can give myself a break for struggling with the sudden acquistion of 120lbs of additional kids ;-). We will get through it – the farming, the canning, the having time to write, the having time to just sit…it will all come back. And some of it has. It will be a small garden this year. We sold the cow and are selling a number of our goats (if you are looking for Nigerian Dwarf does in upstate NY, we can give you a good deal). My goal is to put up enough jam, pickles and applesauce – but perhaps not the rest. But I’m taking the long view on this – the truth is that the rest will come back.
And writing? How much as what kind? I think that will be coming back too – this summer Eric and I have worked out a schedule so that I can really write again, and I have a couple of things in progress, including a possible book. I need to revisit my old focus as well – there is so much to write about in terms of energy and climate change and the intersection of that with my poverty work. Again, I wasn’t a writer during my first few years head-down in motherhood, and I have had to give myself that reminder more than once when I felt guilty for not doing more.
The other question that is floating around is whether we are done fostering or not? There is every chance that we are now a permanent family of 11 – do we want to foster anymore? Do we want to risk breaking our hearts again? How will the new kids do with that? Do we want the stress and exhaustion and hassle? And ultimately, do we want to risk becoming a family of 10 or more kids? Stay tuned. The truth is that foster parents are desperately needed, and we have the space and the ability – but maybe not the will. We shall see. I feel like I should be saying “Stop me before I foster again!” But the truth is that we CAN move over a little more and make room, and the need is so desperate, and the kids are suffering so much that it is hard to say no.
As I said, we shall see. What I do know is that now that I understand the system so much better, I want to write and think about it more, because it is a location that DESPERATELY needs attention drawn to its weaknesses, because there is so hugely much at stake in these kids’ lives.
So I know I have said I am back before, but I think I actually am. But that could just be more famous last words…;-).