It was a long time coming, this foster Mama thing. We kicked around the idea of foster parenting for years as we became more permanent in our love and worked on building a life alongside one another. The process of becoming a foster parent is both direct and complicated. In our state, there is a lot of preliminary paperwork and bureaucracy. I read a study recently discussing why there is such a shortage of foster parents throughout our country, and the most frequent barrier reported was that prospective foster parents were simply never called back by their child welfare office. As in, a compassionate family or person calls to inquire about how to begin this process, has questions and leaves messages for their social work office, and... never hears back. Both stunning and unsurprising. We know it is a broken system. We hold that everyone is doing their best, workers are overwhelmed and often do not have the resources or supervision they need to do their best work. Those who have great support have a shortage of time given caseloads and family demands. And. We have a shortage of homes and kids in need. A complicated problem without a clean or easy answer.
There are lots of reasons people choose to foster and here were ours: we've both worked with kids in the system for many years and feel passionate about providing a safe and supportive home for kids in transition. We believe all kids deserve a place to land that can flex to them, rather than asking them to only flex to your home and rules. We wanted to create a home where kids feel like they're in a family that cares about their worth and values them. We wanted to create a home where kids feel like we are in this fully to help them get to the next step. We did not set out to adopt, and beyond that, we were clear that this was not our intention. Did we think that someday we would probably choose permanency for a kiddo we were fostering if it made sense and we were all a good fit together? Absolutely. Did we think we might grow our family through adoption at some point? Yes we did. But not now. This is foster care. This is for the kids without homes. This is where we parent kids like our own, without the plan for them being in our home forever. It was initially a really clean decision for us and it quickly got messy because, of course it did.
We were in the process of moving from the city proper, where we lived, to a bigger home in the suburbs just outside the city limits (in reality about three miles from where we lived previously). We called our family resource department and left voicemail, after email after voicemail. After a two month wait for the next MAPP (foster parent training) class to begin, we set out to have 10 Saturdays filled from 9-4pm to get trained and become licensed.
Our class group was a rather homogenous mix. We were the only gay couple (as we often are in this foster mama-ing circle, which is such a bummer because gays are really, really good parents too!). Most of the group was looking to foster as a primary source of income, or folks were looking to adopt.
We made it though our 10 weeks of class, which was a blur. The topics ranged from how to understand the state health insurance system, to our role as foster parents for kids waiting to reunify with their birth parents. There were five social workers who facilitated the class. One consistently fell asleep. One was awesome - passionate, knowledgeable. A no-shit foster mama herself. I loved her. The third cared but was overwhelmed and would talk about how overwhelmed she was. And two were training and mostly just observed. 10 weeks is a long time to be with any group and toward the end I had such genuine affection for many of the other participants it was almost bittersweet to leave (but I'm not gonna lie, I was psyched to have my Saturdays back). Its a funny thing to bridge connections to people who you would otherwise never cross paths with, those who have a strong religios faith and strong feelings about who you love and how you live. The first few weeks were tense, lots of discussion of God and the right and wrong way to live and raise kids. Some of the group members opinions cut right across our gayness and how we live. And then, like it almost always does in these situations, we slowly started the process of becoming human to each other. As a couple we are two almost 6 feet tall white, blond women. The artist is covered in tattoos. It's a lot of gay in your face if you're not used to that kind of thing. Many of us in that room saw things differently, but as the weeks passed many of us we crossed over to valuing each others hearts and ways of being in the world in a way that renders the bigger stuff not as big. A few fellow foster Moms there became some of my favorite people, and I gotta say, I didn't see that coming week one.
The Home Study
So after week 10? We get a piece of paper that says we are qualified to begin our home study. The home study is a long document written by your social worker telling the story of our life and how we became the family we are, really it is supposed to tell people about us and then decide if we are fit to parent kiddos in care. There were three meetings with our social worker, where we reviewed the questions and told stories about our families growing up, job history, dating history, parenting history and anything else personal you never wanted to tell a stranger. Then we were done and licensed about 6 weeks after we finished our class. I also forgot that we were called twice during our MAPP class and asked to take a 13 month old little girl and a teenager before we finished our home study; they were that desperate for homes. This was when I first realized this is going to be intense and we better get ready.
Emergency Foster Parents
Initially we agreed to be hotline foster parents - meaning we would take kids short-term and overnight in crisis situations or over weekends until the office opens up and they find longer term homes for them. We sucked at that. All the kiddos coming to us stayed weeks because we couldn't move them out until their next placement was organized and ready for them. Likely because we didn't rush kids out no one rushed to get things ready for them, so we shifted work schedules to accommodate school drop off and pick ups. Football practice and family visits. Uniform shopping and laundry and grocery shopping to get the very specific cereal kiddo liked most at home. It was beautiful and hectic and the hardest thing I've ever done. Every single time one of our kiddos left I would be in mourning, it felt like our home was empty and much too quiet. And I relished the time together again with the Artist, like when you haven't seen each other except to pass out in bed together in weeks, it's a beautiful thing to connect again. But a few days or even a week sometimes would go by and then we'd be at it again. We would work hard to get a routine and rhythm going for every kid when they first came into our home. Favorite breakfast foods were figured out, school snacks, notes in backpacks, laundry done so new socks or hoodies were ready to go to make the first morning back at school a little easier. We problem solved how to answer questions about who the people dropping them off at school were (almost all our older kids wanted to say we were Aunties they were staying with for awhile, which was creative and private and awesome). We got books to read aloud to them at night so they fell asleep listening to us read so they weren't up for hours with anxiety staring at the ceiling. Christmas lights and special night lights for everybody were figured out, even our pre-teens. It was always busiest the first few nights when we were all trying to figure each other out and what rules mattered and which ones we were drafting as a new family and specific to the kiddo in our home now. Some kids hated waking up, so we incentivized morning - horrible fast food breakfast and doughnuts too?! Totally. Whatever was gonna get kiddo up and feeling okay enough to take on the day given all the changes and shit they'd gone through in the last 24 hours.
Along came Tiny
And then we got asked to take a teeny Tiny 6 week old baby for a longer term placement and we said: Yes. This is what turned our world into something else entirely. By now we were used to being up late at night or early in the morning or even up all night with other bebes that stayed with us. But this tiny man was here for the indefinite future and that made things different. We had to flex our schedules - and we are super lucky at this point in our careers to be able to do that. One of us is home with him everyday, which means work is done after he's asleep or on weekends. Or at 3am because he's up and in the Ergopack and we can type. Those first few weeks were tough. We had no childcare, no help from the social workers and no idea what we were doing. We got every book we could on child development and called all our friends with kiddos and sourced constantly. We basically blew up YouTube.
And Mr. Toddler
Tiny was with us for 4 weeks when we were asked to take his 2 year old brother, who was getting kicked out of his placement because he was too challenging for his previous kinship foster Mom. We said yes. Because of course. Zero to one kid was tough. One to two kids felt like a freight train. Mr. Toddler did not sleep. He was up every 20-40 minutes for weeks when he first moved in. Tiny man was up every two hours. They were rarely up at the same time, which meant we were always up with one of them for 2 months. We were trying to work during the day and be adults, and - oh yeah - be connected partners. Those weeks were mind numbingly hard. What I didn't know is that when you take two kids into your home and go from no kids to 2 kids overnight, you feel instantly like a Mama, but your world and community around you doesn't respond to you like you are. I remember vividly leaving Mr. Toddler at daycare for the first time and driving away and thinking "My head and heart will never be in just one place again - a part of my awareness is always going to be with where he is and where I am." Two points to focus on, whereas before there was always just me. Just me and what I wanted or didn't.
I wish we had built up our support system more before kids came. I wish I had claimed the role of Mama earlier so we had the support sooner. Friends were confused as to why I couldn't just leave them with a babysitter in order to hang out. Or why I was delayed in texting back or responding to voicemails. Work was accommodating but surprised when I mentioned hard deadlines to get daycare pickups or cancelations for sick kids. It's a huge, huge shift - an amazing one and one that at times felt impossible. So here we are now, solidly three months into this family of 4, and four months as a family of 3. We're not sure how long we'll stay this way. Sometimes I hope it's forever, sometimes I worry if registering Mr. Toddler for swim lessons over the summer is too premature and if we will even be able to know him and love him like we do now months from now. Foster care is tough stuff, in all the ways we expected (broken system, unresponsive workers, challenging behaviors from our kiddos at times). But what I didn't expect is the way my heart is just swelling with love for these little people while at the same time preparing myself to help them move on. That tension is almost overwhelming at times and we often have conversations about the whole fostering process - how can you love and care while preparing to leave and separate. But that's the business we are in right now so we are signing up for swim lessons and ordering beach towels with dinosaurs on it (Mr. Toddler is really loving his "RAWR!" sound these days) because thats what we do around here. We just keep loving and planning. Moving forward. And raising them like they're our own for as long as they are.
-Foster Mom (the therapist)