I've been waiting for two weeks to feel differently about what has happened to Big Sis. I've been waiting to feel some semblance of closure, or even the stillness that comes when I know what to do next. I've gone back and forth about whether even saying anything is appropriate, or if I should put any of this out there. But things aren't changing and I'm not feeling different. So here I am. And I've got something to say.
Here is where I know to start this part of the story: Maybe this is all irrelevant, but after the day Bis Sis moved there was a definite change in the tenor of communication with her new Moms. Previously, as we worked on the transition, everyone was very open and dialoguing frequently (daily if not multiple times a day). I would spend hours answering questions via email or photocopying documents and packing all her belongings so they could be found and available for everyone, sending lists of programs, camps and food requests. It might seem silly, but I carefully wrapped her "first day of 2nd grade" outfit with ribbon and a note like you might do with the clothes a baby comes home from the hospital in, and tucked that in her trunk of belongings. I would oscillate from teary to bawling packing her clothes and belongings. Friends, if you have ever had to move a child you love on to a hopefully better, or god forbid worse place, you might know what I'm talking about. Then her move day came, and once she was entirely out of our home we essentially stopped hearing from her new Moms. If messages came they were terse and non-informative. It was my suggestion, I believe, that we have a few weeks break from seeing Big Sis or having contact with her to let her settle in, not ask her to negotiate back and forth between our rules and home and her new home. I was in total support of having some space for her to create with her new family, and yet I have to say I was taken aback at the manner we were strong-armed away from really knowing how she was doing, or how things were going. Now, I've had kids move on before. I've negotiated this with other foster and pre-adoptive parents and usually there is some recognition that the home kids are coming from and the parents and kids they used to live with have feelings and might like to have little updates or news to help them process the grief and loss. Not in this instance.
So in the midst of this all transpiring, around week two I reached out to ask about a meeting we had planned to hold once the end of the school year neared. The meeting was for planning, reviewing, and closing up her school year with an eye toward summer support and handing over all I knew about her schooling journey to her new parents. I had been in charge of Big Sis's educational planning for two years, and managed her support services, and I had some things I wanted to be sure were passed along as we moved into this new phase together. I stepped out of scheduling the exact date and time, as I wanted to allow some room for her new parents to have some control. So I reached out. It was the one message I allowed myself to send freely in those first few weeks as I didn't want to burden or impose early on. I asked if there was a date and time scheduled as of yet for our meeting. What I didn't say in that message was that I love her so much, I think about her all day every day and wonder what she is doing, what she's seeing or who she's played games with that day. What I didn't say was that I would do whatever I needed to, cancel whatever I needed to so I could be there. And the response from one of her Moms was, "We got it covered." With a thumbs up emoji. Maybe the meeting already happened, maybe it didn't, but I wasn't going to be there for it. I read the message and felt nauseous. I turned to The Artist and said, "Oh my god. They're going to abandon her. They're going to kick her out."
Now, what I had some words for then, and certainly have more words for now really comes down to this: when you feel threatened by former connections, or if you immediately need to be the most important connection in a child's life, you have already decided to choose yourself in the equation. You've decided that your need to feel loved trumps the child's life story and history.
No one hopes to feel unimportant when they are embarking on their new adoption journey, and for all of us who have walked this path we know you are a stranger to kids until you're not. Becoming familiar and trusted takes time and understanding. I understand the anxiety coming from grown-ups wanting a family so badly that waiting for the connection and attachment to grow feels terrifically hard. I can even understand feeling jealous or threatened, or maybe even convincing yourself it's for the child's own good that new parents not have information or more knowledge about what helped this kid be successful or build trust in other places. But what I know is that open hearts are patient hearts, and closed hearts are fragile, impatient hearts.
Here is something I believe about this foster care and adoptive life, when you open your home to kids in care there is no longer the family you were, there is just the family you are becoming, and will grow to be. I don't want to make the mistake of believing that any child needs to fit into my life, or needs to fit into my version of love. If I expect a young child or an older child, who has lived through trauma, loss and terror, to show me gratitude, appreciation and connection mere weeks into their new home I are messaging to them that their life only holds value when it serves my purpose. When it causes my heart to feel validated and loved. That their life, with all the pain, loss, love and resilience, isn't welcome unless it makes me as a parent feel good or connected.
I am of the belief that kids should not ever be expected to be grateful for homes. That under no circumstances should kids need to act appreciative of their parents for "saving" them or giving them shelter. I don't believe that you parent for glory or recognition. I don't believe that frightened or grieving kids say "please" and "thank you" right away. And to demand that of the most vulnerable kids, lest they be forced to leave your home, is downright shameful. The opposite of selfish and entitled is generous and compassionate. If you are patient, and you are flexible and steady, your whole family will grow into something that is love personified. You will have earned that life, you will have earned that love. And kids with broken hearts need families who can do the painful and beautiful work of building patient, flexible, open-hearted love.
When I first learned directly there were challenges with Big Sis in her new home it was about 15 hours before I received an email telling me she was being kicked out. I keep thinking about those two numbers, 3 weeks and almost no contact, and certainly no outreach or requests for help from us or from her social workers, and then 15 hours from "things aren't going well" to "get her out." I was training out of state that week and after an 8 hour day training and 2 additional hours consulting to folks at the site, I then drove home and spent 120ish minutes talking to Big Sis's parents trying to understand what was happening. Now, I certainly don't need thanks or gratitude for that, I'm desperate to offer help where I can here, but any small gesture of thanks or appreciation that night or beyond would have been welcome.
It's unsurprising that in times of uncertainty and during moves kids show stressful or challenging behavior. We often say things like "honeymoon period" or more aptly, "Well. Guess the honeymoon is over, huh?" No kid wants to lose before they rebuild again. No kid likes situations that trigger uncertainty or unpredictability. I can believe that some of the behaviors she was showing were maybe scary for her new parents. I know we spent countless hours talking and emailing, discussing all the ins and outs of her coping style and describing behaviors she sometimes used, behaviors that in the end were exactly like what she did in that new home. I could even push myself to try to understand why they would frame Big Sis as a mean-spirited and mentally ill child, rather than just a terrified, grieving and confused little girl. Of all the words I might have ever used to describe Big Sis, mean spirited or entitled, or worse, were just not even close to my list. This is the little girl would follow her baby brother around for 25 minutes trying to bribe him to put on his shoes with every trinket she owns. TIny would emerge from her room having been bribed and bedazzled, wearing 50 necklaces and caring all her favorite stuffed animals and she would still be holding his teeny shoes trying to cajole him into sitting down. This is the little girl who shopped at her school's Holiday Bazar using every last penny she had to spend and was so excited to gift us our presents. She carefully wrapped and re-wrapped them almost daily. And then on Christmas she didn't want to open any gifts until she made sure we all had a chance to open our presents from her first. Mean spirited just isn't even close to being on my list.
Which brings me around to what happens for kids when they create strong connections and then later move and lose those connections before they gain new or important ones. One easy answer here is that leaving our home was too hard, that she grew to love and trust us and the loss of that was too much. Too impactful. And I want to address that as I believe this is a complex question, and deserves a complex and thoughtful answer. I'm going to take a winding road here, so hang with me for a moment.
Last summer when we took all four kiddos into our home I had many people in my life who told me this was crazy. Irresponsible. That under no circumstance should all 4 of these kids live in the same home, under no circumstance would it be safe or could we supervise them all well enough. Some social workers were against it, some were pushing us to do it, friends were cautious, family said they thought it was awesome and could not wait to meet them. The decisions families make about what they can and what they cannot do are personal but they must also be brutally honest. I knew we could sacrifice short term to allow the biggest kids a chance at long term gain. So that is what we did. And this past year was bruising for our family, in known and unknown ways. And over and over during the hardest moments, The Artist and I looked at each other, sometimes in tears, sometimes through anger and we said this to one another, "We said yes. That choice is done. The only choice is how to do the next right thing given what we've got. We said yes so now what comes next?" That was the only response we knew how to say to one another. When you say yes to kids I believe you damn well better use every ounce of strength and resource you can harness to honor your commitment. This is a child's life. This is their whole deserving life. So we said yes to being a home to prevent the big kids from bouncing around from foster home to foster home, from ending up in homeless shelters or group homes. We said yes, move in with us and we will make it work so worse things don't happen, and we know this cannot be forever for reasons that are honest and real for us. We said this over and over to the kids, everyone knew the plan even if it was small comfort during the transition or weeks of moving on.
What I didn't ever once say was this: "They've been traumatized too much. Their Mom broke their soul and they're too hard so I just won't do it. They shouldn't have been so traumatized before I met them. It's too hard when kids are grieving and traumatized. They shouldn't have had the hard things happen. I would totally have done what I said I would do if they weren't so difficult because of what they've gone through." One perspective here is that this young girl's move from our home caused her irreparable damage and how could anyone parent a child who is in pain? How could any parent be expected to honor their commitment to parent a child who is grieving? And my response to that is quite simple. If you are the kind of person who believes that it is possible for a young girl's soul to be damaged beyond repair, then you are the kind of person who has forgotten that good lives, honest lives, worthwhile lives, are earned one stable and healing connection at a time. Perhaps it's good you won't be in charge of a child's growth and life. You're not made for this work anyway.
And I'll also add here what I believe to be true about love. Over the course of all those months we lived as a family six, four kids and two moms, we worked and built a force of love in our home. And that was the entire purpose. We worked to establish identity as a family, to help siblings who barely knew one another prior to living with us to build an understanding of who they are, and how they belong to each other. We made family crests, and wall murals creating space for all of us to decorate pieces of a family credo that is comprised of each of us and together fits all of us. We worked to build love, trust and safety in our home, in our bedtime and mealtime routines, and eventually we didn't need to work on building so much because we just found ourselves living there. My theoretical training, and my lived experience tells me that kids are always, always better off having felt loved and adored. That once you know love, connection and good enough attachment you will find your way to that depth of connecting again easier than if you hadn't. I could tell you how this is scientifically proven, how neurobiology and physiology combine to build paths for us to use again and again once they've been turned on. That loving and having lost is the way you trust enough in the cosmic forces of the universe to find the courage to love again. There is no honest story that says not attaching, or keeping distance is the right way to set kids up for success, nor is there evidence that says kids who have loved can never become close or connected again. I'm thinking of adult versions here, falling in love after divorce, the first date after a terrible break-up. We are hard wired for connection, and even when we have lost it, we are better off for having loved in the first place. Now loss, and loss and more loss again, without gain is not what I'm referring to here. I'm talking about love and loss, then finding love and safety again. Because that is what adoption is meant to provide.
Big brother has a beautiful family now. I think it's fair to say this little guy was not easy or tranquil when he moved into his new home. And now every time I see that little boy and his parent I almost cry. I see him wrap his parent's arms around him and smile and tell jokes about what they do and the adventures they have. In these moments I feel what I honestly can only describe as the closest thing I know to spiritual bliss. I tell his parent every time I'm with them that it is such an honor and such a privilege seeing them in love, to witness them building a life. I don't forget for a minute that the person offering this little boy a life is doing the challenging, exhausting and beautiful work of committing yourself fully, especially when it's hard. When I walk away after our playdates with the two of them I think, these are my people. These are the ones who just know it's always terribly dark when you're lost, but if you keep walking you can't help but eventually find yourself again in the light and that much closer to home.
When we started this social media account one of the things we promised ourselves is that we would be truthful. We would offer a narrative about the way things really work for kids and families involved in foster care, and talk about the beautiful and the brutal. We would not pretend there are happy endings when there aren’t. And that is the exact heart space I sit in today writing. What I know is that there are no fairy tale endings, and no magical resolutions for kids standing in the gap of foster care. Right now kids in our city are sleeping in social worker offices, in cubicles on the floor because they have no where to sleep after they are removed and placed in foster care. In our city workers drive around for hours at night trying to let kids sleep in the car until the office opens in the morning because there are no beds and literally no where for babies, little kids, or teens to sleep. So when the social worker said there was no bed for Big Sis, literally no where for her to go, her pre-adoptive parents said come get her anyway. They said we won’t care for her any longer and set a firm date. The Artist and I were out of town and not nearby, our family is out of state, I scrambled with our closest friend to try to patch some crazy plan together. There was no bed anywhere for her. In the end there was no preparation offered to Big Sis about losing her new home and new "forever" parents, she had no idea she was leaving that day. In 20 minutes she was told, packed and gone. One of these parents was out of state and didn't even come back to say goodbye to her. Big Sis asked me over the weekend if maybe this parent was coming back later to see her and maybe then she might remember then to say goodbye. She had questions all weekend about relatives she was introduced to, and people she was told are her new grandparents, new aunts, new friends. She wanted to know if the Grandma she spent the week with is or isn't her Grandma anymore. They promised to love and care for her forever, and kicked her out with nowhere to go. They made their pre-adoptive daughter homeless.
It’s an act of avoidance, or ignorance to say to yourself that she is special and deserving and therefore will just magically have a good life, or that she’s destined for greatness and by some grace that will just happen. But that’s not how this often works in real time. This fantasy feels like a self protective narrative adults tell themselves when they want to look away from the pain. The truth here is that kids need homes. Kids need adults to do hard things, and do what they say they will. They don’t need platitudes that help us feel better, and then in turn leaves them adrift without anywhere to sleep at night. We need adults who do what they say they will. We need homes for kids who are scared and hurt. There are so many ways to remember and live like we belong to each other. There are so many reasons it's worth it to not go for the easy answer and stick with the pain here. And when it gets hard you come find me, and we can say to each other that this is so hard. And so worth it, but right now so, so hard. And we'll stand around in the hard for as long as we need to. Then we will breathe. And get back to work. Because right now there is a young girl who is homeless while the system scrambles to make a plan. And there are two pre-adoptive parents who've left her grieving and alone, moved back to their old comfortable life and didn't even make sure they returned all her belongings. And there are three little boys who are also her brothers who have now learned that homes disappear, and people abandon you even when they've promised not to and they are struggling mightily with that knowledge. There are no fairy tales in this foster care life.
We belong to one another.
Foster Mom (The Therapist).