We haven’t had any foster placements for quite a long stretch – about 5 months. The need seems to ebb and flow, and we are a little grateful for this “ebb.” May is a difficult month – the little bodies in our home remember difficult transitions that time of year, the routine in school is different, Mother’s Day, birthdays, and the end of the school year that highlights unknowns and feelings of loss….it’s tough! That chaos of last May (read: 3 kids under 3) almost camouflaged the pain – and although I always appreciate a good avoidance plan, I am vowing to not have that particular relationship with chaos again. So, anyway, May was really, really hard. Out of respect for my kiddos, I won’t share details, but I will say that in the midst of it all, the bad days can cause me to forget about the good days. Sometimes, the darkness can feel suffocating, and it’s too easy to allow yourself to ignore the fact that the. sun. will. rise.
So, anyway, none of this is really the point (aside from reminding myself and others that THE BODY KEEPS SCORE). Tonight, during a casual conversation, I answered a question with “Oh, it was about the time you guys came home.” J looked at me a moment, took a deep breath, and said – “I have always loved that you call it us “coming home” instead of how other people say it. Because that’s what it is.” Language matters. I have made many, many mistakes in the 4 years since our kids came home, and in effort to “right” some of them – I recently told them to advocate for the language they want used in regards to their story. This has been a powerful experience for all of us, and for him to take a minute to be vulnerable and express this positive feeling was really humbling for me. The more I release the inadvertent “hold” I have on their story, their/our contact with first family, etc, the closer we get. The more they let me in. I wish I could go back in time and assure myself of this back when we started, but I can’t. Instead, I will write about it, and perhaps someone else will hear it. You can’t protect your child from their story. Kids have enough love for adoptive families AND birth families – they don’t have to check a box selecting which one is “real.” Loss via adoption is ambiguous and really frikking hard. The body keeps score. Healing doesn’t move in a straight line for anyone. If you don’t listen, who will? It’s not about you. Language matters.
A dear friend considering entering the chaos that is foster care recently asked me for my perspective on responding to people who may not support your decision to foster. But what will it do to your kids? I think this question equates to: Is it safe? Will they be exposed to horrible things? Can you juggle it all? Will your forever kids still get the attention they need? And also, perhaps, a little of…I admire what you’re doing, and asking this makes me feel a little better about my decision not to right now. And you know what? It’s all okay.
Jax was not even a year old when we started the process of fostering. I wanted to scream – “NO, I’M NOT SURE!” when people asked if this was a good idea. The unknown is really scary. Seven years later, I still feel panicky when a placement is on their way. Jason Johnson recently posted this on his blog, and it spoke to me. I’m still not sure, but I’m hopeful. And, I will share with you what foster care has done to my kids.
So – yes. Foster care has “done” things to my kids. Some hard things. They know far too about domestic violence, chemical dependency, sex, and generally just the horrors of the world. Our dinner conversations likely don’t mimic yours. The language in our home can be colorful. This is all true.
It is also true that once, my 3 year old son woke up to three extra kids playing with his toys, and instantly said – “Hi, my name is Jax, and this is a safe place.” My three oldest children recently heard Charlie and I discussing how to make three extra kids fit, and they immediately began problem-solving and offering up their rooms to give strangers a safe place to stay. My daughter once watched a new foster child raging and said – “he must be so scared.” Scared. Not mad, scared. When hearing us discuss if we can manage a newborn, they simultaneously say, “we will help!” They know that often, doing what’s right isn’t doing what’s easy. That’s it’s okay to ask for help. That compassion is more of an action verb. That’s the world isn’t always unicorns and sunshine, and that’s where they come in. They are not saints – they have complained. They have asked when kids would be moving on. They have asked to take breaks, and we have respected that. Once, on day two of a “break,” we got a call that kids would be spending Christmas in a homeless shelter if they couldn’t find a placement. Our kids’ response? WELL WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR, GO GET THEM! And so we did, because that is what foster care does to our kids.
We’ve all seen those pictures – the adorable kids holding a chalk board that say something like “I was in foster care for 852 days, but today I am adopted!” It’s cute. At first glance we think – I’m so happy for that child! Or maybe we think something about the adoptive parents “saving” the child. We click “like” on facebook.
But you know what? Someone offered me another perspective recently, and I think it’s right on. One of those 852 days that child was physically torn from his Mom’s arms. One of those 852 days was the day that visits stopped. One of those days was the day that a judge terminated parental rights. A day soon after that was the day a social worker told the child he was never, ever going home again. Probably several of those 852 days were days when a child packed their stuff up in a garbage bag and left everything behind. Again. One of those 852 days was a goodbye visit, where the child said goodbye to her first Mom and Dad forever. One of those 852 days was the day the appeals ran out. These 852 days are not inconsequential days spent waiting for heroes to save them – they are pain and grief and loss and fear and a sense of “limbo” most of us could never understand.
I remember thinking about making one of these signs – and had I been better at math, I would have. Adoption has been a giant learning curve, and I’m still learning. My daughter misses her first mom so, so much. She told me – “Mom, I can love having you for a Mom and still miss my other Mom.” And – she’s right. I am grateful for adoption – it gave me two of my children. I celebrate my kids, but I won’t celebrate their pain or minimize it in the form of days…not anymore.
I have had a few foster families reach out recently asking for tips on adjusting to being a big family. I used to think that our four kids qualified as a big family, but then we had six, and I realized that was a LIE. We are temporarily back to four kids (for the second time in about two weeks), and I am at the point in my grief process where I am enjoying the “break” and not intentionally creating chaos to fill that foster-sized hole. Yesterday I found one of Monkey’s socks behind the dryer, and a wave of sadness came over me…but I am noticing the waves to be the gentle(r) kind these days. A little unexpected, but it washes over me and then leaves again. The waves these days are less of a tidal wave that makes me feel like I am drowning, and more a brief sense of sadness accompanied by bursts of memories. The wave subsides faster, and I carry on.
So, here I am, with boat loads of time on my hands. Thinking of becoming a circus? Here are some tips on surviving becoming a big family overnight:
- Meal planning! Ain’t nobody got time for frequent grocery trips. The crock pot is your best friend. Make double portions and freeze them. Brown burger and cook chicken and freeze them. Buy a cow. Have ridiculous amounts of eggs in your fridge at all times. More bananas than any home should ever have.
- Get creative with one on one time. Remember that one time a week grocery trip I just mentioned? Bring a kid along. Chat. Tell them to load your cart up with eggs while you engage in deep conversation.
- Maintain “forever family time.” This might look like 5 minutes at the end of the night, or it might look like respite. Nurture your forever family so that all of you have the energy to foster.
- Put effort into your marriage. Seriously. A zillion kids is generally not a helpful thing for a marriage. Put kids to bed…talk. Drink a beer on the deck. String party lights up and pretend you are not at home. Play music…do something that’s not about kids!
- EARLY BED TIMES, people. See above. Kids need sleep, especially trauma kids. Parents need sanity. Bed time starts at 7pm at our house, regardless of your age. If you are an older kid, you can read or color or listen to music in your room, but all kids are in their rooms.
- Have some activities/games/toys put away that are only pulled out in a crisis. Play dough, k’nex, special crafts, etc. Have an emergency storage of cool stuff that can quickly and effectively engage kids when chaos strikes.
- Teach age-appropriate chores, and teach them to be done correctly. Game changer! Once you hit 8 years old in our house, you can do your own laundry. When we only had a couple kids, chores were something we did to teach responsibility. When we have a zillion kids, chores = survival. We started teaching more practical chores that are actually helpful.
- 10 minute power clean up at the end of the day. Crank some music up, set a timer, and make it fun! High fives are welcome.
- Color coded calendar! Organization is possibly not my greatest strength. But – we have two giant dry-erase calendars on our wall. Two allows us to go two months out, and each human gets their own colored marker. If it’s not on the calendar, it’s not happening.
- Find your village. Surround yourself with people who “get it.” Let people help you!
- Find time to breathe. Read a book. Go for a walk. Maybe you literally have 30 seconds…but step outside and center yourself as often as humanly possible. You’ve got this!
- Say “no” when you need to. Does it fill you up? Do it. Drain you? Opt out!
- Don’t. Forget. Humor.
Other ideas? Send them!
I tucked the boys in for the last time tonight. I cried intermittently most of the day/night, because ready or not, this is happening tomorrow! Rabbit asked me why I was crying. “Is it because I am such an awesome boy?” Yes, yes it is. I had so many things I wanted to tell them at bedtime, but I couldn’t get many words out. I told them they were brave and strong and we loved them. So much. We had two signs made for above their beds a couple of days before they moved in. One says, “Be brave, little one.” The other says, “You are our greatest adventure.” I remember sitting in their room the night before they moved in, looking at those signs, wondering how on earth we were going to parent 6 kids. Wondering what they looked like. Wondering what they were like…how long they would be with us. I underestimated how long they would be with us and how much it would change us all. Here we are, where our roads split. I will sit in this moment…I will notice the Christmas tree illuminating the darkness, feel the peace that is 6 sleeping kids, listen to the Lumineers sing “nobody knows” for the third time, and toast to their forever family. Be brave, little ones, and know you will be your forever family’s greatest adventure, too.
Nobody knows how to say goodbye
It seems so easy ’til you try
Then the moments passed you by
Nobody knows how to say goodbye Nobody knows how to get back home
And we set out so long ago
Search the heavens and the Earth below
Nobody knows how to get back home
Through the darkness to the dawn
And when I looked back you were gone
Heard your voice leading me on
Through the darkness to the dawn
Love is deep as the road is long
And moves my feet to carry on
It beats my heart when you are gone
Love is deep as the road is long
Nobody knows how the story ends
Live the day, doing what you can
This is only where it begins
Nobody knows how the story ends
Nobody knows how the story ends
It’s been a whirl wind of a week, juggling a fairly intensive transition schedule, holiday stuff, Charlie and Alyssa’s basketball schedule, etc. People keep asking me how I am, and I cheerfully respond that I am fine. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to “feel” lately, which is perfectly fine with me! I sat down today and started to figure out our calendar, which included the day the boys move to their forever family for good. I spoke with the social worker about the details of that day, and suddenly it was “real.” I started picturing how that would be to get back into my empty car after dropping them off. Wondering how to balance the genuine feeling of excitement for them (their forever family is GREAT) and my own grief. How to communicate both of those feelings to this little boys who don’t really understand any of this. I want them to know that we are happy for them, that we believe this is best for them, that they are safe and loved and wanted. I also want them to know that they aren’t dispensable. That our family will never quite be the same again.
So – I’m driving down the road, thinking about all of these things, and I started thinking about this dysfunctional little sisterhood these boys have created in their wake. I have this whole new set of friends, starting with the shelter Mom who was their first stop. The respite Moms who fell in love so quickly with them – who worry about their future. Foster care is lighting a torch for light when it seems there is nothing but darkness. We pass this torch to each other, lighting the way for hope and safety and permanency, whatever that means. In 9 days, I will pass that torch on to their forever mama and daddy.
Shine on, little men, the world needs your light!
We told our bonus boys tonight that they will be adopted, and that getting adopted means they are moving from our home. I have been dreading this conversation for months. Their ages make it really hard to understand. We made a social story to explain it all, and the adoptive parents sent us a bunch of pictures of their family/house/dog so we can look at them together each night. “Are they safe like you?” Rabbit asked. Yes. They’re safe like us. I wish they didn’t have to question that. Monkey pointed at his bed in the picture and said “cozy.” We told them it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be excited. It’s all okay.
“I’m going to be happy. Right?” He looks to us for this answer. Foster care is hard.