Foster Parenting

Conversations about adoption started for us after my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. We started down the adoption path twice; international adoption after the miscarriage and adoption through foster care after our second child was born. But for various reasons, we did not continue on that path. Instead, we had three bio kids and decided we would foster at some point in the future. That plan stayed tucked away in the back of my mind with the hope that someday we would have the capacity to do it.

Last spring, when our youngest hit five, it suddenly felt like the time was right, like our family was ready. All three kids were more independent now: they could use the bathroom and get a glass of water without my help – my criteria for when parenting shifts to an easier stage. We had the infrastructure in place for children and were grounded in our routines. We felt able to open our home and our lives to children who needed a safe, loving place to live. We felt we had something to offer. We were ready. And with the opioid crisis, the need for foster families in Vermont is high.

So we filled out applications, had a home study, participated in the six-week training on grief, loss, trauma and the foster care system. All summer we waited for a placement. In the fall, we started to do respite care for Ryan, a 3 ½ year old boy and his 2 year old sister, Linda*. The week before Thanksgiving, we became R & L’s foster family. They lived with us for a month.

It was a difficult month.

Garbage bags filled with clothes arrived at our home a few hours before R & L. A dozen pairs of impractical shoes, outrageous dresses that looked more like Halloween costumes, t-shirts with images of weapons and destruction and sassy retorts scrawled across the front confronted the gentle nature of childhood I have worked so hard to protect for my own children. A doll that belted out a bible song in a high-pitched, fake, baby voice. A crib and bedding that reeked of cigarette smoke. The sheer volume of stuff, the noise, the smell, the images affronted all my senses. But R and L’s stuff was important; it represented a link to their old home and to their parents. I stored away a few items, but accepted that having their belongings accessible was an important component in helping R and L feel at home here.

The real challenge was the logistics of five kids in four schools. I can go into the complexity of our schedule by adding details: I was juggling two jobs, one a teaching job with an inflexible schedule; R & L needed to be driven to 8am family visits and then picked up from their respective school and day care by 5pm, all of which were located in a town half an hour away. Getting the dog walked, the chickens and goats fed and watered, and five kids up, dressed, fed and out the door by 7:15am was painful. The afternoon driving needed to fit into an existing carpool schedule of after-school activities for our “big kids.” The dinner and bedtime routine required more hands and time, and perhaps more patience and compassion than Dave and I had to offer – at least to meet the needs of all five children in the way we believed they should be met. Remaining sensitive to R and L’s grief and loss and learning how it manifested – through defiance and spiraling out of control for R and nighttime sobbing for L – took emotional energy on top of physical exhaustion. And this picture would be incomplete if I didn’t at least mention the diarrhea. There was a lot of diarrhea. New diet, trauma from changing homes, toilet training regression, perhaps a virus going around… who knows, but there was a lot of diarrhea.

We were not surprised by any of these challenges, they were all described in our training (except the diarrhea, no one told us there would be so much diarrhea), but that didn’t make it less hard to live it.

Despite the strong desire to be a foster family, opening my home to others is not an impulse that comes naturally to me. It is uncomfortable. Even having guests over can make me feel prickly. I like having full control over my physical space and time. The physical act of adding two people and all their belongings to our home pushed me to the outer edge of my comfort zone. The challenge of the experience sometimes felt so overwhelming that I couldn’t see the beauty in the bonds that were forming.

A week before Christmas, R and L moved to a new foster family. We were never intended to be a long-term placement for them and this move was the right decision. The day they left I felt intense relief. Everyone asked how I was doing, and I could honestly answer that I was great. I had time to take care of the goats in the morning (a routine I love), instead of passing off the barn chores to Dave. I had quiet moments with our kids after school instead of arriving home at 6pm, exhausted and edgy from having been in the car from 3 - 6pm picking up kids from their various locations. I was able to get dinner on the table before my kids melted down in hunger. I had emotional energy left for Dave after the kids were asleep, and our conversations moved past the next day’s complex driving schedule. There were moments of calm when nobody needed me. Dave and I could leave our three kids for half an hour to walk the dog in the woods. We regained a quality of life that we hadn’t realized was so critical to our emotional health. The relief of R and L moving out of our house was real.

But the grief is real too. I felt it first when I picked up R and L at their new home for a day of respite care (something we have committed to doing weekly for the foreseeable future). R was standing in the front window – he broke into his sweet smile when he saw our car pull in the driveway. At that moment, I felt intense sadness that this little boy, so full of light and laughter, so ready for fun, no longer lived in our home. I have felt the same sadness several times since, each triggered by the little gestures that had become so familiar over the past month: L’s stubbornly slow and methodical eating, R’s enthusiastic stride as he tries to keep up with the big kids, L’s deep belly laugh – the best laugh ever… As the relief from the strain of five kids in four schools, hours of driving, and more stuff than I had mental space for wears off, the grief for these two kiddos and what we can’t be for them sets in. 

We are undecided as to whether we will foster again. It was really hard. We have questions too… Is there more support around transportation? Would one kiddo be easier than two? Could we better manage our own needs so as not to become overwhelmed? Would we build up a stronger community of support from other foster families? Is it right to foster when we are not open to adoption should that possibility arise? Are we ready to do it again? Do we want to?

I don’t know if or when we’ll find the answers. Maybe it will become clear one way or another if we get a call for a new placement… But for now we’ll focus on continuing our relationship with R and L and soaking in their sweetness when we get to spend time with them.

*Ryan and Linda are pseudonyms inspired by my childhood next-door neighbors. "R" reminded me so much of three-year-old Ryan!