Almost exactly one year ago I attended what was then called the 8308 Conference here in Oklahoma City (so called because that was the current number of children in DHS custody at that moment in time). Almost exactly one year ago our family felt the tug to get our hands and feet dirty. Almost exactly one year ago we started the process of becoming a foster family.
This year the conference was renamed the Oklahoma Foster Care Forum. Among a host of many others who presented yesterday, I was asked to give a nine minute word picture of our experiences since we began. What follows is the written version of what I said.
I describe myself online as a Jesus follower, wife, mama, freelance writer, occasional crafter, hybrid homeschooler, and Mary Poppins wannabe. As of January 3rd of this year, I also added foster mom to that list.
Craig and I have been married for 16 years and we have four daughters: Maddie 14, Chloe 12, Katie 11, and Millie 9. When we moved to Oklahoma City from St. Louis almost 2 years ago we came with one dog, Peaches. Our second dog, Boomer, came with the house. And for the past 63 days we’ve included two preschool boys in the mix: A4 and R3. (As I refer to the kids online by their first initial and age and will do the same here.)
Before these two boys, we had a 4-year-old and 1-year-old sister set for 3 days. Before the girls, we had the sweetest little newborn baby who came to us at 2 days old and left us at 33 days. During that time, we also had J5 for 10 days, and before him, we started with E3, who was with us for 3 weeks.
After attending this very forum one year ago, completing the application over the summer, then participating in the training with Angels through the fall, our entry into the world of emergency foster care has seemed more of a deep-end dunking than a gingerly walk into the shallow end of the foster care pool.
It would be easy to gloss over the past four months with a “Yes, this has been one of the hardest but best things we’ve ever done” – and in many ways it has – but I’m not sure that would do our experience justice or give you the fullest picture of our story.
This time last year, I was sitting in that corner of the room at the 8308 Conference, playing the part of City Presbyterian representative. I’m no hipster, but I play one online, so I was doing due diligence to tweet all the profound things presented. Things like:
- The problem isn’t the system; it’s the condition of my heart and yours to allow these kids to become nameless and faceless.
- God has given us everything we need for this, and either you believe that or you don’t.
- If we’re really about the sanctity of life, we have to do something.
And somewhere in the midst of all that tweeting, the orphan care crisis that had been the state’s problem for so long suddenly became my problem. And I felt this pounding in my chest and these tears popped into my eyes and I said, “Seriously, God? Don’t we have enough going on already?”
I went home that afternoon and prepared dinner. My family came home from their day at school and we ate and caught up on the day. As can sometimes be the case with four girls at the table, we broke up an argument, sent one child to her room to chill for a bit, and dismissed the other three to clean up dinner.
It was then that I looked at my husband and said, “You know we’re going to have to do this, right?”
He looked at me. He looked at the crumbs and dog hair on the kitchen floor. He glanced over at the mountain of unfolded laundry on the living room couch. He thought of Miss Attitude chilling out in her room upstairs and he said, “Does it make a whole lot of sense to expose another child to our particular brand of chaos?”
And I said, “No…but could it be that our particular brand of chaos is a haven to a child who has lived in hell before us?”
He was silent because he knew. I knew. Together, we knew…it would indeed be a better kind of chaos.
Within a month, we’d made contact with the 111 Project and sat through orientation meetings with two different foster agencies, beginning the paperwork process. Significant extended family health issues hit during the summer, which forced a delay. And before we knew it, it was September. Fast-forward through the fall and we were finally approved by the end of 2012. Our first placement was January 3, and we’ve had seven different children in our home since then.
I never set out to blog my way through our foster care experiences, but as I’ve always processed the world better through writing, that’s what has naturally happened. It’s been super-helpful to process the joys and challenges we’ve experienced and (though unintentionally) put foster care more on the radar of our friends and church family. We could not do this alone, and we’re so thankful we don’t have to.
While I don’t buy the recent buzz that my children are not mine, with my own kids – and especially with foster care kids – community is key. The 111 Project’s “1 church, 1 family, 1 purpose” motto should be prescriptive, not descriptive. I suppose there are the Lone Ranger types who think they can foster self-sufficiently, but if that’s your goal, I’m just old and bold enough to suggest that you’re not doing it right.
I’m not saying, “It takes a village.” I’m saying it takes a church – one that understands that when James, the brother of Jesus, talks about what true religion is, a third of his explanation involves caring for orphans (the other two-thirds involves caring for widows and keeping our tongues in check – just two other ways we in the Church are failing to live a life worthy of our calling).
From the very beginning of our experience, we had only to post on our church community website that we had a 3-year-old boy coming the next day and didn’t have anything for him. The next day two different families brought over bags of 3T clothes. Two weeks later when the baby came into our lives, so did a host of baby gear we’d thought we’d seen the last of 9 years ago: car seats, swings, bouncy seats, and the onesies…so many onesies.
When the 5-year-old walked into our house with NOTHING, a family showed up with a duffle bag stuffed with pajamas, clothes, and toys.
Families in our church have provided support at so many different levels: financial, food, formula, diapers. We’ve even had a few become overnight respite-care approved so they can help us out on occasion.
But more than those practical things, here’s another picture of what can happen in the context of community:
When the baby left us for his kinship placement, my heart broke. I knew all along he was never ours to keep. I knew he could and would be picked up at any moment of the day from the day he came to us. But after nurturing this little newborn for a full month, I’m telling you, he was mine. And I cried for days and days and days when he left. When the day arrived to take him to the meeting place, a friend of mine from my church knew it was going to be more than I could bear on my own. She drove to my house, brought me lunch, and drove me and the baby to the office. She walked in with me while I handed him back and she stood with me in the parking lot as the full weight of my grief became apparent.
Y’all, this business of babies in foster care? It’s just not the way things are supposed to be.
Craig and I intended to take a break for a few days after he left, but as is the case with emergency placements, emergencies keep happening. The girls came the next day and the boys arrived two days after that.
This was on February 22 and when their worker brought them inside she indicated they would either be with us just over the weekend or for a very long time. I started at her while silently wondering what a very long time actually meant.
The not-so-funny joke with emergency placement is that you can do anything for 30 days, right? Because that’s supposed to be the longest kids are in emergency care. And we plugged right along to 30 days which turned into 35 and 40 and 45 and so forth. Somewhere in the middle of our 2nd month, I was sharing with the small group we host each week that I was just spent. It could have been that I don’t speak “boy” very well (I believe I mentioned we have four girls). It could have been that we’ve been out of the preschool stage for a while now (our youngest is 9). It could have been that I’m simply not used to being around 3-year-olds who casually throw around the “f” bomb like so many frisbees in a park. It could have been a combination of all of those things. But two women in my group saw the desperation in my face that night and one of them insisted on taking the boys for me the very next day. The other, who is approved for overnight care, insisted on taking them the day after that and keeping them overnight. It was a balm to my weary soul.
But the story gets better: While the boys were at my friend’s house on Friday, one of her neighbors was taking a walk and stopped in and asked who the two little guys were. Janet explained and the neighbor said, “Hey, we just started the process of fostering-to-adopt! And…these guys are exactly what we we’re looking for!” And she was serious.
I remember this clearly: I was in Sam’s Club with my two youngest daughters and I got this text from Janet that said, “Not kidding. My neighbor wants to adopt the boys.” And I’m telling you, when you get a text message like that, I don’t care where you are, you pull the cart over and make a couple of phone calls. It turns out, this family had already made contact with Angels, and they are serious about the boys. They want to get officially approved before taking them as a long-term placement, but in the meantime, they’ve been approved as overnight respite care. They kept the boys for us last Saturday. The boys are with them today so I could be here and we have three overnight weekends scheduled for May (so far…). I’m both hopeful and completely amazed. If and when this all works out, what a great story it’s going to make!
I want to end this talk with excerpts from a blog entry I wrote the night before we gave Baby M back:
I do not know how to parent without getting completely emotionally involved. I’m not sure parenting any other way is really parenting. I don’t know how to keep a newborn baby alive for a whole month and then give him back as though the last month never happened. It did happen and we will have the formula-stained blankets and residual baby laundry and empty bottles left behind to prove it, for weeks after he’s gone.
This love – it is love – it comes at much too high a cost. And I have very little left in which to pay.
And once again I’m left with my own personal cliché, that I repeat over and over to myself, to my girls, and to every friend and stranger who looks me in the eyes and says this is something they could never do (as though my heart is made of stone and it’s easy for me): If it didn’t hurt so much, we didn’t do it right. But even that knowledge brings little comfort to me tonight.
Because it hurts, dammit. It just does. And the truth is, I don’t know how much more I can do this either.
Maybe that’s the point? That we really can’t do it on our own? That we must lean so heavily on God to parent through us, to love through us, to give back the babies through us? If only I could lean that heavily on God tonight. Maybe I am, but I don’t know it because I’m just sad. So very sad.
Foster parenting IS one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. But we do it anyway because it’s right. And doing the right thing downright sucks sometimes, yet we do it anyway. Because we should.