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'Being a foster mom redefined love for me': A story for Mother's Day

A Seattle woman opens up about how a 16-month-old upended her life when he arrived in her care — and again when he left.



SHUTTERSTOCK

I am married, with two biological children who are 8 and 10. I wanted to become a parent through adoption for as long as I can remember. It just spoke to me.

I got married and right away, I was pregnant and my life took a different path. My husband had always said no more than two kids, but when my youngest was about 2 or 3, he was open to it, so we decided that we wanted to expand our family by one. We wanted to do something that is called foster to adoption, which is when you foster a child who either already needs a permanent home or is very likely to need one in the future.

We worked with the nonprofit agency Amara, and they helped us through the licensing process and also did our adoption home study. They ask you what age range and gender you are interested in, what kind of disabilities you are able to deal with and also the legal risk you are willing to tolerate. Legal risk is the likelihood that a child will be returned to their birth parents or be placed with a relative. A lot of parents who come to the foster system with the intention of  adopting don’t want high legal risk. But we were open to legal risk. The idea was to be there for a child for as long as he or she needed us.

Our foster son was 16 months old when we first got him, and over 2 years old when he left. Coming into it, my kids just loved him with their whole hearts. My husband said that it felt just the same as when our biological kids came home.

Getting him — my life was upended. I got a call that they had a child for us and 24 hours later, he was living with us. He was a toddler. Right when he moved in, I got really sick. And I was home all day alone with him. I was completely overwhelmed and felt like I had just made a lifetime commitment to a stranger. I talked with the social worker and she said it’s very common to feel this way at first. She advised me to just take it one day at a time. It was such a relief.

Being a foster mom redefined love for me.  I mean more than having my own kids, or when I helped care for my mother during a long illness and her eventual death. For my biological kids, the love started the second I saw them. With my foster son, I didn’t have those same initial feelings. It was doing the work that built the love, the day-to-day caring for him. I remember a moment about five weeks in, when I was up in the middle of the night with him, cleaning some gunk out of his nose to help him breathe, when it just dawned on me: This is love. I love this person. And it was after that that I was able to really tune in to everything that was special about him. The way he pumped his arms up and down when he danced, how he would gently pat your back every time you picked him up. The experience taught me so much.

As a biological mother myself, I felt it was important to stay in touch with his family and keep that bond. So our love to him included extending that love to his family. About eight weeks in, there was a meeting that involves parents, lawyers, social workers. The family wanted him back.

When he was taken from their custody, the family member who was caring for him was overwhelmed and needed support. But slow state processes meant that he lived with us for many, many months after that meeting.

It was always very important to me that he feel at home with us. He was just blossoming, and really adjusting to living with us when we found out he would probably have to move. It felt almost cruel, making him a part of our family knowing he would likely leave. But it is good developmentally for kids to form a secure attachments. So, I just focused on our bond. I would wake up every day and say, “I’m his mom today,” and do everything I could to love him up on that day. We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we have control over how we love today.

We were really careful when we talked with our biological kids about foster care. We always told them we are caring for him while his own family could not, and that he might go away. Both of my kids adored him. He worshipped my son and tried to copy everything he did. The kids were sad when he left, but honestly, I think they rolled with the changes better than the adults.

Eventually, he went to live with his aunt and uncle after about nine months of living with us. We miss him every day.

I definitely want to foster again. I’m still dealing with the emotional fallout. I’m proud of how my family handled it. We took a break and then signed up to do respite care, which is just what it sounds like: providing respite for other foster parents, if they need to go out of town, or if they have a high-need child and need a break. That felt more like babysitting, and didn’t involve as much emotional commitment —- or as much commitment, period. If we foster again, I don’t think we’ll approach it with the intention of adopting, though that might end up being the outcome. Instead, we’ll think of it as standing in the gap while the child’s family is in need.

There is such a shortage of foster parents right now that kids are being moved hundreds of miles away and spending nights in hotels because there is no place to send them. It’s troubling that we remove kids from their families when we can’t offer them more. We have to do better as a community if we are going to say we are protecting kids. For folks considering becoming foster parents, I would say that it’s one of the most beautiful and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It’s really hard and you can do it. If I can do it, anyone can.

Fostering resources

Alliance for Child Welfare Excellence: allianceforchildwelfare.org/caregivers

Amara, foster-care and adoption agency serving Western Washington: amaraputskidsfirst.org

Foster Parent Association of Washington State: fpaws.org

Fostering Together: fosteringtogether.org

Washington State Department of Social and Health Services: dshs.wa.gov/ca/foster-parenting

Treehouse: treehouseforkids.com

Mockingbird Society: mockingbirdsociety.org

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