The sheets in the middle bedroom are rumpled.
I remember walking past that room for months, trying to imagine what this might look like. I wished for another bedroom that look lived in. I wished for toys and books strewn across its floor. I wished for the day we would stop calling it “the guest room” or “the second kid’s room.”
It has a name now. It’s BlueJay’s room. It’s our (foster) son’s room. The sheets in that room are always rumpled now.
Along with the sheets, everything else in our lives feels a little rumpled, too. The whole house is rumpled – dishes sit in the sink, laundry sits in baskets, stickers lay forgotten across my dining room floor.
My emotions are rumpled. Maybe a few of my relationships are even rumpled. I have close friends I still have not spoken to on the phone since BlueJay was placed with us a month ago. They text me questions I can’t believe they don’t know the answers to until I realize, Oh right, they’ve been waiting all this time for me to fill them in.
This is harder than I thought it would be. It’s more all-consuming than I could have possibly prepared for. Foster parenthood doesn’t exactly lend itself to breaks. It is all we live and breathe right now. Even my dreams are filled with foster placement scenarios I am forced to consider. I wake up disoriented and wondering things like why on Earth we agreed to take in a teenage girl when we’re already mentally and emotionally maxed out.
It’s fuller than I thought it would be. Our lives are full in the way I always wanted them to be. We have a house full of noise. It is full of childhood laughter. It is full of music and singing and the sound of kids playing. It is full of life.
It’s not perfect. Of course it isn’t. Nothing about raising kids is ever perfect. We’ve had our share of frustration vs. joy and tears vs. smiles.
We’re rumpled. So very, very rumpled.
Just like we wanted.
For those who want to follow our foster care journey more closely, you can read my Foster Parent Diary series on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog:
Jumping, Not Easing, Into Life as a Foster Family and Family of Four
A Foster Family, Forced to Focus on the Present
*peers out from beneath a pile of parenting*
Oh, hi. We have a foster child.
That’s probably not news to those of you who follow me on social media. You’ll know we found out we were licensed and had our first placement during the same phone call exactly two weeks ago.
If you want to know what it’s been like, the best I can figure to tell you is this: Picture all the chaos and the endless I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing moments you experience when you bring your first baby home.
Now imagine the baby is three years old and comes with his own unique set of challenges and one day, he crash-lands unexpectedly into every aspect of your life and the life of your spirited four-year-old son who is quite used to being an only child.
It’s been crazy. Duh.
I will pop in here with little updates in the coming weeks, but if you want to follow us on our journey in a more consistent and detailed way, I’ll be at The New York Times’ Motherlode blog every Tuesday for the next few months. I began writing a Foster Parent Diary there last week after we brought home our little BlueJay (a nickname he earned rather swiftly and the only name I’ll publicly use for him).
If you want to catch up, here are the first two posts in the series:
I wish I could post a picture of him here. Cuz, guys, he’s cute. Like, reeeeally cute. Like, so cute that he knows he’s cute.
Ah well. Maybe one day.
I thought I was prepared for this.
In the four years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve read dozens of blog posts and articles about the emotional struggle the moms of one child face as they get ready to welcome another.
You’re the one who made me a mama, all the online diary letters read. No matter what, you’ll always be my first. For that reason, and so many others, you are so special to me.
They all admit to feeling fear that they couldn’t possibly love another human as much as they love their first child. Then they all concede that of course, it must be possible, and of course, they will.
Still, they’re mourning an end. An end to something familiar, something that has been their “normal” long enough that it is difficult to imagine life any other way.
It’s like when you move out of a small condo and into a spacious single-family home. The biggest part of you Can’t Wait for all the space, the storage, the yard. But when you heave that last box up into your arms, you can’t help but turn back to look at the empty condo one last time. The one that hosted your stuff, your parties, your family and your memories for years.
You know you want to move, and no one could bribe you to bring all that furniture back into a space you’ve outgrown. Even so, you blink back a few tears, and a little part of you aches deep inside.
We’re on the brink of adopting our second child, and a little part of me is aching right now.
I waited for that ache; I knew it was coming. I still wasn’t quite ready for it, though. Maybe you can never be fully prepared for that last sentimental moment before you close a door for the last time.
You know it’s the right choice, you know it will be great, and you know that no part of you will regret it … but you have to allow yourself a moment to pine for the significance of what you’re leaving behind.
So, I’m pining.
I’m pining for the ease of one child.
The way it has allowed me to work from home on a regular, consistent basis. The ease with which Ryan can be off-loaded for fairly frequent date nights. The way we outnumber him and, therefore, the way Mike and I each enjoy a beautiful balance of one-on-one time with him followed up almost immediately with a break.
I’m pining for the simplicity of our lives.
Ryan is having a good day? We go out and do fun things. Ryan is having a bad day? Not worth the struggle; let’s stay in. It’s pretty straightforward to live your life accommodating one child with one temperament.
I’m pining for Ryan’s loss of status.
The way he will go from The Most Important Thing one day to One of Two Very Important Things the next day. He is a child who thrives under my attention, and the inevitability of my divided attention is sure to be a shock to his system.
I’m pining for my time with him.
We eat ice cream for lunch, we play board games for hours, and we have impromptu picnics on my bedroom floor. He’ll wake up and say, “What if we got lunch at McDonald’s today?! Then I could play and you could work on the computer!” and I’ll say, “Why yes, that would be perfect!” We understand each other’s needs and we do essentially whatever suits us on any given day.
Pretty soon, we’ll have another little person to consider. A person who might love ice cream and McDonald’s but hate board games and floor picnics. My love for Ryan will not diminish, but our time together will. Your family may grow, but the number of hours in a day remains constant.
I am allowing myself this little bit of pining because I know it’s temporary. I know that when we meet our second child, we will feel that the missing piece of our family has been found. I know it won’t be long before I won’t be able to imagine my life without that child in it.
I have many years ahead of me to write love letters to our second child. That’s why I won’t allow myself to feel guilty writing this:
Ryan, you’re the one who made me a mama. No matter what, you’ll always be my first. For that reason, and so many others, you are so special to me.
When I have to speak in front of a group in any sort of formal setting, my throat closes up.
It doesn’t matter how prepared I am, how much I have told myself to calm down, relax, breathe. When it’s my turn, my heart races, my breaths come quicker and my voice comes out in a strangled version of its usual strong and confident self.
So auditioning for Listen to Your Mother, a nationwide show that features writers reading personal essays on motherhood before a live audience, was a bit of a stretch for me. I wanted to share my thoughts and words about motherhood, and clearly I have no problem doing so on a fairly regular basis through my blog and other essay writing. But did I want to perform those words, to read those thoughts aloud to an audience? Questionable at best.
However, I took the leap and auditioned for a show last year, one that was about an hour-and-a-half’s drive away from me. I read a humor piece, which I thought would put me slightly more at ease and would ensure that at the very least, I wouldn’t cry while reading my own words.
But the long drive gave me plenty of time to get inside my own head, and allowed my public-speaking anxiety to grow and my throat to tighten up.
The good news: I didn’t cry. As a bonus, I even got a few hearty laughs from the three lovely women who listened to my story.
The bad news: I wasn’t selected for the cast.
“I can’t do that again,” I told Mike. “It was hard. I felt exposed. I read it terribly. I was so nervous. Why did I do that to myself? I can’t do that again.”
“You’ll do it again,” he replied.
This year, my home – Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley – announced it would put on its own show for the first time. The audition location was mere minutes from my house, and it was easy to write a quick note one afternoon requesting an audition spot for a date that seemed ages away.
I got an audition spot. And then I almost didn’t go.
Something came up that made it difficult for me to make it to my prearranged time. On a whim, and figuring they would think I was a flake and would turn me down regardless, I emailed the producers the Friday night before auditions began.
“I apologize, but something unexpected has come up,” I told them, half-hoping for an out. “I can’t make it on Sunday. But I’m free Saturday morning if you happen to have a last-minute spot open up.”
If they didn’t have a spot, I’d call it fate. That it wasn’t meant to be.
They had an open spot.
So at 10 a.m. one Saturday, I sat down at a long conference table, thanked them for working me in on such late notice and chatted with the three ladies who were equally as lovely as the three I had met the year before.
Then, shakily, I read my piece. This time, it was something more personal, an essay that described our journey in preparing Ryan for the adoption of his future sibling from the foster care system.
A week later, an email from the producers arrived in my inbox, and I opened it, bracing myself for the rejection I knew was coming.
I had to reread the message a few times before I realized: It wasn’t a rejection; it was an acceptance. They accepted my essay. They accepted me, clenchy voice and all.
Now, I have to figure out how the hell I’m going to get on a stage and read something I wrote to an audience of 200 people.
I’ve done the math. Two hundred is a whole lot more than three.
I’m telling myself this: Life is all about connections. It’s about those moments in which you have a chance to stand up and say, “I don’t know everything there is to know. I’m still learning. But let me share my experience, and let me hear yours. Because we’re all in this together, and we can – we need to – learn from each other.”
I have heard the other essays that will be read during the show. They are a beautiful, diverse collection of anecdotes and insights, some of which made me laugh, some that made me cry, and some that gave me new a perspective on motherhood.
We will read our essays with the hope that someone beyond our small circles of family and friends can relate to our words. If even one person comes away saying, “Yes, I’ve been there. Yes, me too,” then all the stress and nerves and uncontrollable throat-seizing will be worth it.
Those of us who are lucky enough to have the desire or skill to tell our stories can give a voice to those who struggle to find their own. It is an indescribable honor.
If you’re in the Lehigh Valley on April 26, we would love for you to join us.
There is something about you turning four and a half that has me a little emotional. First, it’s probably my last half-birthday letter to you. I decided a couple of years ago that I would keep the half-birthday letters going until age five, at which point it would be time to reduce them to simple yearly letters. My thought was that a child’s biggest growth — in mobility, vocabulary and personality — happen in the first handful of years of life; after that, I figured there wouldn’t be enough to say between birthdays.
I would hate to become redundant, you know.
Of course, true to form, you have continued to surprise and amaze me, and I have found that the past six months have showcased some of the most remarkable changes in you.
Sweets, you are really coming into your own. You seem happier, calmer (well, slightly), and just generally more in control of yourself and your emotions.
Look, you’re an intense person. You always have been, and I suspect you always will be. That’s ok; it’s a good thing. I love having a son who feels things deeply. I think your sensitivity is a gift.
But strong emotions are hard for a little kid to manage. In the past six months, though, you have demonstrated that you are learning how to do this. Sure, it means some fist-shaking, some foot-stomping, and a whole lot of door slamming. But you are using your words more, and you are learning to walk away from the source of frustration to calm down rather than lash out. You are accepting hugs more, breathing more deeply, and visiting Time Out much, much less.
You are doing so well in school. I want to cry just typing that because your first year of preschool was rough. It’s not your fault, really; you’re an energetic boy who was in a program that didn’t allow a safe, productive way for you to get that energy out. The result was that you got yourself into trouble. Constantly.
But this year? This year, your teachers make a point to tell me how you’re one of the most polite little boys they’ve ever had in their class. That your vocabulary is ridiculously expansive. We already knew this, of course. You regularly bust out incredibly adult-like phrases. You might say, “Well, according to this…” as you study the directions to a game. If I interrupt you, you’ll look at me pointedly and say, “As I was saying…” When we tell you something you’re not sure how to interpret, you respond with a, “Hmmm. Interesting.” You recently ran up the steps to our front door and turned back to tell me, “I was off like a shot!”
Off like a shot. It might be the perfect way to describe you. Your energy remains endless. You run and jump your way down hallways and streets, up stairs, and through life. It is something to behold.
Perhaps the biggest change for you since turning four is that we told you we are going to adopt a child, that you will become a brother. One of the greatest joys of my life has been witnessing your excitement, the way you already love your “yittle brother or sister.” (You don’t yet realize the brother or sister might actually be bigger.)
I have admittedly been focusing much of my attention on getting your sibling’s room ready. A lot of packages have been arriving on our doorstep over the past several weeks, and your face lights up when you see each one. Not because you hope it’s something for you but because you hope it’s something for your brother or sister.
I knew you had a big heart, Ryan, but I don’t think I fully appreciated the depth and purity with which you love. Your sibling will be awfully lucky to have you in their corner.
We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of our move from Arizona to Pennsylvania, which is also the two-year anniversary of my decision to trade in the 9-5 work life so I could stay home with you. I’ll admit it — the thought of being home all day terrified me. I worried I’d feel bored or lonely or somehow unfulfilled. It was needless worry, though, because it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I will always cherish these days, months and years we have had together.
You make me and Daddy so darn happy, dude. As we always tell you, we love-you-love-you-love-you-love-you.
Happy half birthday, Ryan.
Previous birthday letters to Ryan:
He’s trying to balance it just right.
The plastic gray phone is tucked between his right ear and his right shoulder, just the way I taught him. He’s pretending to multi-task, walking back and forth from the living room to the dining room, chatting away.
“Mommy, there’s a phone call for you,” Ryan says, thrusting the toy toward me.
“Oh, who is it?”
“It’s the lady who’s going to get us a brother or sister!”
Our caseworker, he means. The woman who talks to him in a soft voice and promises to play Legos with him the next time she visits. The woman who will play Legos one day and drop off his sibling another day.
I *talk* to her, and she *reiterates* that we should get the third bedroom ready for his brother or sister. That we should make sure we have a bed, a dresser, and a few toys and books. We cheer and high-five because we’ve already done all of those things, so we must be pretty close to being ready.
We hang up, and Ryan decides she’s probably bringing his brother or sister in six days – or two days – or four days – or FIVE days! Yes, she’s definitely bringing his brother or sister in FIVE days!
He’s excited. Which, of course, makes me happy. That’s been my goal over the past couple of months, after all — get him excited without allowing our preparations to overshadow him. When packages arrive on our doorstep filled with books or a new hamper or a toy bin shaped like a fox, I use my Excited Mom Voice to tell Ryan how we did the very same thing when I was pregnant with him. How when he came home that first day, he had a room full of things that made him feel comfortable and loved, and that every child should have that.
He gets it. He really does. He is a sensitive child who is always looking for ways to connect, ways to give. He understands that he has a hundred books and his sibling only has 10. He understands that he has toys upon toys upon toys, and he wants to go through all of them and pick some out for his sibling, who has but a few stuffed animals.
He has embraced this process with a grace and confidence that is equal parts awe-inspiring and scary.
Awe-inspiring because he has never – not once – questioned why we are adopting rather than having a baby. This new child will be his sibling from the second he/she walks through the door. I feel that deep in my soul, and I see it reflected in his eyes.
Scary because I know it’s not quite that easy, at least not legally. It’s likely that his sibling will live with us long before anything is a done deal, long before biological parental rights have been terminated.
Ryan can’t understand the lack of guarantees. There is no way to tell a four-year-old that this child may or may not be his sibling forever depending on the circumstances.
And really, I don’t want him to be anxious or confused. I want him to be excited and hopeful, to love his sibling without fear.
But I know that means he could be hurt.
I want to empower him, but I want to protect him.
I’m not sure there’s a way to balance it just right.
I had been putting it off for months. The one thing in this whole foster care licensing process that really should have been a home run for me.
Mike and I each were required to write an autobiography. Not like a 500-word, quick-and-dirty sort of thing, but a “we don’t like to set a limit on it … but they’re at least five pages, and usually closer to 6-10 pages … but, you know, whatever feels complete to you” sort of thing.
I don’t know why I hesitated so much. It’s not the page length, necessarily. I probably write 10 pages worth of copy every week between my freelance writing assignments and my own personal writing.
But I’ve never written about such a BIG topic. Where does one begin? “I was born on a sunny May day in Cleveland, Ohio…”
Wait. Was it a sunny day? Should I fact-check that with my mom? Or perhaps it’s implied that I was born at some point, so I should skip that part altogether and pick the story up … where? When I was toddling? In school? Maybe I should I back it way up and start with the state of my family before I even arrived on the scene?
How much is too much? How little is not enough?
It would get to be too much of an internal debate; rather than tackle it, I would set it aside in lieu of filing forms for background checks, reading the recommended books, attending the required trainings, and posting “No Smoking” signs in my home.
Slowly but surely, my massive to-do list dwindled until there are only a few things left.
And the one at the top was: “Autobiography.”
I should have had this done in Week 1. I’m a writer, for the love of God. This should be the part that I knock out of the park.
That’s part of my problem. I’m not one to throw words on paper, brush my hands together with sweeping satisfaction and call it a day. I knew I’d be pouring my heart and soul into it. I knew I’d want to make all sorts of connections from the way I was raised, life experiences, and opportunities I carved out for myself, all as validation for the idea that I can do this. I can successfully parent a foster child.
I finally forced myself to sit down and — over the course of two sessions — pulled together a nine-page, 4,381-word summary of my life.
The whole thing is copied and pasted below.
Believe me, it’s not nearly interesting enough for anyone besides our caseworker to have to wade through. (She asked for it, right?)
I hope, at least, that I started it off on the right note:
In many ways, I think much of the path my life has taken has purposefully led me to this point, preparing me for the challenge and the joy of adopting from the foster care system. When I look back, I think so many things had to happen in just the right way and in just the right time in order for me to be in this place. In this state with this husband and this biological child – and ready to adopt.
I had this little ritual when I lived in Arizona.
Whenever we would have a particularly persistent monsoon storm, I would put my shoes on, and venture out to our balcony to stand to watch the rain.
There was something about those storms that felt somehow romantic. The way the rain fell in a straight vertical line from the sky to the ground. The earthy smell of water splashing against desert dirt. The refreshing feeling of moisture in the ordinarily dry air.
I would almost always be the only one outside for as far as my eyes could see, breathing in and out, leaning my bare arms against a stone banister, watching the continuous wall of rain and the occasional lightening that lit up the sky like a strobe.
Its beauty was stunning.
I have this little ritual now that I live in Pennsylvania.
Whenever we have a particular persistent snowfall, I put my shoes and my coat on, and venture out to my backyard to stand to watch the snow.
There is something about the soft way the snow falls that feels somehow romantic. The way it gathers and muffles any and all sound so that when you step outside, you leave all sights and sounds of life behind. You enter a world of utter and complete stillness.
I am almost always the only one outside for as far as my eyes can see, breathing in the dry, cold air and sending it back out in puffs of white. I study the yellow windows that hint at the warmth found inside and the way the light from each lamppost casts long shadows across pristine blankets of snow.
Its beauty is stunning.
I walked out of the store and turned toward my car, keys in my right hand, my left hand clutching three flimsy strings.
At the end of those strings were heart-shaped balloons in loving shades of pink and red. It was hard to be sure I was holding them tightly enough to keep them safe, though, because I was also juggling a bag full of kitschy Valentine’s Day stuff – a stuffed red gorilla, plastic heart glasses for the whole family – as well as a roll of wrapping paper that I would use to wrap up the new toy we’d bought for Ryan.
I went a little overboard for Valentine’s Day this year, decorating my house so that when Ryan woke up, he would find himself in the middle of a Wonderland of Love. Heart tinsel down the banister, heart balloons tied to each dining room chair.
I don’t know how many years he’ll be into this stuff. How many more years will I say, “Valentine’s Day is a day of….?” and he’ll respond with a breathy “loooooove!” Not many, right?
So, for as long as he cares, I’ll bring the magic. To teach him that life can be as special as you choose to make it. You can roll your eyes and call it a “Hallmark Holiday,” or you can use it as an excuse to spoil the people you love, to break up an otherwise dreary winter month with something bright and beautiful.
I stuffed the balloons into my trunk as fluffy white snowflakes floated down around me, coating the road, the windshield, my hair. I jumped into my car and began driving home, trying to beat the cold and the snow, picturing how I would set up all the decorations, picturing the look on Ryan’s face when he saw the balloons, the chocolates and the gifts.
Thinking, “It’s really enough stuff for two kids.” Fighting back tears.
Most days, I am able to hold it at an arm’s length. I consider the concept that we have a future child out in the world somewhere right now, experiencing things we can’t control, and I call the idea too abstract to analyze. I tell myself that yes, we will eventually adopt a child but it’s not yet determined who this person is, so they don’t really “exist” in our world.
But then I roll out of a store, arms full of holiday cheer and it’s clear that I’ve subconsciously purchased for two kids even though I’ve only got one at home. And then I think of how badly we want that second child to be with us, and then I wonder where that child is and whether or not anyone is thinking of him or her on Valentine’s Day, the way I would. The way I already am.
I want to be teaching my second child the same thing I’m teaching my first — that if we feel love, we should show love every day. But that it certainly doesn’t hurt to scream it from the rooftops once a year, just for the heck of it.
Is anyone screaming from the rooftops for you today, kiddo?
I hope so. I hope someone is showering you with love. But just in case they’re not, please know that we are, even if you can’t feel it quite yet.
She walks into our home, peeks around the corner from our sunporch to our living room and says, “Wow, what a beautiful home.”
My shoulders slump with relief and my entire body relaxes as I fight back the urge to respond, “Is it really? Do you really think so? Is it … good enough?”
I’d been preparing for our first home study for days. I’d been filling out forms upon forms upon forms until my fingers ached and my head grew foggy. I’d been hunting down all sorts of random pieces of information – a marriage certificate, proof of life insurance, addresses for every place Mike and I have lived since we were born.
I had covered every open outlet, I’d moved cleaners from the bottom of the linen closet to the top shelf, I’d transferred alllll the liquor (three bottles of vodka?) from the floor-level liquor cabinet to a high pantry shelf, out of reach of little hands.
You’d think we didn’t already have a child in our home, but of course we do. The difference is that we know Ryan. We know that he has no interest in the liquor cabinet or the kitchen cabinets or the linen closet. He has his own brand of mischief, trust me, but these particular things? Simply not an issue with him.
But when you decide to take in a child who is not yet legally yours, a child you don’t yet know, you need to be prepared for everything. You start looking around your home and thinking, “Oh dear God, that’s not safe and that’s not safe and...”
You lock away your medications. You diagram your Fire Escape Plan, which up until this point had simply been, “hope we never have a fire.”
We understand the why of it all, of course. We know it needs to be done, and we think it should be done. It’s jarring, though, to open your door to a stranger and feel like you’ve got 90 minutes to prove your worth as a parent, a role you’ve already actually had for more than four years.
Still, I know — all of this is the easy part to the process. My discomfort with proving myself as a worthy parent, my exhaustion with the piles of paperwork, my anxiety over the endless “what-ifs” … this is our initiation.
The stuff coming up? That’s the stuff that will change us forever.
Our caseworker sits at our kitchen table, tucks her hair behind her ears and softly tells us stories. Stories that are not meant to scare us but to prepare us. Stories that naturally do a little bit of both.
She needs to know that we’ve considered it all: How our current discipline methods won’t work with a foster child, how we’ll need birth parent approval for every haircut we schedule, how we might (will likely?) deal with bed wetting and/or food hoarding and/or unknown emotional triggers of all kinds.
But somehow I’m just relieved that we’re having this conversation at all. That she has looked at our home, has looked into our eyes and has deemed us worthy enough to prepare.
I'm Meghan. I grew up in Ohio, came of age in Arizona and am now raising a family in Pennsylvania. I'm a freelance writer, an essayist and a stay-at-home mom to our four-year-old biological son and our 3-year-old foster son. I'm told I am too organized and too sarcastic for my own good but I don't see how either is possible.
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