This week’s post from my Foster Parent Diary series at the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, running every Tuesday through July.
I cleaned out my wallet this week. It was full and unorganized with receipts and notes and scraps of paper threatening to spill out each time I opened the top flap.
If there is one thing I can’t stand, it is a wallet that is full and unorganized, so I set aside a few minutes to wade through its depths and purge. I began pulling out old receipts and ticket stubs that sent me through an instant time warp, to a time before we were raising our 3-year-old foster son, BlueJay.
I found a receipt dated in early April from a grocery store in Phoenix, followed closely by three tickets to the Phoenix Zoo. Mike and I met and lived in Arizona for almost a decade before we moved back to the East Coast a couple of years ago to raise Ryan near family. We took Ryan, who is now 4 years old, back to Arizona in the spring to visit friends and reintroduce him to the state where he was born.
We considered that trip to be our last hurrah as a family of three. By that point, we knew that it wouldn’t be long before we were officially a licensed foster family and that we might get a placement almost immediately. We knew our lives were about to change and we relished the time we had left as parents of an only child.
In some ways, it feels as though life in our home has slowed to a crawl since we welcomed BlueJay into our lives nearly three months ago with only 20 hours’ notice. We were instantly consumed with connecting and learning and, some days, surviving. Days melted into nights that melted back into days as we tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to adjust to our new life as a family of four.
This spring, I stood on a stage behind a microphone and willed my voice and hands to stay steady as I read an essay about preparing Ryan to welcome a foster sibling.
I was part of the inaugural cast of the Lehigh Valley’s Listen to Your Mother show, a nationwide show that features writers reading personal essays on motherhood before a live audience. In April, I took to the stage with a dozen other incredibly talented storytellers and read my piece, “Two Car Seats.”
My essay starts this way:
I can pinpoint the exact moment he figured out what a “sibling” is.
We were getting ready to change locations on a play date one afternoon over the summer. Ryan’s new friends, who happen to be brothers, wanted to drive from the pizza place to tumbling class in my car. Ryan, naturally, wanted to go with them in their car.
Their mom and I locked eyes and laughed, happy they were bonding with each other. “I’m sorry,” I told Ryan’s friends. “You guys can’t come with us in our car. We only have one car seat. But I promise, we’ll follow right behind you!”
The jig was up. Ryan heard me and caught on to the fact that Logan and Gavin’s car must have two car seats. He insisted on seeing what such a setup might look like.
I picked him up and let him peer into their SUV as the brothers scrambled into their seats.
“Buuuuut … they have two seats, Mommy,” Ryan said slowly.
“Yes, they do, because there are two of them and they each need a seat to ride safely in the car.”
“Buuuuut … we only have one car seat. We need to get another seat, Mommy! If we get another seat, then we’ll have TWO seats and I can have a friend with me All The Time!”
His hazel eyes grew big and round and sparkly at the idea.
“A sibling,” I sighed. “What you’re asking me for is called a ‘sibling.’”
Four days (FOUR DAYS!) before I stepped onto the stage to read my essay, I sent my castmates a photo and a message that said, “Psssssttt, hey guys, look! Two car seats!”
We had just gotten home from meeting BlueJay for the first time and we were frantically getting our house – and our cars – ready to bring him home with us the next morning.
The timing took the experience from exciting to thrilling. From emotional to surreal. Audience members approached me in the parking lot after the show to peer into my car and count the number of seats in my backseat.
It is a day I will never forget.
This week’s post from my Foster Parent Diary series at the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, running every Tuesday through July.
My 3-year-old foster son, BlueJay, is playing on the living room floor, running toy trains around a track, when he suddenly looks up and asks: “Is this my house? Is this my blue house?” I look back at him in surprise. We’ve had a bit of a rough morning and I’m surprised to see his scowl suddenly replaced by this new, perplexed expression.
“It sure is, honey,” I tell him. “We all live here. Me, Daddy, Ryan and you. This is our home.”
He frowns for a moment; I know he is not quite convinced. He asks again: “I live here? This is my home?”
“Yes, it is,” I tell him. “I’m so happy you live here with us.”
“Oh, that’s so nice, Mommy,” he says, his face relaxing. “I’m so glad, too. And you take me to fun places? Like the park and the playground?”
“I sure do.”
“And you call me your ‘honey?’ And you call Ryan your ‘sweets?’ ”
“That’s right. You’re my honey, and Ryan is my sweets.”
He nods and picks his trains back up, this time with a little smile on his face.
(I’m at Coffee + Crumbs today with a post about the moment I consider to be the real starting point in our foster care journey.)
I pulled the bent, oversized white envelope out of the mailbox and closed the lid with a metal clank.
I stood in the open front doorway of my home and stared at the return address, running my hand across the envelope’s smooth surface. First class mail from our state capitol.
My gaze settled on the top right corner of the package, on the red postage stamp in the corner that declared Pennsylvania’s investment in us.
I tip-toed inside, gently opened the envelope’s flap and pulled out its contents. I thumbed through brochures filled with information I’d read online dozens of times, nodding as I skimmed. Hunting for the one sheet I truly needed, I grasped it with triumph when I found it – the list of our county’s approved foster care agencies.
It was our turning point. That moment when years of “what if, someday…” rounds the corner to “let’s just take the first step…” and then suddenly you’re holding one hundred and eighty-two pennies worth of information in your hand, and the weight of it feels like the weight of a child….
Mike and I have a shared dream. In that dream, we live in a condo in our local downtown neighborhood. In that dream, we go to happy hour or dinner at our favorite restaurants whenever we want. In that dream, he works at a job he loves and I have a writing room in our home that overlooks Main Street. In that dream, our child(ren) are grown and off at college or pursuing their life’s passions.
We talk about it a lot. We pass by the perfect row home and we sigh and laugh as our two boys – one biological and one foster – play and fight and screech in the backseat. We know our dream is ages away. And yet, we know that when we finally get there, we will look back on these years as the best of our lives.
We are not in a rush to get through it, he and I. We simply have a dream.
As brand new foster parents, Mike and I have been through the parenting ringer the past couple of months. And yes, our marriage has been through the ringer, as well. There have been too many nights of one of us asleep on the couch while the other is wanting to discuss. Too many nights where a time crunch has meant that wrapping up work must taken precedence over connecting. Too many nights where dinner, bedtime and a quick recap of the day is all we can muster before we each mentally switch off.
It’s ok; Mike and I are fine. In fact, I think he and I would each weirdly describe our marriage as “stronger than ever” because although we have weathered challenges in the past, we have truly learned this year that no matter what we encounter, we can and will conquer it together.
All this is to say: I’m thankful to have this guy in my life. A guy with a heart bigger than any other I’ve ever seen. A guy who displays endless amounts of love and patience with our kids. A guy who faces every challenge with a positive attitude. A guy I want to grow old with in a downtown condo overlooking the shops of Main Street.
I love you, Mike. Happy Father’s Day.
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.
*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:
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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