The sun is shining on my shoulders as I stroll up the path to Ryan’s preschool playground. It is warm outside. Finally, after weeks of a spring full of rain and cold, we have a beautiful day. It seems summer is coming after all.
I grin and wave at Ryan across the playground; he waves back and trots toward me.
His teacher walks behind him, unlatches the metal gate to let him out, looks me straight in the eye and sighs a bit, a kind smile on her lips.
“I wanted to make you aware of something,” she says in a low voice, just above a whisper.
“Joey* said something to another friend today in front of Ryan. It was loud and Ryan definitely overheard it.”
I skim through the list of possibilities in my mind. Maybe Joey said something hurtful; maybe he said he doesn’t like Ryan or want to play with him?
“Ok,” I say, bracing myself.
“He said, ‘Ryan’s mom and dad gave his little brother away.’”
“I’m going to talk to Joey’s mom when she picks him up,” she continues, her voice getting softer still as Ryan leans against me, unusually quiet. “I’ll explain the situation so she can talk to Joey about it.”
“Ok,” I say again, watching tears form in her eyes as I fight off my own. “It’s ok. Thank you for letting me know.”
As we walk back to my car, Ryan chatters about his day, how he learned about sharks, how he and his friend, Mason, have the exact same shoes and how “it’s such a beautiful day, Mommy!”
We buckle ourselves into the car, and I know my best chance is now. The car seems to be our magical, safe place to chat, and I know he heard my conversation with his teacher. I know he’s waiting for me to talk to him about it.
“So, your teacher told me that Joey said something at school today. That he said we gave BlueJay away.”
“Yeah. He made a mistake, but that’s ok. People make mistakes sometimes.”
“You’re right, it is absolutely ok. Joey probably just doesn’t understand. But I want to make sure that you know we didn’t give BlueJay away.”
“I know,” Ryan says. “I think what he said is actually my fault. I told him we gave BlueJay back to his family. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to say?”
My eyes sting with pride as I glance in the rearview mirror at his half-earnest, half-worried expression. This boy who not only welcomed a little brother into his home without hesitation, played with that brother for a full year and then let him go with grace, understanding and a tight hug. This small child who was then faced with explaining the foster care system and his own loss to a classroom full of other four- and five-year-olds who very likely have no knowledge of such things.
I assure him he did nothing wrong. We talk about the difference between “giving back” and “giving away” and how strange it is that such similar phrases can have very different meanings. We talk about the difference between a regular brother and a foster brother. Together, we come up with new words he can use to talk to his friends about BlueJay.
I imagine the conversation the teacher and Joey’s mother will have and a little knot forms in my stomach. I realize that mother will have to try to find the right words to explain these things to her own five-year-old son. She will have to explain that some mommies and daddies need extra help. That some kids have to leave their homes for a little while so their parents can get that help. And in the meantime, those kids need safe, happy, loving, fun homes to live in.
That those homes are called foster homes; that Ryan’s home is one of those foster homes.
It’s a lot to expect of a stranger. To suddenly and randomly find the words to explain our situation in a way that makes sense to tiny ears without instilling fear that such a thing could happen to him.
It is not lost on me that we are the reason Joey’s family has to sit around the dinner table and talk about the fact that some kids his age have to leave their homes and go to live with strangers. It is a reminder that our decision to become foster parents affected not just us and our family and friends but also our extended community.
That doesn’t make it wrong, though, does it? It might force a few parents to have conversations they wouldn’t normally have. But having these kinds of conversations is a critical part of raising kids to have empathy for others from all different backgrounds. It’s our job to walk the parental minefield of societal issues and explain each one as it explodes around us.
By the time your child is grown, you hope he knows — and accepts — that a “family” can look a hundred different ways. A family can include one child or eight children; two mothers or multiple races. A child can be raised by divorced parents or grandparents, a single parent or foster parents.
I believe the more exposure a child has to the fact that “family” can mean so many things, the better. Family is not necessarily centered around a specific structure or a shared biology or traditional gender roles. What truly binds a family together is love.
I struggle against the protective part of me that cringes a bit at the thought that Ryan’s young experiences might amount to a “teaching moment” for other kids his age.
And yet … I also believe if Ryan can live it for a year, his friends can benefit from a conversation in which they learn enough to start to understand it.
(Note: Joey* isn’t the real name of Ryan’s friend.)