Last fall, I received an invitation to give opening remarks to kick off the Adoption and Foster Family Coalition’s annual conference this month in Albany.
I almost said no. Truthfully, I wanted to say no. I’m not a comfortable public speaker. Sharing my experiences as a new foster parent from the safety of my own computer is comfortable for me. Sharing them up on a stage in front of hundreds of people? No.
I spoke on the phone with the conference coordinator, a lovely woman who assured me they were less interested in the most polished of speakers and more interested in hearing a story from the heart.
“Is there a specific topic you want me to talk about?” I asked.
“Well, this conference includes attendees who are foster parents, adoptive parents, social workers and supervisors. So, it should be whatever message you think they most need to hear.”
That conversation took place back in November while I was visiting my parents’ home in Ohio for Thanksgiving. At the time, Ryan and BlueJay were asleep upstairs while I jotted down notes. Maybe I could talk about the impact of fostering on a foster parent’s biological child, I thought. Or perhaps the need for more education and support for a foster parent’s extended network of family and friends.
At that point, we thought BlueJay’s case was headed toward adoption. Because at that point in time, it was.
But things obviously changed, and BlueJay left our care less than two months before I was to give the speech. With grief over the loss of him still weighing on my heart, I revisited those old scribbled notes. I stared at them, blurry words on a page that no longer held the same meaning or importance to me now as they did when I first wrote them. I crumpled them up.
The conference coordinator’s words rang in my ears: “Whatever message you think they most need to hear.”
Below is the speech I wrote, the speech I practiced dozens of times in an effort to lessen the amount of times my voice would crack with emotion. (Yes, I did still tear up a couple of times, but hey, it could have been worse.)
Good morning, and thank you all for having me. As I look around this room, I know I am standing in front of decades of experience with the foster care system. By comparison, I’m a relative newbie.
My husband, Mike, and I have been licensed foster parents for just over a year. For almost that entire year, we cared for one child, a boy we nicknamed BlueJay who came to live with us at three years old and stayed with us for 11 months. In March, we packed up all he had accumulated while he lived with us, including clothing, toys, books, his beloved collection of slippers, and a giant stuffed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
From the beginning, we understood that it was our responsibility to not only provide transportation to family visits, to obtain birth parent permission for hair cuts and out-of-state trips, but most importantly, to love BlueJay and bond with him while also supporting the goal of reunifying him with his biological family. However, we are a foster-to-adopt family, which is to say that like many other couples sitting next to us in our agency training sessions, our ultimate desire is to grow our family through the adoption of a child in need of a permanent home.
Mike and I already have one child, a biological son named Ryan who is now five years old. When we announced to our extended family members that we had decided to become a licensed foster family, we received mixed responses. Some joy and excitement, some confusion over why we wouldn’t simply have another baby if we wanted more children, and some concern over how the experience would affect us. Particularly how it would affect Ryan.
As a mother, Ryan was among my top concerns, as well. To go from being an only child to having a sibling, and then quite possibly back to being an only child, well that would be difficult for anyone. And we’re talking about a kid who once cried for two straight days because we bought a new couch and gave the old couch to some friends. He was still going to be able to “visit” the old couch, guys, but still he cried.
The truth is, we really didn’t know what was ahead of us. We didn’t personally know anyone who had been foster parents, and privacy concerns have a way of limiting the amount of personal foster care stories one can find online. So while we felt fairly educated and informed, we were also emotionally unprepared.
Perhaps we were even a bit naive. After all, even though we were being cautious with our expectations, we were pretty sure we were ultimately going to adopt. We should have known to ask more questions on the afternoon we received a phone and our caseworker said, “Great news! Your last background clearance came through today! You’re officially licensed … AND, we have a placement for you, AND we’re wondering if you can pick him up tonight — tomorrow at the latest…”
But we didn’t ask the right questions, and we realized pretty quickly that BlueJay’s was a case very much on the path to reunification. He might be with us for just a month or two. Maybe the whole summer; surely not longer than that. We learned to do what all foster parents must do: live in the uncertainty. Compartmentalize. Take life day by day, hurdle by hurdle. Learn to accept how much is out of our control and take control of the few things that we can.
Court hearings were continued again and again. Weeks turned into months and months turned into seasons. We became accustomed to the sound of BlueJay’s feet hitting the floor at 5:30 — on the DOT — every morning. We fell into a routine as we learned everything from his favorite foods to his emotional triggers. We traveled to the beach and to Ohio to see my family. We celebrated his fourth birthday and almost every major holiday.
We fell into life as a family of four. We fell in love with him. Pretty quickly, actually, and deeply.
Right around the time that a termination of parental rights was about to be filed, a pair of extended relatives stepped forward. They would take custody of BlueJay and his two biological brothers who lived in other homes.
Throughout this entire process, I had been writing about our experience for the New York Times. I authored the Foster Parent Diary series with the hope of giving a voice to foster parenthood. I wanted to chronicle our experiences for all the other prospective foster parents lurking in the background wondering whether they had what it took to be successful. Wondering how it would affect their lives and the lives of their family and friends. Wondering whether it would be an exercise in heartbreak.
The more I wrote, the more support I received. The more I published, the more the emails and comments and Facebook messages poured in. Messages like this one:
“I’ve always wanted to adopt and/or foster. Your blog has not only given me some insight into what to expect, but it has also made me want to adopt/foster even more. I wonder how many other people you have inspired to reach out and help the vulnerable in our communities.”
Messages like that are exactly why I wanted to write about our experiences in the first place. I wanted to not just inform and educate readers on the foster care system or to provide a window into our personal lives, but I also wanted lift the veil of mystery surrounding foster parenthood. I wanted to write the words for others that I had sought out at the beginning, I wanted to answer the questions I myself had had. I only hoped my words wouldn’t scare people off.
Readers came along on our journey with us, offering thoughts and prayers for our family and BlueJay’s family at every twist and turn of his case. They remained there with us in the end when we faced one of the most difficult days of our lives — the day we buckled BlueJay into an unfamiliar pickup truck and waved goodbye.
In the days and weeks after, I went through a range of emotions. I was numb for a while. Then I was angry at a system that allowed for BlueJay to be moved so abruptly to live with people he barely knew with no transition whatsoever. I was deeply sad every night at bedtime when I kissed one forehead instead of two and every morning when I awoke naturally on my own, rather than to the sound of his little feet hitting the floor before the sun was even awake.
What I felt — what I still feel — is grief, but it is a grief I was not sure I was entitled to. After all, we signed up for this, right?
Doing the only thing I know to do when I’m processing my own complicated feelings, I wrote. Here is a portion of what I wrote two weeks after BlueJay left:
“This grief, it feels a little selfish. To admit I’m sad he’s not with me could also be interpreted to mean I think he is better off with me, and I simply don’t know that to be true. Mostly, I grieve at the idea that he could already be forgetting my words. He could already be forgetting that I will always love him, even when he can’t see me. He could already be forgetting that this choice was not mine to make.
He could be thinking I simply abandoned him, sent him away. He might think I don’t call him because I don’t care. He might feel like I broke his heart; he may never know how deeply mine is broken, too.”
After I published that piece, the support came stronger than ever, largely from other foster parents who have experienced the very same thing. Here are just a few messages I received:
“Thank you for sharing. I had felt so utterly alone–I think so few people know what its like to lose a child in this way and it means so much just to know you are out there.”
And this one:
“I lost my three year old (foster) daughter two years ago after 13 months together, and it is the defining tragedy of my life, from which I am still recovering.”
And this one:
“I am a foster parent about to face the reality you have so beautifully written about. Saying goodbye to my toddler for whom I have cared since she was 7 months old. Your words have been such a source of strength and inspiration for me – knowing that someone out there has loved like I have and has been able to let go – to know that someone else has loved as deeply as I have and lived to write about it. – It gives me great hope that I, too, will survive.”
I cannot overstate how these messages — and so many others — helped me through those early days and weeks without BlueJay and allowed me to arrive at a critical realization: This grief, it is normal. Even more than that, it is completely appropriate if, as foster parents, we are doing exactly what we set out to do, which is to show these kids complete and unconditional love. To lower the armor around our own hearts and love them without the fear of our own heartbreak.
It is difficult not only for me and Mike, but for our extended family and friends who grieve along with us. These are the people who didn’t “sign up for this.” People who considered him to be a grandson or a nephew.
Or, a brother.
Ryan taught us the biggest lesson of all during this experience. Kids tend to have an emotional purity and wisdom that we somehow grow out of as adults. We were honest with Ryan from the beginning that the situation was likely temporary. We explained that BlueJay had his own parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who loved him and missed him. He understood and accepted it far better than we ever could have hoped.
The night we told Ryan that BlueJay would be leaving, he cried quietly to himself for a few minutes. We pulled out a recordable stuffed dinosaur we had bought and managed a few laughs together through the tears as Ryan recorded a message to BlueJay. The message was a mixture of sweet words and loud dinosaur roars.
On their last morning together, Ryan hugged the boy he had played with every day for the past year, and he told him how much he loved him and would miss him. Ryan was brave. Stoic, even, despite our bracing for a couch-level emotional meltdown.
“It’s ok,” Ryan told me later. “We might never see him again, but he’s with his family, and they love him and they missed him.”
A couple weeks later, it was time for our annual home study. We were due to be re-licensed, so I told Ryan that our caseworker would be visiting. He was confused as to why she would be coming to our home even though BlueJay was gone.
“Well,” I told him. “Even though BlueJay is not living with us anymore, we are still a foster family. That means our caseworker will come and visit us once in a while to check in, see how we’re doing and make sure our home is still a safe and happy one. I don’t know if we will ever welcome in another child, but she will visit us just in case.”
He looked at me as though I had sprouted an additional head.
“Of course we’ll take another child,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we??”
Last year, when we told our family and friends that we had planned to become foster parents, the reaction I remember most clearly is this one: “I’m just afraid you’ll be heartbroken.”
We may be heartbroken; but we are not broken.
We are still sad, yes. We miss BlueJay, of course. We think about him every day, and we probably always will.
But I am grateful for a heartache that tells me I did my very best. I am grateful for a foster care community that said my grief was real and normal and very much ok.
Knowing BlueJay, loving him and letting him go may have temporarily broken our hearts, but it also allowed our hearts and Ryan’s heart to grow beyond what we thought was possible.
That’s why, naivety aside, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I felt shaky as I came off stage, raw from my own emotions and nervous that maybe I’d erred in judgement. That while I thought my message was a valuable one, maybe it wasn’t the right tone with which to kick off a two-day conference.
But then they came up to me. The woman with tears in her eyes who clutched my hand and said, “I know … I know … I can’t even talk right now … but I know.”
The man who touched my shoulder, his wife by his side, and said, “We’ve been there. So many times.”
All the people who stopped me in the hotel lobby or the hallway to tell me their own story or to simply say, “Thank you for saying it. This can be so hard. Thank you for putting words to our feelings.”
It is not only ok to talk about our feelings of sadness and loss (even at the very beginning of a conference); I also think it’s vital that we do so. The recognition of our own experiences and emotions in others connects us. It can make us feel a little more normal and a little less crazy. We can give each other permission to feel the way we feel, and in turn, maybe we can find the strength to do it again.
In that room full of strangers, I was anything but alone.
(We are coming up on the end of National Foster Care Month. Share your foster care experiences in the comments below so we can connect with each other and continue to spread awareness. Or, if you’re curious about the foster care system and have questions about what it’s like to be a foster parent, post your questions below. This is a safe place to ask and learn and support.)