I remember the day I changed my mind. It wasn’t after our foster son, James, left our home, as one might assume. It was before. Weeks before, in fact.
The day it occurred to me that I did, in fact, want to have another baby, it wasn’t because I was looking to replace. It wasn’t because life as foster parents felt like it was coming crashing down around us yet again. It wasn’t because I was still – always – missing our first foster son, BlueJay – or because I wasn’t sure whether James would stay with us forever.
It was because something clicked.
James came to live with us when he was 9 years old. He came with a file an inch thick. He came with jumbled memories and stories that changed with each telling. He came with a “life book” filled, in part, with his own messy handwriting, but empty in each spot reserved for a photograph.
He came with a couple of blurry photos taken earlier in the year at another foster home and one picture of himself that was taken when he was, we estimate, 8 years old. He came with not a single other picture. No picture of him with his arm slung around one of his biological siblings. No picture of him sitting on Santa’s lap. No picture of him hauling a slightly-too-large backpack on his first day of kindergarten. No picture of him with chubby toddler cheeks or skinny newborn legs.
He quickly became obsessed with the framed pictures in our house. Wedding pictures, school pictures, baby pictures.
“He was so cute,” James would say, staring at his favorite picture. The one in which Ryan is trying to lift his heavy newborn head up from the hand-knit, baby blue blanket piled up in front of him. “I bet I was cute, too. Do you think I was cute?”
“I’m sure of it,” I’d say, swallowing my frustration that while I was sure he had been cute as a baby, I’d never know exactly how. I’d never know whether he was cute because he was totally bald or because his eyes were impossibly large and bright. Maybe he was the sort of baby who smiled all the time or maybe he was the sort who carried around a permanently quizzical look.
I was determined to find out. If not to get baby pictures, then at least start to working my way backward. Get my hands on a couple more pictures of him when he was 8. Or, better yet, when he was 6 or 7. If we could see him getting younger, maybe we could imagine it better, how this almost 10-year-old boy would have looked all those years ago.
I contacted his court-appointed advocate and his social workers. I called his previous foster parents. I located former teachers. I may have even plugged a few of the names scrawled in that “life book” into Facebook’s search bar and scoured through any pictures I could find, searching for a face that was young but familiar.
I hit dead-end after dead-end, and when I finally ran out of options, I realized it wasn’t just photos I’d been searching for. It was more than that. I wanted all the holes I’d never be able to fill. Did he walk early? Talk late? Did he love bananas but hate pears? Did it take him months to potty-train or did he do it practically overnight? Was he shy or social? Was he quick to laugh or quick to cry?
The endless open answers ate away at me until it clicked. The sleepless baby stage, the toddler tantrum stage, the can’t-get-out-the-door-if-our-lives-depended-on-it preschooler stage … these are more than just phases that parents have to get through. Parenting little ones is partially (mostly?) about survival, but it’s also about bearing witness. It’s watching their personalities develop so that one day, when he’s playing goalie during the soccer game and the other team scores on him and he doesn’t get frustrated, your pride can soar all the way to the outermost layer of the atmosphere. Because you know – you know – how hard he can be on himself. Because he’s always been that way.
I had often felt relieved as Ryan got older and more independent, as we left one tough parenting phase after another behind us. No way would I ever want to start over. Go back to midnight feedings and diapers and teething all these years after leaving them behind? Wouldn’t that be the definition of insanity? I had wanted to parent an older child partially because I didn’t want to start over from the beginning and now here I was, trying to chase that beginning down.
Just like that, it no longer felt like it was about starting over or age gaps, which at this point would be 8 years and counting. It was finally so much less about whether or not Ryan should have a permanent sibling, because we know he would do just fine with or without one. It was about whether we wanted to parent again. To start from scratch, to get through those tough early years. To bear witness.
“You’re probably going to think I’m crazy,” I whispered to Mike late one night as I climbed into bed next to him. “But … how would you react if I said I thought I might want to have a baby?”
The grin that spread across his face lit up the darkness around us.