More often than not lately, parenting has felt like a delightful surprise. It's not always, of course. Sometimes it's like having an upset feral cat around while I'm trying to do...well, anything. Anything is difficult when you're responsible for an upset feral cat. When my brain is a bit foggy from interrupted sleep, when it's excessively hot or I'm hungry, my children's peccadilloes are super annoying. But when I'm in a good frame of mind, typically one where I'm ironically less inside my own head, I enjoy my boys so much.
I've always liked the Jim Gaffigan line about parenting (he has 5 kids, but I think it applies to any parenting situation where you're outnumbered): Imagine you're drowning, then someone hands you a baby. I definitely felt that for a period of time after having Harry, when Noah first went back to work after his six-week parental leave, and we were waiting life to take its own new level after the shock waves dissipated.
I'll probably jinx myself by saying this, but recently all three boys have been more domesticated than feral if we're still going with the cat analogy. They're funny, amusing, sweet, occasionally temporarily temperamental, enjoyable little beings about the house and yard. Not overly needy or bad. Nobody's pooping outside the litter box or peeing on laundry, so to speak. (Although someone whose name rhymes with Schmoliver is still having trouble with sprinkling the toilet seat; on the other hand, he's also been cooperative about cleaning the toilet seat.)
When so many good days line up with very few blips, it's easy to remember what makes parenting the best, most challenging yet rewarding responsibility I've ever chosen.
Parenting has evolved for us in unusual ways since we had Ethan, our eldest, back in 2008. Perhaps most notably, we were foster parents.
A little over a year ago, I'd written about why we pursued foster-to-adopt, but I have never shared why we decided to walk away from it.
I imagine most of you who know we were foster parents also know that we had a foster placement, a two-month-old baby boy who I'll call J.
This is where I can explain an aspect of the system we didn't fully understand until we were already licensed.
Fostering, at least where we live, isn't a matter of getting a call, saying yes, then you have a foster child. For us, we were among a group of potential foster families who were approached. Anyone who said yes was then taken into consideration by social services, which then would conference about it and select a family.
This was a surprising reality. Campaigns to encourage fostering and adopting tend to mention the overwhelming need for foster parents—which is statistically true. However, if there's a huge need for foster families in Chicago, that doesn't necessarily equate to a huge need for foster families in Joliet. Even if there are several available foster parents, say, an hour away, for understandable logistical reasons, they're not typically going to be approached.
In our area, apparently there isn't a dearth of foster parents—or wasn't when we were licensed—because we said yes several times over the course of six months, and only ever ended up with one placement, J.
J came to us in especially dramatic fashion. For several days after initial inquiry, social services were unable to locate him. Eventually, they put out an amber alert. DSS (Department of Social Services) had selected us to be his foster parents before he was in state custody, so for several days, we waited.
To say we didn't know if he was even alive isn't an exaggeration; one of the reasons DSS had been involved was because of a crisis medical situation that the baby's parents badly mishandled. So badly, in fact, that the result was irreversibly physically life-altering for the baby. When physicians started asking questions, the parents became combative and the baby disappeared.
At any time, seeing an amber alert on the news is unsettling—photos or mug shots of adults, photos (if available and appropriate) of the missing kid. But when I was sitting at my parent's house and the local news broke in with an amber alert for our baby, the photos of his birth parents on the screen, I actually flinched. Those two young, troubled people had a baby out there, they were unstable, and he was going to be ours if ever he was found.
See how I used the word "our"? "Our baby"? I wasn't capable of keeping the baby at arm's length. Fostering itself is certainly emotionally challenging. If you didn't care about kids, you wouldn't do it in the first place. But us, we wanted to adopt a child. It felt like our family had a little extra space that ought to be filled with one more person.
For us, we had to imagine not only the addition of a little kid into our family dynamic; we had to imagine the addition of a little kid into our family dynamic forever. Because that's what we wanted. So in order for us to say "yes" to a potential placement, we had to consider what that yes would mean for the rest of our lives. I couldn't run those scenarios and remain impartial. If we said yes, it had to be because we meant yes for always.
The amber alert for J went out on a Tuesday at lunchtime. I remember it was Tuesday because Noah and I were taking evening adult fitness classes at the taekwondo place around the corner, and we decided to go anyway. To try to keep things normal. I repeatedly checked my phone throughout the hour.
We did our class, picked up Ethan and Oliver from my parents' house, and went home. Started getting everyone ready for bed. Finally, around 8:30, we got the call. J had been found, and he was being taken to the hospital in a neighboring town. We were to meet him there.
Our best friend and neighbor Nick came up to stay with the boys while I flew around the house, packing a bag with baby supplies, shouting "Thank you Jesus!" with relief, which was weird for me but came from a place of deep sincerity. If someone had told me Jesus himself delivered J to social services, I would've been like, duh. I must've gone on about the Jesus thing because at one point Ethan shouted excitedly, "I feel like Jesus stabbed me in the heart!"
Noah and I arrived at the hospital around 10. We went into the emergency room, told them we were baby J's foster parents. Everyone knew about him. They were so kind to us. An administrator walked us back into the triage room where a gaggle of nurses and a couple social workers were crowded around the exam table.
They parted, and then I saw him for the first time. A little tiny baby. And then they handed him to me, for he was, at least for the time being, my tiny little baby. (Interesting fact: we initially said we were prepared for a child between the ages of 4 and 7, to be between Ethan and Oliver. Our social worker asked us if 2 months old was too young, but we decided 2 months wasn't too young. And we were chosen.)
Though it was very late, and he'd surely had a dramatic several days, J was wide eyed and completely alert. He smelled strongly of smoke. He seemed unharmed; his surgical wound appeared cared for. He was pale. The spaces under his little fingernails were grimy, somehow. At two months old, he wasn't yet 9 pounds. On the growth scale, he didn't even hit the first percentile.
A day and a half later, we got to bring him home from the hospital. I took him to the pediatrician, I took him to other required appointments that front-load the fostering process. We took him trick or treating with us. We started living life with him.
I was at the pharmacy getting him a prescription when his social worker called to say he had grandparents, he might be going to them.
I was at a social services appointment with him when his social worker called to say that, in spite of the grandparents' initial protests, the judge had ruled they were responsible for J.
Two hours later, our social worker came, put J's old, stinky car seat in the back of her car. I kissed him on the head and told him I loved him. We never saw him again.
I didn't fully realize back then how very tricky it is building your family through foster-to-adopt. The goal for foster kids is almost always reunification with birth families, which makes sense. I didn't yet know how much the system is willing to tolerate before reunification is off the table.
There is so. much. to deal with when fostering. It's not so simple as loving a child. Loving the children is the easiest part. It's the necessary bureaucracy that causes problems. It takes a lot for the state to remove a child from a birth family; it takes even more for that child to become available for adoption.
Always, the child takes the brunt of the system's flaws; it seems that biological parents' rights far outweigh the child's rights. Because, well, they do. Ultimately children don't have full legal status. And the legal advocacy they do get solely for their own best interests is offered by unpaid volunteers in the guardian ad litem (GAL) program.
If the child is eventually adopted, it's only after many months and probably years of abuse or neglect or trauma as birth families try, or don't, to get their lives together.
Imagine yourself in a bad relationship, and every time you try to move on with your life, you're legally bound to keep giving that toxic person another chance. Now imagine you're a kid, and the toxic person is your parent.
We advocated for J. Hard. I wrote up a brief, included pictures. Our social worker took it to his placement hearing. The judge read it and, apparently, disregarded it. After J left us, I even contacted the GAL program to make sure he was on their radar, to make sure he'd have a legal advocate of his own.
A couple of months later—in the life of an infant, a two month period is extraordinarily consequential—his guardian ad litem was assigned and got in touch with me. I gave her all the information and insight I could. I was the linchpin for the system's understanding of who J was and what he went through. But for legal reasons, she couldn't tell me anything about him. Only that she'd met him.
I went into a funk for several weeks after J left. I can't compare the loss to anything else, because every kind of loss is unique, isn't it? He hadn't passed away. He wasn't my biological child. But, losing J was losing a potential future, one in which he grew into his place with us. A future in which his path became so entwined with ours, we would all be on the same one in the end. I grieved that unusual loss, all while worrying about that little tiny baby whose future still lay before him, just without us in it.
After a few weeks, we felt ready enough to start considering another placement. I admit that in part I was waiting for J's upcoming court dates to come and go, hoping that he'd end up back with us. Of course, those dates came and went, and we never heard anything.
Three more times after J, we said yes. But we were never selected again. After so many emotional disappointments, we decided that if we wanted to grow our family, maybe we needed to have another biological child. And if we were going to have another biological child, based on my age and the ages of our kids, we'd need to have one soon. Pregnancies were hard on me, there were complications, but infertility was never an issue. And if we were going to have another biological child, we didn't feel prepared to foster at the same time.
A few months after J left, after we said yes several more times without being selected for a placement, we closed out our license. Two months later, I was pregnant.
And now we have Harry.
There's a lot to share about Harry, about my pregnancy and his birth. But that's for another time. For now, while I've been writing this, he's been asleep in his bassinet next to me or snuggling on my lap.
I look at Harry and I think about J. I think about his mother.
Harry, somehow, gets dirty fingernails. It's not a sign of neglect. He sits in the car seat we bought when we had J. J had a car seat; it was old, and stinky, but he still had one. His mother was an addict, and because of that, she made some bad choices. But she still took him to the hospital, eventually, when he was in crisis.
I think about J, what his life is like now, what he might look like. I hope he's healthy. I hope he's cared for. I hope that the week of love our family gave him somehow has stayed with him, imprinted on his little soul, standing out among the traumatic marks.
A little while ago, Noah commented that we couldn't really regret any of it, not even losing J, because if things didn't go exactly as they had, we wouldn't have Harry. There's no regret in that. Just because something was painful doesn't mean it wasn't necessary.
I'm so grateful for my three beautiful sons. And I'll never forget that once, for a week, I was mom to another one.