My Foster Parenting Story
Some of you know this small piece of my history because you were there for us as part of our support network during one of the most challenging, yet faithful experiences of my life. But I’m sharing this story for those who did not know us and did not have an insider look of what our life was like then – both the joys and sorrows. On August 13th, 2014, my husband and I became foster parents to a beautiful, bright eyed baby girl (who will be referred to as “L”). My son also became a brother for the first time, only 8 months after he was born. This was not the first time they crossed paths. L’s mother and I went into labour on the same night at the same hospital 8 months earlier. We both checked in on the day of December 7th, and I went on to have my son that evening, while L was born the next morning. So I was well aware that when we made the decision to take in L, I would essentially be raising twins.
Rewind 5 months before our due dates, I met L’s mother at our church. Through our emerging friendship, I learned that she was a single mother who recently came out of an abusive relationship. She was getting the support she needed via a woman’s shelter and had met some friendly folks who had invited her to our church. I am glad they did. Over time, I also learned that she was recovering from a drug addiction. Once we had our babies, the months seemed to zoom by, and like most new mothers, I was coming out of months of a sleepless fog when I realized I hadn’t seen L’s mother in a while. When I asked around, I was told she had checked into rehab to get the help she needed. Little L was being looked after by another family in the church, which was no small task. It was becoming clear that L was having some feeding issues as well as major sensitivities to most milks and foods. She also wasn’t hitting her milestones, which was alarming, but not very surprising given that she may have been exposed to drugs in utero. It was unclear if and when L’s mother could actually parent, so the idea of L going into foster care in order to be adopted out was being considered. However, this caused L’s mother to panic as she herself was once part of the fostering system, and had very traumatic experiences with it. She told her social worker that she would abandon her rehabilitation in order to spare her daughter from entering the foster care system. This is when people prayed hard. They prayed that L’s mother would continue and finish the program, which would have taken a minimum of 9 more months. They prayed that another family might come around to care for L for an indefinite amount of time. They prayed that L and her mother would be protected through this whole ordeal. This is where our family comes in.
This was one of those times in my life that I could hear God speaking to me. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s something you do not ignore. He was telling me to take in L. Do you know how I knew this was a message from God, and not from me or anyone else? Who in their right mind would take in another baby indefinitely when they have a brand new baby themselves? As I mentioned, I had just come out of the newborn fog. But I prayed about it and prayed about it. The message was the same. So I spoke to my husband, and told him what I heard through my prayers. He affirmed it and supported the decision. To him, it was a no brainer. He was raised by godly parents (the original Lovely’s) who took in people they barely knew from their church and neighbourhood to feed them, clothe them, and shelter them when they needed it. This was on top of raising 5 kids. To this day, these surrogate family members still stay in touch with Mama and Papa Lovely, sending them photos of their kids and grandkids. So my husband’s parents naturally encouraged us in this decision as well. With full support, my husband and I went to see L’s mother at her rehabilitation centre and proposed the following: we would care for L for the amount of time it would take for her to make a full recovery and make sure she was as involved in L’s life as much as possible via weekend visits and phone calls. L’s mother’s reaction confirmed we had made the right decision. She was so excited and encouraged by the fact that her daughter wouldn’t be going into formal foster living and that she could finish her rehabilitation. We spoke with her social worker and it was confirmed that we would take over guardianship of L for the time being.
You might be wondering why L’s extended family, or the father didn’t step in. Due to the abuse allegations, and frankly because he wasn’t pursuing custody, L’s father was not a suitable guardian. L’s maternal grandmother was in fact very interested in taking over guardianship but at the request of L’s mother, she was also not considered. For a very long time, they were estranged and on very bad terms. With that said, L’s mother did allow L very limited visitations with her grandmother given that it was a supervised visit. I was very awkwardly often the one who supervised the visits, which in hindsight wasn’t a good idea. It was hard for me to separate the fact that I was raising L like my own daughter, but that I couldn’t control who she spent her time with. Over time, we made arrangements with a third party organization that specialized in facilitating supervised visitations for children and their relatives. This was something suggested to me by my social worker who was also a family therapist, as she saw how emotionally taxing these visits were for me.
My son and L instantly bonded. This was such a relief, as I really wanted to make the decision to foster a family decision, but it’s hard to ask a 6 month old at the time if he would be up for having a baby sister. However, the transition from only child to big brother (by a day) was so natural, it’s as if they were actually womb buddies. Of course, having a child who was virtually the same age made it that much more obvious how big the developmental gaps were between them. We arranged for a speech and infant development specialist to see L on a weekly basis. Thankfully, many of these appointments were in our own home, however a few ongoing medical issues with allergists and ophthalmologists required us to go various doctor’s offices bi-weekly. One of the biggest issues L had when she came to us was her spitting and choking up after almost every single meal. I’m not talking about a little spit up after a burp, I’m talking almost an entire bottle of liquid/food coming back up to the point of her choking on it. It was so alarming to me as I wasn’t dealing with the same issues with my son, so I thought something was seriously wrong. We saw some specialists who told us to cut back the amount and type of food she was eating. Of course at this point, she was eating such a restricted diet already, it was distressing to cut back even more. Eventually though, the spitting up stopped. We found the right rhythm of food amount and frequency which worked with her digestion. Also, as she grew and her digestive system matured, we were able to add in more foods and mix it up more. I was finally able to feed both of my kids the same foods, which made feeding times that much easier. L was so rewarding to feed because she loved to eat. A girl after my own heart.
I never expected things to be easy when fostering a child, but I never expected things to be as hard as they were. But it wasn’t the child rearing that was the hardest challenge (even with her various health issues), it was all the other stuff: dealing with L’s family, the foster care system, and the expectations of others. Being in such close relationship with someone who was going through rehabilitation over an addiction she had suffered most of her life from was more than I knew how to deal with. This is why I eventually started seeing a therapist of my own during the duration of my fostering. We had L’s mother sleep over at our home on a few occasions so she could bond with L. But so many times I wondered why she acted the way she did and said the things she did about her daughter? It was as if she didn’t know how to be a mother. And it’s true. She didn’t. She hadn’t been given the chance to truly do it free from drugs yet. Also, she was dealing with some mental health issues and on medications that affected her mood and behavior. I was both saddened and hopeful she would get the treatment she needed. I had to continually remind myself that was why we were caring for L – to help her mother be the parent she wanted to be. But again, that was also part of my inner turmoil. I was raising this little girl as my own daughter, yet I had to prepare to give her back to someone I wasn’t sure I would want my own children to live with (in her current state). Eventually, I found myself starting to check out and disconnect. It was a way of protecting my emotions. I knew how unhealthy this was for me and my family so this was the major work my therapist and I focused on in our sessions. Speaking to a counselor during this period of my life was probably one of the most significant forms of self-care I was doing for myself and my loved ones.
Since we weren’t officially a foster family registered with the government, we weren’t receiving any resources. I sought out my own social worker/therapist and we paid for everything out of pocket. I will admit though that we barely had to pay for much in terms of baby gear because we had such an amazing support network rally around us with tons of items donated to us. L had a bigger wardrobe than me (which is a huge feat)! A few amazing family friends dropped off baby food and meals for my husband and I. My social worker was the one who encouraged me to get connected with L’s social workers and ask if there were any resources to help support our family. That is when we were finally given priorities on seeing developmental specialists (who have a very long waitlist) and even a few financial supports to help with raising L. The latter mostly paid for things like fuel since we had to ensure L’s mother could see L almost every single weekend. The rehab centre was an hour’s drive from us.
For me, the expectations from others, real or imagined, was a very difficult thing to deal with. My husband on the other hand could care less, and always kept his head focused on the reason we were doing this – for L and her mother. But for me, I have always been someone who cares deeply about what others think and feel, for better or for worse. I think this makes me a very empathetic person, but it can also leave me with a lot of guilt and shame, which can be debilitating. Because there was a whole community of people (from social workers, to members of our church, to L’s previous caregivers – familial and non-familial) invested in L’s well-being, I felt like I was living my life under a microscope during that year. I believed that L’s eating habits, how much weight she gained, what type of therapy she was receiving was constantly being scrutinized, therefore I was being judged as her primary caregiver. It’s hard enough that parents feel judged by how they parent their own children, let alone how we parent other people’s kids. Like I said, this could very well have been me imagining things, but I truly felt that I was constantly being watched to make sure I was being the perfect parent. Basically, I felt like I could never have an off day. After three and a half years as a parent, I now know, there is no such thing as a perfect parent and everyone has their off days, parents or not. But I was less than a year into my parenting gig then, so I was very hard on myself, which actually resulted in me having meltdowns continually. My therapist made a lot of money that year.
Approximately nine months after L came into our care, L’s mother finished her rehabilitation program. As she eased into “the real world” by getting herself a suitable living space for her and her child, and searched for work, we kept L for another month and a half. It gave us enough time to prepare to say goodbye to her, but that didn’t make the separation easier. In fact, it was so heartbreaking the first month after L left, especially the impact it made on our son. He of course had no idea what was going on behind the scenes – the challenges, the dramas, the legalities. So he was most surprised and perhaps a little shell-shocked when she left. He fell into a funk. My normally happy, rambunctious boy became less energetic (almost lethargic-like) and moody for weeks. Eventually, he came out of it, but it worried me that if my son was reacting like this, how would L be feeling? She eventually did get reunited with her mother and extended family in a city a few hours away. We stayed in touch for the first year after she left our home sending photos and updates, but communication fell away as L’s mother grew distant from us and many other of her friends. It saddens me, but I gave up control of the situation a long time ago to God who I know is looking out for L.
The expectations of fostering a friend/acquaintance’s baby and what it was actually like were so different. It will take multiple blog posts to sum up my feelings and thoughts in whole, but I will leave you with this. I had no idea what I was getting into and the extent of the challenges, but I have no regrets about our family’s decision to be a foster family. I was being obedient to a higher calling, and while I didn’t do it perfectly, I’m glad I did. It’s a part of my family’s story and one that I never want to forget.