Image by Maggie of Sandy Toes Photography
Charlotte Anais is 5 years and 9 months old. She can read beginning chapter books in French and English. She loves riding her bike, skateboarding, climbing trees, and listening to music and audio books. She is especially smitten with Harry Potter, Emily Windsnap, and the Rainbow Fairies. She belongs to a junior bowling league and takes gymnastics lessons. This summer, she starts folklorico dance. Her most recent hobby is making latch-hook rugs.
Evelyn Ruby is 2 years and 4 months old. She is pensive and sensitive. She loves riding her bike with training wheels, playing dress-up, dancing, and picking flowers. She absolutely adores animals. She is very shy and often takes weeks or months to warm up to new people. When she feels comfortable, though, she is a very sweet and loving soul. She calls butterflies PAPI-FIES - a mix of “papillons” (French) and “butterflies” - and bug bites BUTTER BITES.
Genevieve Norah turns 2 years old in a few days. She is endlessly inquisitive. She loves playing with water, chasing bubbles, finger painting, riding her tricycle, and putting puzzles together. Her favorite toys are our train tracks. She is very outgoing and adventurous. She gives hugs, blows kisses, and can run like the wind. One of her most beloved pass-times is untying my shoelaces. She loves to tote my shoes to me with no shoelaces in sight, declaring ME HELPING MOMMA!
I am 36 weeks pregnant. I am cranky, hungry, and sleepy. This is my first pregnancy with cravings: pork roast, chicken soup, strawberries, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Image by Maggie of Sandy Toes Photography
Someone very close to us announced her pregnancy this past winter. Her favorite flowers are sunflowers, so I planted 1500 square feet of sunflowers in the garden as a baby shower surprise. Charlotte helped me select the seeds (we planted 17 varieties!) and then she waited impatiently for them to arrive. She helped me sow them and water them and weed the plot. She helped me chase off the squirrels and document them as they grew.
Sunflowers have heart-shaped leaves, we learned. They are heliotropic. They are influorescent. Some of ours grew only ten inches tall and others were over elevent feet tall. Some had blooms no wider than Charlotte’s hands and others had blooms as wide as my forearm. Some had only one flower and others had twenty. They came in yellow and orange and pink and red and cream.
We drew them and photographed them. We made diagrams of plant parts. We made prints of the leaves. We counted the number of petals on different varieties. We learned how to say everything in French. La racine pivotante. La fleur de grande taille. La pollinisation. Les tiges qui suivent le soleil. Then we learned how to write everything in French.
And all the while, we saw this very-close-to-us person once or twice a week and all the while, Charlotte kept her secret.
The surprise was a big hit. After the baby shower, Charlotte asked me over and over again to tell her the story of how she kept a field of sunflowers a secret. Now, a few weeks later, the sunflowers are falling over and drying out. We make sequential timelines of the pictures we’ve taken. We pull them up and look at their roots, take pictures of the seeds scattered every which way upon the ground by the birds, watch the pollinating bees at work.
- - - - -
“Maman! Maman!” Charlotte yelled at me this morning while I was watering the strawberry plants. Momma! Momma!
“Oui, ma puce?” Yes, darling?
“Maman, je suis La Reine Des Tournesols!” Momma, I am the Sunflower Queen!
I asked her if I could run and get the camera to take a picture of her dans son royaume, in her kingdom. “Non,” she said. “C’est trop special!” It is too special. So instead we made up silly sunflower poems and fashioned her a Sunflower Queen scepter, which was really just an uprooted sunflower plant that was setting seed.
To make up for it, Charlotte drew me a picture of herself playing in the sunflowers and told me that I needed a pen to write a sentence for her. I waited, pen in hand. “C’est moi, la reine des tournesols!” she said. I wrote it down. Then she wrote it after me.
And that is basically how homeschooling is going in a nutshell right now.
A couple weeks ago, Charlotte concluded her second year at the French preschool nearby. It was bittersweet.
On the one hand, I remember the day we dropped her off at preschool for the very first time. I was enormously pregnant with Evelyn and terrified of leaving Charlotte behind. What if this? What if that? What if the other thing? I fretted for four hours straight. Then I went to the school to pick her up and she did not want to leave. She fell asleep in the car on the way home and woke up asking to go back.
And so started a really wonderful relationship. Charlotte has had two teachers at preschool - one French, one Canadian - and we have adored them both. More importantly, Charlotte has loved them both. She has been with the same group of children for two consecutive years and we have watched in awe as they have all grown.
Watching her walk down to the aisle to her promotion ceremony, I was filled with joy. It is hard to believe how far she has come. Charlotte is as confident in French as she is in English. She frequently asks me to translate ideas for her back and forth between the two languages and we hear her babbling about in French as much as we do in English when she plays. It is saddening to think that she has grown so much (where does the time go?!), but I am so proud of her accomplishments these last two years. We are so grateful to the school and its community for helping us realize our goal of raising our children fluent in French and so excited to see what opportunities we have ahead of us in language learning.
Speaking of opportunities, the end of Charlotte’s second year of preschool has landed us in an interesting place in terms of education.
For a long time, we planned on sending Charlotte to the preschool for three years. The first year her class was called les chenilles, the caterpillars. This year her class was called les papillons, the butterflies. We have never put Charlotte in school for more than two days a week, so we thought we would repeat the butterfly year when she was five. More recently, however, we have realized that this might not be the best choice for her.
In France, the education system is divided into cycles. As best I can understand, the first section is divided into three parts: petite section (PS), moyenne section (MS) and grande section (GS). The second cycle is divided into five parts: cours preparatoire (CP), cours elementaire niveau 1 (CE1), cours elementaire niveau 2 (CE2), cours moyen 1 (CM1), and cours moyen 2 (CM2). At the French school, the first year of preschool in the caterpillar classroom covers the work of petite section. The second year of preschool in the butterfly classroom covers the work of moyenne section. Both years of preschool can be done a la carte - you can choose to attend mornings or afternoons, half-days or full-days, once a week or five times a week. The kindergarten, which includes several hours of English languages arts instruction, covers the work of grande section. The first grade covers the work of CP.
Charlotte has indicated some lack of satisfaction with the work done in MS for the last few months. After awhile, we brought it up with her teacher to get a more complete idea of what the problem was and how we could support Charlotte at home. The teacher and the school’s administrator told us Charlotte craved more challenging intellectual work. Over the past year, Charlotte has taught herself how to read at a beginner’s level in English and has started sounding out words in French. As such, the French school encouraged us to consider placing Charlotte in the kindergarten next year.
Unfortunately, the kindergarten at the French school is full-time. It runs seven hours daily all week long. As certain as Donald and I are that she could handle the academics in the kindergarten, we aren’t comfortable with full-time schooling at this stage. Additionally, it would be very difficult for us to afford the monthly tuition.
Our choices at the French school are these: we can repeat a year of preschool or we can enroll in kindergarten. If we choose preschool she will be part-time which suits our family and will be in a setting that is socially appropriate for her development level. Of course, she would also be bored with the work and very upset when she found out that her friends were all in kindergarten. If we choose kindergarten she will be with her friends and will be academically challenged, but it will be expensive and full-time which we don’t like.
Our other choice is to jump into full-time home-education now, a year earlier than anticipated. We would need to find native speakers to help us maintain her bilingualism in the home, would have to seek out social opportunities with her friends during after-school hours and on weekends, and would need to find French curriculum materials.
To this end, we recently hired two native French speakers - one from Cameroon and the other from Paris - to spend a few hours with us each week. Their job is to provide academic support (mostly reading and writing) and keep up Charlotte’s conversational level. We also recently purchased curriculum materials, downloaded free resources, began building a series of rough monthly plans, and collected the information we need to set up Francophone playdates and weekly French language instruction with other bilingual children.
We are giving it a try this summer to see how she likes it, how we adjust to having a structured daily homeschool environment, whether or not it is feasible to provide the social opportunities she needs in conjunction with the academic challenges she needs in both English and French, and if homeschooling is a good fit for our family. We thought, hey, if it works out then we have the materials to last us a couple years. Once she has a solid base in reading and writing, we will look into purchasing the CNED (the French government’s national distance learning program) by subject or as a complete curriculum. If it doesn’t work, we can put her in the CP/first grade level at school and she should catch up with her peers in a few weeks. If it goes horribly, who knows? Charlotte might end up in the kindergarten this year after all.
Going into this, I feel very much like I did the day we first dropped Charlotte off at preschool. What if this? What if that? What if the other thing? Here’s hoping that the pay off is just as delicious.
I am looking at her, taking her in, and I am absolutely blown away. My head spins thinking about the myriad of ways in which I am unworthy. But the road I traveled brought me to her. To her beautiful hair. To her addictive smell. To her mischievous smile. To her head on my chest. To her happy chirps. To her soulful eyes.
To me, she is perfection.
I think about how messy life can be, about how her future glimmers with possibility. She is the light of our lives and when dark has fallen, Donald and I whisper to one another about this. How did we get so lucky?, we wonder as we relate humorous stories to one another about the moments in the day that we shared with her. Amidst the many mistakes we’ve each made, how did we strike gold?
In the daylight, I watch her at play and I marvel at her. Once we lived without her, I know we did, but how? Once she was merely a dream too fragile to even speak of, I know she was, but when? Once I walked everywhere without her hand seeking mine, I know I did, but I can hardly imagine it now. I can hardly fathom a world without her.
When she giggles at me, exclaiming at how long her hair is growing, she is Charlotte. Charlotte, my star shine.
When she leans forward, rubbing her nose against my own, she is Evelyn. Evelyn, my wild bird.
When she rests her weight against me, pinching my arm until sleep claims her, she is Polliwog. Polliwog, my darling squish.
And the longer she is here, the better life is. To me, she is everything.
About a week after our foster daughter – let’s call her Polliwog for the sake of expediency – arrived in our home, I met one of her relatives. Until that fateful moment I had always operated under a rather misguided belief that children became wards of the state because they were unloved. They had to be, I reasoned to myself. Because you don’t harm or neglect or molest or fail to provide a safe environment or WHATEVER for someone you love.
But then I met Polliwog’s relative and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, absolutely everything changed.
That night Donald and I sat facing each other in the living room, each of us holding a baby as they drifted to sleep.
“They love her,” I said quietly. “They love her so much.”
Over the course of the next few weeks, this reality sank in. I found myself experiencing an entire range of unexpected emotions. Chief of all, I felt conflicted. Sometimes even now when the babies are asleep Donald and I stay up late into the night discussing that there is no painless winning solution for Polliwog. The profundity of the trauma and the loss she has already sustained cannot be underestimated. And she has been with us long enough now that reunification would cause a second wave of upheaval and loss.
It kills me to think of her experiencing that. She’s already gone through the trauma of loss once; doesn’t she deserve stability? But it also kills me to think of her never living with her own family again. Isn’t that her birthright?
For the first time in my life, I find myself embracing math. I concoct all manners of math problems and spend every spare minute I can find trying to solve them. I play logic games and sudoku obsessively. When our social worker asked about it, I told her the truth: numbers and logic riddles are black and white. There is only one solution. I currently inhabit a world of uncertainty and math is comfortingly certain.
I am told that this is normal. Foster parents often enter the system with an idealized version of how placement, birth family relationships, and the legal process will unfold. Nothing prepares them for the emotional rollercoaster, for the lack of understanding in their community, for losing control over so many aspects of their lives, for the impact these experiences will have on their family. They find ways to cope and my way is in numbers, however unlikely that seems.
After I met Polliwog’s relative, I wondered if fostering was really for us. The price our family was paying seemed too great to sustain. The price Polliwog’s family was paying seemed immeasurable. I felt immense guilt at having her in my home, as though I were an accomplice to the blow dealt her family. And I felt immense guilt for bringing such uncertainty into my family dynamic, which has always been very steady and predictable. When I felt myself bonding to her, I fretted over it, as though it were something to be ashamed of, as if it meant I were stealing someone else’s child.
A few weeks after Polliwog came into our family, I ran into an old friend when I was out with all three kids. She admired all three and kindly declined to comment on how frazzled I certainly must have seemed. (I am always a bit out of my depth these days.) Then she asked how we were acclimating to fostering. “I just do not know how you do it,” she said. “If it were me, I could never give the kid back. I’d end up on the news as some sort of crazed woman who’d kidnapped her foster children.”
As if we are more heartless, more detached, less loving, less feeling than she is.
It is turning out to be a great emotional tug-of-war, foster parenting. One of the most phenomenal and enlightening experiences of our lives, something which has strengthened our marriage and taught us more about ourselves as parents than we could have ever imagined. Oh, but it is emotionally trying. As soon as I resolve one emotion, another pops up. I cannot believe how touchy-feely I have become.
I want what is best for Polliwog, for her family, and for my family all at once and it seems like sometimes those are the same and sometimes those are not. It feels paralyzing when those are at odds. But giving all I can to her? That feels right. That feels certain. That I can do.
Tonight she is asleep in the cradle my father built for me before my birth, beneath the quilt my grandmother made. I feel all of the emotions and uncertainty crowding the space between us. I feel myself slowly working through the emotions foster parenting has brought, slow and steady as Aesop’s tortoise. I remember that night when I first met her relative. “Polliwog,“ I whisper to her in the dark. “Polliwog, I love you too.“
I hope she knows.