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.