Finding Hope in Foster Care

“I feel like the wins are just so hard to come by,” I said to her, my voice breaking a bit on the grief that flooded through me with those words. She nodded, heart in her eyes. I didn’t have to explain this to her. She knows all too well.

I know why I do this-foster care, that is.

I have a foundation that is rock solid…mostly.

But when the goodbyes pile up, disappointment and disillusionment launch right into that vulnerable cavern and nest deep in my heart.

What is the point?

The system is impossibly broken.

No one will listen to us.

Ultimately people who have never met this child will make life-altering decisions for all of us. The child, their biological family, me, my husband and even my children.

It’s so unfair.

Does what I do make any difference?

We tried to protect her, but now our hands are tied. We make the hard call, and then we sit back in the impossibly sad reality of her story. We sit as helpless bystanders on the edge of our seats watching her fall, fall, fall. One by one the safeguards we’ve put in place fall away and she’s left terrifyingly vulnerable to her own devices and coping mechanisms. Our limited capacity has never felt more like a betrayal than now.

I’ve mothered him for two years, nurturing him through the chaos and confusion and achingly slow progress of healing and advocating for all of his needs, but now suddenly he is pulled from under my wings. Nobody asks me if this is best. Everyone knows it isn’t. Nobody says the words that keep me awake late at night…what if he will not be ok? When the time comes, it is me who has to deliver the heartbreaking truth and hold his small body as he sobs into my chest. I feel emptier and more broken than I ever thought possible. I must become the betrayer. Over and over and over again as he begs not to go, for me not to leave. I really wanted to be his Mommy. I thought that I was. Who am I now to this child?

It’s only been a few weeks, but it’s been weeks of holding, holding, holding. Rocking, singing, bathing and delighting in every perfect feature of his personhood. It was us who walked the hospital hallways cradling his tense little body tight. It was us who brought him into his first home and watched every little twitch and grimace he made as he slept in the safe warmth of our tiny nursery. His first Christmas, first smile, first full night of sleep, first tummy ache, first walk, first toy…the firsts could go on and on. The goodbye is quick and devastating and sharp enough to take my breath away. I stumble through blinding tears out the door without him. Forever.

All of these and more pile up and I relive the pain of each one every time we say goodbye. Can I keep doing this? Justice and truth feel so far from this realm. Am I the good guy or the bad guy in this story? Nothing feels clear.

“You are not the story, you are only a part of the story.”

The words resonate deep and I breathe in the calm and peace they bring.

“Your season of service and faithfulness and pouring out may be over, but He is not done yet. He will not leave her or forsake her. His promises are as true today as they have always been.”

With truth, comes hope.

Hope – that the model of unconditional love, grace and mutual respect she has witnessed in our home will guide her toward healthy relationships, safe environments and truth.

Hope – that the leaps and bounds of development he made while in our care will carry him on into a bright future of literacy, independence and ability to communicate with the world around him.

Hope – that the hours and hours of gentle touches and cradling and singing and praying over his sweet, tiny head will bear the fruits of attachment and nourishment and health.

Hope – that the advocating I have done will set him and his new family up for succcess, despite the odds.

Hope – that the gospel will have found it’s root deep within her heart and that His word will not return void, but will instead bear a harvest that is glorious in due season.

#Isaiah 55:11

Hope – that the speech therapy and hours and hours of time spent side by side playing on the floor will give him a foundation of language that will enable him to communicate and to be seen and known for the beautiful boy that he is.

Hope – that this brief time in foster care will alleviate the stress in her birth family and that she will grow up in the care of her biological mom, unaware of the fleeting season she was ours.

Hope – that even in the saying of our no, our hardest no, that she would understand a love that is higher and deeper and wider than anything that she can imagine.

Hope – that the skills we have developed and the growth that He has procured in our hearts will flood forward and benefit the ones we have and the ones to come.

Hope – that the placing of his tiny life into the gentle arms of dear family members and friends, will carry him forward into a future where he will be loved and always wanted.

Hope – that the telling of their stories will bury the shame and give them confidence to embrace all that is theirs.

Hope – that our resting will bring strength and energy to bring into a new season before us.

Hope – that the hours and hours of training and rewiring our brains to think, act, speak and see differently will make us better, gentler, more skilled parents to the children in our home now and in the future.

Hope – that allowing the grief to swallow us at times will refine our hearts to love more purely and unselfishly and without thought of all that is to be sacrificed.

Hope – that exposure to these children and their families will bring our permanent members appreciation for what is theirs, compassion for those around them, life skills and character.

Hope – that in our greatest moments of weakness His strength will be magnified and made perfect.

#2 Corinthians 12:9

Hope – that He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it, if not in this time span of our lives then in the broader, grander, incomprehendable vastness of the story that is His and His alone.

#Philipians 1:6

“I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.”

#Jeremiah 29:11

-AF

Goodbye, Hello & His Goodness in the Uncertainty

And while the world slowed, we said goodbye.

In the middle of a worldwide pandemic, with all our normal routines suddenly readjusted, we did the bittersweet lasts. As usual it ended abruptly, not quite following the carefully constructed plans we had made…but we did get to say goodbye.

For almost two years our foster son was ours to love, care for, delight in; but now he has moved on. He leaves a hole in my heart that looks like the shape of his face, the sound of his voice and the presence of his animated, lively personality in our home. His leaving holds all the typical emotions of foster care; sadness, frustration, fear, surrender, peace and even relief that the chaos of transitioning is over. Unlike sometimes, it also holds new relationships forged with birth family, the hope of continued connection through the months and years and the sound of his voice on the other end of the phone.

As seems to be typical in the story of our family, we simultaneously grieve and look ahead with anticipation. As one child leaves our home, my womb swells and pulses with the life of another.

Sometime in the next two weeks we expect to welcome this new wee life into our world and we are all so thrilled! The past nine months have flown by in the whirlwind of family life and it is hard to believe we are already here, on the brink of our new forever. I can’t help but stop and smile at the timing of it all, and breathe in the sweet relief of once again seeing how perfectly God orchestrates these stories in our lives.

While so many things about this season of isolation, social distancing and elimination in the world have been inconvenient, it has also been a season of much needed rest and intimacy for our family, especially as we said goodbye and realigned our identity as a family of six instead of the seven we have been for so long.

I am so thankful for the sweet, uninterrupted time we have had together these past few weeks.

Seeing my children’s heads bowed around the dining room table over crafts, schoolwork, Lego structures and board games has been so good for my heart. Dirty hands and faces planting seeds, splashing through the creek, gathering eggs and riding bicycles. So much time to make memories together, to enjoy the quiet and to soak in the first hopeful signs of Spring. Freedom from schedules, obligations and social requirements.

We had our first bonfire, dressed in mud suits and mixing smoky hot dogs with dirt and the last remaining snow piles. We’ve taken walks, raked leaves, done Science experiments and moved our hens into their outdoor enclosure.

It’s been far from perfect; there have been tears, short tempers and insane amounts of glue and tape. There has been screaming and lack of impulse control and interrupted sleep and more screen time than I’d like. But still, it has been exactly what we all needed in this season of loss and growth.

I didn’t plan on bringing this little one into the world in the midst of homeschooling, social distancing and medical fragility worldwide, but I see the goodness of it all and I’m grateful.

I didn’t plan on having our foster care transition plan moved ahead by weeks and to suddenly, in the space of a weekend, realize we were at the end and it was time to say goodbye. We didn’t have the physical support and monitoring of our social workers that I had pictured as ideal, and I felt far from ready…not that you ever really get there anyway.

But still, I see His goodness in the details of this season and I trust that despite the questions that want to hold my heart hostage He has got these circumstances and this precious child I love securely in the palm of His hand.

He is not the least bit surprised, fearful or disappointed.

He is absolutely Sovereign over it all.

My stretched, shifting womb with the heartbeat throbbing inside.

The tears in both our eyes as I hold him and tell him how very much he is loved, my heart breaking with his as we try to understand our new reality-apart instead of together.

The spreading disease that makes us all suddenly stop and see the world’s fragility through new eyes.

And it’s enough.

Trusting that He is Good and Sovereign is enough to carry me through this and every season of life.

-AF

How to Say Goodbye

“I could never do that. I could never let them go.”

This is still the most common response I hear in regards to foster care.

I get it, and I always try to respond by validating that fear, acknowledging that it is hard and messy just like you would expect, and that I have said and felt the same thing!

However, I also try to follow up that conversation by gently pointing out the reality that it’s really not about us as the adults or our fear of grief.

God had to gently lead my heart to a place of realization that whether or not I felt equipped to handle the pain really had nothing to do with it. If he was asking me to love these children, it was a matter of obedience and faith, not a question of how much it was going to hurt.

But still…how do you say goodbye?

How do you do all the lasts with a child you have poured your heart into?

Last bedtime story, last day of school, last time brushing his teeth, last time braiding her hair, last time snuggled on the couch watching a movie, last bottle, last diaper change, last I love you, last kiss on the cheek?

Believe me, I notice every single painful moment of those days.

How do you willingly walk them out the door of your home back into the place they have been hurt, or possibly into a brand new reality that neither of you is familiar with?

While I’d like to say reunification usually ends in a child returning to a safer, more secure, more healthy home environment…if I’m honest most of the time the situation they return to is far from ideal. Most times the standard reached is the bare minimum, not the best case scenario.

As a foster parent, you walk a tightrope.

On one side you are the strongest advocate and most consistent presence in the child’s life you are caring for. Your voice needs to be heard and part of your job is to speak your perspective into the situation whenever possible.

This can, however, fool you into believing you should have the right to control the outcome of this child’s future, which is false. You are often the last to find out and last to be consulted when it comes to important decisions being made about the very child you love and care for on a daily basis. Despite being the main caregiver for your child, you have zero legal authority to make decisions for their future unless you’ve officially been invited into that process by the court. You are given information about the child’s family only on a need to know basis, and you only have a few pieces of a very complicated puzzle, which means that often you are not equipped to decide what is truly in your child’s best interests when it comes to their family situation. You may or may not be allowed to be present at court hearings and planning meetings. In many ways, your job is much more specific and defined than regular parenting.

In this way foster care is radically different than parenting biological or adoptive children who are in your home permanently.

One of the most difficult parts is recognizing that you need to stay in your own lane, and often that means trusting others to make decisions you desperately want to make yourself. It means acknowledging that you do not have a right to all the information you would like and that others may know important pieces that you are missing. It means trusting that people who hardly know your child may have more insight into what is best for them than you do.

As we go through our days, my foster son feels like just another one of my precious tribe. I pack his lunch, wash his clothes, read him stories and delight in his accomplishments. I put his artwork on the fridge, hold his hand in the parking lot, buy his favourite snacks and plan his birthday parties. I attend parent teacher meetings, advocate for class placement and make charts to motivate him. I know the classroom songs that will guide him through putting on a thousand winter clothing articles, accompany him on field trips, intuitively know when he needs to use the bathroom and start collecting the next size up of clothing.

But simultaneously, I am constantly reminded to hold him with open palms.

I consult his social worker on important decisions, advocating strongly but respecting that it is ultimately up to her. I fill a photo album of pictures of his birth family and talk to him regularly about them. I look into the future and am very aware that his presence in our home is a question mark, not a guarantee. I keep track of the clothing and toys that come home from visits the best I can, knowing I will need to know which ones belong to him, not my other children, if he leaves our home. I file all the reports and pass along all the doctors notes, dentist prescriptions and report cards. I ask permission for haircuts and need someone else’s signature on almost anything that needs to be signed.

All of these things and a thousand others remind me constantly that he is not my child. While this does not necessarily make the goodbye easier, it does put it into context.

The hardest goodbyes involve little hands reaching out for you, screaming as you turn and stumble away, powerless to comfort them. The easiest involve carefully planned transitions, a gentle phasing of one normal to the next as you both adjust.

I have said goodbye to a child sobbing with the pain of it all and I have said goodbye to a child with a deep sense of peace and relief, aching at the loss but knowing that it is right and good.

Usually the end comes into sight long before it’s actually there, and as a foster parent, you learn the signs. Even my children can sense when a child’s case is moving toward reunification.

Grief can begin before the goodbye.

Your heart starts to surrender before your arms let go.

You find what you can do, and you pour yourself into that.

It might be advocating at school so that your child will go home with all the supports they possibly can get.

It might be gathering clothing for the next two years, packing boxes to send home to that single mom so that she will have one less thing to worry about for the next while.

It might be filling photo albums to send, buying gifts or recording every last detail you can think of about the child’s likes, dislikes, preferences, routines and habits.

It might be doing everything you can to build a strong relationship with the child’s permanent family, letting them know they are not alone and you will be right beside them cheering them on.

It might be night after night of tears and prayers and giving that child back into the Father’s hands again and again.

You will learn how to put on a brave face, because her little eyes are searching yours and more than you need to cry you desperately long to reassure her and keep her safe.

All parents, at some point, will be thrust into a situation that feels like more than you can handle.

But somehow, God’s grace is there and pulls us through those deep waters in ways we can hardly fathom or clearly remember later.

You can’t do it, until you have to…and then you do.

Mostly it is a walk of trust, choosing to believe in God’s goodness and sovereignty in the middle of my own fear, doubt and pain. Remembering that His view has much clearer perspective than my own in the grand scheme of eternity.

(And sometimes it involves curling up in a ball and crying your eyes out.)

That’s how we say goodbye over and over,

and somehow keep our hearts in tact.

AF

When God Asks Me to Step Out of the Way

I’ll never forget what it felt like to place him in his car seat one last time; to gently fold all his little baby clothes and tuck them tenderly into the blue Rubbermaid box. Each little onesie, blanket, bottle and soother had been lovingly and carefully selected by me, but here I was placing them in a box to hand over to another mother.

The infant photo shoot my sister had done for us had been printed and placed into a little album alongside the clothes.

His favourite blanket was tucked up beside his face and I had made sure not to wash it for the past week, hoping the smell of my skin and our home, the only home he had known in his short life, would linger on it while he adjusted to his new home.

My heart staggered when I thought of all the things I couldn’t possibly begin to pass along. How I knew just how he wanted to be held, what he was needing or whether or not he was full after a bottle. The way to hold him in the bathtub, stroke his cheek while feeding him or when to use diaper rash cream. A million things I had learned about this sweet boy, but here I was saying goodbye.

That first goodbye was the hardest.

After one last kiss, I stumbled through tear-filled eyes and sobs out of the room and out of his life.

I don’t know if I prayed in that moment, but I know that in similar moments of surrender since, I have cried out, “God, how could you let this happen? Don’t you see?”

I have believed the lie that a social worker, a judge, a system or a biological family member was in control, despite knowing intimately the God of the Universe, who spoke creation into existence.

I have believed the lie that He is not enough; for me or for my children.

I have grappled with faith and fear, unable to fathom how a future without me could be the answer; his best yes for this child I adore.

These past few months I have had to bring my heart time and time again to its knees in surrender, choosing to place my trust and my attitudes squarely in the hands of the One who sees it all and simply place one foot of humble obedience in front of the other.

Sometimes, as foster parents or as biological parents, God asks us to get out of the way.

Sometimes His very good plan for my child doesn’t include me or my ideas, passions, advocacy or protection.

Sometimes God’s very good plan for my children involves pain and grief and loss.

What does a parent do when God asks us to move out of the way so He can accomplish His purposes without us?

I know some of you are walking this road with your children.

Maybe it’s your young adult child, who is walking a road you never imagined or dreamed for them. They don’t want your help or advice or comfort. They need to figure this out on their own, and you are helpless.

Maybe it’s your child with learning differences or social struggles; you drop them off at school every morning and you wonder if you are doing the right thing. They are miserable, angry and struggling to stay afloat, but you know this is a battle you can’t fight for them.

Maybe it’s medical difficulties that are robbing you of the control and protection you long to give your child. You have to watch them endure poke after poke, procedure after procedure and you ache to take their place but instead all you can do is cradle their small body in your arms and squeeze back your tears.

Why would God allow this to happen?

Oh, sweet Mama.

I know the pain that rips at your heart and the way you writhe against the surrender.

I know the way you beat your fists against His chest and struggle to fight your way back from the chaos.

You don’t need to be afraid of your smallness in His presence.

It’s time to rest in His abundance.

He is able;

Abundantly able, to do more.

Yes, more, precious friend.

More than you’ve asked.

More than you’ve dreamed.

More than you can even begin to imagine.

Now we can only see glimpses through a dirty, broken window pane.

But one day,

one sweet day,

Hindsight will be perfect.

This present reality will fall into place in the radiant glory of His magnum opus, His great work, in not only our tiny scope of vision but in the vastness of the entire universe and all of time from beginning to infinite.

Trust Him.

Put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time and walk in sync with His spirit.

It is there alone you will catch a glimpse of just how great and good His plans are.

-AF