Babies Don’t Keep

The ultimate goal of foster care is to reunify families whenever possible. This means that from the first day they come into my life, I am tasked with being present with them, and preparing for this season to end all at the same time.

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There is a poem by Ruth Hulbert Hamilton that you may have seen pop up on your social media pages from time to time. Up until recently, I had only ever read the last stanza. There is something beautiful and painful about the reminder that the season of baby snuggles and utter dependence is fleeting.

Mother, oh mother, come shake out your cloth!
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing and butter the bread,
Sew on a button and make up a bed.
Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking!

Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue
(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby, loo).
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due
(Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo).
The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo.
Look! Aren’t her eyes the most wonderful hue?
(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo.)

Oh, cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby. Babies don’t keep.

This poem is called, “Song for a Fifth Child”. It is written from the perspective of a biological parent about the temporary seasons kids go through. There will always be a to-do list a mile long and the guilt that you should be doing more. There will always be the struggle to stay present, and not let worry about the future rob you of your time with your precious babies (and big kids). This poem encourages parents to cherish the moments that you have with your children, because it is bittersweet but it is true: this time with your children is limited.

As a foster parent, this poem means something a little different to me. As I rock my baby, as I rocked the boys that were here before him, I know all too well that time is fleeting. The ultimate goal of foster care is to reunify families whenever possible. This means that from the first day they come into my life, I am tasked with being present with them, and preparing for this season to end all at the same time.

I don’t have biological children, so I don’t know exactly what that feels like. But I’d guess that it isn’t all that different. You have this sweet tiny thing in your arms and there is a part of you that is fast-forwarding from this moment, mentally readying yourself for when they can crawl, walk, go to school, drive, leave for college. The things that I don’t allow myself to think about most days. That requires looking too far in the future.

Instead, it’s paperwork, meetings, and court dates. Parental visitation starting and stopping, and the tentative nature of planning ahead. “I can’t wait to feed him his first cheerio!” exclaimed my husband about our first little boy. “He probably won’t be here long enough to eat Cheerios.” I replied. Too harsh? Maybe. But it’s also realistic. The future is never guaranteed.

But this moment, here holding him, is.

How are we ever going to say goodbye to him?

I’ve thought that about each baby as I’ve held them in my arms. I’ve said it out loud dozens of times. Unfortunately this isn’t one of the things in life that comes with instructions. So we wrestle to stay present, to appreciate the time we have until we don’t have it anymore. And when the time comes, though we don’t know the how’s or why’s, we will say goodbye to our baby so that someone else can say hello to theirs.

I don’t know how long each case will last. I don’t know if we will agree with decisions made, if we will see them after they go home. Foster care is full of things the make me want to pull my hair out, or drop to my knees in tears. And sometimes the uncertainty gets the best of me. But in the end, all the fretting in the world won’t do anything except rob us of the time we actually do have with these babies. No matter how much time we have, it will never feel like enough. So let’s not waste what we’ve been given by being afraid to of what might be taken away.

Oh, worries and mourning can wait till tomorrow,
So cherish these children in this time that you’ve borrowed.
Put down the to-do list. Banish fear to the deep.
I’m rocking my baby. Babies don’t keep.

 

High Five: 5 ways to support bio parents

Sometimes putting the child first means putting their parents first, too.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that we believe part of fostering is also providing that support to birth parents when safe and possible. Ideally, there would be open communication and reciprocal kindness and respect.

Our first baby’s parents really helped us set the tone for who we want to be as foster parents. They were kind, responsive, and treated us with the utmost respect (and still do). They are the kind of people that are so easy to treat well. So as we navigated this first foster-bio relationship, we came up with some concrete ways that we want to be intentional around interactions with bio parents. We may not ever have the kind of relationship with other bio families that we have with our first, but that doesn’t change how we want to conduct ourselves. There will be parents that frustrate, challenge or upset us, but there are some basic things we do to make sure we are still honoring their place as parents. 

This list is less about the parents noticing what we are doing, and more about making sure my head is in the right place, that I am being diligent and intentional about respecting these families. 

Each of these suggestions has been tweaked for each case, so these are just general guidelines, to be met when safe and appropriate. Obviously, if one or more of these is considered unsafe by a caseworker, then we won’t do it. Thus far, that has not been the case. A quick note about that: Some parents are physically aggressive and serve as a safety risk for both children and adults. However, most children enter into foster care due to neglect as opposed to physical or sexual abuse. Just because a parent is being investigated by CPS does not mean that they are inherently unsafe for you to interact with.

1. Meet them!

I was surprised to hear how uncommon this is.  Upon having our first visit scheduled for Sweaty Spaghetti, I had a caseworker offer to have a case aid come get the baby out of the car so that I wouldn’t “have to” see his parent. When I replied that I would come in and I was happy to meet his parents, the worker was obviously surprised. Several social workers and visitation supervisors also mentioned that as being uncommon.

It is important to us to meet the parents because we are strangers to them too! They have also heard horror stories, and I would rather take some of the mystery out of it for both sides by having an intentional meeting. This also gives an opportunity to view the parents as human, not solely as a person responsible for a bad thing. We also had one of the therapists involved in one of our cases tell us that this is important to do, whenever possible, as children learn so much from how we react to bio parents (similar idea to step parenting, or effective co-parenting). If we bristle when we see them, are short, or refuse to meet them and limit how we talk about them, we are sending the message to children that they have to choose who to love, or that their time with their parent is something to be dreaded. Again, in some cases the parent isn’t a safe person to be around, but if they have been granted visits, this will help ease the transition for the child as well.

2. Send updates and pictures

With Sweaty Spaghetti’s family, I sent about one email per week with pictures and an update of new skills learned, successful doctor’s visits and a video or two as he became more interactive. Correspondence with Little Rascal’s mom was limited because he was with us such a short time and his mom didn’t have access to phone or email. We did make contact on a conference call and she was able to give us a caseworker’s email and we were able to send her some pictures that way. Our current placement, Sweet One, is a little different. For this case, his mother and I exchanged phone numbers, and I text her updates and pictures about once a week. When he reaches big milestones, like when he began to roll over, I shared a small video with her the day he started doing it consistently.

Deciding how openly we want to communicate with families is a process of trial and error, but so far each parent has been respectful of any boundaries we put in place. They have not harassed us, threatened us, or otherwise made us uncomfortable. That said, we chose to give our phone number because Sweet One’s mom had been communicating with his short-term foster home that way and for them it was successful. While Sweet One’s mom has been respectful (not texting us at all hours, waiting for us to start a conversation, etc.) an unintended consequence of having our phone number out there was that they can search for me on social media. Everything that we have is set to private, so it’s not that concerning, but going into the future I’m going to be more aware of that.

Disclaimer: I know that bio parents we come into contact with in the future may not be as safe and well-intentioned as the parents of our boys. This particular decision was made knowing how mom had previously been interacting with other foster family, as well has the caseworker’s opinion and recommendation.

3. Ask for their input. 

This one might make you uncomfortable.  Just hear me out.

This is another one that will vary on a case by case basis. Our experience thus far, regardless of our relationship with the parents, is that they probably feel vulnerable, angry or confused, and very out of control. They are no longer with their child, and they have a host of strangers telling them what to do and how to behave. One simple way to give some of that control back to them (and in turn, begin to establish a rapport) is to ask them how they parent. This is the point in the case where I ask what their routine has looked like with baby so far. Do they read them a specific book or sing them a special lullaby? Do they address the child by a different nickname than we do? In emails or conversations, refer to them using the parent’s name for them. What brand do they usually bathe or lotion the child with? Does the child break out in a rash when you use a specific brand of diaper?

It’s easy to assume that because they can’t safely parent that they don’t know anything about their child. However, that isn’t usually the case. Parents can make unsafe choices and still know that their child is allergic to Luvs and they always sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at bedtime. Not only do these conversations reinforce the fact that the parent and I are equals, but this consistency is so important for these children. Maybe the parent doesn’t have a preference. But this gives them the opportunity to have a voice and that goes a long way. Little Rascal was with us for days before we were able to talk to his mom about any of these things. The worker didn’t even know what formula he ate. All at once, his home changed, his laundry detergent and people smelled different, his formula and baby wash were different. We also found out later, upon reunification, that he even had special prescription strength lotion for his skin. Regardless of my opinions or feelings about the parents we interact with, knowing some of these things could have made the transitions a lot easier on our little guy. Sometimes putting the child first means putting their parents first, too.

4. Prepare the children’s bag for visits with toys, blankets or clothes that their parents provided.

This one is definitely more for me than for the parents. Part of my ritual for preparing our babies for visits is dressing them in an outfit their parents provided (when possible), and making sure that the extra blankets and toys in the diaper bag are ones the parent provided, if they have provided some. This is a small step, that will probably be overlooked by everyone but me, and that’s okay. This is a small way that I can take time to mindfully recognize the parents’ role in the child’s life, and honor the fact that they have been providing things for their child. It is easy, throughout the course of a case, to focus on the parents’ deficits and shortcomings. For me, these small gestures help remind me that these parents deeply love their children, and that we don’t have to have an antagonistic relationship.

5. Invite them to doctor’s appointments.

This one falls under the umbrella of “it’s great if this can happen” but doesn’t always work in practice.  I’ve been asked by workers to do this on a couple of occasions, for different reasons. From a practical standpoint, I completely understand why this is important. In cases where there are deficiencies in safe parenting, hearing about milestones, safe practices, and instructions about health and infant care from a doctor is likely to be helpful. For some parents, hearing things from a doctor will be better received than hearing it from a foster mom or caseworker. Additionally, if a child has any medical or developmental diagnoses, the parent will come to need that support as the child gets closer to reunifying.

On the flip side, I’ve had this go two, well really three, ways. One, you invite the parent and they don’t come. Similar feelings to a missed visit (which is a post for a different day). I have also had the parent come to the appointment late, interrupt the flow, and serve as more of a distraction (for the provider and myself) and not actually get questions addressed because the dialogue becomes a conversation between parent and doctor with me sitting there like… “Um, hello? They are with me full time so I definitely know that, but don’t worry about asking me…” And lastly, I’ve had parents come to appointments and have it go really well. I have seen both the provider and the parent balance the dialogue between all parties that are involved, both verbally and nonverbally recognizing that both myself and the bio parent are parents of this child, and we all have valuable input that needs to be heard (and actually listened to). I think when it goes well it’s also an incredibly valuable tool for establishing a relationship with the bio parents, because it’s going beyond what is legally required and showing them that, at least to some extent, you are rooting for them. Do I think this works in every case? Of course not. However, it’s something that I’m happy was initially asked of me, because if it hadn’t been, I might not have even known it was an option.

 

That was a lot to digest. Do you have questions? I’m happy to answer them. This list is just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m sure we will add to it as the years go on. But for now, this list serves as a guideline for our interactions with birth parents. That said, this is specifically about concrete ways to support bio parents. As such, I didn’t go into the ways we try to be intentional about the words that we speak, particularly about bio parents and our children’s cases. If you’d like me to write a separate post going into more detail about the language we use, please let me know and I can break down some of the words we use or avoid and our reasoning behind that as well.

Why We Became Foster Parents

As Christians we are called to lay down our lives for one another, and for me that looks like foster care.

By far, one of the most common questions we’ve gotten since embarking on this journey is, “What made you want to become a foster parent?

How I word my answer on any given day varies depending on how much time I have, how well I know you, or how my sleep deprivation-to-caffeine ratio looks. The short answer is, we feel called and led by God to serve the children that need families to step up and be there for them.

My husband and I had talked about adopting children practically before the topic of marriage was ever brought up. We had agreed that we would probably try to adopt children one day, but neither of us had brought up fostering at that point. I’ve always been interested in child welfare, but thought that I would be sitting at the other side of the desk, maybe as a state worker or agency case manager. I completed an internship in child welfare while getting my degree, and instead of wanting to run away from it, I found myself growing more and more invested. Fast forward a few years, and my husband and I shifted the conversation from adoption to fostering. Many things factored into our decision to foster, and to become foster parents right now.

There are over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States.

Let’s just take a minute and let that sink in.

That’s 400,000 children needing love, safety, and someone (preferably several someones) to walk alongside them in their grief, confusion and trauma. These are kiddos who have experienced loss in a way that most of us can’t even imagine. Children that show up with trash bags full of belongings, if they’re lucky. So the question becomes, not “why?” but “why not?” I can’t help all 400,000. I may not even help 100. But it sure won’t stop me from trying.

Throughout our licensing process, my husband and I agreed that each one of us had veto power, and we could stop at any time during the process if we did not feel prepared or called to be doing this. Whether it was in the middle of training, or after we were already licensed, we each had the freedom to say that we didn’t feel comfortable continuing on this road, for whatever reason and the other one would be fully supportive. Instead of encouraging us to put off becoming foster parents for when we were “more prepared”, going through the training process reassured us that we were meant to be immersed in this world.

In addition to recognizing the need, the training really set our hearts on fire for these children. These children don’t have time to prepare for foster care. They don’t get to finish their school year before having their lives uprooted. They don’t have the freedom to take a step back and say “Sorry, but I’m not ready…can I talk to you about it in a few years?” And acknowledging that was really convicting for us in our timing.

It’s been said a hundred times over that nothing can truly prepare you for parenthood, and foster parenthood isn’t much different in that sense. There are books, classes and studies to be read that can arm you with some knowledge. Then there’s your sweet friend who reminds you that sometimes it’s necessary to throw the books and studies out the window (metaphorically, of course) and follow your gut. There is always a running list of things we could improve, are working on, or want to acquire in order for things to be “just right”. I struggle with this, because as a Type A kind of person, foster care would be a whole lot easier if it was all straightforward. But life isn’t straightforward for these children, and while we wait until everything is “perfect”, these children are also waiting. Waiting to be fed, housed, clothed and educated. And more importantly, waiting to be heard, waiting to be safe, waiting to be valued. Over 20,000 children age out of foster care every year, and are thrust into a world they aren’t prepared for. What happens to them while we are too busy chasing “perfect” to show them that they are respected, safe, and loved? Some of these children will have aged out of foster care never once feeling valued.

When I think about that, it feels like my heart went through a food processor. These children have been abused, neglected and discarded. And then we turn around and vilify them when they pass age 18, saying they are adults now and should “get their act together” and not make the poor choices that have been modeled for them. These children become the parents that don’t know how to value and respect their children, and we stand around and wonder why they don’t know what safe and healthy love looks like. That hurts me as a human, as a mom, as a Christian. Nobody has been a light to them, no one has shown them unconditional love. No one has shown them grace and forgiveness. This is the kind of grief that makes my bones hurt, and my skin feel uncomfortable. And I can’t sit back and do nothing when I know this has been put on my heart for a reason. As Christians we are called to lay down our lives for one another, and while that looks different for every single person, for me it looks like foster care.

You Mean I Can Say No?

When I initially thought about foster care, I had a very specific idea of what I thought that meant. You get called at 2AM, with anything from an abandoned infant to a runaway teen, and you say yes. I think a lot of people have a similar idea when they think about the unpredictability of foster care. And yes, there are some families that are open to placements of every age and stage. But I think the majority of us are better equipped to handle different ages or needs at different stages in our lives.

Foster care is full of chaos and plenty of challenges to keep us on our toes, but it’s also full of opportunities to reevaluate and shift our boundaries as necessary. Stretching ourselves is a good thing, but pushing past what we are equipped to handle isn’t necessarily best for us, or the children. There are many factors that contribute to how a family chooses which children to have placed in their home.

For my husband and I, age has been the most important factor at this stage in our lives. For some people, age may be important when factoring in their other biological or adopted children, but for us it was our ages in relation to these kiddos. The minimum age for licensure in our state is 21, and while we passed that milestone years ago, we are still the youngest foster parents that we know. As we started out, we decided that we wanted to stay within the range that felt most realistic for us, so we decided on placements that are birth-3 years old. This allows us to start parenting these children at the age and developmental stages that we feel comfortable with, that we know a lot about, and that comes most naturally to me. It should be said that my husband relates to older children in a much different way than I do, and he could probably take on an 8 or 10 year old and do well. Because I’m not in that place yet, we kept our narrow age range. Infants and toddlers are time consuming and energy-zapping in a much different way than school-age children, but it’s my “sweet spot”. And, I’m inclined to think that God agreed with me in us needing tinies because all three boys placed with us have been infants.

In addition to having our age requirements, we also feel that we can best serve one child at a time right now. We both have a heart for siblings, especially when so many get split up during the placement process but also know that we don’t feel well enough equipped to take on multiple children right now.

Some people also choose to restrict their placements for other reasons, such as medical or developmental needs, the reason why the child is in care, or looking at potential behavioral issues in relation to children they may already have in their home. Others choose to accept “long-term” placements (anywhere from a few months to a few years), while others want to do “receiving care” (the first few hours or days of a child’s time in foster care).

This is where things get tricky. Is it bad to know yourself, know your boundaries and work within those? Well, no. So, it’s bad to stretch yourself and have an open mind? Also, no. Let me explain.

When you get that initial placement call, or paperwork, I can almost guarantee something will be wrong, or missing. And sometimes it is really frustrating. The reason the child came into care will be accurate, but usually incomplete. This can happen for many reasons. For example, a teacher (a mandated reporter) may notice a child being neglected, but have no idea what else has gone on in the home. So, maybe you say “no physical or sexual abuse” as parameters for yourself, and not know specific life events until the child has been in your home for months and they disclose more about their past, or a worker learns more about their case. Or, like our current placements former foster family, you say “yes” to a week or two, and two months later, the state has not been able to find another home for your kiddo, and you’ve morphed into a “long-term” home without intending to. This isn’t said to scare you off, but rather to help you prepare yourself, both mentally and physically, for the long road ahead.

Boundaries within foster care must be both firm, and flexible. Only you know what you can handle, what you’re willing to receive more training on, and what is out-of-bounds for you. We found that since we have such hearts to say “yes” to these children, working with an agency has been incredibly helpful. We give the agency our boundaries, and then they filter the placement referrals from the state/county office and only call with placement referrals that are relevant to our family. For instance, we won’t be called with a child out of our age bounds, or a sibling set when we are only licensed for one. We won’t be called for a child with trach and a ventilator, or for a child who is only expected to stay for 24 hours. And if we were, by some chance, called for these situations, we would say no.

It’s easy to feel guilty because there are thousands of children in foster care right now. But, as foster parents, we agree to put the child’s needs first. And sometimes that means that our first decision as parents is to say “no” to a placement that isn’t a good fit so that they can be in a home where they are able to thrive.

 

4th of July

I’ve been writing and re-writing an introductory post about why we became foster parents and having such a hard time articulating myself. I want to have all the answers, both for myself and for other people, but today all I have is feelings.

Today is the 4th of July. Our first 4th since becoming parents to two sweet babies, and our first since having both of those boys return home. Today, I will drag my feet to a BBQ and our local fair, not because I don’t want to go but because I thought I would be coming with someone else.

After our first baby went home, we still had contact with him and his mom. To say I am grateful for that ongoing connection is an understatement. My relationship with her will get its own post; I can’t say enough good things about her. I am so proud of her and genuinely glad that she has the opportunity to raise the child she loves so much. She would go out of her way to text me, and let us see her son and repeatedly said she wants ongoing connection with us. So a couple of weeks ago, I went out on a limb and invited her and her children to spend part of today celebrating with us. I gave her all sorts of outs- “it’s okay if you’re working…”, “only if you feel comfortable”, “you probably have other plans” and she reassured me that she had nothing else planned, we left the conversation with her saying that sounds great.

I won’t know exactly why she didn’t get back to me about specific plans, unless she decides to tell me later. And I would be lying if I said that my throat didn’t feel thick with sadness or that I wasn’t scared that maybe the last time we saw her sweet baby was the last time we’ll ever see him. But this is the grief we sign up for, as foster parents, so that the kids don’t have to. Because the last thing I want is for that sweet baby to be a toddler, or in elementary school, sitting around on the 4th of July, wondering why he can’t spend it with his mom. Or hurting because his visit got cancelled, because the offices are closed on holidays. So today I choose to not believe the worst, but to think how I would feel having to share another first with anyone else. I choose to attend that BBQ, go to that fair…and keep my phone on loud, just in case she changes her mind. And I’ll choose to not hold it against her when we speak again.

And most importantly, when the offices reopen, and they call us about another child, I’ll sign up to do it all over again.