Around this time last year we were just getting acquainted with the idea of being new parents. We had just brought our first foster son home, hadn’t yet met or talked with his parents. We had no idea what God had in store for us as foster parents, or as parents in general.
I am in awe of all that can happen in a year. We have had 5 sweet baby boys in our home. Two of those boys have been respite placements (just this last week), and two have long since gotten to go home to their parents. And a few weeks ago, that first precious boy we brought home a year ago turned 1. I can hardly describe the emotions swirling around: excited, happy, disbelief that we’d been parenting almost an entire year. I reflect back on Sweaty Spaghetti often, and am so full of joy that he is right where he is meant to be. And just when I thought I couldn’t get any happier, we got invited to come to his first birthday party. And just like that, I started to cry. I had hoped we would get to celebrate his birthday with him, but when hopes like that become reality, I truly can’t wrap my head around how blessed we are.
So often, foster care seems to pit foster families against bio families. One is “bad” and the other “better”. They are on opposite sides of some battle, and the child is stuck in the middle. But what if the child being in the middle wasn’t so bad? What if, instead of being yanked from one side to the other like a game of tug-o-war, the child is holding hands with both families? This idea is sometimes used to depict families who choose open adoption, but rarely, if ever, have I seen anyone talk about how to reach this place with bio families. And yet, a few weeks ago, we found ourselves in this very position. We showed up, with Sweet One, to a child’s first birthday party. Not only were we welcomed with open arms (literally!), but we were introduced to family without shame- “These were (kiddo’s) foster parents.” Cue more tears. I’m continually amazed by the gracious way that we are included in their family. I’ve long said that your village can never be too big; you can never have too many people praying for you and rooting you on. Being able to follow along on new milestones, pictures, and interests is such a blessing. When I question God’s call to have us in foster care, all I have to do is think about this family, and I know that we are right here for a reason.
And Sweaty Spaghetti’s birthday wasn’t the only one we’ve celebrated recently! Sweet One also had his first birthday, just in time for us to take a respite placement who also had a birthday! A time to celebrate how much has happened in a year, and yet is so bittersweet for children in foster care. We printed pictures, made cake and had balloons. A few new toys were given, and songs were sung, but it hurts my heart to know that these birthday celebrations were incomplete. Unlike Sweaty Spaghetti’s birthday, there were some very important people missing from these other parties. There may have been a table full of people here to celebrate, but there was a big empty space in my heart where these kiddos’ grandparents, siblings and parents should have been. I can’t help but wonder what they would have done differently. Do they have a birthday tradition of eating cake for breakfast? Maybe a family movie night is how they would choose to celebrate. How different these birthdays would have looked with siblings and cousins running around and “helping” unwrap toys and blow out candles. Well-meaning and encouraging friends will tell us that we did just fine, that we made their birthdays special. And I hope that they’re right. But just because we did well doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been made better with their families there.
Life’s celebrations and milestones are not meant to be contained to a weekly visit. My heart breaks for these babies, and even moreso for their parents. What must it be like to have to ask permission to feed your child a cupcake for their birthday? To not be able to take them to the park? These are all parts of grief that we will feel as our children go home, and however much it hurts for us, the pain must be double for families whose children are in care. Now for all of the people that say they deserve it, or that they “made their bed”, please remember pain doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Not only did these families have a lot of “help”, in the worst of ways, finding themselves in this situation, but their pain isn’t the only pain I’m concerned with. Judgement can seem well-meaning, I mean, you’re just looking out for the child, right? But what if I told you that every time you ask me about the habits or faults of bio parents, you twist the knife a little more? Not just for us, but for these kids. Every time something negative is said about their parents, it affects them. Not just when they can understand it, or when they’re within earshot. I’ve met the families of each child we’ve had in our care, and I don’t have any ill will toward any of them. That’s not some superpower of mine (I’m still just human), nor is it blindness or naivety. I believe they deserve respect and kindness, and guess what? Every single parent and family member has treated me well in return. Is it a fluke? I have no way of knowing except to keep loving on these kids and their parents. But I really believe that if we can remember the goal is to be holding hands, and not playing tug-o-war, we’ll accomplish a heck of a lot more than if we go head-to-head over a text message or a visit.
Our first family taught us it’s possible to be on the same side, all lifting the child up. I know relationships like this can’t happen if they’re one-sided, and surely they take work to maintain. But social workers, friends, family and bystanders can help by extending grace and understanding instead of cynicism and critique. Instead of offering an opinion about bio parents, try connecting to your foster parent friends another way. Pray for them, provide respite for them, write them a note about how great they’re doing or send them a little something so they know they aren’t alone. I can’t speak for every foster parent, but I feel the most supported when you can celebrate the bio families victories with us. The goal is reunification until it’s no longer safe or in the best interest of the child, and even then there is loss involved. Support us by supporting these families as they come full circle, just like you’ve supported us.