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.
Charlotte: How old is Daddy?
Oh. Wow! People don’t usually last that long!
The last few weeks have been particularly intense for our family. I cannot really pinpoint one reason WHY this has been the case. Maybe we overscheduled ourselves? Or set unrealistic goals in our yardwork and housework? Maybe the stress of the unknown in fostering has been taking its toll? Or we were still adjusting to meeting the day-to-day needs of three children?
Whatever it was, we seem to be leaving it behind.
One of the cool things about the last few weeks, however, was that we had opportunities to reconnect with a variety of old friends. The truth about Donald and me is that we both grew up within ten miles of where we currently live – and as a result, we frequently see and hang out with the same people we have always seen and hung out with.
Naturally, the unfortunate bit about this arrangement is that it is easy to take those relationships for granted. We sometimes will go three or four months without seeing someone who is RIGHT.HERE. just because we assume they will always be there. We’ve known them since kindergarten! We chat with their parents on our morning walks! What could possibly change? We’ll catch up later!
And then when we do get together, we’re amazed by how wrong we were. Their pregnancy has progressed and suddenly they’re due next week. Or their kid has grown an inch taller. Or they’ve accepted a new job. Or their dog passed away. Usually we hear these things through the grapevine when our families are too busy to get together, but it’s always surprising to find out in person how much you’ve missed in just a couple months.
We reflect on those moments on the way home. It seems to odd to think that when we were five or six or ten or fifteen years old, these people could not put on a new eyeliner or try a stupid stunt in their backyard without us knowing, and then we blinked and suddenly we’re all older with families and lives of our own that only overlap a couple times a month.
Right now, I love aging. I love watching my kids grow. I love that my husband and I are still happy together. I love learning from my parents. I love that I have finally reached a point in my life where remembering ten years back isn’t completely mortifying.
But one of the things I love most is that we still know people who have known us forever and that many of them play very active roles in our children’s lives. I love watching them grow older, watching them marry and have babies, watching their babies grow up. I love watching them travel the world, finish advanced degrees, chase their dream jobs. I love watching our kids chase each other around the backyard, lost in daydreams, the way we did once upon a time. I love watching my kids’ faces light up when they know we are going to see their love-aunts and –uncles and –cousins. I love watching our friendships evolve and become deeper and more meaningful as the years roll by.
Donald and I are 37 and 28 years old respectively. We have been married nearly seven years. Everywhere we look life is demanding and hectic and crazy and busy.
And everywhere we look, life is pretty freaking amazing too.
After her helmet-breaking incident a couple months ago, Charlotte gave up her bike and her scooter for two weeks. The only way I was able to convince her to give wheeled objects a whirl again was to let her pick out her replacement helmet by herself.
She picked a cat helmet.
As soon as we were home from the store, she eagerly snapped it on and hopped on her bike and told me we needed to show her grandparents.
“Grandpa!” she said when she saw my dad. “Grandpa! If I just had a tail and fur and four legs and whiskers and pointy ears and claws and sharp teeth, I WOULD BE JUST LIKE A CAT!”
It was adorable, but I digress. The really awesome part of the story turns out to have nothing to do with my parents and everything to do with their neighbor’s cat.
To understand this, I have to backtrack a little and explain something: my dad was never a cat person. NEVER. I’m pretty sure that he spent my childhood hating cats. But one day about five years ago, a scrawny starving little tomcat showed up on my parents’ porch and changed everything.
My dad ignored him, of course, but the tomcat turned up the next day too. And the day after that. And the day after that. Until finally my father picked up a small bag of cat food at the pet store and put it out on the porch for him.
That scrawny little feline was Cat. When my dad put out the food for him that night, I think he expected that he would feed Cat and Cat would leave, but that’s not how it went. He fed Cat and Cat stayed. In fact, he fed Cat and Cat became a bit of a stalker. When my dad’s alarm clock went off in the morning, Cat would immediately start yowling outside of his bedroom window. And Cat would wait on the steps for my father to come home from work at night. It got to the point where Dad would avoid turning lights on in the evening because if Cat knew he was up, he would start yowling for attention – and Dad was worried that coyotes would get him.
After Cat came Cat Two. Then Little Cat. And Cat Four. And Target. And Cat’s Girlfriend. And Boomerang.
At one point, there was a mystery cat that only came by to eat cat food at night. My dad called him Cat Five. One night he heard Cat Five on the porch, so he carefully peeked out to see what he looked like.
Cat Five was a skunk.
The cat food started being picked up at night.
Even so, ever since Cat first trained my father to put food out in the morning, cats have flocked to my parents’ yard. And around the same time that Charlotte crashed on her scooter, a small grey kitten joined the ranks.
After a few days the people across the street from my parents adopted him and named him Silver, but the small grey kitten still spends hours and hours roaming through my parents’ yard.
When Charlotte got her new cat helmet, she went everywhere with it pretending to be a cat. She took to calling me “Momma Cat” and referring to herself as “Baby Cat.” She even started greeting neighbors with a meow instead of a hello. (Surprisingly, most people meowed right back.) (My neighbors kick ass, that’s all I have to say about that.)
So when Silver turned up in her grandparents’ yard, Charlotte thought it was only fitting that she don her cat helmet and meow at him too.
HOLY AWESOMESAUCE, world, if you want to see something hilarious, do this. Go put on a cat helmet with gigantic green eyes, spin suddenly around so that you come face-to-face with a tiny feeble little unsuspecting kitten, and release the most terrifying meow you can muster.
It. Was. Epic.
And that is why Silver will never ever trust a little girl again for as long as he lives, the end.
(Also, from a distance, with the sun behind her, it makes her look like Batman. Which is pretty cool.)
Well that really hinged on me remembering what my new password was. Sorry about that.
Can I make it up to you by showing you the funniest picture I have ever taken?
Well. It makes me laugh anyway.
Earlier this month my family went on a short trip. A few days beforehand, I pulled out the suitcase to pack and found out that suitcases are to small children what cardboard boxes are to cats. I’ll bet if you put an unzipped empty suitcase on a front lawn, the next time you look outside you’ll see a kid sitting in it. Looking at you. Like they own the place.
But I digress.
Anyway, I put the suitcase out and because my children are weird they immediately piled in.
It was cute.
“I’m going to take a picture,” I said.
“Please smile,” I said.
And that is when I discovered that something is horribly awry with Charlotte’s translation unit from Adult-glish to Child-glish. When I said, “Please smile,” my four-year-old heard, “Please strangle your sister.”
Sort of like yesterday when I said, “Can you please put on your shoes so that we can get going to preschool?” and Charlotte heard “Definitely take your shirt off and air guitar it up to a song you make up yourself about Clifford the big red dog. That is totally cool and we definitely won’t be late at all.”
Or this morning when I said, “Let’s grab your sweatshirt and go to the park! We don’t want to keep Desmond waiting!” and Charlotte heard, “Now is a great time to play hide-and-seek for fifteen minutes. Ready, set, hide!”
Oh, life with a four-year-old…