Reflections On Being Foster Parents

Looking back it’s not easy to remember what we thought it would be like when the decision to apply for a license to provide foster care was made. The physical aspects of it were certainly understood. We were going to take infants, usually from the hospital, until they were placed for adoption or taken by the birth mother. That this would include feedings during the night at about two hour intervals was obvious. We might not have realized there would be times when we had two babies at once, which pretty much eliminated sleeping. However taking care of a child that need to be loved and cuddled, and are completely dependent on you transcends the need for sleep. They return love without reservation. They expect you to be there when they are hungry, frightened, and ,uncomfortable, and it is a privilege to be there for them. Holding them in the middle of the night when the world is silent is a unique feeling. When we brought the infant home it was like bringing our own home, in spite of the fact that it was many years later and our children were grown and independent. However we did not think about how much it was going to hurt when it was time to let them go.

The most common question we are asked is; “How could you let them go?” Our answer was usually. “We had about eighty over twenty years and the house isn’t big enough.” The second usual answer was; “They all grow up to be teenagers.” It is easier to joke than to dwell on the fact that there was nothing to do but endure until the next child kept you so busy you didn’t have time to think about the one that left. Occasionally parents would ask if we wanted their child that had been adopted, back for a few days. The truth is they are not interchangeable. You miss the one that left, not a generic child.

Thinking about the years our lives were controlled by a constant supply of short people results in a series of images. Early on we established that the transfer of the child to adoptive parents would occur at our house and include a party with a cake and balloons and the child being all dressed up for the occasion. This took place after the new parents had visited a number of times and the child hopefully was used to them. The Social Worker could bring her documents and get all the signatures but this was not to be a transfer of ownership like an automobile. It was a celebration. We provided them with a complete record of feedings, what they ate, doctor visits and similar information from the time they had arrived. Photographs from the first day were also provided.

There was one time when a child was taken back to his birth mother while she was in an institution for rehabilitation. He was placed in our house by the Department of Children and Families after being removed from his mother’s care. We had his second birthday party and invited his mother and siblings. By the time he left he was calling us mom and dad, although we had never told him what to call us. The agency sent a social worker neither he nor we had ever met. We placed him in the car, buckled him in and kissed him on the cheek. When he realized we were not getting in the car he started to cry and our final image of him was through the car window seeing his arms outstretched and the tears running down his face as he was driven away. We vowed that somehow we would keep that from ever happening again.

Other images are more recent; a young woman approaching thirty, who had lost both parents within months of one another, sitting on our couch crying - asking us why they never told her she was adopted and now realizing why her picture was on our wall. There was no good answer except to assure her they did love her.

There are of course images of those children who have suffered physical abuse or had to endure the results of the worst elements of adult behavior. Such as the results of incest or alcohol and drug abuse by the mother. It was hard to keep quiet while watching the mother of a four month old child hold him on her lap and check to see if his finger nails were cut and he was cleaned behind his ears while in our care when x-rays revealed his skull had been fractured and three ribs broken while in her care. We had been told it was done by either the mother or father but which one was unknown. Walking the floor, for what seemed virtually all night, while an infant went through drug withdrawals and not being able to comfort her is not easily forgotten. One of the nights our oldest son, who worked at Subway to about 2:30 in the morning and went to college during the day came in-looked at his mother and said, “You’re walking in your sleep – I’m awake let me walk her.” His mother sat down on the sofa to talk to him for a minute since we didn’t see him that much and shortly we were all in the living room. At bout 3:00 a.m., while walking the baby (she was still crying) he observed, “Do you think anywhere else they have family meetings this hour of the morning?”

We also went to christenings, birthday parties and weddings in many different churches and were accepted by families without reservation no matter what religion, ethnicity or any of the conditions that seem to divide people into separate groups.

The images that counter balance the ones that disturb are mainly of the annual Christmas parties we had when we invited all the children and their siblings and parents. We rented a church hall, decorated it for Christmas, hired a clown to entertain and make balloon animals, prevailed on our niece to wear a mouse costume, had cupcakes and cookies and let them enjoy themselves. Some social workers came to see their former clients. At one of them; speaking to a woman who was a vice president of a bank it was pointed out that the group included all ethnicities and economic levels from welfare mothers to doctors and lawyers. They were all standing around chattering away certainly appearing to be completely at ease. They didn’t even appear to be aware of the diversity of the group. The woman laughed and said, “all our kids slept in the same bed.”

It has to be said that we didn’t let all of them go. One we kept and will have as long as we live. He left for a while when he was little and when he returned we did not let him go again. This is a separate story about getting him assigned back to our foster home; keeping him through the long bureaucratic process extending for years, during which he understood from at least four years old, that he could be moved at any time and we had nothing to say about it; until he was finally ours. While this clearly is a situation no child should have to live with and demonstrated how difficult the process can be, at age seven he knew he had a permanent home when we adopted him. Not all children ever reach that point.

There is no question our life was changed as a result of foster case. The most important result was being able to adopt our youngest son, which would never have happened if we hadn’t done foster care.

- written by Mary Jane and Ed. Leavy