Afterthoughts: A Foster Family

It has been a few years now since my identity has fallen away. It was just a piece of paper, kept in a drawer most days, but it represented so much more than I would ever realize while it tied me to the words written in simple computer-generated letters. We had a family identification number, a maximum capacity, and regular licensing reviews and social worker visits. We no longer have any of those; our foster care license has long since expired. Now, though, we have much, much more.

We have the reality that comes with signing on to a somewhat mysterious, intriguing, wholly encompassing and challenging pursuit.

While the reasons that some have for fostering are different from those of others, our initial intentions from before we began echo much the same as they do nearly a decade-and-a-half later: we were not really sure where this journey would lead us.

We have opened our doors and our arms; we have fought, fallen, and pulled ourselves up; we have been broken by the very acts of trying to ease the pain. We have realized that with more experience comes more uncertainty, and with more advocacy comes greater anxiety and fear.

On the days when we have been so spent, so vulnerable, so completely usurped by the waves of emotion, we look forward to the quiet dark of night, and the comes a primal cry from someone who, unaware of the emotional states of others, needs what you didn’t know you had left to get her through yet another surge of hurt that has pulled her from her sleep.

It’s your own box of burdens, maybe things that you would never have otherwise recalled, that opens up to haunt you, that begs to be set free, as you desperately try to make sense of how it has come to this.

There’s a loneliness in the way that he hugged me. It made me believe that I, too, am lonely in a far-off, hollow, unidentifiable way.

Some call foster carers “angels” or “saints”. Some of my children have called me “the devil”. I am none of those. I am human, as are we all, just trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

We are all who we always have been.

Foster care means a new rhythm to your days: a rhythm that holds no rhythm at all. Sometimes it means allegations thrown at the easy target. It means investigations, questions, and our own questioning of the very motives that brought us to this day.

It means nearly forgetting who you are, or who you have been, in favor of becoming guarded, hardened, and weary. It means questioning yourself and wondering if even your own instincts are to be trusted in a place where blame and hyper vigilance abound. It means forever wondering if you have done the right thing.

It means looking for the smallest things, the tiniest triumphs, in a field of fury.

It means that once your license is gone, your life will not be as before. You are at once simpler and more complicated. Your family may have expanded, your limbs may be scratched or even broken, and you may no longer recognize yourself in the mirror. You may not look, too, for fear of what you might find.

You will, though, have forged relationships with people and places that have caused your soul to grow. You will have stood arm-in-arm with others and will have borne their pain along with yours.

You will lose your sense of purpose, only to realize that this was not up to you in the first place.

You will look, eyes wide, to the Maker, and cry out from your soul for putting you in this place, in this life, because though we are torn we are all of this earth, for this moment of time.

We’ll always be a foster family: all of us, collectively, through the connections that we have often fought to let go. There’s nothing separating us from the next person…not a piece of paper, not a harsh word, not a judgment.

What I have learned, I guess, is that we will never know.

*******************************

The need for foster caregivers is always strong. Consider this if it may be part of your journey.

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Trying to be a Farm Girl

My nine-year-old and a couple of his buddies were loading into our car after baseball practice. Before I had started the engine, he surprised me with what he had to tell his friends:

“My mom’s going to play stupid ‘Follaton Wood’.” He neglected to tell his teammates that he has been asking for that song each time we had been in the car together lately.

I wonder…when exactly do I fall from being a light to the darkness? When does the outside circle open, only to become a force with much to contribute to what that child will become?

I am abruptly reminded that no longer am I alone at my child’s center, at least not around his people; at least not in this situation.

Does he really think our song is stupid? Did he really mean that?

Do the words and influences of others change who we are?

Maybe it’s just a flippant remark, but what if our words impact another in a way that we could never even know, in a way that could alter a part of who they are?

I was called to pick third same boy up early from camp following a behavior episode. In trying to understand what had happened from an outsider’s perspective, my emotions clouded my reason. In his fit of anger and physical angst, my little boy related to me that he was told by staff that they could “control” him. To me, this was dumbfounding, as in our life of chaos and uncertainty, I have worked hard to make certain that my children know that though they cannot control the behavior of others, they are the only ones that can control their own. These words triggered my son into a further state of confusion and rage at the camp. Through my reflections I can understand that the camp staff wanted my son to know that there were rules to be followed and that the counselors were in charge, but the delivery of those words sent my son into a place of helplessness. The incident haunts me, and causes me to wonder if the words that I have so often used to instill courage and confidence have caused him fear in the arms of the outside world, where I was not there to guide and defend.

When my sister’s friend pointed out my awkwardness as I showed her the routine I had so arduously perfected to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, my dreams of performing with the American Ballet Theater smashed with the same unfortunate end as the chicken egg that I dropped on the floor of the coop this morning.

I wonder if my words have ever kept someone from dancing for the rest of their lifetime, or even for one song. For my child, I hope that he will lift others with what he chooses to say and do; that he that he will be able to include rather than exclude; that he will be a person that makes a difference; that he will grow up to be kind; that he will choose to include rather than exclude.

When I was a lonely young mom, I raised my hand to greet a neighbor that was waving enthusiastically in my direction, only for her to tell me that she was not waving at me, but at someone else in the distance.

We never know how our words or actions will affect someone else.

I was almost fifty when I finally began to understand crop rotation.

Blissfully planting my tomatoes in the same two square feet every summer, I had never really given deep thought to why my first effort, many moons ago, had been my greatest yield.

My gardening has always been a seat-of-the pants endeavor. I liked it, so I planted it. If things got crowded or if a plant did not do well, I moved it to a different spot. There wasn’t a book that taught me what I longed to know. Rather, my teacher was experience, sometimes with multiple trials over time.

I guess parenting has been a bit like that. We try. We give it what is our best effort at the time. Sometimes, often, we fail. We do what we know. Then we try to learn more, and we do it all over again.

Maybe I shouldn’t have planted that vine right there. Perhaps I should have fed that apple tree at an earlier time in the season. Perhaps I should not have let my daughter go to that party. Maybe I should have collected my son from camp that day without questioning a thing. Maybe I should have just let them eat ice cream for the second time today. After all, I eat it whenever I like.

We’re on our fourth year of keeping chickens. It’s going pretty well. I hadn’t thought that I could fall for a chicken, much less 34. I may not yet be a farm girl, but I am pretty sure I am officially a chicken keeper.

And…I am pretty good at drinking well water from a garden hose…does that count for anything?

While my chickens learn instinctively to retreat to the coop at dusk and to lay eggs in their nest boxes, I am not quite so lucky. There are many things that do not come naturally to me. Give me a little time, though, and I will do my best to learn. I will try. But I still won’t be able to dance. And those words, that admission, is actually a little bit liberating.

I won’t stop trying to be a farm girl. I hope I’ll get there some day.

As we neared our destination, one of the friends piped up from the back seat of the car: “I kind of like this song. It’s pretty good.” I may or may not have turned the volume just a bit higher, and in that moment, I didn’t have to say a word.

🐥❤️

“Follaton Wood”, by Ben Howard, is very much worth a listen.

The Kindest of Wolves

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not into thine own understanding.” –Proverbs 3:5-6

“Shut up, you stupid idiot, or else I’m going to punch you in the eye.”

“Hi, Miss K. I love you.” I am secretly just a bit jealous of the spontaneous embrace that my little boy gave to his teacher. After all, I was still recovering from unsuccessfully dodging the sippy cup that had been hurled at my head just moments before. And it was me, not her, that had made him waffles for breakfast.

My child skipped off to join the other four-year-olds at the playground. I watched as he offered his friend, clad in Dalmatian spotted pajamas and cowboy boots, a boost onto the climbing apparatus. “Thank you,” said the polite Dalmatian child.

“You’re welcome,” piped my son, who, apparently, does actually have manners, evident only when he doesn’t think I am watching.

On a given day, it seems as if someone has swapped out my child for a ghoul, a monster, or a demon. He’s a little boy, but he’s also a fierce child who came into this world fighting against things over which he had no control.

“Is that your grandson?” I have been asked this question many times. He’s not, but he certainly could be. I wonder if I parent more permissively than I did in the early days, if I am less aware of my surroundings, or if the often baffling behaviors really are bigger than me.

It’s defeating to be overpowered by someone that weighs one-fifth as much as I do. It’s more than defeating when, after nearly three decades of parenting, I really have no idea what to do. And really, I don’t.

At just the same time that the nation was thrust into World War II, a seedling, called simply “3-35-40”, was being developed in France. During this period of unthinkable devastation, a thing of great beauty was born. This seedling, further propagated after being sent to the United States, became the world’s most beloved rose, called “Peace”.*

I wonder, if I collected all of the hours turned to days, and strung them together into weeks that I have spent sitting in an unforgiving vinyl recliner, waiting for someone with a name tag to make a decision about the next supportive action for the mental health of a child in my care, how much idle time has slipped away in favor of the angst of things out of my control?

Parenting is relentless.

“He doesn’t act like that around me.”

Well, he acts that way around me.

“You’re his safe person. He knows he can let his true feelings flow, and he will be okay.”

Well, I don’t think I like this. It’s tiring living in a cartoon where body parts and random expletives spin in circles over my head, and I feel poorly equipped to tame the wild that has been given me. And when the child is bigger and stronger, when the fight burns hot inside, when the child is almost no longer a child, when I don’t know what to do…when I cannot draw on my vast parenting experiences of pushing strollers in the park, school shoe shopping, rescuing frogs from the basement, and sewing laces on pointe shoes to manage a child who, eyes filled with rage, takes on a strange state of being, writhing, nearly foaming at the mouth, tossing heavy objects into newly-painted walls, and, perhaps the hardest to bear, expresses the wish to no longer be part of our family.

There’s no answer here.

The wolf is revered as signifying loyalty, guardianship, and spirit. A young wolf may leave the pack, trying to fend for itself in search of independence and freedom.**

Pushing away, fighting, searching…

We are here, maybe along for this journey, but definitely not running the show. It’s hard, a different hard from the physical labor of turning a compost pile or carrying a 40-pound bag of layer feed to the barn.

It’s hard, as in “how could this possibly be happening?” and “how could there be any more than what has already been?” and we know it.

I look at my image in the mirror and wonder, bewildered, who is this shell of a person raising, or struggling to raise, these children?

As I turn to the Maker for strength, no longer for reason, my grown son appears through the hospital doors with an iced soy milk latte and a single Peace rose.

It was hours later when, through eyes bleary and body weary from the emotional weight of the recent days, I sent my son a message thanking him for what he had done.

His formative years included many scenes where burdens of trauma and pain were indelible, yet he recalls the good, too. He returned my message of thanks with words that will not be lost on me:

“I was raised by the kindest of wolves.”

When I am called home at the end of this life, I wish to look back with peace, if not understanding, knowing that all of my wolves have returned to the pack, with or without Dalmatian pajamas or cowboy boots.

References:

*www.starrosesandplants.com

**www.pure-spirit.com

Thank you for reading. Kindly share if you have found meaning in my words.

Circles

Yesterday, a child came out to wonder”.

The voice in my head pleaded, “Don’t cry…don’t cry…don’t cry on your way to the post office.” I had been unexpectedly emotional since the early morning phone call from the postmaster letting me know that my new chickens had arrived. Chicken keeping, like most everything else, has a rhythm, and we find ourselves in our fourth year of what has become a most beloved hobby.

It’s so quiet, here in the dark, but I just cannot turn off the noise in my head. Silence cuts all the things that were never said, never gathered into form to be witnessed and set free.

Seconds that seemed stretched into hours have now passed, and I wonder what took so long.

“And the seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.”

The cautious nature of new love, holding the words deep within as a best effort to protect myself from the vulnerability of my own truth; this is how our child comes to us, afraid to love, afraid to trust, for fear of the eventuality of rejection and abandonment, a lifelong pattern.

It’s not a fair comparison, but the emotional commonality of simply being human offers up the possibility that the bridge to a relationship can be challenging to navigate. We are afraid that who we are will not be enough.

Parenting any child is both daunting and beautiful. We cannot know what to expect, and sometimes we can never know just what the days, what the years looked like before the child’s path met ours.

We’re captive on a carousel of time”.

The doctor is running late. My little son is on my lap, content with his threadbare blanket in the moment, and still under the spell of the travel sickness medication. If I close my eyes, I can almost pull open the capsules which hold the lives of those here with me: people that I have not seen before.

The television is loud, perhaps not loud enough for those that are actually trying to make sense of what is happening in this cartoon: a cat jumps from a the head of a boy with skunk hair as the boy yells, “no fair!” The rest of us stare at the screen for a random moment or two, processing nothing but our previous thoughts.

One young mother, waiting in the appointment line and dressed in very high heels, lets her distraught toddler son free from his stroller. Light moves across the child’s face as he rolls to the floor, clumsily pulls himself to his feet, and promptly escapes down a hallway, running in circles into the rooms as he cackles and showers the office with crumbs from his snack, likely given as an attempt to avoid this entire scenario. The mother wipes her brow, rolls her eyes, and disappears in her high heels in pursuit of the boy.

“We can’t return; we can only look behind from where we came…”

I have been this mother, minus the fancy shoes, for nearly thirty years. Most of my children are older, and often I find myself chasing not them, but who I thought they wanted to be, who they used to be, or what I thought they might need.

Today, I felt relieved that I was not the one breaking a sweat, running around the hematology wing. Today, I was grateful to hold my own uncharacteristically calm and quiet child as we waited our turn at looking for an answer.

Just a few days ago marked thirty years that Dan and I have been together. My brand new sisters-in-law did the music and vocals for this Joni Mitchell song at our wedding, and still it plays on.

“Then the child moved ten times round the seasons…skated over ten clear frozen streams”.

I watched as my nine-year-old little league player/acrobat seemed to listen at about twenty-five percent attention to what the baseball director had to say about the high school team that had come to teach these boys to bunt at this spring clinic: “They’re all here because they love the game.”

And “loving the game” is enough. I know this now, many years removed from the day that my then almost sixteen-year-old tied his cleats for his final game. To me, it hadn’t been enough; I craved more seasons on the bleachers, more Saturday tournaments, and more of the dichotomous heartbreak and joy laced up in every baseball and stitched through every glove. I wanted him to keep playing, but for me, because I so loved the game. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that because he, too, loved the game, it was time for him to look ahead.

“Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now. Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town”.

We’re afraid to stop because we don’t know what comes next.

Still, we love the game.

The wait was longer than usual at the doctor’s office. We didn’t get an answer today. I wonder if anyone did. In this moment where we have found ourselves, we are okay. We walk away from where we have been, on the way to where we are headed.

The dark of the night offers clarity, just until my eyes are opened once again. I can’t remember what it meant. I just think we need to keep going.

Soon my little-leaguer will again take the field. My days of chasing small boys around the clinic won’t last much longer. I am ready for both of these.

And they tell him, take your time…it won’t be long now till you drag your feet to slow the circles down.”

The hard parts will continue, though they will promise new kinds of healing and hope.

I didn’t cry until after I picked up my package from the post office. Even then, with a box full of eleven peeping baby chicks in the car beside me, I no longer had much to cry about.

We can’t return…we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game”.

Song lyrics from “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell❤️

Circus Freaks and an Animal Parade

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing.

Still, the days passed, and there was another sunrise, a ball of red-orange casting a spell of yellow softness onto the white snow, but only for a short time.

The hours pass with little fanfare, until dusk, until a strip of the brightest pink opens the clouds, swallows them up, and draws the curtain of darkness onto the night as my eyes close.

I am afraid of what I cannot see.

We were not expecting to be more of what we have already been. We didn’t know, though, that we would become less.

This winter season has seemed endless. One more day of short-stepping my way across the many-times-frozen expanse of the driveway, crunching along the top layer of compacted ice and snow to tend to my chickens, who attempt to venture only a few feet outside the run on most days.

The season of angst, too, has carried on. And that’s how it is.

We are circus freaks or an animal parade, embattled, defeated, yet still called to continue. I guess we’re not done yet.

Our eyes are open, but we can’t see.

The magnolia tree is budding out with the first hope of spring; I noticed it yesterday through the still-frosted living room window. It’s true: this season will yield to the next. The chickens will begin laying again, prolifically, and the baby chicks will arrive at the farm.

We don’t know what you have been through. We don’t know what has broken you. We don’t know how to uncover what’s real.

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I hope, with all that’s inside of me, that you can hear me.

Open My Eyes; Take Me To My People

It sure is cold outside.

She was as sweet a baby as ever I have known, and I was so happy that she was mine.

But actually, she wasn’t mine.

The first time I took her to the social services office to visit with her mom, I had dressed her in my daughter’s outfit, the one that had been my favorite from her early childhood. It was the softest pink cotton, a one-piece jumpsuit with rolled ankle cuffs. I have memories of my little girl wearing this in her first days home from Korea, when she was just the same age as my foster daughter. They both wore the leather little bird shoes, too, that I had saved all these years.

“They’re ugly.”

I looked up, perplexed.

“Those shoes. They’re ugly.”

The seasoned caseworker must have felt my heart sink . “I think they’re cute.” Her voice trailed away, but I know she knew.

I had entered the office, confident in my abilities of parenting another person’s child, but having no concept of the depth of feeling and emotion that each interaction could present. I left the office with someone else’s baby, and the first-hand experience that this journey was not going to be just about a little girl and her foster family. The picture was much bigger, much more important than that. The foster family, I would find out, would take a seat in the second row. This was about supporting families…this mom and this baby…not about a walk through my own pleasant memories as I dressed someone else’s little girl in my daughter’s jumpsuit.

Have I been blind? Have I been lost inside myself, in my own mind?”

–Natalie Merchant, “Carnival”

She had come with several bags full of clothing, some still with tags and others worn. For the next visit, and each visit thereafter, I chose an outfit from those bags.

It wasn’t really about clothes, though, for either of us. I was given the task of taking care of someone else’s child, and it was my job to do just that, and to never forget that she had someone that loved her first and best, and that I was a mere bridge of support between the two, for this moment in time.

It wasn’t long before this sweet baby was moved to the home of a relative. Family connections are so very important for children in care.

She had outgrown all of the clothing that had come along with her. The day she left, she was dressed in a brand new jogging suit that I had bought for her; the caseworker said her mama was going to love it.

She left in a driving snowstorm. My son, ten at the time, dissolved into a heap of tears on the floor of the bedroom where this little girl had slept for four months. He loved her deeply, as we all did. She was someone else’s child, and we were a stepping stone on her path. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t think it would be so hard.

These days we have a therapist here for one of the boys six days a week. We are grateful for the support, which has been long in coming. The outbursts, the holes in the walls, and the fear still abound, but now we have someone to share the burden, to stand by our sides, at least for the two-and-a-half hours while he is here. Most importantly, we have someone who sees the magnitude of the behaviors and its effect on the whole family; someone who acknowledges that we are, through it all, trying our best.

I was trying my best to be a good foster mom. My eyes are open, and I see that I am merely standing by, reminding myself of what is most important…because I know, until I don’t.

There is an online support group for chicken keepers. I am so worried about my precious flock in these arctic temperatures. “They’ll be fine” was the overwhelming response when I shared my fears with these people that I have never met. My wise friend, not a chicken keeper, but a keeper of much else, suggested some extra straw. I took her advice and added a bed of straw to the coops, right on top of the pine shavings. And I hoped.

I sometimes wonder if the therapists that work with our son believe that there is hope for him to learn other ways to express his emotions. I wonder, but I am afraid to ask. There is promise in the unknown. For me, too, there is fear. And for this boy, fear. For the young mother who watches another woman care for her daughter, there is an uncomfortable fear for what is or what is not to come.

Keep me safe, lie with me, stay beside me, don’t go.”

–Natalie Merchant, “Motherland”

I may be okay to lay here with my eyes closed, hoping tomorrow takes its sweet time in coming. I’m afraid to open the door to the chicken coop. Afraid to face another long day with no programming, I am secretly hoping that the challenging behaviors might take a snow day.

I found out some years later that my first little foster baby has thrived with her family. We had been a tiny part of this story, a part of our collective purpose.

About a month ago, I had an exchange with a fellow foster parent. She offered words that have carried me through more than just that day. She assured me that there would be healing, on this or that side of heaven. What she said has offered new hope and fuel along this often tiresome journey, where I have learned to rely on the support of others, of my people in faraway corners, of my tribe, in so many ways.

My lungs burned as I breathed in the twenty-degrees-below zero afternoon air from the quick trip to the coop to check on the chickens, but my hand was warm in my pocket from the egg laid by a hardy hen. I can do this, for another day, forever, as long as I am in good company.

XO🐥❤️

The Butterfly Child

It’s not that I’ve lost my way; I am just not yet sure where I am going. For a time, I was sure that I knew: the activities of my future were far in the distance, many rotations of the sun from the rhythm of today. There was much between my tasks of the day and the elusive vision that was to come. I liked it that way; I didn’t question that there would be more than what was right in front of me.

It’s hard to say just when the faraway fields began to close me in. I look to my love, who first knew me when I was almost still a child.

I ran across the grass with a freedom that has been all but lost with the passage of time. If I left my white leather strapped sandals on the porch, my bare feet could take me faster to race my sister to the ice cream truck. Still, she always won.

If it was a good day, the neighbor lady would call us over for a visit. She would sit on a chair in front of the picture window in the room that faced our house. For what might have been hours and with my face still stained from my Fudgesicle, I brushed the neighbor lady’s soft brown hair, separated it into at least a dozen sections, and fastened each with a brightly-colored band. The neighbor lady always smiled and told me how pretty I had made her. Sometimes, her husband would come into the room and offer me a drink of his beer. He smiled a lot, too. I didn’t want any of the beer, though he was quite persistent.

I skipped until the day I fell hard on the concrete. I danced until my sister’s friend told me I looked funny. And I dreamed until I woke up.

Deep inside, we all have a need to mean something to others. We need to matter to someone, to be worth something for who we are inside. The older I have grown, the more I miss who I used to be. Is that what we are here for, to complete the circle and to return to who we were, and who we really still are inside?

My sister sent me a little box of treasures this Christmas, specifically some flower essences, a crystal, and a bar of soap packaged in a brown box, all zipped together in a silky pouch embellished with ribbon flowers. She knows me like none other.

There was something about that little brown box. Without even opening the soap, my reveries carried me back to 1985, when I was setting up my room at the Delta Gamma house, blasting the Cocteau Twins, specifically “Pearly Dew Drops Drops”, from my new push-button turntable. The Crabtree and Evelyn drawer liner that I used on that day smelled just the same as the soap that my sister sent me thirty-three years later. For a little while, I longed to be that college girl again: confident, driven, with a clear picture of what her future would hold.

But it didn’t.

I write because it connects me to others, but also because it connects me to parts of myself that have been nearly lost, if not for the memories that are called up with experiences that catch me as they come.

Some years ago, we decided not to exchange Christmas gifts anymore. I am not sure my sister or I have paid perfect attention to this declaration; we have found “things” and celebrated our sisterhood in a more random manner, with similar, though subtle, fanfare.

My sister was given the vinyl Butterfly Child when she had surgery as a young girl. I was secretly jealous, not of the surgery, but of the special attention that she received and, mostly, that she had the Butterfly Child. It was sort of like an animal and a person at the same time. Its suit was an array of the best colors, and there was sparkle to its wings. It was fantastic.

Over the years, my sister kept the Butterfly Child through maybe a dozen moves. At one point, she passed it along to one or another of my children, which was probably hard for her to do, and it hasn’t turned up in years.

I miss the Butterfly Child.

My days are a pageant, rich with things I cannot interpret, and rich with nothing at the same time. In the sparseness of nothing, still I am rich. I don’t like the taste of beer, and I would not have liked it when I was four.

Christmas is past, and the boys will be leaving soon. I have swept up a dustpan full of pine needles, Lego heads, and remnants of precious days together, spun too quickly on time’s impatient wheel.

I found the Butterfly Child…just an image, but there it was, nonetheless. My painter friend has captured its spirit, and my sister is going to get that sparkle in her bright green eyes, and this time I will beat her to the ice cream truck.