Foster Care: Loss and Hope
It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged, partly because it’s been hard to put words to my journey and is hard even now, and partly because the few hours of deskwork I get each week have been consumed with paper grading. Now the school year is over; I can’t believe it’s June; birthday parties and summer vacations are being planned; and the loss of our foster baby is almost complete.
It’s been almost a year since he entered our home, a year that has changed us and him forever. There is absolutely no going back to how we were before we knew his smile and felt what life was like with three little ones.
It’s been since the holidays that I’ve known we would probably lose him, a probably that stuck in my gut all winter long. I felt disillusioned by foster care—the ministry that I had been excited about at first, feeling more like a revolving door you got stuck in with your heart smashed every time around. What is the point of all this pain?
For the first time I dreaded spring and thought it would actually be kind of nice to be enclosed in snow and ice for a long, long time. Please don’t blame me for the long cold winter ;).
Spring is my favorite season, and I couldn’t help but be happy at the blossoming of our cherry trees and peonies and all the beautiful things the previous owners of our home left in our yard. Spring always reminds me that life comes through death, and beauty comes through ashes. There is meaning in what seems like meaningless pain, when it is viewed through the lens of hope.
In the spring I realized that the loss of our baby would be gradual, finally complete in the summer, which is kind of like hearing your dentist say, “We’re out of anesthesia, so I’m just going to pull this tooth slowly over the next three months, okay? Sit tight.”
Actually I’ve realized that much as this gradual transition grates on me, it is a good thing for the baby and for David and Elanor. At first when he left there were tantrums. David didn’t want to go to sleep without saying goodnight to him. Elanor walked around the house saying, “Where’s my foster baby?” in her cute tone of voice, and I think, How did she learn the word foster? How do kids just get what is sometimes hard for us adults to understand? Now the kids are okay when he leaves and excited when he comes back. Each week his absences are a little longer, and each week we are more okay with it.
I feel a bit disoriented with only two children. It’s easy in comparison. We plan fun things to do that would be harder with a crawling baby. Over Memorial Day weekend we went to the Natural Bridge and stayed overnight in a hotel and drove through the safari park. The busy pace of life doesn’t slow down, and I don’t have much time to sit on the couch and cry about how I’m feeling, which maybe is good thing? I don’t know. Then the baby comes back and I’m staggered by how happy we are and how parenting seems almost impossible, like, How did I do this 3-thing again?
The gradual transition is good for me, too. There is a slow letting go in my heart, of learning to love without being in control, of learning that life can be good and full even with an aching loss in the middle of it. At first I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose a baby I love. Now I can imagine it, and I know it will be hard but by God’s grace we’ll be okay.
I don’t feel disillusioned about foster care anymore. As of right now, I want to do it again. Because I’m seeing this year not as loss, but as gain for me, for us, for the baby, for everyone involved.
I recently read the novel If I Stay by Gayle Forman, which I don’t completely recommend, but the entire novel was worth it for me because of this:
“I’m feeling … all that I have lost, and it is profound and catastrophic and will leave a crater in me that nothing will ever fill. But I’m also feeling all that I have in my life, which includes what I have lost, as well as the great unknown of what life might still bring me.”
For some reason this struck me as incredibly profound. I needed to read it a couple times to get it. What I have includes what I have lost. What I have lost is having this baby in my home, and being his primary caregiver as he grows up. But what I have includes this experience of loss—these memories of his first year, the privilege of changing his life forever, the knowledge of grief, the realization of hope, and a deeper knowledge of Christ that makes it all worth it. I am a different person. Our family is different, better, stronger, by God’s grace. What I have includes what I have lost, and I have more and am richer than I was.
We have gained through this year, and I know others have, too, and that gives me hope. It is easy to see how the baby has gained, how he now has a solid physical and emotional foundation, how when you look at him rocketing around on the floor and laughing at everybody, you wouldn’t recognize the newborn who came to our door. I can also see how God has used this experience in his family and among our friends. It hasn’t all worked out as I would have wished, but I see unmistakable fingerprints of hope that make me glad we did it, and willing to do it again.
Right now the need of babies is so great, right in our own cities. Sometimes we mistakenly think the need is only in Africa or Asia, in Third World places where all we can do is send money or make an occasional missions trip. The need is here, too.
I’m writing now not of any specific case but of a general trend throughout our country: As drug abuse is on the rise, more and more babies are coming into foster care for that reason. Their mothers choose life for them, thinking that after all their ruined relationships, whether it’s their family in shambles or their abusive boyfriend or whatever it might be, they think that here at last is someone who will always be there for them, who will love them and never let them down.
It’s a desperate kind of love, a genuine affection, but it doesn’t come with an ability to provide adequate care and to keep the baby safe. These babies are usually taken into foster care, sometimes from the hospital and sometimes soon after. Much as these mothers love their babies, statistics are showing that the chances of them getting them back are low. Even when help is given, the hold of drug abuse and homelessness can be so strong that it’s hard to leave. Sometimes people don’t want to take the hand that is outstretched to pull them out of the pit. This doesn’t make sense to me and I find it so sad, but that’s where the facts are right now.
What these babies need is foster families who will give them a good start on life. That first year is so incredibly important for their physical and spiritual development. This is when these babies heal from drug exposure and first learn to attach. This is the time when Social Services watches to see if the mother is going to do what she needs to do to get her baby back, when they try to find a father and see if he wants the baby and would provide adequate care, when they look at all other relatives and see if there is anyone who could care for this baby.
Foster families stand in the gap, between when these babies first come into care, sickly and needy, to when they go to a different home, at that point hopefully healthy and happy. Many times no other home is found for them, and then the foster family has the option of adopting.
Foster care can seem so uncertain, but through it all is the thread of God’s sovereignty, placing babies where He wants them, and working through loving families to provide healing not only to the babies, but sometimes to the birth families as well. It’s an incredible opportunity and I haven’t lost sight of it, even though the risk of heartbreak is huge. You put your heart on the line in a situation where you’re not in control, and it’s rough. But this is what Jesus has called His people to do—to love the least of these. Through it we love Him, and through it we are forever changed.
What I have includes what I have lost. I have so much, and I hope I can keep sight of that this summer.