Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The Purple Bowl

For me, it was a purple glass bowl I had set down on the counter. For Ellie in the movie Instant Family, it was a beautiful crystal dish she'd tucked away in the top of her cupboard. Both smashed to pieces by foster care.

Both symbols of devastation...and love.

Have you seen that movie? It's about a married couple who become foster parents to three kids. Their lives are flipped upside down as they learn to parent kids from hard places and discover what family really means. As a foster parent myself, I relate to so many of the scenes in the movie, but the one that always strikes me the most is when Ellie's dish falls from the cupboard during an incident with the children, breaking beyond repair.

I was heartbroken when it happened to me. My 2-year-old foster son was "helping" me make biscuits. I set my best mixing bowl, a glass Pyrex we'd received as a wedding gift, on the counter and turned to grab a spoon from the drawer. In a flash, he swiped at the bowl, and I turned back just in time to see it fall. I gasped. He screamed. A frantic cleanup commenced. And I continued to find tiny purple shards of glass in inexplicable places in the kitchen for weeks afterward.

It was my absolute favorite bowl. One I used almost daily. In the movie, Ellie's dish was important to her too. But then, foster care.

We've been foster parents for almost five years now, and these broken dishes have come to mean something very important to me. I have learned you can't love kids from hard places, kids who are not "yours," without being broken. Shattered. You can't be what they need without giving up your ideas of the perfect family. Your hopes for a clean house. Your time and attention. Your favorite bowl.

If you have kids, you might be thinking that all parenting is like that. And you're right. Biological children break bowls, too. But choosing to step into foster care breaks you in a way other kinds of parenting cannot, because you're giving up all those things for children who are not going to stay. Who will never be yours.

It's devastating. But isn't that also what real love is? Allowing yourself to be broken for the sake of another? Even when you know they could be whisked away tomorrow, leaving behind shards of glass that will keep piercing you long after they are gone? Real love isn't safe. But it's what kids from hard places need.

I still miss my bowl. It was just the right size. It was easy to clean. It was pretty. But I miss that little boy more. Would my purple bowl still be intact if he had never come? Would my heart? Probably so. But would I undo it if I could?

Never.

Are you afraid of being smashed to smithereens? Are there any special items in your home that you would hate to see destroyed? If so, then maybe you think foster care is not for you. But if you have room in your heart for some real love--if you believe that broken things can be beautiful--well, then, just maybe it is.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Just enough for today

He was taller. Had a different haircut. But I would've known him anywhere.

Little Man.

The first child I ever brought home from the hospital who was not born from my body. The first child to need me in a way I'd never experienced before. Our first foster son. Gone from our family almost two years now but still always in our hearts.

His aunt and uncle, now his adoptive parents, didn't have to let me know they were passing through town. Didn't have to go out of their way to stop and see us. But they did. He climbed out of the car and it was like the last two years disappeared and there was my Little Man standing at my knee. Only this time he didn't know me. Didn't know what the fuss was all about. Didn't understand why I kept taking his picture.

It was one of those moments you can never really prepare for. All we'd ever wanted, all we'd ever prayed for, was that he would someday have a loving family and be happy and whole. And there he was, loved and happy and whole, and all I could do was stare and thank God. I didn't know what to say, but Little Man smiled at me and I thought, "He's okay. After everything he's been through, he's okay."

Our new foster son, Baby Shark, was there too, wearing a shirt Little Man used to wear and sitting in a stroller Little Man used to ride. Little Man played peek-a-boo with him, laughing, and said, "Baby." Then he looked at me, the wheels in his brain turning, turning, trying to figure out why I seemed so familiar...why I felt like family...and said, "Grandma?"

I never imagined I'd be a grandma in my 30s, but it felt right. It sounded beautiful.

When our visit with Little Man and his family ended, we all said goodbye. It wasn't nearly as hard to do this time, knowing he was exactly where he needed to be. But as I drove away, listening to Baby Shark babble in the car seat behind me, my heart squeezed. I need to give him more kisses, I thought. I need to give him more snuggles. More, more. But will it be enough? Any month, any week, any day now, he will be gone, just like Little Man. He will leave and there will be no guarantee we will ever have the chance to see him again.

Baby Shark was ready for his nap when we got home and I closed the blinds in his room, turned on his fan, and held him for a minute, a little tighter than usual. Little Man's story had turned out better than I could've hoped, but what about Baby Shark? Would he too have a loving family and be happy and whole someday?

Yes.

My breath caught. Yes. Because he has a loving family and is happy and whole right now. Today. I don't know about tomorrow, but today?

"I love you," I whispered.

I don't know how long he will be here or what will happen to him. I don't know if he'll eventually go on with his life with nothing but a vague memory of some lady who smiled at him and gave him kisses. But because of Little Man, because of the gift of seeing him again, I know that what I have to give Baby Shark, all I have to give, is just enough for today.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

A very fine line

When you're a foster parent, one of the easiest things to start believing is that you're "better." A better parent, a better provider. Better at meeting a child's needs. Better at communicating and keeping track of schedules. An overall better citizen of the world.

And of course it must be true, right? Because why would anyone take a child away from his parents and give him to you if you weren't "better?"

Foster parents and bio parents don't typically have much interaction. Visits with the child and other meetings are often set up specifically to avoid interaction, in fact, and this is a good policy most of the time. The current pandemic, however, has replaced in-person child visits with virtual visits and brought foster parents like me face-to-face with the people I'm tempted to believe I'm just so much better than.

Our current foster placement is only a few months old. He can't talk or hold a phone, much less facilitate a Skype call. So when he "visits" with his parents, I am there. When they talk to him and read him books and tell him how big he's getting, I am there. Not on the screen, but behind the camera, holding the tablet up so he can see and listening to his parents say they miss him so much. They want to hold him so much. They love him so much.

As I've helped my foster kiddo participate in these "visits" twice a week every week, I've grown increasingly uneasy. Those people on the other end of the call--whose faces fill the screen with smiles for their son--well, they're so...human. Just like me. Not monsters. Not psychopaths. Not imposters.

Parents. Like me.

Over the last few weeks, God has shown me that the line between where I sit behind the camera with custody of a child not my own and where others sit on a Skype screen wishing they could hold their son again is a fine line. A very fine line. And if not for the grace of God it could've been me on the other side. Could've been me laying awake at night wondering how many days it will be until I see my child again.

I can hear you thinking it: The state didn't take their son away for no reason. They must've done something bad. Something irresponsible.

You're right. They did. But their poor choices did not take away their humanity and make them somehow less than me. Just as there's a fine line between my side of the camera and theirs, there's also a fine line between thinking I've made better choices than them and thinking I am better.

If there's one thing the last couple months has proven, it's that things can change really fast. Life can be upended. People can suddenly find themselves in situations they never would've thought possible. When I hold this sweet little foster kiddo in my lap, I think about the fine line between me and his parents. The fine line between any of us and a whole different life. And I'm thankful to be where I am. In a better place than some...yes. But not better.