Em and Little Miss examining the wild violets
I was sitting on the porch with a new neighbor, learning more about her, when the phone rang. Heck, I didn’t even hear it. My daughter came to the front door, phone in hand.
“I have a 2-year-old little girl who has just come into care,” the woman on the other end said, “are you interested?”
I asked for more information and she gave it to me. A day or two earlier, I told myself, If the call comes in, and it is a child two years or younger, just say “yes.”
“Sure, bring her on over,” I said, my heart rate increasing. My voice sounded calm and the worker said she would call when they were on their way. I hung up and turned to my neighbor, “Well, it looks like I’m getting a child dropped off in the next twenty minutes or so. My first foster placement.”
The woman had just mentioned that she never wanted kids and she paled slightly as I explained that we had just received our foster care certification. “I’d better get going, it sounds like you’ve got your hands full!”
Thirty minutes later, Little Miss arrived in our lives.
A Traumatic First Night
She was absolutely adorable – cute curls and a tentative smile. Her big brown eyes regarded me solemnly at first and then later she smiled, a book in her hand. A book. She’s a girl after my own heart!
Within minutes of arriving, she fell down three or four stairs, landing on her head, right in front of the social worker. Em screamed in horror, Little Miss got up and brushed it off like it was no big deal.
Later though, when I tried to give her a bath as the social worker had suggested (and oh boy did she need one), Little Miss began to scream, cry and fight us. We gave up, wrapping her in a soft towel and rocking her until she calmed down.
I turned around twice and it was 9:30 and past time for bed. And that’s when the real heartbreak began.
I turned the lights off, then opened the curtains to the street below. The streetlamp lit the room in a soft glow and Little Miss stopped the crying that had begun with the dimming of the lights and began to pat the edge of the window that she could reach, “Mommy, where you?” She called softly, over and over.
And something deep inside me broke at hearing that.
It was an hour before I could get her to sleep – her crying, me crying, the music playing as I gently rubbed her back.
It was another hour before I was calm enough to sleep as well. I kept imagining what it must be like for her – how frightened she must be, away from everything familiar. It broke my heart.
We Are NOT Heroes
You know who are real heroes? The ones that take those kids who set fire to their foster home, kill or maim animals, or who threaten their caregivers and everyone else with violence. Kids with severe behavioral issues who might NEVER be okay. Our foster care training instructor gave us a peek into that world – “They will pee in your shoes, destroy the belongings you love the most, and set fire to your house” – that was my takeaway from STARS training.
We aren’t the heroes of this story.
We had to agree with a larger age bracket, that of zero to six years in age, but we also have the right of refusal and our certification worker had noted our preferences of age 0-2 years.
I’m being honest here, I didn’t know that I would be able to handle a child who was older, who had been through the wringer and back again, one that had seen or experienced abuse and neglect. I was protective too of Em, who deserved to have a good childhood, one that wasn’t sidelined by traumas that would take up all of our time and energy.
Little ones are more malleable, better able to rebound and form new connections. For the two of us, with a child and pets already in the house, taking on a child within the 0-2 range just made sense.
I’ve been called a hero, a saint, and blessed over and over. And that’s very kind, but misdirected. We are simply operating as parents, however temporary or permanent this might be, to a little human who happens to be rather adorable.
Not My Child
There was a moment, well, a couple, on Days Four and Five where reality set in – on both sides. Little Miss realized we weren’t going to beat her or try to eat her and her behavior slipped into the range of a typical two-year-old – complete with willfulness, shrieking imperiousness, and tantrums.
And I looked at her and thought, “This is NOT my child!”
It is said that humans only have a capacity for identifying a small amount of those around them as familiar, as friends and allies. The others are, well, others. And that was the feeling that came over me, briefly, as her tantrums and willfulness intersected with my vision of a peaceful house.
It’s called reality, by the way. She was acting like a perfectly normal toddler and I was responding to an unfamiliar face and thinking not my kid. But for the moment, she is my kid, and so I took a deep breath and moved past it.
Past the feelings of frustration, of the wish to blame someone for bad behavior, of the instinct to stop the bad behavior ASAP. I breathed in deeply, looked into Little Miss’ eyes and recognized her needs – for boundaries, for clearly stated expectations.
“Hey, talk to me. Use your words, tell me what is wrong.”
And the screaming stopped. She didn’t tell me exactly what the problem was, but she calmed down enough to be reasoned with. And later, that evening, when no amount of reasoning or words could bring her down, we gently placed her in bed and gave her a few minutes alone. She screamed like a skinned cat for five minutes and then fell dead asleep.
She is getting used to our rhythms, and we to hers. We are learning what she will eat, and when she has eaten enough. There is learning, and compromise, by all parties. Instead of “not my child” it is “my child for now.”
Private, None of Your Beeswax
“Is that your grandbaby?” A checker at Walmart asked.
“So why did she come into care?” Asked another.
“Well, at least now she has a better life than she did before.”
None of these are fair questions or statements.
Little Miss has a right to her privacy. She has a right not to be paraded about and clucked over, questioned over her parentage or her parents’ abilities to parent, and frankly, the questions can only hurt.
I have yet to come up with a polite, yet firm response that just rolls off the tongue when asked why she came into care. I can see, after just a week, that she has been well-loved. That the love makes this situation both easy and hard – easy, because she is meeting the milestones expected for her age and responding well to boundaries and our expectations of her – hard, because I adore her and welcome her presence in our home and fear that letting go will be hard, very hard.
She has a right to confidentiality, so I will not be discussing the reasons she came into care. Frankly, it’s no one’s business besides those who care for her.
As you can see from the picture at the top, Little Miss is African American and that has been quite the learning curve. Skin and hair care are a very real, very important aspect.
“Did she come to you like that?” Her caseworker asked me, pointing at Little Miss’ boogie hair and I was seized with anxiety.
“It, uh, looked a little better than that, and I, uh, didn’t know what to do with it.”
The woman’s mouth turned down in disapproval, “You need to get those tangles out before it gets matted. If it gets matted we will have to cut it off.”
I messaged my friend with mixed-race kids that day in a panic and begged for her help. And by the next day, we had a crash course on how to moisturize skin, scalp, and keep the tangles out of the hair and caseworkers off my back.
Little Miss looked much better as a result. And my anxiety over it faded.
To Love, and Be Loved
It hit me hard the other day. As we prepared coffee and tea in the early morning, while Little Miss, Em and my dad snoozed away,
We were talking about Dee, Em, and Little Miss and Dave said to me, “I know, you always have wanted a big family.”
I told Dave, “I just want to love and be loved. Nothing can replace Dee, nothing will ever replace her in my heart. But in the end, I just want to love and be loved. I don’t need accolades, false promises, or sentiments. I just want to surround myself with love.”
I am fascinated by how children change and grow. I love being part of the process, watching the milestones as they move, shift, change and become complex humans with emotions and dreams of their own.
Fostering, like the rest of life, is both easy and hard. Easy to love, and be a parent and give boundaries – I’ve done this, and I’ve learned, matured, relaxed, and enjoy it now more than ever. Hard, to know I might have to say goodbye long before I am ready to. People come into our lives, and we give a piece of our hearts to each of them. The thing to remember is that loss is a part of life, a good and natural part that, while hard, helps grow our hearts bigger. No matter how long or short of a time we have with Little Miss, that love is not wasted. I want to believe that it hasn’t been wasted on my eldest either, and that the love I felt (and still feel) is real and valid and exists – whether we ever speak again.
The same goes for Little Miss.
“I hope she stays forever,” Em said the second day we had her.
“I hope that she is loved, that she is happy and that her life is full of opportunity and love and joy, wherever she goes,” I said in return.
To love, and be loved, a lot of life’s problems can be cured just by that state of being.