A brief peek into the fresh realities of saying goodbye to a child you loved as your own
We bought him a puzzle in the dollar section at Target this week. And Zeke asked when he’s coming home.
I cry my eyes out in the car at least every other day and text my girlfriends, mentors, and family numerous times throughout the week just to take a breath.
I feel like I’m in a lion’s den of confusion and pain I didn’t see coming. I knew that reunification would be hard—I didn’t realize that reunification could turn out quite like ours did.
Add the pregnancy and I'm a hot mess. It is a unique pain to not be able to see the boy you called son, while looking ahead to the birth of another child. He can’t be replaced and he or she will be his or her own person. *Deep breath*
So, despite the beautiful photos strewn across the internet and the positive steps you might perceive our family to be taking in grief, we’re still wrecked.
Yes, it is seriously AWESOME that we’re going to a gym now (should’ve done this a year a go, see Instagram), but going to the gym won’t preclude me from hanging on to every word in the faithful text of support I’ll receive from my cousin tomorrow. He's not forgotten just because he's not here.
This isn’t a blog post to elicit sympathy—truly—but one to just be real and write it out in. I can't share the nitty-gritty details, nor would I. But I can just tell you that expectations are the root of a lot of pain and when you love someone big, it's going to hurt big. And that's OK. Pain isn't to be escaped-- we have to walk through these seasons and feel all the things. We’re doing well at what we can, but ‘doing things’ and ‘talking over things’ and ‘showing up for life’ won't turn this story around or suddenly erase sadness and grief. This season will last as long as it needs to because we’re not control of this process. Only God can dictate what is ahead of us.
If you’re pursuing foster care, please don’t stop. These kids and their families need people to step into the mess of state dependency and show up. What we did and hope to do again is n e c e s s a r y.
And all the other stress that comes with periods of unknown
We're officially a million years into a case without a concrete timeline. I know there's nothing new to our struggle over here at the Zehring household. Anyone who's been in a period of waiting-- for a pregnancy, for wellness, for finality in a foster care case, for closure in a relationship-- knows that the limbo period is the worst. We also know, or at least many of us could say that this place of in-between is also where the growth happens.
All of this is true and Nick and I know this in our hearts, but it just doesn't make it easier.
So here I am, writing this all out and asking myself: in this space of foster parenting (insert all other challenges) how do we navigate the most fundamental part of this journey without becoming overwhelming inward focused and negative?
Truth: Knowing This Fact Doesn’t Make It Easier
In the ‘mom’ circles I’m in, we have all shared one of the deepest, most universal fears: losing our children. We fear losing our children to illness, danger, violence, accidents, and/or their choices.
As a foster parent, I know very intimately the fear of losing a child because it’s a fear that I literally licensed myself to experience. In the licensing process and the weeks and months following our initial days with our middle man, I assumed that my head knowledge of this process of loss would, in some ways, make it easier.
I’ve learned—and do believe—that when our emotions are out of control and in flux, we need to lean on what we know. So, before Nick and I were in this current space of foster care, I proudly told myself that foster care was weathering me for the possibility of losing any of my children. I wore this thought like armor on my shoulders. I naively believed that my intellectual acceptance of potentially losing my children was putting my heart a step ahead of the fear-based admissions many of my friends and I have uttered in close circles.
I’ve literally told myself that, “I’m a step ahead of the game. I understand that we could all lose our children at some point. Understanding this as a foster parent will make it easier. Setting the right expectations and being ‘eyes-wide-opened’ will help my grieving process in the long run.”
I am not a step ahead of any game. Knowing that I may experience the loss of a child in the coming weeks and months does not, in any way, make this grief easier.
The ever-present tension of foster care
In its best form, foster care is like an amicable divorce. Both parties communicate regularly and make every effort to do what is best for the child stuck in the middle. In my opinion, self awareness and humility is a huge part of what can make foster care (and divorce) successful for the child. You need to know your limitations, faults, and be able to bend toward the other adult for the sake of the child.
In the case of our little man and our journey in foster care, self awareness is very high on our end as foster parents working closely with our little man’s family. We over analyze what we wear to court, carefully practice statements we might read in a foster care review board meeting, and always make a point to pray and take a deep breath before approaching challenging conversations.
Beyond communication and self awareness, there are practical efforts we can make to respond to this tension between our roles in his life.
In our home, we regularly mention our little man's mama. We call her by her name, talk about what she does when they're not together, and share in our excitement when it's time for him to visit her twice a week. We have photos of her in frames within eye level and make a point for all the boys to know her and her role in his life.
When opportunities arise, we have phone calls on speaker phone and have occasionally had additional visits just us and her. When people say he looks like us, we smile and share how he has her beautiful smile, infectious laugh, and stunning hair color. Nick and I are the biggest influences on our son's life right now so its our responsibility to him, to keep her presence alive and well in his mind, not knowing the future of his case.
The emotional toll of managing this responsibility gets a little more challenging. At the end of day, as a mother and woman, I am regularly confronted with the reality that I am his primary parent and she is his mother. I will always do what is required and called for as a parent, but when decisions are made for his life, I do not hold the coveted title that would otherwise define my role in his life.
In his life, we likely hold a high place, but in the eyes of the court, we are, as foster parents, the last in line because we are a part of the system’s work. We are rolled into the child services bundle of services and play a service provider role
The practical aspects of honoring biological families is a lot easier than managing the emotional tension of parenting someone else's child.
Do what you can with what you have where you are. - Theodore Roosevelt
Ever since I can remember, I've had a heart for the underdog. According to my mom, I made friends with this little boy in daycare and doted on him day in and day out and was heartbroken when our time together in daycare ended. As a kid, I remember often feeling afraid and insecure around kids who were considered popular until someone else was threatened.
In elementary school at St. Sebastians in Milwaukee I spit on a kid who was teasing a friend of mine so I was put on the wall for a 'time out' of sorts during recess. Later on in middle school in Marion, Ohio I managed to confront a bully face to face and convince our mutual friends to leave the bully at a table by herself to sit with me. These instances were years ago but they feel like they were yesterday. The feeling of needing to do something for someone just seems so timely.
Now that I'm in the midst of these moments and weeks and years of raising little kids, I keep finding my heart reverting back to its roots of just caring a lot about those around me. I don't know if my adolescent years or post-college years were just filled with a lot of selfish career-chasing seasons or maybe my head was stuck in my phone... There's something really familiar and like a reunion with my old self as I find my mind and heart really working out the issues of the day and how I can be a force for good.