What I Learnt as a First Time Foster Dad
By Simon Morris, Foster Parent
I fight tears seeing his toys lying around our house, his crib empty. Our 10 month old foster son has gone back to his birth mom, after 7 months of being part of our family. A beautiful thing for her, and the right thing: but that doesn’t stop the feeling of loss. I remember when my wife and I first glimpsed him being carried through the foster agency lobby, and we guessed that he was the baby we were taking home. This was our first ever foster child, and we were terrified and excited. His face peeked over the case-worker’s shoulder, his eyes big and brown.
Tragically, he’d already been through two foster homes by the time he came to us at two and half months old. He’d only recently been diagnosed with a dairy allergy, so he’d had colic and cried a lot in those early days, I’m sure making him a challenge for those other foster parents. One thing we had decided: however difficult a baby he was, he wasn’t going to be shunted to another foster home. But actually he was no challenge: happy and cheery virtually all of the time, he would only wake up once during the night and loved his new dairy-free formula, guzzling it down and putting on weight excellently. (He was a champion spitter-upper, but we got used to that!)
The challenges came from different quarters: firstly, our case-worker, who’s manner wasn’t the friendliest or most affirming. Secondly, the birth mother, who was critical of us for a range of things, from the clothes we dressed him in to the baby wipes we used. Of course we knew she was going through hell being separated from her son, and these were ways she was trying to regain some power, but it was hard not to be offended at having our parenting skills questioned: shouldn’t she be looking at the bigger picture, that we were at least willing to care for her baby rather than give him back, like the last two foster homes? As a people-pleaser, wanting to be a great foster parent, for me to have both case-worker and mom give me low marks was a constant cause of anxiety. And with three visits for the baby with his mother a week, there were lots of opportunities for negative interactions and added stress.
But we were learning important things, things that our months of training didn’t really address. Like how for the mom, the only evidence she got to see of our care for her son were the clothes he was wearing and the contents of the bag we packed for him each visit. We learned that some foster parents don’t spend their government-issued stipend on their foster kids, but pocket it while the children aren’t taken care of adequately. We saw the valid reasons why mom was focused on clothes and proof of money spent, and we got over our offense at being criticized. And with the odds stacked against her in so many ways, we saw the resilience and passion a single mom was showing to bring her family back together.
Meanwhile, the baby was happy in our home, causing our biological sons Teddy & Louie, 5 and 4, much entertainment, as they tickled him and made him chuckle with their antics. He was getting bigger, his skin had cleared up from the former allergies, and he was loving tummy time and going out for walks in the baby carrier, strapped to my chest. He was with us for his first ever Christmas: got dressed up in matching elf pajamas alongside Teddy and Louie, got his first stocking, napped in our arms by the fireplace.
New Year’s Day got more stressful with mom: the agency was closed so we had our first ever unsupervised meeting. We’d rearranged our plans that day around her schedule, and our family stood waiting for an hour at Dunkin Donuts at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, because she was late. When she finally showed up, she tried to convince me to let her extend her visit longer that the court mandate allowed.
But little by little, we made relational progress. At another Dunkin Donuts handoff, I awkwardly blurted out that we supported her reunification with the little guy, and that we wanted to see her back together with him. She gave a smile, one of the first we’d seen. Back home, the little guy was sitting up, and starting to eat pureed food—mashed banana and avocado was a favorite. He’d already got 6 teeth in his mouth, and was proving to be a big extrovert, grinning at everyone on the subway rides to the agency.
In February, the court determined that mom was ready to start overnight visits with the little guy. She was showing guts and determination in the face of horrible adversity, and doing all the right things to get her son back, which was incredible to see. But it also felt unsettling, the first night of his crib being empty. The boys asking where he was after school. Now I was glad Teddy and Louie had met mom, to help our narrative with them that ‘he has a mom that he’ll be going back to, he’s just in our family for a while until she’s ready to take him home.”
Now he was crawling, and pulling himself up, the teeth count was up to 10. All these milestones, so precious, such a privilege for us to see and such a sadness for his mom to miss. On a home visit from our case-worker, she told us she was leaving the agency, along with her boss and her boss’s boss, and we saw the high turnover for workers in this field, with the terrible hours and worse pay. But by that time, mom and I didn’t need the case-worker as go-between much anyway: we’d got into the swing of our drop-offs and pickups, and she’d got really good at letting me know if she’d be late. My wife had the idea to print out pictures of the baby for mom, and it went a long way. We got a groundbreaking text from her: ‘Thankyou for the pictures and for caring for him.” I cried when I read it. From those discordant early days, I’d steeled myself to never hear appreciation from her. In this season, as mom and I synced up over types of baby food and the little guy’s sleeping habits, I came to see fostering as the ‘co-parenting’ between virtual strangers that it really was! And I saw how hard mom was working to get her child back, what courage she had, what inequities she was bravely facing down.
The one-night overnights became two-nights. The approaching court date looked like it’d mark his return to mom on a trial discharge! Of course, this was always the plan, and we were really happy for her. And for him — he was going home to his mom! But that didn’t stop us feeling upset for ourselves. As for Teddy and Louie, we’d talked a lot with them about the little guy’s stay with our family, that it was only for a season, and they’d been tracking. But in the lead-up to his departure, we saw some sadness emerge. Teddy focused on insisting that the little guy came to his 6th birthday party, a few months away.
And I focused on that too, in my conversation with mom on the day he went home to her. I couldn’t deal with the finality of a forever goodbye, after 7 months of bonding with this child. This child who just an hour earlier had been asleep on my chest. That finality felt like a punch in the gut. I looked her in the eye and told her that Teddy would love to invite them both to his birthday party. She smiled, and said they’d like that very much.