Foster care is the toughest parenting gig. It requires selflessness, compassion, patience and unending love provided to children who arrive unexpectedly, stay as long as they need to (from hours to years), and can leave suddenly. They arrive with no bags, but much baggage. Foster carers are thrown into a world of frustration, anxiety, and uncertainly as they struggle to help young people find themselves and their place in their new home. Children who, ultimately, belong to someone else.
One common trait found among all foster carers I’ve met is hope. Hope that they can help, even a little. Hope they can leave an impression, however so slight. Hope they can be a solid and safe place for a child whose world, and the system that is supposed to help them, is so broken and dysfunctional.
Two people giving hope to people around the world by giving an honest and raw account of their lives are The Artist and The Therapist, otherwise known as FosterMoms. They are sharing their experience (while protecting their own, and their children’s identities) on their blog, Instagram and Facebook pages.
They’ve taken the time to answer a few questions for My Big Gay Family, which I know you will enjoy and appreciate.
What made you decide to become foster parents?
We both had backgrounds working with kids in foster care and multi-stressed families. My wife (the therapist) is a therapist working with kiddos who’ve experienced trauma and teaches at a University. She works with families who are adopting or fostering children from the child welfare system and trains agencies around the U.S. on issues related to the impact of complex trauma on kids’ development and how to provide support in helping kiddos heal. I supervised a number of residential treatment facilities, which served as an institutional option for kids who struggled in families, kids that had mental health challenges and/or major behavioral challenges. When we got together, we knew that we wanted to offer our collective background and home to kids entering or stuck in foster care. Initially, we were set up to do this only on an emergency basis – kids removed from unsafe situations in the middle of the night, kids needing weekend respite, kids removed from a crisis and needing immediate, short-term care. We wanted to be a healthy, safe home for kids in transition to help bridge them to their next step. And then we got the call for a tiny baby who needed long-term placement. We couldn’t say no.
Tell us a little about your life before two handsome little guys came into your lives?
Oh man. Where to begin? What’s my character limit? JK. We worked. We played. We slept in. We were spontaneous. We did date nights on the regular and spent time with friends. Our nieces and nephews were the center of our kid life. We walked our dogs in the nearby forest every day. We were trail runners. We went to the beach a lot. Like, a lot. Our lives were largely unstructured save for big responsibilities like our careers. I was just starting to shift careers and had recently finished my degree. We were tracking our cycles to get pregnant. We house-hunted a lot and finally settled on the home we have now with the hope of filling it with kids. Did I mention we slept in a lot? Or, slept at all.
Oh my, such a good question. I think my answer would sound something like, “If I knew what the first few weeks would have looked like, I would have stocked up on way more wine and chocolate.” Here is the best way I can answer this question, so bear with me and I’ll try not to ramble. There are these moments in life that can simply crack your heart wide open. Sometimes those moments are so full of beauty you can hardly bear it, you feel different, the world feels different. There is a fundamental part of you that now knows better, and wants to hold that “better-ness” in every moment from here on out. And there are some moments where your heart cracks wide open because the pain around you is just unbearable, and you feel different, and the world feels different. And that ghost of different is now the shadow that walks along with you everywhere. The first few weeks were moment after moment of all of that. I remember vividly what it felt like to cook Mr. Toddler his first breakfast and watch him as he ate voraciously, and maniacally. I felt like I could cook for him every moment of every day and be eternally happy. This sharing of meals is the stuff dreams are made of; the work of families- the matter of love. He was just this teeny little kid and I was his person and the magnitude of that took my breath away. I also remember vividly what it felt like to find scars, from likely the scariest moments of his life, on his little body while washing his chubby body in the tub or what it felt like the first time he slapped me across the face and grabbed my chin to hold my face while he screamed nonsense at me. The magnitude of that all felt overwhelming, too. The first few weeks were, in essence, grabbing the best and worst of humanity and then sleeping right next to it every night and living with it every day. It made me think about big things, and little things and wonder a whole lot about what we were doing, what he needed, and how I was going to get him that. Exhausting stuff. Couple that with scrambling for clothes, bedding, toys, books, shoes, bailing on so many more work-related things than I could count- I thought for sure I would lose my job, managing the mess that is the child welfare system and trying to hold onto the love of my life through all of this. It was so much. You’re often prepared for the logistics of foster care- clothes, food, daycare or school, but what had me sitting up and taking notice of was the humanity of it all. If I had to put foster care into one word it would be godforsaken. To my mind, foster care is the place where we all seem to lose our gods as we knew them, and the work is to find our way forward toward something else or something bigger to believe in.
On your blog you give great thought to a number of issues – being gay parents, raising black sons as white mothers, raising sons in a sometimes violent world – how do you resolve these concerns?
I believe it was Maya Angelou who is quoted as saying, “When you know better, do better.” I think that is our mantra for so much of this journey we find ourselves on. There are pieces we only really get good at answering when we’re asked repeatedly and there are parts I don’t know I’ll every have good answers to and that variance has come to feel okay to me. Why weren’t they born into families that could do right by them? Why do some kids have to suffer so much more than others? Would having a Mom and Dad who share their cultural history and look like them be better for them, allow them to feel less different everywhere they go? Do I have the right instincts to raise a black son in America? I could do this endlessly, and the place The Artist and I had to get to is that we’re trying to know better and are committed to doing better when we do. We love these kiddos fiercely and wildly, and yet that is one part of helping them become men they are proud of. The rest is a lot of outsourcing and asking friends and family who know more than us and being humble enough to really hear different ideas. I don’t think “love is enough”, as in if we just love them enough the real struggle melts and everything emerges as resolved and easier. I also don’t think that the struggle of difference will always be a detriment to our family or to my beautiful, kind hearted boys. In my work life I talk a lot about how the darkness of pain and loss really helps you figure out what you’re made of, and almost every time you find pieces of yourself that are far more precious than you imagined. I hope my kids live an interesting life, full of exposure to all kinds of difference and life and in turn feel that their difference and our family difference is a gift. I know I feel that already.
Here’s how it all started: we had itty bitty 6 week old Tiny for a grand total of three days and got a phone call. Our social worker called to say Tiny’s goal was changing to adoption, and his three older siblings’ goals had changed to adoption (they had been in foster care for a lot longer) and he was being rolled into that permanency plan change. There are four kiddos altogether in this family, and they all needed permanent placements. Tiny had been in foster care for a total of 3 days, and the entirety of that time was in our home. We weren’t asked at that moment whether we wanted to adopt, but we knew it was coming. Fast forward three weeks later, and we were asked to take Mr. Toddler, as he was a bit too much for the home that was fostering him. Taking him involved some serious soul searching on our parts, as we knew if he came into our home it would always be with the intention of reunification, and if that failed he would be in need of a forever home with his brother. No kids to two kids, with the option of forever, in three weeks flat? I mean, come on universe. All this with the larger frame held over that we were emergency foster parents, with a supposed max time frame for fostering of 24 hours. But we knew we already sucked at short-term care, I guess that helped. So our boys were on the adoption track and we were asked our formal answer about adopting. We said: absolutely.
The technical stuff: from here on out, the process involves a variety of layers which we already did once a couple years ago in order to be licensed as foster parents. There is a lot of paperwork. A home study that involves an interview together as a couple and individual interviews where we talk openly about our personal histories, our extended family and support network, previous intimate relationships, income, career, any trauma and mental health history for ourselves and family members, our relationships with siblings, challenges we’ve faced tougher and as individuals, how we parent together, how we feel about each other, our vision for the boys’ future…to name a few. All that info, along with a tour of our house, statements from our employers, clean bills of health from our primary care physicians and personal references attesting to our value as parents gets sent to the judge. The same judge who will decide in the near future whether or not the boys’ birth mom is a fit parent, has the capacity and resources to parent and/or has been working toward her own parenting goals as set forth by the Department of Children and Families – the governing body overseeing all families involved in foster care in the state which we live. Mom has an attorney. The kids have attorneys. They all have ongoing social workers and adoption workers. All these people inform the judge on mom’s progress and how the kids are doing and the judge will decide whether or not mom’s parental rights are terminated. If the latter is the case, we will already have been identified as an adoption resource, so we would set a court date to finalize the legalities of it. In the meantime, visits with mom and siblings would likely still occur.
What does your future look like?
I went to Target today (do they have those in Australia? Big stores that help you get lost for hours purchasing things you don’t need like hot pink bakers twine, paper towels and animal print leggings for your sons. Stuff dreams are made of, I tell you what.). Anyway, after I got home and I blew up the *huge* kiddie pool I purchased and set up a slide for Mr. Toddler to splash/crash into the pool with, I sat with Tiny in the water as Mr. Toddler did hundreds of water slides into the pool and he just sparkled with joy. And I had one of those moments where I’m so grateful to be here, to get to watch him live his life like this, and in almost the same moment I’m viscerally aware that next summer he might be gone- that this might be our only time to do a water slide, and my only chance to see him just be in his little life like this. So what does our future look like? I think it looks a lot like this very moment, because our future is so uncertain and tentative. Our life looks like planning and plotting great adventures as a family. I’m pushing back my “living in Paris for a year before they hit school aged” agenda (the food y’all, sigh). The artist is gently making a case for a life in the woods with a wood fireplace and a barn for her to fill with art. And we negotiate and save money and sometimes talk details, and we both know that each of these plans includes our boys fully- most of our plans are for them alone, really. And at the same time we know there has to be space for us to acknowledge that this is all hypothetical planning. The luxury of planning with certainty isn’t here yet so we hold onto our wildly precious dreams of family while also really holding onto the truth of every bit of it going away someday soon. It isn’t painful, really, it’s just honest. We are gay mamas who didn’t conceive our kiddos and are loving kiddos with a Mom and Dad they’re not living with and the reality of our family is that they might go back to them someday. The painful piece is how unready that home is for them, how much heartbreak will happen for everyone if they return to a parent who isn’t ready to do her work. I hope our future is as a family as we know it now. I hope our future is one where their birth parents are known and around. I suppose our future simply looks like hope.
What advice do you have for others who may be thinking about foster care?
Such an important question. And a great one to end on. It was a long time coming, this foster mama thing. We kicked around the idea for years as we became more permanent in our love and worked on building a life alongside one another. The process of becoming a foster parent is both direct and complicated. In our state, there is a lot of preliminary paperwork and bureaucracy. We read a study discussing why there is such a shortage of foster parents throughout our country, and the most frequent barrier reported was that prospective foster parents were simply never called back by their child welfare office. As in, a compassionate family or person calls to inquire about how to begin this process, has questions and leaves messages for their social work office, and…never hears back. Both stunning and unsurprising. We know it is a broken system. We hold that everyone is doing their best, workers are overwhelmed and often do not have the resources or supervision they need to do their best work. Those who have great support have a shortage of time given caseloads and family demands. We have a shortage of homes with a lot of kids in need. And. African-American children are disproportionately represented here in the U.S., 44% higher than caucasian kids. So there’s a real need for cultural competency and diversity in those homes as well. A complicated problem without a clean or easy answer.
We would be remiss to acknowledge that part of our agenda is to openly and honestly inform and encourage folks thinking about becoming foster parents. We blogged about the process of getting licensed in a post called, “In the Beginning.” The technical stuff mirrors the aforementioned, with licensing process: home study, interviews, references. Additionally, we had to take a 10 week course, which was a blur. Topics ranged from how to understand the state health insurance system, to our role as foster parents for kids waiting to reunify with their birth parents. There were 5 social workers who facilitated the class. One consistently fell asleep. One was awesome – passionate, knowledgeable. A no-shit foster mama herself. We loved her. The third cared but was overwhelmed and would talk about how overwhelmed she was. The last 2 mostly just observed. 10 weeks is a long time to be with any group and toward the end we had such genuine affection for many of the other participants it was almost bittersweet to leave. Its a funny thing to bridge connections to people who you would otherwise never cross paths with, those who have a strong religious faith and strong feelings about who you love and how you live. The first weeks were tense, lots of discussion of God and the right and wrong way to live and raise kids. Some of the group members opinions cut right across our gayness and how we live. And then, like it almost always does in these situations, we slowly started the process of becoming human to each other. As a couple, we are two almost 6 feet tall, white, blond women. The artist is covered in tattoos. It’s a lot of gay in your face if you’re not used to that kind of thing. LoL. Many of us in that room saw things differently, but as the weeks passed many of us crossed over to valuing each other’s hearts and ways of being in the world in a way that renders the bigger stuff not as big.
Some practical advice, or things we wish we’d known or thought more about? Here’s our top 5:
- Support system. You’re gonna need it. Talk to the people in your life who are important to you so that they’re not surprised when you show up to the company picnic with little Timmy. Let them know your plan, set up backup babysitters or folks who can relieve you from time to time, and whom your kids can grow to trust. Seek out support when you are bogged down emotionally or need other resources and know that as you venture into this world of foster care, most of them are not going to understand it in the ways that you need them to. Meet other foster parents. Instagram is a great resource for this. Hashtag surf: #fostercare #fosteradopt #adoption
- Lifestyle change. We thought we were prepared, having the backgrounds we did, but having kids in your home 24/7 when you’re not set up for that can be a real shock to the system. You learn to redefine free time. If you’re fostering infants or toddlers, you learn to redefine sleep. Sleep deprivation is a real thing. Your body, your friends, your job, do not have 9 + months to prepare for the arrival of a baby. This can also be a shock. When your friends call you to hang out or be spontaneous and you can’t do it because you have court or your kiddo has a visit or a doctor’s appointment or is having an allergic reaction to something unknown (because who knew?), it changes the dynamic of your relationships. At least, for us it did. How can it not?
- Communication with your partner. HUGE. Talk openly and ongoing with each other. When you’re parenting your own kids or other people’s children, stuff about your own upbringing and your own parents will surface in a variety of ways both subtly and explicitly. Get a therapist. We go to couple’s therapy on the regular and have individual therapists as well. We’ve carved out safe spaces to talk about how we parent together and to work through the things that come up (enter support system to free you up to be able to do things like this). The beauty of parenting together is such that we’ve learned things we could not have anticipated before living this lifestyle. In a lot of ways we have grown exponentially. It’s both beautiful and deeply challenging.
- Co-parenting with the system. See #3 + identify what types of kiddos you’re set up to foster. Age? Gender? Siblings? We were clear initially, that we were not set up to care for infants, teenagers or kids who harm animals (we have 2 dogs). The boys have social workers, adoption workers, lawyers, a family resource worker, therapists, early intervention specialists, primary care physicians, allergy specialists, teachers and now, a nanny (YESSS). They will all be in your home. They will ask you tough questions. They will range from superior to incompetent and you are co-parenting with all of them. See #1.
- Stuff. ‘Less is more’ is a great approach if you’re into making frequent runs to target or sourcing your resources in a flash. When we were a hotline home, however, kids showed up with nothing. Not a thing. Babies no diapers. Tweens no backpack or underwear for school the next day and everything in between. We jumped on Facebook to look for ‘mom groups’ in nearby cities. Lots of people sell their gently used goods that way, so we became members of various groups and posted our needs and wants while searching for various things like developmentally appropriate toys, bouncy chairs, books, a baby swing, pack ‘n play, play mats, strollers, baby carriers, car seats that weren’t outdated or expired, and clothes. LOTS OF CLOTHES. Various sizes and for various seasons. We stocked up on toothbrushes and wash cloths, waterproof mattress covers, bedding and sheets, snacks, snacks, snacks. We tried to be intentional here as well, and thought a lot about how to give kids opportunities in age-appropriate ways to catch up with various toys. Baby carriers are huge for bonding and attachment; our kids became more rhythmic, more fluid. Mr. T’s muscle tone improved and he became more attuned to his environment. He became more attuned to us. eBay has been a gift as well. Surfing late night on our phones for gently used goods. Anything we can get online in bulk (diapers, wipes, dog food) and a Costco membership have been helpful and cost-effective. Huge score. Rumor has it that sometimes the department will drop kiddos off with a gift card for emergency items, but we never experienced that. We’re supplemented $18 a day for each guy and $15 reimbursement for childcare. The former comes biweekly, the latter once a month. Sometimes. We’re actually in the process of working with big name brands to put together annual foster care baby showers for families like ours. Our hope is to offset the costs of basic needs with a fierce package of goods, while encouraging folks to think about becoming a loving home for kids who need it.
Foster care is tough stuff, in all the ways we expected (broken system, unresponsive workers, challenging behaviors). What we didn’t expect is the way our hearts are swelling with love for these little people while at the same time preparing to potentially help them move on. That tension is almost overwhelming at times and we often have conversations about the whole fostering process – how can you love and care while preparing to leave and separate. We started a blog of our experience to work through some of this stuff, to bring us together as a couple on a project that feels important and to build community. We’ve learned that the more often you approach the adventure with a positive attitude and in the spirit of curiosity, it helps. We’re over a year solid in having kids in our home, 3 years since we started the licensing process and now, an unexpected family of four with the hopes to adopt our little guys. We just keep moving and planning. Moving forward. And raising them like they’re our own for as long as they are.