Not all of us are meant to have biological children. But some of us still want to raise children even if they are not our own. I am both excited and terrified to have officially become a licensed foster parent. The crazy thing is, I’ve already had one child pass through my home. The department of human services did not call to warm me I was licensed and could receive a call any day, it just came at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning. And, boy … did ‘A’ go out the way she came in in those two long weeks.
I would like to post as much about my experience with fostering kids as I can since so many of you have reached out with questions. But I can’t share many details about the foster child or the situation they came from, so a lot of it will be my perception of fostering and the situations I dealt with to get through each day.
In With The Lice
Lice is where this story begins.
The social worker dropped ‘A’ off at my house around 3 p.m., smiling uncertainly up at me from the bottom of the stairs. We were introduced and I ran to grab a plastic bag to put her things in so we could rid them of lice. When I came back, she was crumpled on the floor crying. I watched how the social worker handled it, realizing I was not prepared for what I was about to take on. I’ve never been a parent. What did I know about taking care of kids? Much less children who suffered trauma?
She cried twice more after the social worker left, but I distracted her with Dominos pizza and Netflix (Thank God for the Kindle for Kids I purchased on Black Friday!) and started the lice removal process. I poured RID over her beautiful African-American curls, not really understanding how long this night was going to be. I followed the directions on the box since I had never done it before, and after I rinsed the treatment out, she started to itch and cry. The lice was so bad that the medicine didn’t work. They started biting her and leaping off her head. She started plucking them off of her head — alive. I was so disgusted and overwhelmed. I had no idea what to do.
“Found another one,” she said, holding it out to me. “This one’s alive, too.” She placed it on the paper towel and I crushed it with my long thumbnail, trying not to gag. I begged her to stop plucking them out until I could figure out what to do next, but she couldn’t stop.
The directions on the RID box said I couldn’t do this treatment again for another 7-10 days. And that’s when I realized I was not going to survive this alone. I called my friend and used my I’m-kidnapped-but-pretending-everything-is-fine-so-the-kidnapper-doesn’t-know-I’m-calling-for-help voice.
Pregnant angel that she is said, “I’m on my way!” For the next three hours, we each took sections of her hair, brushed out the matted curls and combed out hundreds of bugs and nix from her scalp. At school the next day, the nurse called my social worker, ‘A’s social worker, and ‘A’s teacher to tell them how amazing we did and how clean her head finally looked. When she caught me in the hallway one morning, she said, “I wish we had done before and after pictures to show people how bad it can get and how clean it should look afterward.”
‘A’ hadn’t come with any of her own clothes, and since she was my first child under an emergency situation and I didn’t realize how big she was for her age, all the clothes I left work to go shopping for didn’t fit her. So my friend and I took ‘A’ to Target dressed in my clothes! We filled the cart with necessity items to get her through one full day and night, including clothes, shoes, and hair products. Around 10:30 p.m., we finally went to bed and my friend went home to do her own lice treatment.
Day 2 I was already contemplating the routine I would need to establish. I felt awful dumping her off at school after everything she went through and how little sleep she’d gotten the night before, but apparently it was still more sleep than she’d been getting and she hadn’t been going to school for most of the year so she was already behind academically. Around lunchtime, I picked her up for an emergency doctor’s visit with the children’s hospital where they looked her over head to toe. Talk about more trauma for a child. She was so worried about the doctor’s looking at her private parts, and the doctor and I reassured her that it was OK for doctors to look there to make sure she wasn’t sick. Then the doctors asked me all kinds of questions about her as though she’d been with me for months. I kept having to remind them she’d only been with me for two days and I was given very little information.
The remainder of my days with ‘A’ was spent getting to know her and learning how to balance taking care of her the way she was used to vs. how I felt it should be done. For example, she would throw a fit because I wouldn’t make all of her food in the microwave. Or she would beg me for food and instead of letting her snack constantly until bed, I let her throw fits and shout nasty complaints about how I was starving her until dinner was ready. Or how she never ate vegetables and I would sit with her for an hour or more at the table until she would take one bite of everything. Or finding the proper products and tools to take care of her hair and skin that were so different from mine.
This one was a little tricker than the others. I thought I could get away with products I randomly bought, trying to match what her mom had been using at home, but the longer ‘A’ was with me, the frizzier her hair was getting. Finally on that first Saturday, we stopped at Sally’s Beauty. There was a mixed woman there who had been helping me repair my damaged hair over the last year, and I knew they had similar hair types. When I saw her, I pointed to her and said, “You are just the woman I was looking for!” And I told her our situation in code so I wouldn’t upset ‘A’ by bringing up her mom again. The woman asked a few questions and then started to fill my basket with necessary items to tame the wild beast that had taken over ‘A’s hair. God bless that woman. If it had been appropriate in our culture to kiss her feet, I would have.
At first, ‘A’ wouldn’t let me keep her hair down, even after I styled it.
“No, I want you to put my hair up! Put it up! Please!”
“Why? Your curls are so beautiful.” She’d stomp out of the bathroom if she didn’t believe I would listen to her.
“No, they’re not; they’re ugly!”
After a few days of keeping her hair tamed and out of her face, she started to let me leave it down. She’d always have her teacher to put it up shortly after she’d get to school, but it was a huge hygiene and confidence improvement from anything they’d seen all year from her. I emailed with her teacher daily to keep her updated on how the night went so she was aware of any struggles she may have with ‘A’ that day. Her teacher said she was well-rested and smiling a lot more lately. It made my heart soar. Perhaps I was making a difference. It hadn’t felt like it at all. I just felt like I was floundering and failing every second.
Then ‘A’ got to see her mom for the first time since she was placed with me. When I picked her up from her after-school program, she acted like I was poison, like she hated my guts. We got in the car and she instantly started crying, asking when she could see her mom next. I never had any answers for her. When we got to the house, she was purposely pushing my buttons and keeping herself distant from me even though the poor girl just needed a huge hug. I sat her down and asked her why she was treating me like that and if there was anything she wanted to talk about. Her little lip quivered but she refused to talk, so I continued:
“Are you worried you’re hurting your mom’s feelings by living with me and letting me take care of you?”
She covered her face sobbing and nodded yes. Then she screamed at me to not sit by her, and got up bossing me around that it was time to go back to the after-school program for the Christmas party. She wanted to be done talking, but I instructed her to sit back down to finish our conversation. I told her I was not taking her mom’s place but that she still needs to be taken care of and I’m the person doing that right now. It only made her more upset, so instead we went to the Christmas party where she requested me to leave her and her friends alone. Every now and then she’d check in to make sure I was still there, but would run away into the next room.
That was probably the most difficult moment for me. Not being able to parent my foster child during the party. I respected her wishes and left her alone while she wrapped gifts for her mom and met with Santa all by herself. I kept her in my sight but stayed at a distance holding back my tears, or at least some of them. I wondered if the after-school staff thought I was a terrible parent because I wasn’t interacting with her like all the other parents were interacting with their kids. A woman asked me if I needed help finding my child and I told her my child needed a break from me with her friends.
She said, “Oh boy, what did you do?”
“Nothing … I’m fostering her and she is having a hard time right now.”
“Oh, I see. Why is she in foster care?”
Ah, there it was; the first inappropriate question. I gave her a perplexed look out of my own mommy frustration and responded, “I’m not allowed to discuss that.” End.
When dinner was served, she went through the line without me and found a seat at a table. I wandered to the back of the line, knowing that if I didn’t eat now, too, I wouldn’t eat at all, and I wasn’t about to put myself through another night of hunger no matter how upset my belly was. I grabbed my food and started to look for a spot in sight of her but at a different table. As I walked passed her, she shouted to me,
“You can sit here.” She pointed at a spot across the table diagonally from her.
Her sweet and innocent heart was so confused, and it broke mine a little more. Eventually, we headed home and she wept, crying out for her mom for about 20 minutes while I got her clothes and school items ready for the next day. I tried not to openly weep with her but was not hiding my tears this time. She asked why I was crying. I told her that I was sad her mom was so sick and that I was sad it was making her so sad. I promised that I would help her mom in any way I could so she could go home, but I didn’t know when that would be. She nodded, drank her water and distracted herself with Netflix. (Thank you, technology. Sometimes you are worth the trouble.)
Some Relative This Way Comes
The night of my work party, I got a phone call from ‘A’s social worker who informed me that a relative was willing to take ‘A’ before Christmas. I was both relieved and afraid for her sake and sad for mine. The cliche phrase “roller coaster of emotions” is exactly what it felt like. I started to feel myself shutting down, closing off to her as I do in relationships I feel aren’t going well. It’s my I’m-going-to-leave-before-you-hurt-me response. But I realized as soon as it began that I couldn’t do that to a child, so I put on my big girl pants and pretended to be ecstatic for her new adventure.
I was warned by the many podcasts I was listening to as well as other foster parents that this moment would feel like a death in the family. Luckily I didn’t have her long enough for the attachment to run deep enough for that, but it was still hard to imagine life going back to the way it was. She may have only been around for two weeks, but it felt like months. I imagined how quiet my apartment would be again; how I could cook and drink whatever I wanted after work again; how I’d go back to playing the news and other adult shows in the background instead of hearing cheesy kid cartoons; how dark and lonely but efficient the mornings would be again; etc. Part of me was scared to go back to my former life, and part of me was happy. Part of me wished I could keep her and raise her right, and part of me knew she would never accept my love.
As I packed her things the night before she left, she started to have a meltdown wanting to help, not trusting me to give back all the clothes and toys her mom sent with the social worker that first week. I put her to bed so I could finish in peace. I was always so distracted with too many other things while she was awake that I often had to put her to bed before I could get any work done. Plus, I needed her well rested so she behaved when her relative picked her up. I knew how she was with me when she was first placed, and I wasn’t sure how she would be moving again. Also, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings when I didn’t pack everything she’d been using because I knew I’d need some of the donated items for the next kiddo.
All of these big decisions and rules made me feel like a greedy, selfish human. I had never felt more in the wrong than in those two weeks with ‘A.’ I had no idea how terrifying parenting was. You never feel like you’re making the right decision. Ever! Since she was my first foster child, and first child to ever live with me, I was making up my house rules as we went. Sometimes I would break them when she was having a bad day, but mostly I was a hard ass. I remember on day 4 I felt like such a bully. I think I said “no” to every single thing she asked that day. I went into my bedroom for the five seconds she’d let me have alone time, and cried. Was I being too strict? Too mean? She’s just a child. Shouldn’t she get some leeway on SOMETHING? But then started to get my answer to some of those questions. Even for how stern I had been, she STILL tried to push my buttons with certain rules. But thankfully because of my “bullying” on day 4, she knew I wouldn’t budge on certain rules and all it would take was a simple, stern “no” for her to move onto ask me about something else.
On day 3 or 6 (I can’t remember), I cried in my room for the loss of my old life. I hadn’t realized at the time that she would only be with me for two weeks, but I was already feeling guilty for not spending time with my cat Luna or taking care of myself since she came to the home. On top of that, I was missing my first holiday party as well as the bars and comedy shows downtown. I felt anxious at the thought of every morning being consumed by kids clothes, shows, toys, tantrums, etc., that I just broke down, trying to process it all. ‘A’ couldn’t be left alone long, so I had to hurry up and let it out before she started to cry herself looking for me.
“Where are you?”
“I’m just in my room.”
“What are you doing?”
“Getting some things done. I’ll be right out.”
Thirty seconds later, “Hey!”
“Where are you?” she asked, quietly knocking on the door, listening. “I just don’t like to be alone.”
“I know. I’m sorry; I’m coming out right now.”
When I talked to my friend about it, she said it sounded like post-pardom depression was already setting in. I thought, if this is post-pardom, then I want to drive to all of my friend’s homes who are parents and hug them.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the single mom, too. I wondered, HOW DO THEY DO THIS?! I now understand THIS is why people have children and choose to foster/adopt when they are MARRIED. I now realize that it takes two people sometimes to get things done, and get them done well. And it definitely takes a whole village to raise a child.
Everyone who is still reading this,
do the world a favor and stop by a single mom or dad’s house
with a meal or offer to watch the kids to give them for some
peace and quiet.
Out With The Bed Bugs
Bed bugs is where this story ends.
As I finished packing her clothes and toys, I noticed something crawling on the suitcase her mom asked me to give to her when she was first placed with me. One of our clients at work owns a pest control company, and I’ve been writing nonstop about bed bugs for the last year, so I knew instantly that’s what the insect was on her bag. My heart sank and my adrenaline kicked in. Luckily the bed bug was flat, so I knew it hadn’t feasted on us yet. And I had just taken the suitcase out of the garage earlier that day.
I spent the next few hours going over every seam, fold and corner on all the furniture in my home, especially the beds. Every corner of the bed, I had to wake ‘A’ up and move her to another part of the bed so I could check under the mattress. So much for a good rest on her last night with me. I didn’t find a single splotch of blood or black poo stain or creepy crawly. Thank goodness! But I knew it didn’t mean they weren’t hiding somewhere.
Her departure was bittersweet. I don’t think I was convinced it was OK for her to leave me in this transition until I met her relatives who picked her up. They were open about being unsure how to care for her hair and skin, and asked me all kinds of questions.
“My babies have blonde hair and blue eyes, so I don’t know what I’m doing. If you have any advice, please share it! I want to do this right.”
That comment alone let me know she would be in good hands. I spent most of the night texting her more things I thought to share with them. Her relative said she was grateful to know that she had been living with someone who took the time to learn ‘A’ so well in such a short time. I was so grateful to hear that coming from her family. I told them to call me for respite care anytime if they needed a break.
The first night I came home from work after ‘A’ left and I started making dinner in silence, the tears came. I always play something in the background now when I’m home to forget that ‘A’ isn’t sitting in the next room ready to ask me a thousand questions before, during and after the food hits her plate.
That night I also had an exterminator stop by to look over all the furniture. I was afraid I would have an infestation for the next kiddo who comes through my doors. So far there hasn’t been any signs bed bugs, but I am not letting my guard down. Where there is one, there will be more.
- Taking silly pictures with her
- Hearing her laugh
- Dancing tango and freestyle in the living room and down the hallway (She’s a good little dancer!)
- Reading a bedtime story every night and putting a sticker on the calendar to keep track
- Rubbing her back until she fell asleep
- Teaching her how to brush her hair and teeth properly
- Doing homework and signing her school agenda
- Emailing updates to her teacher
- Packing a snack in her backpack for school
- Getting her clothes ready for the next day
- Picking her up at her after-school program after work and playing basketball with her before we came home
- Making her fun breakfast foods on the weekends
- Using my dad’s rule: Have to take one bite of everything on your plate before you can leave the dinner table
- How independent she was (She would be out of the car, opening the trunk, and pulling out groceries before I even opened my car door. She would also parent me if I wasn’t taking care of myself.)
- When she would sneak in hugs, pretending it was a game she was playing
- When I could tell she finally felt safe and comfortable with me in my home
- Meeting her mom and getting to know her after the Christmas pageant
- Coming up with rules of the house
- Figuring out activities to keep her busy and off the tablet on the weekends
- Trying multiple ways to tame her curly hair without luck until the trip to Sally’s Beauty
- Not knowing how often to bathe her or what to dress her in for school
- Magically coming up with gloves and hats and snow pants every day she left them at school
- Trying to dress her for spirit week at school with limited resources and time
- Her mom turning off her phone so she couldn’t answer ‘A’s nightly phone calls
- Not being able to get ahold of social workers for days with my questions, concerns and updates
- Lice treatments
- Finding bed bugs
- Being woken up four times a night unless I let her sleep in my bed
- The tossing and turning, keeping me awake when she slept in my bed
- Calming her down after nightmares she’d have about her mom
- That emotional first night after she saw her mom for the first time
- The dirty looks she would give me to show her mom that she didn’t like me when we were all in the same room
Embarrassing Mom Moments:
- Hide food so I can eat later without her begging to eat in addition to her meal and snacks (I went through two client meetings with a granola bar in my bra.)
- Forgot to buckle her into the carseat once
- Kept forgetting to give her something to drink with every meal (because I never drink with meals)
- Forgot to add vegetables to some of her dinners during the school week
- Did not ask her to brush her teeth before bed one night
- Dressed her in a shirt that was too big for her and they had to give her a sweater at school