Today’s interview is one of the most fascinating yet of this series. If you’ve ever wondered about the intricacies of foster parenting (the emotional roller coaster, the complicated legal process, etc.), read on about Rachael’s experience.
Ever since working in the children’s department of a domestic violence victims’ shelter, Rachael knew she wanted to be a foster parent. She was only in high school then, but the eight years Rachael spent working at the shelter opened her eyes to just how many kids were in need of temporary homes. That experience solidified her belief, and after Rachael married her husband, Andy, they spent a couple of years seriously discussing the possibility of foster care before making it official. Their’s was a unique case—unlike many foster parents, Rachael and Andy are in their late 20s, they’re not religious (as is common in the world of fostering), and they decided to foster before having biological children. Their first, and so far only, placement was just four weeks old when she came into their home. “M” has brought so much joy into their lives over the past year—she’s now 13 months old—and yet the uncertainty of her future and their future as a family is a constant source of anxiety.
Rachael and Andy live in upstate New York—she’s an editor, and he works in sales. Rachael also blogs about the joys and struggles of parenting (as well as regular daily life) at Making it Awkward.
Let’s start with your work with domestic violence victims. What was your role at the shelter, and how did working there influence your decision to eventually become a foster parent?
I started at the shelter as a volunteer in the Children’s Program in my senior year of high school. My job was, basically, to play with kids. It was pretty great. I went into it expecting scared, bruised kids and haunted, weepy mothers, but really, by and large, the kids were normal kids and the women I worked with were incredibly strong. I ran “playgroups” for any kids we happened to have in residence. In the hours that the playroom wasn’t open, I’d spend time with the kids and their moms in smaller groups or one-on-one, and I found out that many of our kids had been in and out of foster care. Domestic violence happens in all levels of society, but in many cases it appears concurrently with drug abuse and various other issues. I was surprised that some of the “normal” moms had had kids taken into foster care. I was surprised that some of the kids’ own dads called in reports on the moms as a new way to manipulate and abuse them. I was horrified at some of the reports of foster kids not being allowed to eat with the rest of the foster family, or only eating one meal a day, or other, much worse, things. Even as a senior in high school, I knew I wanted to be a mom someday, and I knew I could be a better foster parent than some of these people I was hearing about. I felt passionate about the work I did there and worked there for eight years (and after we started dating, Andy occasionally volunteered there too).
What were some of the things you and your husband discussed before ultimately agreeing to foster children? Did you have to make any sacrifices or compromises?
I’m grateful that my husband and I have pretty similar ideas about community and social justice, and we’ve discussed fostering and adoption as possibilities for our family since we were dating. I first brought up really becoming foster parents the summer we bought our house. We had all these rooms! We could put kids in them! Andy wasn’t ready to be a parent at the time, but told me that I could certainly bring it up again. So I mentioned it probably twice a year until last summer, when we happened to be looking into adoption (both international and domestic) and discovering how expensive and restrictive it is. Andy agreed that since we were considering parenting anyway, we should go ahead and look into fostering. Before deciding to go ahead with it, we talked about our end goal: did we only want to foster if it led to adoption? Ultimately we decided that no, there are a lot more kids who need temporary homes than permanent ones in our county, so we’d sign up for all of them and see what happened.
Describe the process of becoming certified. What kinds of meetings and classes did you attend? Were you required to make changes in your home and lifestyle?
The morning we had the discussion where Andy finally said yes, I called to get more information and was told there was an informational session that very night! We attended, and before we left we signed up for the required training program our county uses (M.A.P.P.). The classes, to my great surprise, are NOT about how to be a foster parent. They’re about helping you decide if foster parenting is the right choice for you and your family. There were classes ten weeks in a row, three hours each. I found the classes painfully slow and repetitive, but I realize that it’s important that everyone fully understand what they’re getting themselves into. We do get supplemental training, some required and some optional, on issues like fostering kids who have been sexually abused and on building relationships with bio-parents. We had our home inspected twice and had several multi-hour interviews with different caseworkers. We had to have a crib and a carseat and working smoke detectors and a carbon monoxide detector and a fire extinguisher before we could be certified. The process, starting with our first informational session and ending with our certification last October, took a total of five months. We’ve been told that this is on the shorter end of the spectrum, since we attended every class and scheduled appointments as quickly as we could.
Why did you decide to become a foster parent before having children of your own? Do you want to have children, and if so, will you continue to be foster parents?
Before we decided to foster we talked a lot about whether having a biological child was important to us. We both felt that if we were going to foster, it would be a good place to start parenting. I guess it boiled down to knowing myself well enough to know that if I had a kid already, it would be much more difficult to take on the risks that come along with foster parenting. After our foster daughter, M, was placed with us and we’ve seen how uncertain our future with her is, we decided that yes, we would like to have a biological child, because in a way we’ll be in charge of that kid’s story. We won’t be depending on caseworkers and a judge and our child’s other parents to make certain choices: this child will be ours in a way that we haven’t had (yet?) with M. We started trying to conceive this summer and I had a miscarriage at eleven weeks, which sucked. It sucked a lot, actually. And just for extra stress, M’s bio-dad started up visits again the week after the miscarriage, after not attending them for five months. So that was rough. But we’re doing okay, and I am actually sixteen weeks pregnant now! We will certainly continue to parent M as long as we’re allowed, and we haven’t ruled out the possibility of continuing to foster. We will, however, probably have to be very selective about accepting placements, for the safety of M (if she’s still with us) and our future child/children.
How would you feel about taking in older kids who are fully aware of their dysfunctional family situation? Do you think that would, in some ways, be tougher than fostering a baby or toddler?
When we signed our paperwork, we indicated we were open to any kid (or sibling group) between birth and age 5, which was the range we felt we could have reasonably biologically parented. There is absolutely a higher level of risk and mess with older kids, for a whole bunch of reasons, but we know there are a lot of foster parents signed up ONLY for the babies and toddlers and that the older kids need a safe home too. Now that we have M and have another on the way, we are not open to taking any more foster kids for the immediate future (fostering takes A LOT of time, and we both work full-time, so coordinating visits and doctor stuff and court for an additional kid isn’t really feasible). No matter what happens with M, we’ll have to talk about whether we want to keep fostering, and if we decide we do, whether we should narrow our age range. For example, research shows that kids who have been sexually abused are significantly more likely to act out sexually on other kids; that’s a real risk with taking in an older (i.e., non-toddler) kid. Our first priority will have to be to protect the kids we DO have before we can help other kids. (I also feel I should note that often a kid doesn’t reveal the extent of abuse right away, so we could specify that we prefer not to foster kids who have been sexually abused, only to find out months later that they have been.)
As strong as your bond is with M, how hard will it be when the time comes to let her go?
We really think of M, in our day-to-day lives, as our daughter. She’s about thirteen months old now, and she has been with us since she was four weeks old, so we are the only parents she knows. She hasn’t seen her bio-mom since March, hasn’t seen her bio-grandma (who was sort of pursuing custody of M) since April, and has seen her bio-dad less than once a week since the end of August. Her dad is the most likely candidate for reunification, but it’s really hard to say if he’s capable of doing what the county requires. We have no idea if it’s more likely that M will be raised by him or by us. If/when she does go back to her bio-family, we’ll be devastated. Luckily for us, because she is so young and so attached to us, the county would require a tapering of her time with her bio-dad, gradually increasing his visits so that he has her more of the time, to make the transition easier on her. We would also do our best to use that transition time to build a relationship with her dad, so that he can think of us a resource in M’s life. He knows that we would be thrilled to be part of her life and has said that he’s open to the idea, but we don’t know how likely he is to follow through. (I’ve had a coworker ask recently if it would be easier to lose M since I’m pregnant now, and I honestly stared at her open-mouthed. No, it won’t be easier to lose my daughter. Nothing will make that easy, ever.)
Do you get insensitive comments like that a lot? How do you handle it?
My eyebrows have gotten a lot more exercise since we started fostering. Andy and I are white; M is not. I am frequently amazed that (mostly white) strangers feel that they are allowed to comment on or ask us about this – “Is she yours?” “What race is she?” “Where is she from?” “Oh, what a pretty brown baby!” We’ve also been told, over and over, by well-meaning friends and family, that they could never foster because they’d “get too attached.” They might not realize it, but that’s freaking insulting because it implies that WE WON’T. Of course we get too attached. Of course we love M as if she were born to us. I have also had more than one person tell me they knew how hard it must be because they had fostered dogs for an animal shelter. Um, not quite the same thing, thanks. We’ve also had a lot of people flat-out ask why we’d want to foster, or if we have fertility problems, or if we’re planning to have a biological child – things that are absolutely none of their business (and it’s interesting to note that these questions are ALWAYS directed at me, never at my husband). We also have been told over and over how lucky M is. It’s really hard not to explain exactly how wrong this statement is, because she was neglected for the first four weeks of her life and may be removed from the only family she knows at any moment. Usually, I deal with it by being polite but dismissive – when people ask if she’s ours, I say yes. I smile politely and do my best to change the subject with thoughtless coworkers or acquaintances. I don’t want to set a bad example about how to respond to insulting things, so I do my best not to engage.
What are some of the other emotional ups and downs of being a foster parent?
I really didn’t expect the uncertainty to wear on me as much as it has. M’s case is a little odd, in that her mom has a specific case plan to work, and we get regular reports on that, but her dad isn’t a factor in why she came into foster care and he could choose to file for custody at any moment. Usually, the foster parents know if the parents have a shot at getting the kid back or not, but right now M’s case is anyone’s guess. There’s also a lot of pain in people asking, casually, “So did you adopt her yet?” as if we have any say in the matter. Visit days are rough, too, because M doesn’t know her bio-dad well and is at the age that she’s scared of strangers, so she spends the whole visit screaming her head off and then falls asleep from exhaustion, which breaks my heart. I struggle a lot with the reminders that even though this kid calls me “Mama” and we are her parents in her eyes, we are not in charge of her life (for example, we’d have to get permission from her bio-parents to get her a haircut, and if anything were to happen to me and Andy, instead of staying with our extended family, who adore her, she’d go into another foster home with strangers).
What has been the very best part about this whole experience so far?
We’ve gotten to parent a really, really awesome baby. M is truly a delight. And we’ve been lucky enough to have a fantastic worker on her case who is very communicative and answers my one million questions patiently and cheerfully. The worker is always honest with us, which is nice – she doesn’t know any more than we do about where M will be raised, but she doesn’t sugarcoat that M might leave or a judge might grant the mom an extension for no particular reason and thus extend the time M remains in foster care before adoption becomes possible. We also have met a few other local foster families who “get” what it’s like to have all this nonsense as part of your daily life in a way that most of our friends and family can’t. And at the risk of being schmoopy, I’ll also say that parenting with Andy has been really great. We have a lot of similar opinions on how things should go in a family, so there aren’t many disagreements about how to handle things, and watching him play with our kid just kills me with how happy it makes them both.
How has this experience changed your life and views on parenting?
I have thought long and hard to come up with an answer that isn’t just “Fostering has changed my life in every way possible,” but that’s true, even if it’s a cliché and a cop-out. We weren’t parents before; now we have a toddler. I was always pretty polite and believed that people in authority would do their best for me; since we had a complicated health issue with M, I learned really quickly how to be assertive (and have since had no problem escalating my questions any time I feel it’s warranted). I think Andy and I already both had wider-reaching perspectives than many of our middle-class, mostly-white friends, but this has helped cement that. For example, we don’t plan to do “Santa” with our kids, foster or bio, because of the huge class discrepancy that comes with that. How could we tell a foster kid “Santa will come and visit you when you’re with us this year, but we can’t promise anything when you leave”? Andy’s reading this book right now and took real issue with a throw-away comment by the author that you shouldn’t bother buying a ton of stuff for your kid, because that’s what grandparents are for!, because that’s really not true for a lot of people who don’t have family support or who don’t have an affluent background or whatever. It’s really hard not to see the world around us through the lens of being foster parents now, and through the broader view of social justice in general. We know we’re in the “haves” and we try to be more aware of the “have-nots,” I guess. Ugh, that sounds smug and self-righteous but I swear it’s not meant to be.
Overall, would you say that foster care is worth all the heartache that can come along with it?
For us, yes, it is, without hesitation. Some of it really sucks, but overall, kids are really cool little humans, and as foster parents we get to hang out with one of the best of them. And really, there is a very significant need for safe, temporary homes for foster kids while their bio-families work out whatever issues brought the kids into care, so yes, even when it’s shitty, to us it’s worth it to keep a kid safe for as long as they need it. There are days when it’s truly horrible, but there are way more days when it’s not. (I’ve never had a kid leave my home, though, so my answer to this might be different eventually.)
Are there any books related to your experience that you’d recommend?
Because our experience with fostering has only been one placement, and she’s so very young, the majority of books on fostering don’t really apply to us very much. I read and really liked The Connected Child, which has a lot of great information that can be applied to fostering despite being overtly about adoption. We ordered a few kids’ books on foster care before we got our placement, and we really liked A Mother for Choco, Maybe Days, and The Family Book. Horton Hatches The Egg is a great book for talking to non-foster kids about how different families are created.
Rachael, thank you so much for telling your and Andy’s story. Your insight taught me (and others, no doubt) a ton about the world of foster care. It’s crystal clear that you two are selfless, loving people who make for wonderful parents. Congratulations on your pregnancy(!), and the best of luck in your ongoing story with M. Have questions or comments for Rachel? Add them here!
*No photos used in this post are of Rachael or her foster child(ren). All but the top photo belong to Witty Title Here.