We’re finishing up dinner time when our phones buzz and it’s our Group Text. You know, the place all our friends pile into the screen together to share gifs about dinner being like feeding a herd of rhinos or our sadness over not being able to afford to see Hamilton... but also share stories about our days filled with sorrow and strained relationships and stuff.
It’s our friends Kat and Luke, who have been short term-emergency placement foster parents for...what, three years now? They said yes to homing a sibling set of six First Generation Somali-American Muslim children, for just a couple nights, before they’re split up into various foster homes. Ideally, a foster resource could house all six long term; realistically, Portland is in crisis as it is, and these kids were in hotel rooms for approximately a week waiting for any home to take any of them. The moment they sent us the text, we all jumped in asking what they needed. Our community is the best. We were also all wide-eyed and grateful for the example of this family; their home isn't big by any means. Their biological daughter moved into their room while the other six children smooshed into two small bedrooms.
When we began opening our home to children in foster care, we leaned towards only saying yes to infants and toddlers. It’s all we’re used to, it’s the vein we’re living, it felt as safe as it could in the realm of familiarity.
And yet. The other reality is there are far more familiss open to homing babies, and less for older children.
We began bath time with the boys and I couldn’t get the image of the kids out of my mind. Most of them wore hijabs...how could we care for a cultural identity we weren’t familiar with? We did not have close community with any Muslim friends.
Over the next 24-30 hours we asked a few questions, not enough, but everything we could think of.
What I want you to know about these moments is that they were not easy. Nothing about foster care is ideal as it is, considering every circumstance involved. We had been hoping to become a resource for a much younger child, one who wasn’t going to yet have sass and defiance and behaviors we had yet to parent. But when our friends said yes to these six, even for a very short time, they automatically became family. They became faces with names and hurts we now knew about.
Things change drastically when you see them up close.
One email to their placement worker on a Thursday morning began the conversation of becoming their foster family resource. Over the next twenty-four hours, we were uncertainly sure they’d be in our home before the weekend began.
I spent much of that Thursday being as intentionally present with my boys as possible, nearly sure they’d soon become little brothers, our very sweet—yet still wild—life soon to change as we knew it.
What I want you to know about those hours is that I was nervous and a little sad but also slightly excited. I’ve watched my friends walk through this journey over the years and know it is not a cute cup of cappuccino. I know that saying yes to these girls was saying yes to layers of trauma, likely challenging behaviors, and a whole lot more structured parenting. It meant less trips downtown, because that already sounded like a circus, and more trips to the park down the street. I also knew it meant potentially instilling in two young girls that they’re worth it, that they have a voice, that they can be in charge of their bodies and attitudes and words.
As mostly expected, they moved out of our friends home and into ours on a February Friday evening. It’s not a natural event, this whole ordeal. Their siblings came to also check out the new place their younger sisters would slowly but eventually consider their Home For Now. We showed them their room and the bunk beds we had just finished putting together, from our other friends Seth and Lacey. There was not yet a dresser or really anything in the room, but an already full closet of storage and a bookshelf filled with books.
What I want you to know about these moments is that these girls came to a random home in an area they’d likely never been to, with a bag of belongings they brought from home...plus some items Kat purchased at Target. They were informed that these white people were now going to be their parents, and these toddler boys who didn’t match each other were going to be their brothers. Strangers. We were about as prepared as Not At All, but knew our little townhouse home was a bit cozier than a hotel room or DHS office.
For the next couple weeks as they did not settle in and sort of just expected to go home every day, I held my breath waiting for their honeymoon to end and for them to realize they're here for awhile. Multiple times a day I was asked, “When are we going home?” And every single time I would say, “Honey, I don’t know when you’re going to your other home, but for now and for awhile, this is your home.” It was painful but necessary to try and get their minds wrapped around the reality that this was not going to be a short ordeal. I gave and I continue to give all the permission to be sad and frustrated at the unknowns: this is hard, I say out loud with them. Three months in, and they still struggle with the reality they are not going home next week.
When their honeymoon began to end, it became clear Loren got the worst of it with our eight year old and I got the worst of it with our four year old.
What I want you to know about this is that trauma rewires the brain. So yes, some of this is surely developmental attitudes, but much of it is actually trauma affected behaviors that are not typical in non-traumatized four and eight year olds. So, it is an entirely different realm of parenting and discipline and behaviors. Because I'm so aware of this, it helps—at least for now—to not take their defiance personally. It increases empathy, and even if not in the direct moment...soon after.
I am often asked if we are going to “try and adopt” the girls. It’s frequently one of the first questions I’m asked when people find out the girls are in care or when I get Instagram messages asking me questions about our family.
What I want you to know is that foster care exists to reunify families. And that’s how it should be. We are absolutely not trying to adopt them, because we know and believe it is in their best interest for everyone in their family to get the help they need, so they can be reunified together in the same home.
The system is broken and set up to serve no one. It is filled full with over worked workers and red tape and lack of resources. It is what it is, but we are not trying to adopt them, we are all working towards reunification and I really do hope the best for this family.
Only three months in and I question saying yes. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, but then other times I wonder if maybe I'm human. This is hard, this is messy, this is uncertain, this is sad, this is humbling and reveals to me in all the ways I fall short. But what I want you to know about this is that nearly every friend I know who has said yes to a long term placement (child/children in care), has also questioned why they said yes or if they should have said yes. Also...I've had multiple friends with only biological children tell me they sometimes wonder if they should have become a mom, because motherhood is freaking hard....so...I don't know. It just makes me feel more normal when those guilty thoughts seep in.
Motherhood is hard. Mothering children from very hard places is hard, and layered.
None of this journey is meant to be, so it all feels out of whack and nearly impossible. If you’re not trauma informed and aware of how these kids brains actually work, I have no idea how you survive, because even being incredibly aware of their brains...I’m often feeling thinned out, if I’m not taking care of the needs I have.
What I want you to know is that Loren and I have been trying to tend to ourselves better, so we can keep saying yes. We go to counseling, we are working through our own stuff, we go on dates and get pedicures. We both have taken solo trips to refresh and we have a long-planned, pre-paid family trip coming up at the end of the month (which is taking an unexpected amount of preparation because I so want these girls to know they’re not being ditched). We got cheap gym memberships and I have gone about three times in three months, because after bedtime all I actually want to do is eat ice cream and watch Super Store or Black-ish. But the option is there to care for my body in ways I should be. I have completely dropped my expectations and switched my priorities in regards to writing and being an author and speaker; I no longer check my emails and write articles during nap times. I read my Bible and journal and sit in the silence and let my soul fill up.
Because we’ve been working on tending to ourselves as much as possible, we feel pretty darn good. We are able to take things less personally, keep calm in the heat of what feels sort of like a battle, and talk ourselves through the trench. Also, something I have found incredibly humbling yet refreshing is: when I do lose my cool and I raise my voice or I snap or whatever, taking in a deep breath (which is what we are constantly practicing together) and looking all the kids in the eyes to apologize, explaining that was not an appropriate reaction, and how could I have done that better? In some really odd way, this sort of fills me up after it makes me feel stupid.
When people ask us how we are doing, if I say “Pretty good,” you can know I actually mean it.
But when people ask me how court went or how the girls are “adjusting” or “settling in,” I honest to God do not know how to answer. Nothing about their current circumstances, or what brought them to this day, seems good. They’re brown girls living with white parents they barely know, continuously unsure when they’ll return home; their weeks are exhausted by appointments and uncertainty. If I say they’re doing well, it feels like a partial lie but not totally, because they do seem to enjoy things like couch snuggles, forehead kisses, and long tight squeeze hugs. They love doing all the arts and crafts and their eyes lit brightly when I gave them the photo albums of our memories together this far. We go to the park ALOT and hike Powell Butte and visit the zoo when big sis is in school. I mean, we really are doing our best to offer as typical a childhood as possible for the time we have them.
It is simply that in between all the sweet and hopefully healing and great moments...there are cavernous wounds, mountains of lies attached to identities, and unending questions.
Questions, lies, and wounds no child should experience. There is a constant heaviness to even the best of days. A lingering sadness always exists, even when we’ve spent the day laughing ad adventuring And I think that's part of why foster care is so hard. Because even when there are really, really good days...there's this nagging knowledge that this isn't whole, this isn't how it's meant to be.
Of all these things, I think what I want you to know that these girls are not lucky to be with us.
I understand what you’re saying, that your intent is so so well, and that sometimes you even mean “of all the foster families, they’re lucky to have you.” But the thing is, I just don’t like trying to find ways they’re lucky. It’s not up to me or my decision if they feel lucky. Being lucky is winning the lottery or a boat on the Price is Right. Being lucky is not living in such circumstances you have to be removed and live with strangers who don’t even share a cultural or ethnic identity.
Tonight I was interviewed by Grace at Every Child. If you sign up for their newsletter, you'll be sure to get it this weekend. But one thing she asked me at the end was something along the lines of, "If I can instill anything in these kids, what will it be?" I teared up as I slowly shared that I hope to instill in them that they are worth it. They are worth all the real kind of love...the kind of love that is patient with them, that is kind to them, that has self-control. They deserve hope and peace and joy, they deserve a voice. I don't want these kids stripped of their dignity; they are just as important and valuable as the white male CEO or whatever fancy person you can think of...they are just as valuable and more than worth it.
May is Foster Care Awareness Month. In honor of, I hope you'll watch this video, Removed.
It is pretty intense and involves domestic violence and childhood trauma. Removed is a short film created to give a quick glimpse into what being in care can be like through the experience of a child. Not every child experiences it like this and this is not a portrayal of every biological parent figuring out how to love their kids when they themselves are struggling to make it. But, it’s a powerful short film to help those that have not walked through this as a child themselves to see what it might be like. (Thanks Seth).