Tuesday, June 24, 2014

All of the things that will always be mine

I was just looking at our photos from Father's Day and Mother's Day over the years. The one consistent detail in most of the photos, as our children grow impossibly large at our side, is that there is almost always a new baby. A different tiny baby every year. None of them more than 6 months old.

Each child has been returned to their biological parents before the next set of photos, replaced with another little wizened face looking up from their usual spot on our lap, or cradled in our arms.

Every day I have several unrelated conversations about when and how Ella will go back to her mother. Because I am sure she will go back. Eventually. All of our foster children have been returned to their biological families, and I expect that to continue. But the knowing does not make it easier to talk about, and somehow it is the thing people want to talk about most:
How much longer?
Can't you just adopt her?
Why can't she just stay with you forever?
How will you do it? How can you stand to do that? Won't you miss her?

And I realized something - something that I am going to work hard to change:

Rarely does anyone mention her mother in a positive or supportive or understanding way. Including myself.
We forget to consider whether her mother misses her, or how she is doing given what is - to me - the unimaginable circumstances of not having her baby with her.
Ella's mother is an anonymous entity who had her child taken away.
End of story.

But she is not anonymous to Ella. And so I need to set the tone - and it should be one of compassion. I must remind myself every day, through every frustrating schedule change or ridiculous bureaucratic snafu, that all of this upheaval is hard for Ella's mom, too. And if I share my feelings about all of the challenges we are experiencing, I need to also share my hopes and goals for this case and what encourages me to feel optimistic about the future - for Ella and her mother, together.

It is not helpful for anyone to be angry, or to focus on what isn't working - not just with this case, but with life in general. I have to remember to stay positive, to speak with love and compassion about all things Ella.

Every foster case involves some combination of sadness, loss, poor decisions, bad luck, and a family that is facing a really difficult time. But foster care is supposed to be the beginning of the upswing. This is their "rock bottom" and the only place to go is up. So we should be positive and hopeful that now - with the baby safe and the parents addressing their issues - things are going to be better for everyone. As long as the visits happen on schedule, and I can see the progress being made - both in the relationship between parent and child, and also as the parent finds their path and starts the long journey to reunification - I am happy for everyone. I enjoy my time with the babies, and I enjoy watching a parent turn their life around and begin again. Sometimes, it takes a little longer for parents to get with the program - like right now - and it is a struggle for me to remain positive about their future, because they really aren't doing much to improve their present circumstances.

"...when parents are completely disconnected from the child, when they act as though there is no rush to get their act together, as though the child is a toy to be played with and then put away, when they continue to abuse drugs, when they have no idea what their child weighs, or how to put on a diaper even after 7 weeks of visits, when extended family is offered custody and they suggest that maybe they could "just visit the baby instead".......at those times I am not worried about them regaining custody. Instead, I become the mama bear. The gate closes. The smiles and friendly chit chat at visits fades. And I hold the baby closer. Because someone has to. Someone has to hold this baby, put him first, get up with him each night and greet him each morning. Someone has to want to be his mother all the time - not just for 90 minutes a few times a week." 

from "Giving the Baby Back"

I am trying, through the recent spate of cancelled visits and obvious disorganization of everyone involved, to remain positive. I keep track of all the missed visits, but I have come to realize I should also note the visits that are NOT missed - because those are equally important.

Positive reinforcement.

Or something.

The most important thing, in all of this, is not my cancelled summer vacation, or how foster parents are taken for granted and have very few rights in the system. That is not what I should be concerned about when there is a baby to care for. I have had to remind myself of that sometimes, though I am embarrassed to admit it.

I am not selfless. And sometimes I miss the point of all of this. Of why we do what we do year after year......

This is about Ella. And her mom. 

I think of her mother often, you know. I think of all the things that she is missing: her first Mother's Day, the first smile, the first laugh.

The slow transition of Ella's face;

from awake and alert to asleep and at peace

 staring into my eyes until she drifts off.

Eyes shifting from bright and dancing in the fading light, to fluttering, then closed.

Lashes resting at last on her impossibly round cheeks.

It happens the same way every evening, and her mother has never once seen it.

The hours that Ella and I spend "talking", with me asking her questions, and her cooing in response. The loud breathing in her sleep, her giggle when she wakes up to another day, her squeaks and chuckles as she rolls around sucking on her fingers, so pleased with herself that she can barely stand it.

And the huge grin that spreads across her face as I peer into her crib and say good morning.

Her mother has never woken to that beaming, gummy smile and the gurgling laughter.

I know I have talked exhaustively about the end of a fostering - I wrote a book about it for goodness sake - but I don't think I have really put too fine a point on what I take away from every case. For every child that has been a part of our family, they leave with a small piece of my heart. However, it is what they leave behind that keeps me moving forward to the next child who needs a home.

All of these moments will always be with me. The memory of them will bring a smile, or a tear. Or both.

And at the end of this case, maybe I will direct my attention towards improving the fostering experience for the foster parents and their families - because this system is pretty broken right now.

But it is not hopeless. Just like everything else related to foster care, I have to remain focused on the positive, and remember that the only place to go is up. With Ella's smile greeting me every morning - whether from her crib, or later from a photo saved in a file on my desktop (along with the photos of many others) I just know it's going to be all right.

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