Fostering's End

2/29/2024   by Matt Lewellyn

Only so many children will call me Daddy. That never occurred to me, ever, until I drew nearer to what they call middle age. But once thought, it cannot be unthought, so it stuck with me - made only more poignant by the fact that several months ago, we had to let one go.

I've had the privilege, the blessing, and the hard work of being a foster/adoptive dad for a fair number of years. We went on this journey together, my wife and I, because children need loving, stable homes in order to succeed, let alone thrive. The need for foster care in our state is enormous, and we felt we could do our small part to help.

So we were able to build our identity as the family that takes in children who need a home. It's a jarring experience, at first, to have another family's child come to live with you. There's the paperwork - so much paperwork. Then the classes you have to take every year to show yourself capable as a professional parent.

And then they send someone into your home, clipboard in hand, to tell you all the things that need to change before they will deign to allow a ward of the state to dwell on your premises. That is, before they will allow you to upend your life, routine, schedule, and living arrangements to bring in a child.

But the child comes, and then we love that child as our own. At first, he's a guest, but after days, weeks, and months of living... Well, by then, we have formed a new family identity - with him included. A lot of chaos comes with it, for sure, but they become part of the family.

We open space in our hearts to welcome a child, and then we psychologically get used to them being here. So many things work into that - we changed a crap ton of diapers (yes, that is the technical unit of measurement). We fed him, balancing his palate and food preferences with those of the rest of the family. We oriented family outings around naptimes and bedtimes. We included him in all of our family gatherings, advocated as best as we could for his long-term health and safety, and became containers for the chaos that surrounded his case.

We could look ourselves in the mirror and see the home that brought children in who needed a safe place and the love of Jesus. We were Mommy and Daddy, and we got to see our kids rally around to welcome him, play with him, and love on him.

Until something came up that affected the safety of the other kids.

And then we had a problem. We can bring in a child because he needs a safe, loving, stable home. But what if that costs the other kids a safe place? We cared for him so much for so long, and all of a sudden we could not be that place for him anymore.

They don't really prepare you for that, in the professional parent training. It's one hell of a Band-aid to rip off. We do get training about what disruption does to a child's psyche, and it's not good. Knowing that makes it even harder to do it. The cognitive dissonance by itself is excruciating - we can't have it both ways, and our sense of control gets severely challenged.

We learn a lot about ourselves, both when loss is happening and when we have had some (even not enough) time to process. The stages of grief are very real, and they come and go seemingly as they please, even many months later. Daily life started to move on, but our identity as ourselves and as a family seemed to be laid out on a dissection table, to be sliced at.

Each of us grieves at our own pace. We cannot be rushed, and my family is no exception. Life continues, and the most raw, most bare feelings fade after a while, for the most part. But things bring up memories, and with the memories come the feelings, as the body remembers what that experience was, in the face of an impossible situation.

I felt like I should have been able to figure this out - that there had to be some kind of solution that I wasn't seeing. We were the family that could get things done - we shouldn't have needed to call in reinforcement. Yes, I know that's a prideful feeling, but it was real, it was sharp, and it would not go away for a long time.

Many years ago, we felt God's call to do foster care. And, when we got the call for this child to come into our home, we felt that God was opening that door for us, and we ought to walk through it. Making the call to disrupt placement felt like closing something that God had opened. I had prayed at it that way - Lord, if you have opened this door, surely it should stay open, but we can't see any other way.

Frankly, it felt like absolute, abject failure. In trying to keep everyone involved safe, I couldn't keep any of them safe. I couldn't protect him from things he'd experienced before coming to us. I couldn't protect my own kids. I couldn't protect our family identity. Failure was my identity in that moment.

He moved to another foster family, and we watched from afar. In some ways, that was even harder. I'm not used to the feeling that someone else is doing the work. My work, I should say - it felt like it was my work, that I had left before it was done.

Now, several months later, having processed all too little of this, I've realized something else. We poured so much energy into that labor of love, to have this child, to delight in him personally while he was with us, and to take care of him as best we could. We will probably never get to see that pay off. There is no next day, next year. We don't get to see him grow even bigger, talk even more, and dream his dreams. He's just missing.

It is absolutely surreal now, to see the pictures, to experience the memories - to think, we did that for this child for so long. It is surreal that he was here, and it is surreal that he is not.

When things like this happen that are so far outside the design of creation, we rightly should take a long time to process them. That's natural - we were not built to deal with this level of chaos and loss. But having lived them, even though we haven't "arrived," we can begin to take some things away, to look toward the future.

First, when we're in the trenches, doing the intense work, we often don't peek over the edge to see what else God is doing and who he's using. We can function as if we're the only ones here, the only way this can work out. We are not, in fact, that child's only hope. God does love him ever so much more than we ever can.

Second, these circumstances make me want to pray. They hydraulically press me into prayer. But how often do I lean on my own understanding, and a "natural course of events," instead of looking to the Lord? In the last several months, I have become much more aware of the need to regularly pray for all of my children.

Third, we went through an identity shift, and it is ok for that to send shockwaves. We went from "the family that does this for this child" to "the family that did this." We fear losing our identity when present becomes past. We find out how much we were counting on that part of our identity to make us worth something, to make our lives mean something.

Foster care and adoption will often challenge our identity, both as believers and just as a family unit. My wife and I had some idea of what family would be like when we got married, mostly from the patterns we learned in our families of origin. Now, in our continuing journey, many times, we have needed to lay that idea at the feet of Jesus. Things just do not turn out the way we think they will - or the way we think they should.

The search for significance is nothing new. But as always, we must learn to be faithful where we are and with those still in our care.



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