This year, I get to be Santa.
In one short year, the number of stockings on our mantle has doubled from two to four; big bags of presents have been stockpiled in our bedroom. (note to Santa: Keep away from the Target toy aisle until further notice.) Matching “Santa’s Helper” pajamas in sizes 2T and 9 months have been purchased, and trips to at least two holiday light shows have been scheduled. We are now the proud owners of more “Baby’s First Christmas” products than a small department store. The tree has been put up earl – much to the delight of a mesmerized baby and a wide-eyed two-year-old – and this may be the first Christmas where our dogs don’t end up with new holiday outfits.
For the past four years, this favorite holiday of mine has taken on a less-than-joyful tone as each Christmas marked the passing of another unsuccessful year in the infertility process. When my wife and I first began trying to get pregnant, we would think to ourselves: “This time next year, we could be traveling with a baby!” or “Maybe we’ll get to announce a pregnancy next Christmas.” It didn’t take long for our optimism to wane, though, and each passing year became a reminder that we were not the ones bringing a newborn to meet relatives or squeezing around the family table with a pregnant belly.
In fact, this time last year my big news at Christmas was my recent meeting with the surgeon who would perform my hysterectomy.
So it goes without saying that my wife and I are thrilled to be sharing this holiday season with children. One of our big parenting dreams is coming true. Moreover, our dream-granters are no longer nebulous abstractions and imaginings. They have names, round faces, delightful and contagious laughs, and the curliest eyelashes you’ve ever seen. We have waited for years to experience Christmas through a child’s eyes and have had plenty of time to plan and imagine how we’d celebrate. Now, that moment is here: We are doing it up big and celebrating large.
We have to. This season won’t happen again.
This time next year, the mantle will be pared down to two stockings once again, and the dogs will have to put up with being squeezed into red and green plaid sweaters. Our precious children, you see, are not our children at all. They are our foster children, and we fully expect that they will be living with their birth parents before Christmas comes once more.
The boys—one, a baby and the other, a toddler—have been with us since June. They are our first foster children—first any children, actually. As you might imagine, we became licensed foster parents in order to open up another avenue to potentially adopting children. However, fostering is such an open-ended process that we entered into this situation knowing that the children could just as likely be reunited with their family. In fact, family reunification is always the first goal when children are placed in foster care. Initially, though, we were so caught up in our joyful bubble of becoming first-time parents that we avoided the topic of their biological parents altogether.
From day one, these happy-go-lucky little guys were a great fit for our family, and the match seemed absolutely meant to be. Philosophically, we were on board with reunification, but in our hearts, we wished to adopt.
However, that initial wish has evolved considerably over the six months we’ve had them.The biggest change is that I’ve stopped wishing for what I want.Click To Tweet
This is a difficult shift for someone who’s spent the better part of the past five years hyper-focused on becoming a mother. Now that I am a mother (albeit a temporary one), the question is, “What do I wish for these children?” And the answer to that question is neither simple nor obvious.
It is probably no surprise that the boys did not come to us in terrific shape. Without revealing any confidential information, suffice it to say that there were medical issues and developmental delays to contend with. DSS let us know some of their backstory, and we began our time as foster parents with more than a little judgement and resentment directed squarely at their parents. The injustice of it all was infuriating.
We did everything right – healthy eating, no caffeine, exercise, mindfulness – and we couldn’t get pregnant. We are financially and mentally prepared for parenthood, we have stable careers; we’re already great with children. Why were these two darling boys born to people who were so poorly equipped to care for them? We wished for the boys to stay with us forever. This way, they’d be safe and provided for, and we’d get the family we’d been dreaming of. We were the good guys, their parents were the bad guys, and our little family could just go ahead and live happily ever after. Wish granted. End of story.
And then we got to meet their parents.
Since day one, their parents were very nice to us and have continued to be for over six months. They have never complained about their children being placed in a same-sex home, which was our greatest fear when we considered whether or not to foster. The foster parent-birth parent relationship can be awkward at times since it is not a chosen relationship; it is one that happens to you. Yet, we have developed a relationship and rapport. To be sure, we are still guarded at times, but our interactions are always positive.
More importantly, the boys’ parents’ love for their children is obvious. Like us, they delight in the smiles, energy, and good humor the boys exude. They enjoy their children, and I admire this trait in them.
Because of this, the boys’ birth parents can no longer be the villains of this story. While we still find ourselves getting frustrated by small choices they make – for example, regarding the food they feed the boys during visits – they are doing an admirable amount of things right and are making a true effort to make amends for their mistakes. They are not monsters but rather complex, hurt human beings like the rest of us. As the boys’ birth mother has shared more of her life story with us, it is easy to see events that led to her making the kinds of life choices that cause children to be taken into DSS custody. There is even a part of me that wants to mother her, to go back in time to protect the little girl she once was and help her live a happier, healthier life. (Then, of course, I think, “I’m way too young to be a grandmother!”) Perhaps, though, I am called to be a mentor or a big sister figure in her life, to be a model of a better way to be a family.
In other words, I have too much empathy and compassion for her to want her to fail. I can’t wish she would make bad choices, nor can I wish for her to lose her children. By being in her corner, I am stepping away from my wish – my sweet dream – of adopting her children.
However, just as the best outcome of this situation has nothing to do with what’s best for me, it doesn’t have much to do with her wishes, either. The focus must be on what’s best for the children.
And I’m not sure what to wish for.
If the children were to remain with my wife and me – if we were able to adopt – I have a clear vision of what their lives would be like. Because she and I both work in the education field, the boys would have the support needed to be successful in school. They would also be able to attend concerts and plays and go on fun and educational family vacations. They would not live an affluent life, but they would never want for food, clothing, or a comfortable place to live. I know they would be safe and that their medical needs would be taken care of, and I am certain that they would have support, love, and encouragement from us as well as from our close-knit local community and extended family.
Yet, they may also end up being dogged by a dark voice that asks, “Why didn’t my parents want me? Why didn’t they take care of me? Wasn’t I worth fighting for?” And that voice just might drown out all of the “I love you’s” I could ever say.
On the other hand, life with their birth parents makes me feel more uncertain. I can see the potential for them to be a happy, functional family, but I also think it’s feasible that the boys might end up in foster care again one day. I don’t doubt for a second that the boys will experience good times and receive lots of love; however, I also see the possibility that they will be the children showing up late for school, coming to class without breakfast and having had an inadequate amount of sleep, and wearing dirty shoes two sizes too big. But is that a fair trade-off if it means keeping a family intact? It is important, after all, to get to be with your people.
So, when I go to pray for the boys and the situation they are in, I often come up short. I can’t in good conscience pray for the boys’ parents to fail so that I can adopt their sons. Likewise, I don’t feel comfortable wholeheartedly endorsing reunification. Instead, my prayers and wishes for them are more open to whatever possibilities unfold. Ultimately, the words that arise are simple:
May they be safe and protected.
May they be happy and loved.
May they have a stable, reliable family.
May they have everything they need and a little of what they want.
And please, oh please—may the lights in their eyes continue to sparkle long after the Christmas tree comes down.
Photo credit: Josh Pearson.