We’ve been in California for the week for a family wedding, and the night we left, I brought in my last haul of garden produce. The garden has been a big hobby of mine, but the kids wouldn’t tolerate more than 20 minutes of gardening before protesting, so it had already gotten too cold and killed much of my produce before I was able to get out that final time.
We left at 3 in the morning and that afternoon, I dropped off our foster daughter where she would spend the week in respite, did a photography shoot, and came home to my wheelbarrow of vegetables. A heaping wheelbarrow of food should have been a welcome sight, but I knew it was a fraction of what I should have had. I stayed up scrubbing carrots, laying out tomatoes in shades of unripe, and separating and bagging the other vegetables. It was the first time I had been away from baby since she arrived, and a defeatist spirit overtook me as I scanned the produce scattered across the counter and dining room table and thought both about all I had lost and how much I had accomplished in those hours without distraction.
When people find out we’re fostering, we usually get comments about how much we’re sacrificing. I never thought about it in those terms until my bad attitude crept up that night. Why am I doing this? She doesn’t need us; she’ll be in another home this week and will be just as content with a stranger. My efforts don’t actually matter.
The truth is it’s a tough duality between being wholly part of your family and also not your child. When they cross our threshold, there is no distinction between biological and foster child in our interaction or our love. Sometimes people will ask when we’ll have another child. We’re not trying to be cagey in our response, but I really don’t have an answer to that question. Because the thing is we have had other children in our home since our son was born, and we do have a baby in the house right now. I don’t have a working definition of family, but I’m not sure permanency is the deciding factor. When that isn’t the determining criteria, then our family has grown. We’ve grown in love and experience. We’ve filled the nursery. We’ve parented a second and a third time. We have a full house and a new baby, so the question about more children is complex. We’re parenting, but we’re not the parents; our son has a new baby sister but it’s temporary. I’ve always wanted a daughter, and for right now, I’m living that experience, but it’s an experience that comes with so many mixed and ambivalent feelings.
Because our foster daughter is a baby, the firsts are especially poignant. My eyes welled up at her first laugh. It was a privilege to bear witness to it, but at the same time, I felt a pang that her very first contagious chuckle wasn’t with her mother. Yes, she has every ounce of love we can give, but it’s not enough. It will always be incomplete as long as she’s with us. Some days will be filled with a sense of purpose, some days will feel ordinary and uninspired, and some days will be a loss. The difficulty comes in living with the duality, walking the line between oneness and otherness.
How do we walk that line and keep our hearts from either becoming calloused or overly attached? The best I’ve been able to do is remove any sense of ownership. For me, it’s all about giving the child back to God. It doesn’t change the circumstances in any way, but when I accept my role as temporary in my heart, it allows me to rejoice in the time I had instead of experiencing the loss. I repeat like a mantra that I don’t have ownership over this child, God does.
I don’t have all the answers, and some days I struggle with a hardened heart or an unwillingness to let go. I look at the tiny child in my arms and her toothless grin, reminding myself to take one day at a time. Today, she is with us. Today, I will lose out on the independence I had without her, but I will gain in other, invaluable ways. I’ll battle my emotions, and I will continue to try and do my best.