A few months ago, the sweet baby girl we are currently fostering took her first two steps. It was several weeks before her first birthday, and I was thrilled to have a little evidence that she might not face the delay in physical development that is seen too often in children in foster care. Watching her meet this big milestone brought me to tears. My emotions were a combination of pure joy over her accomplishment of walking, but also sadness for yet another milestone her parents missed. Like her first bite of table food. Her first word. Her first Halloween costume (she was an adorable ladybug!). She spent her first Thanksgiving with us. She woke up for her first Christmas morning with us, her temporary family.
And selfishly, I love setting a place for her at our dinner table every night. Just like the other children we have fostered, she yells and laughs and squeals trying to keep up with my big girls. (Admittedly, some nights the noise level rises higher than my ability to tolerate it and I ask the big kids to drop it a notch, evidence we are a completely normal family.) Most nights I sit back and watch it all unfold as my heart fills with joy. But each of those meals represents a night not spent with her parents. It represents all the special memories filling my heart and my mind, rather than the hearts and minds of the parents. No matter how deplorable their past circumstances, these kids still love their parents, and that love is mutually felt.
I often wonder what witnessing these milestones feels like to foster families who care for teenagers. Taking a tween to see the ocean for the first time must be amazing! I’ve taken toddlers and preschoolers to the zoo and various museums for what I’m sure is their first time. But what is it like to share those first experiences with a middle schooler? A high schooler old enough to verbalize the significance?
Each time foster parents offer new experiences and witness these milestones, the bond between us and children deepens. Perhaps the special memories we create represent part of our big reward for fostering. No doubt it is rewarding work, and those rewards are delivered in surprising and often invisible ways.
Even if the child is reunified with his or her parents, how much time does it take to make up for all those lost memories? At times, these thoughts keep me up at night. But as foster parents, we have to keep our eye on the ball. We can’t let these thoughts overwhelm us, and instead maintain clear and unwavering focus on providing day-to-day care for these children in the safest and healthiest manner we can.
Perhaps it isn’t about where the child spends each special day, and instead it can be about parents AND foster parents being able to share in the memories. Does it really matter if a birthday is celebrated on the actual day, or a few days early or late?
Last year, the toddler siblings we had cared for nearly a year began their transition home over the Thanksgiving holidays. To be perfectly honest, it stung not being able to set a place for them at our family’s Thanksgiving gathering. I missed them and wanted them to celebrate with us. But I had to balance that disappointment with the true joy I felt for their family being reunified. They came back to us for most of December, then enjoyed another transitional visit over the Christmas holidays. I reminded myself of the many milestones the parents had missed over the previous year. Their mom texted me pictures on Christmas morning, and oh how that filled my bucket! What a blessing to be in touch with the parents so we can exchange information, photos and share in the memory making!
Being in direct contact with our current foster daughter’s mother has allowed her and I to share in these special moments and celebrate them in tandem. We text about sweet baby girl getting new teeth, trying new foods, saying new words and, of course, taking those first two steps. Perhaps that’s the secret: to openly celebrate these milestones in tandem with the parents so no one is missing out.
There is not one way to be the perfect foster parent. In fact, a perfect parent doesn’t exist. However, as you consider foster care, we encourage you to be open to healthy and appropriate relationships with the child’s family. It is proven to lead to better outcomes for kids in care.
If you are a foster parent, we would love to hear your stories of successful shared parenting and reunification. Comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org