The holidays are approaching quickly, and I’ve been caught off guard with an odd mix of emotions. At this time two years ago, the brother and sister toddlers we had been fostering for nearly a year began their transition home. Just the week prior, we learned they would be spending the long Thanksgiving weekend at home with their parents and older siblings. While they had consistently had one-hour parental visits each week leading up to the transition, this would be their first overnight back at home.
By this time, I had developed a good relationship with their mother, which proved to be a real game-changer when the time came for the kids to transition home. I was comforted knowing I had a general sense of their family dynamic and home environment. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared and anxious and stayed up nights with thoughts of the worst.
I can’t remember how much I slept the first night they spent back at home, but I am certain what sleep I got was fitful and restless. Soon after I woke the next morning, I received a text from their mom asking, “Do they like eggs?” One of my biological daughters asked why I was crying. “Because I know the answer,” I told her with tear-stained cheeks.
After caring for these precious children for months, I thought I knew all the answers. I had taught them to walk and talk and feed themselves. Each an important milestone that their parents had missed. Reading their mom’s question over text made me sad … for myself, but more importantly, for their mother. She didn’t know the answer. Oh, the milestones she had missed! What courage it must have taken for her to ask me such a seemingly mundane question. It was a humbling experience for me.
If I’m being completely honest, I was beginning to feel annoyed several hours later when their mom continued to text me other questions about their preferences (Should I scramble their eggs? What do they usually eat for lunch? Do they like beef ravioli? Does she always cry during bath time?). Why was I annoyed? I’m not sure, but perhaps it was self-preservation. She needs to figure these things out for herself like I did, I thought. She’s their mother, I reminded myself, when I started feeling cocky about having all the answers.
The truth is that I didn’t have all the answers. I didn’t know anything about their birthing story. I didn’t know if they were breastfed. I didn’t know how old they were when they started stretching out those nighttime feedings. There is so much foster parents will never know about the children we care for, but that’s okay. It has to be. What choice do we have? We don’t need to know every detail about a child’s past to envision them having a better future, and to take steps to help them get there.
Those siblings returned to our home the Sunday after Thanksgiving and once again proved how resilient children can be: they eased back into our routines as if they were never gone. They spent a few more weekends at home over the following month, then spent the entire week of Christmas and New Years at home. Thankfully, their mother sent me pictures nearly every day during these transition visits, which helped to ease my aching heart.
Let me be clear: my heart ached for myself and my biological children because we missed these kids dearly. At the same time, I was very happy for their family to be reunited over the holidays. In order to be a foster parent in South Carolina, we have to be on board with the goal of reunification. And I was. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t also experience sentimentality mixed with fear and anxiety. Selfishly, I wanted to set a place for them at our Thanksgiving dinner. Selfishly, I wanted these children with us during our extended family gatherings over the Christmas holidays. I wanted them wake up at our house Christmas morning to find the elf and gifts and stockings filled by Santa. I wanted to hear the pitter-patter of their sweet feet running down the hallway the first morning of the new year.
I am entering this holiday season with a complex mixture of emotions. I miss each of the children we cared for. I pray they are safe and happy and healthy wherever they are now (some were reunited with their parents, some were not).
But, today, what dominates this emotional mix is excitement over the sharing the holidays with our current sweet baby girl, who we have been caring for since July 2019. My older biological children will get to play Santa for her again to make sure she feels the love and warmth of our family home during the holidays. We have the ability to show her what a safe and stable home feels like. We can show her the importance of a hearty meal enjoyed together as a family sitting around the dinner table each evening.
Some children who enter foster care may not know the importance of shared laughter during dinner, the importance of sharing details about our days. Many of these kids have been forced to skip through childhood and take care of themselves and/or younger siblings at a very young age. Perhaps they’ve never eaten a large home-cooked meal seated at the dinner table and surrounded by all their family members. No matter how deplorable their past circumstances, these kids still love their parents. They miss their parents during the holidays.
Just like the foster parents who are caring for them, these kids are faced with a complex mix of confusion, questions and feelings they can’t explain. So just like every other day of the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas require foster parents to put on a brave face and do our best to give our children – each of them, even if the number continually fluctuates – the best holiday yet. Because these kids deserve it!