‘At 27, I had become a single foster mom of three overnight, as if the instructions on my box of life read, ‘just add kids.’’

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“’Do you guys like pizza?’ I looked in the rearview mirror, noting how big and nervous those six eyes were. It was a Thursday but this was no ordinary day, the question was directed at the three littles I had just picked up. For them this was another move, a new home and yet again change. I would be their fifth home in one year. Most of their moves, they had said goodbye to strangers, never there long enough to really know anyone.

On the way home, our five minute car ride seemed to last forever. I made small talk hoping to find something we could bond over, something that would show them I was a safe person. My mind was processing, I thought back to the moments before when I was met at the door, handed trash bags of clothing, toys and three children.

After getting them settled in bed, I sat down and began going through their clothing, feeling frustrated that the items they had been wearing were stained and tattered. Sorting things into piles, I realized how disposable these kiddos had been treated. I wondered where had these babies been, what had they seen, where had they lived? They were 7, 5 and 3, and though their bodies were tiny, they were old souls.

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I did one final check on them and climbed into my bed, only to be awakened shortly thereafter by sobs. My sweet 3-year-old had some kind of nightmare. Rocking her, I wondered how it felt to seek comfort in a stranger. She clung to me, sweaty and shaking, her little heart pounding. I wondered what weight this little soul carried. She eventually stopped and her breathing got deep and methodical, I laid her back in bed and tucked her in, this time with a kiss on her forehead.

I climbed back into my bed, heavy hearted and honestly unsure if I could do this, feeling so ill-equipped. That was our first night (June 27th, 2014). At 27, I had become a single foster mom of three overnight, as if the instructions on my box of life read, ‘just add kids.’

Melissa Pennington Photography

My story into motherhood has been one of the most refining and defining things of my life. My story was rewritten four years ago after I followed a call towards foster care. I underestimated what that ‘yes’ would mean for my life. I did not have nine months of preparation traditionally associated with child rearing, I had mere hours to prepare, bringing home Little Ones from shelters, hospitals, strangers homes, courthouses or nearly showing up at my doorstep.

425,000 kiddos flood our foster care system in America. These kids are often overlooked, unnoticed, many of them age out of the system, never finding their forever families. They are our future, our doctors, teachers, pilots, baristas and hairstylists. They are raising the generations to come. They are the future voters and protestors. An investment in foster care is going to change more than just one family, it changes our future. Foster care is often viewed as too hard, scary, unstable, the news filled with stories of foster kiddos harming their foster families. Those tragedies do happen, but they are not the normal. We are leaving our future to an entire generation of kiddos hurting without coping skills, kiddos, who need us to partner with them.

When my life intersects with my kiddos, they are covered in the ashes of destruction, they have lost it all. The part I get to watch is their rebuilding, a long, hard, messy, slow and exhausting process. Moment by moment, the healing happens and new life springs. It is amazing what safety, sleep, snuggles, routine and nourishing food does for a little body in need of healing.

I have the honor of watching them bloom, hollow eyes, engage and sparkle with delight and wonder. I have watched fears melt away and challenges conquered. I have learned how resilient and gracious kids are. I have learned that the story of trauma can be rewritten. That disorders can find balance. That our past shapes us but it is not all that we are. I have seen kids never relax into sleep find peace and joy in bedtime. I have found fighters are listeners once they know how to better channel their feelings, bullies are passionate leaders and distant souls are some of the most compassionate souls.

Melissa Pennington Photography

Early on in my foster care journey, adoption wasn’t the plan. I honestly didn’t believe I could do it. I didn’t believe I was the best option for my crew. I was wrong. Adoption is intentional love pouring out, empowering others, granting them a new identity. Every adoption story has an element of tragedy — in order for adoption to take place it means a birth parent can’t or won’t take care of their child. Adoption steps in and fills the void, becoming the redemption plan. Adoption is the redemption of brokenness, neglect, orphanhood, addiction and abuse.

Adoption is celebrated in our home, it is the vehicle that brought us all together, the tool used to build our family. Adoption is the conduit of a special kind of love. A love not birthed but found, not inherited but given, not created but discovered. A love fought for.

I adore our story, I love that we got to grow into a family, one day at a time. I love that my crew was so patient with me as I grew into a mom. I love that I got to know them, watch them heal and blossom. I love that together we picked their new names, breaking the bondage of their past and giving them a vision for their future. I love that as we grow as a family, foster care becomes a family adventure, all of us making room to love those coming into our home. Filling the voids in our home and family.

Melissa Pennington Photography
Melissa Pennington Photography

People watch me and my kids with their head cocked to one side, like my dog does when I drop chips into a plastic bag. Some people scan us assuming they have us figured out, the un-ringed left hand, tattooed-covered mama with the diverse group of children, no doubt living off the government. They walk by us with a look of judgment. Watching us as they are trying to piece together if they are all mine and deciding if they should ask. But some people watch with a smile as they observe how kind my children are, stopping us to offer us a compliment.

The coffee I drink is never hot. Autobrew, bless you for brewing coffee magically at 6:45 each morning. I come downstairs with a baby or two in tow, grab a mug and pour. I have a habit of letting it sit, preferring a temperature somewhere between molten lava and warm bath water. The mug usually sits untouched for about an hour, when I finally walk by it again and remember my liquid sunshine is within reach waiting for me.

I describe the moment I get out of bed as ‘breaking the seal.’ The moment my home comes alive and the crazy beautiful chaos begins. Our mornings unfold with lots of redirection, warnings, time outs, kisses, laughs, dance parties, chasing, changing and cleaning up whatever the toddler pulls out of the cupboards (or off the table). Every sunrise we experience as a family deepens our love, a love built and strengthened with love and intentionality.

Melissa Pennington Photography

Being a foster parent has a weighty requirement. We are not replacing our birth parents but standing in the gap, fighting for their healing and safety. We are place holders, sometimes we turn into forever fixtures, while others we are there for a season. Collecting, soaking and breathing in hope and healing. The cost is great, the risk is much, but the reward is priceless.

Goodbye in the realm of foster care is dreaded and heavy. I am saying goodbye to a child that had a piece of my heart and a place in my home. A child I was responsible for months or even a year. A child that is mine, a borrowed baby that I have poured into, taught, raised and loved. A foster care goodbye may mean I will never ever see that child again, or I will see them again in a few weeks or months. Maybe they will come and go a few times or maybe they will be here forever. A foster care goodbye can be transitioning them to a biological family member or back to a bio parent. There are times I say goodbye and my Mama heart breaks. There are not words to say to prepare myself, my family or the child. Trying to explain to a 3-year-old that I might never see them again is hard. Buckling in my 18-month-old while she is screaming ‘Mama’ literally took my breath away and maybe a portion of my soul. Even though it guts the soul, unlike death, foster care goodbyes are always a little uncertain. Addiction is ugly and relapses happen often, so there is always a little place in my soul left open for them, a part of my Mama heart longs for them, unable to fully say goodbye. One of the most common statements people say to me is, ‘I could never do foster care because I can’t handle the goodbye.’ As if I have found the secret or I possess some kind of superpower that enables me to say goodbye easier. In all reality the weight of not risking my heart to bring healing to a little one far outweighs the pain of goodbye.

The truth is the goodbye part of foster care never gets easier. I have done it so many times and each time it guts and breaks my heart all the same. Loving well means losing deeply. We love well and it costs us something. As adults we have the coping skills and processing tools to be able to work through our loss, the loss I feel will always be a fraction of what my kiddos experience. By the time they enter my home, they have said goodye to their parents, oftentimes their siblings, toys and pets. Many of them have lost their innocence, sense of safety and childhood. These kiddos are no strangers to loss and grief, they are professionals, many of them bouncing home to home, through the system. I was home number five in one year for my oldest three. As an adult I can’t  even begin to process that loss.

Melissa Pennington Photography

Then comes the times where my goodbyes look more like sending out arrows. My children are arrows, I am preparing for flight. They come into my home, hurting and broken and we spend months and years, rebuilding them, preparing them for their flight into the world. That flight often takes them back into biological homes, they become beacons of healing, stepping back into the homes where they were raised.

My children’s bio parents are bittersweet gifts. The balance of relationship with them is so hard but so sweet. My main concern is advocating for my babies but I believe my secondary concern is fighting for my bio parents. I believe loving my kiddos well is loving their parents well; those two things are not separatable. Bio parents are not the enemies, addiction and crappy coping skills are. These little souls are who we are advocating for and to do that well we must learn exactly where they came from.

Biological parent’s choices steal away their ability to feed, bathe, snuggle, say good morning and kiss them goodnight. They lose the ability to kiss their owies, read them stories and soothe their nightmares, they miss the daily milestones and experiences. They have a large price tag to pay. Their choices have cost them time and that is the one thing they can never get back. So in the meantime I stand in the gap, looking and loving both, praying for health and healing. I love my bio parents and I will say it is at times the hardest reality of how my family is structured, but there are times where I see the change and healing and I get to walk along my bio parents into health and that is one of the greatest gifts of this hard reality.

Jody Landers beautifully sums up the journey with this quote, “A child born to another woman calls me mommy, the magnitude of that tragedy and depth of that privilege are not lost on me.” What a beautiful privilege it is to be their parent. The story that once was filled with sorrow, loss and grief is now a story of hope.”

Melissa Pennington Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Julianna Klepfer, a 30 something, single, foster/adoptive mama. She lives with her crew of seven, ages 11, 9, 7, 4, 3, 18 months and 6 months, their two dogs and 6 chickens in the hills of Iowa. You can follow along with her ever changing family at My Joyful Broken Heart.

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