‘My heart fluttered as we walked up. I chased him down and pulled him away from his mother. I cried for days.’: Foster mom addresses trauma, tantrums, ‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever done’

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“When I was 10 years old, I read the book The Pictures of Hollis Woods written by Patricia Reilly Giff. It was my first introduction to what foster care was, written from the perspective of a young girl placed in a new foster home. I grew up in a stable, loving home, and reading about a girl my age experiencing this was life-changing. I remember expressing curiosity about foster care to my parents, but I didn’t know anyone involved.

7 years later, I would attend Asbury University to earn my Bachelor’s in Fine Arts. On the first day of my first semester of college, I met my husband, Josiah. I can’t tell you exactly what happened, but I knew from the moment he sat down in the chair in front of me I was going to marry this man. After a year of friendship, we talked about dating. In our first conversation regarding whether we should date or not, I sat Josiah down and told him, ‘I will be a foster mother one day: I am called to it. So if this isn’t something you feel called to, then we probably shouldn’t date.’ Thankfully Josiah has experienced adoption within his own family and already felt called to raise children not biologically related to him.

After a few years of dating, we discussed getting married and starting our parenting journey when we were 27 years old. Spoiler alert — we are now married and have two foster children at 22. We got married in May of 2019, and it was the best decision we have ever made. Josiah is my biggest supporter and inspiration.

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll
Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

By August of that year, I was ready to be a foster mother. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t content with my life, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t fulfilled with my family and my job. But every time I would look into a child’s eyes I would think, ‘If they needed a home right now, would I pick them up and care for them as if they were my own?’ The answer was always yes. If my own family, for some reason, could not take care of their children, I would immediately open up my home without question, so why couldn’t I do this for my neighbors as well?

I opened up the conversation with Josiah, who is the thoughtful, critical-decision-maker in our relationship. An attachment was the first issue we would discuss. How do you care for a child for anywhere from a few days to a few years without getting attached? You don’t — you get attached almost immediately. It was a scary possibility that not only we would be parents without experience, but we would be parents to children who were not ours.

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

Josiah was hesitant, as any normal person would be. But being the supportive and faith-driven man that he is, he agreed to attend an informational meeting. August of 2019, we attended our first meeting and received our first three-inch-thick stack of paperwork. Within ten minutes of the meeting, I started filling out the paperwork, why wait? ‘I am ready now,’ I thought.

In the meeting, we learned the statistics of neglected and abused children in our state and the numbers left some shocked, others teary. I believe some people choose to ignore the reality of child abuse in their neighborhoods because it is easier to turn away. Once you hear the stories and you see the children, there is never any going back.

From that class on, we attended two more 9-hour classes as well as 15 hours of online seminars. We had three home studies, where they inspect the safety of your house. We even had mental and physical evaluations done to make sure we were stable enough to support these children. Becoming a foster parent is, in theory, supposed to take anywhere from 3-6 months. It took us one year to become certified. There was always another stack of paperwork, always another class that needed updated, always another evaluation. But we kept saying, ‘This will be worth it.’ And I can confidently say, now, that was the easy part of being a foster parent.

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll
Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

Exactly one year and two days later, we received our first placement call. It was a sibling set, a girl and a boy, both under the age of 4. I was hesitant, two children? From our classes, I knew sibling sets were hard to place and often ended up being separated. We couldn’t let these children be separated, so we said yes and made our way to the hospital at 10 p.m.

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

My heart was fluttering and my palms were sweating as we walked up to that hospital room where two sweet children were sitting in bed, surrounded by play-dough, unaware of where they were going and who was taking them. No seminar or evaluation can prepare you for looking in an abused child’s eyes and seeing them smile, despite their limited experience of love. We drove them home, showed them our house, their beds, their toys, and slept on their floor all night to make sure they knew they were safe.

I knew parenting a neglected or abused child would be a challenge, but I was not prepared for the conversations I would be having with these children. Sure, I bought children’s books to explain foster care and read up myself on parenting a child with trauma and both behavioral and developmental delays. But these children know more than we give them credit for. When we first brought the children home, we told them we were mommy’s and daddy’s friends and they were going to stay with us until mommy and daddy weren’t sick anymore. This is the closest to the truth we could get for a child to understand. Being sick is something a four-year-old child can understand, and it isn’t far from what happens to parents who cannot care for their children like they should.

The first week of being a foster parent was truly unimaginable. Our families supported our decision to be foster parents and reached out to ask how we were. I honestly cannot tell you how we survived that week. Imagine two children who have never had a bed, let alone a bedtime, they have never seen a vegetable or a toothbrush, they aren’t potty trained, and the sound of anything new is a trigger for a tantrum. Now, imagine these children are placed into a home where we go to bed when the sun goes down, we eat food besides candy and soda, we brush our teeth and take a bath, we go potty in the toilet, and there are a thousand new smells and sounds.

As you can imagine, there are unending tantrums and aggression. But these children are not trying to anger us: they are scared and don’t understand where these new rules came from. They want their mommy, and you can’t give that to them. With week one over, we sat down and cried. We contemplated telling the social worker we couldn’t do it, we couldn’t go from a quiet stable marriage to parents of two traumatized children. But every time we would cry ourselves to sleep, we would wake up and feed them cereal, brush their teeth, read them books, hug them when they screamed, forgive them when they hit us, explain a million times that candy gives us sugar bugs and we can’t have any right now, and most of all — show them love.

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

There have been a hundred less than perfect moments. There have been times when I lost my temper when my favorite furniture was covered in pee. There have been plenty of times in the grocery store when they saw a can of soda and kicked me, spiraling out of control and I was yelled at by a grocery attendant to ‘control my children.’ I have said ‘no’ too much. I have forgotten what these children have been through. But each time, I learn from it and promise to do better next time.

The hardest thing about being a foster parent is you are not their parent. We had our first parent visitation the second week they were with us. I was nervous, but if I knew then what I knew now, I probably would have cried, and believe me, I did cry — for days. As the children saw their parents for the first time in over a week, they were so happy they were jumping for joy. It was such a beautiful thing to see a family come together between all the hugs and kisses. For a moment, I remembered why I began my foster care journey. I want to support this — family.

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll
Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

But one hour later, as I chased down the older child and pulled him away from his mother as the social worker walked them to their car, I lost all hope for the good that can come from being a foster parent. There is a special kind of heartbreak that comes with seeing a mother and her children cry for each other. No one should have to experience it, and yet these children experience it every single week for the foreseeable future. During that first visit, I reassured their mother that her children loved her, I loved her, and I told them that every single day.

I am fairly confident being a foster parent is the hardest thing I will ever do, but it is also the best thing I will ever do. Every hour when the children cry for their mommy I re-explain to them their mommy and daddy are working hard to make sure they can care for them. We plan our future around the unknown of how long these children will be in our lives. We schedule appointments 6 months into the future, not knowing if we will be the ones taking them.

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

But as these children navigate their new normal, we do our best to love them simply one day at a time. And day by day we gain their trust. Every day we remind ourselves to do the best we can with what we have. We remember our love is never wasted on those who need love.

If I could leave you with one thing I wish the world understood about foster care, it is that the parents of these children are not inadequate, they are simply unsupported. I have had total strangers, upon realizing these children are in foster care, tell me that they hope I get to adopt these children. I always reply by saying, ‘I hope not. It isn’t that these aren’t sweet children completely worthy of my unending love, but their mother loves them in a way only she could, and that is where they belong.’ The parents are not the enemy in this story. The system that abandons these parents and allows them to fall through the cracks of poverty and insufficient education is the true enemy. As neighbors, we must support these parents just as much as we support these children because without them, there will be no family to break the cycle of their parents before them.

Living with children in foster care is such a paradox: you parent the children of other parents. It never leaves my mind for a second that these are not my children. I love them, I am attached to them, and it will break my heart when they go back to their mother. But it will be sewn back together by the knowledge that a family has been restored, and I was a part of that.”

Courtesy of Savannah Barkdoll

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Savannah Barkdoll of Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her journey on her Instagram accounts here, here, and here. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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‘Can I call my mom?’ My heart breaks. ‘No, not right now.’ I can’t give him what he really needs, the love and support of his own mother.’: Single foster, adoptive dad admits ‘I feel guilty’

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‘He said, ‘Mommy sad.’ We wouldn’t see our son again. The truth was, he was never ours.’: Child abuse survivor advocates for foster son ‘no matter the cost’

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