‘We don’t have a dad here.’ I scrambled how to respond. I was by myself, thrown head first into parenting.’: Single mom fosters 18 children, adopts son, ‘Our heartbreak is worth it’

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“The little boy placed with our family this weekend asked my son Greyson why he does not have a dad, and then answered his own question by adding, ‘I bet he is in jail.’ My heart sank. I scrambled for how to respond, but my son came to the rescue with the frank sweetness only a five-year-old can pull off and said, ‘There’s lots of different families you know! Some don’t have a dad. We don’t have a dad here. But I kinda have a dad. I have my uncle and my grandpa.’ If there was ever a sign my son is just fine with our somewhat untraditional family, he had just handed it to me himself.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

I hadn’t ever really planned to build a family through foster care and adoption. In fact, for a long time, I hadn’t really planned to build a family. I loved kids and always had, but I could never manage to commit to a relationship, and I was fearful a chronic health condition made me an undesirable partner or less competent parent. I was pretty happy being single, and I filled my time with my career as a teacher, coaching, enjoying my nieces, and many other interests.

So, what changed? Oddly enough, it was an accomplishment that changed everything for me. I was recognized as my school district’s teacher of the year and later, as a semi-finalist for state teacher of the year. It was a wonderful honor, but it also sparked a sense of melancholy within me. I was thirty years old, and I kept wondering if, at thirty, I had reached my peak. I was filling my life with my career and a pretty obsessive goal to succeed at it, and arguably, I’d succeeded. So, now what?

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

Many people suggested I get my Ph.D., become an administrator, all the next steps on an educator’s career ladder. But when I thought about what I loved about my job, what made me good at it, I kept coming back to the kids. I realized I was playing a role in the lives of countless kids, but in doing so, I may have been missing out on something more. I had a warm house, a stable job, a good education, a strong support system, and even a sweet dog; and more and more it just started to seem like the logical and moral thing to do was to share all of that and begin to build a family. So, I started researching foster care.

I started taking classes to get licensed in the fall of 2016, and by January of 2017, I was licensed. In the same email that notified me I was officially licensed, I was also asked to consider taking Greyson as my first foster placement. Which means I went from getting licensed to being a single parent of a seventeen-month-old almost immediately! To say I was thrown headlong into parenting is an understatement. I was suddenly single-parenting a toddler (who had already had four other moms before me!), and still working full time. What I remember most about Greyson’s early days with me was it seemed like he came through my threshold running and then never stopped! He was happy, outgoing, full of energy, and oh-so-sweet. I fell instantly in love, even though I knew his plan was to return to his mother in about three months.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

Greyson did reunite with his mother after staying with me for a little over three months. There are no words to describe saying goodbye to your first baby, it was gut-wrenching. I spent the next three weeks in constant worry over how he was, jumping every time the phone rang out of hope it was an update, and staring at the last photo I had of him. Finally, three weeks after saying goodbye, the phone rang and it was DCF calling to let me know they had both Greyson and his older sister back in care. Could I take them both? I don’t even think I even took a breath before saying yes and then quite literally running out of work to get home to get them.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

I spent the next months parenting two toddlers who were only thirteen months apart in age and who had both lived through more trauma than you can imagine. I was in over my head. Again, thrown headlong into parenting. After a few months, his sister moved out of our house because she was on track to reunite with her father, while Greyson (who had a different father) would likely need an adoptive placement and therefore stayed.

I officially adopted Greyson last June. He was almost four years old on his adoption day and had been in foster care for over three of those years. I can’t really articulate how spectacular it was to officially become a family, all I can say is it was most definitely the happiest day of my life.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist
Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

As amazing as it is to be an official family, adopting Greyson did not magically erase his past. Adoption is beautiful, but it’s also full of unimaginable loss. I’ve learned loving a child with complex trauma takes an incredible amount of work, patience, and unwavering conviction that your child’s behavior is a symptom of their hurt and not an indication of their character or potential. We spent most of last year navigating the murky waters of loss and trauma, and I imagine to some extent, we always will. It often felt as though I was constantly in the trenches of parenting, helping my child battle invisible villains, with no real indication if we were winning or losing. It was exhausting.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist
Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

But over time, I’m noticing more and more small victories, and those small victories are finally adding up to big changes. And it no longer feels like we’re constantly in the trenches. It feels like we are winning, and that’s an amazing feeling. I can see that my son is getting better and better, together, we are conquering his demons, he is a good and caring boy; and I’m more proud of him than I ever was about anything I ever did for my career. He is my best choice and the love of my life, and being called mom is a million times better than being teacher of the year. I am so lucky to have him.

Not only am I lucky to have Greyson, but I’ve been blessed to have eighteen other foster kids over these past few years. Some for just a night, and others for much longer. ‘Champ’ has been with us since coming home from the hospital as a newborn, and is now a full-blown toddler. I’ve gotten all his firsts, I’ve held him more than any other child, I nursed him through sickness and fragility into the thriving toddler he is now, and I can’t imagine our lives without him. He’s all sunshine, sweetness, and spunk. His little grin and huge laugh illuminate our lives.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist
Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

But he is not ours to keep, even though I want to keep him more than anything else in the world. He’s taught me you can be both selfish and giving, you can care about your feelings and someone else’s too, you can be furiously mad and graciously forgiving, you can feel it all, and it’s all okay. We’ll likely have to say goodbye to ‘Champ’ in the coming months, and it pains me every day to think about the hole he will leave in our hearts.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist
Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

This hole is the main thing people comment on when chatting with me about our fostering journey. They marvel at how I can do it, they call me a hero and say they couldn’t do the same because they’d get too attached, and it would break their heart. I am not a hero, I am too attached, and it does break my heart. But fostering has forced me to see all the parts of the world most of us want to ignore. It has forced me to know and love children and families who need support and grace. And it breaks my heart far more to think of no one helping, to knowingly be aware of their plight and to do nothing.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

Foster care is messy, uncomfortable, and unpredictable, but it’s also gloriously wonderful. Our family has gotten to share so many of our blessings with children who need to know there are blessings and love to be shared. We have an amazing support system of family and friends whose help allows me to keep saying yes. To keep filling the gap for a while. There’s something really special about that.

I don’t know if kids will remember us or not, but I hope they remember something good about their time here. I hope they remember being wanted and welcome. I hope they remember someone packed them a homemade lunch and cooked family dinner. I hope they remember having plenty of clean clothes and a new pair of shoes. I hope they remember playing outside and going on adventures. I hope they remember having boundaries, expectations, and routines. I hope they remember being asked about school and having homework checked. I hope they remember foster grandparents, aunts, and uncles who spoiled them a bit. I hope they remember community. I hope they remember patience and love. And I think if one kid remembers one of those things, our heartbreak is worth it.

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist
Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

We are a foster family. There are over 400,000 kids in foster care in the USA. Please consider foster care.”

Courtesy of Jodi Okenquist

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jodi Okenquist of Granby, CT. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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