‘We’re going to miss you. Will you visit us one day?’ It was time to take them home to their parents, for good. As I drove away, the tears came flooding.’: Single foster dad shares emotional reunification journey 

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“I always wanted to be a dad. At 25 years old, I thought maybe this would happen in the next five years. But by age 35 and no children, I understood I was on a different path. This was okay with me, as I’ve always been hesitant in regard to the traditional rules about how to have a family.

Here’s why: I grew up seeing my mother being treated like a third-class citizen by my father. In my home, abuse was the norm; love and nurturing were not. Having been raised without a good example, I always worried I might not know how to be the best dad or husband. I knew my life would be different and I would come to have a family in a non-traditional way.

When I came to the U.S., I realized even though I was not married and had no children yet, I could still be a dad. This is when I decided to foster. It has been such an incredible honor to open my door and meet a little boy or girl who has never seen me before, but is willing to come into my home to find safety. They are often afraid, but they want to be loved while also hoping one day they’ll go home and receive the same kind of love and safety there.

When I began this journey, I understood being a foster dad meant I’d be helping kids who need a stable home while their parents worked toward a better life for their children. I knew my role was to take care of the babies while the parents took care of themselves, and one day when the parents were ready, I would faithfully give the children back to them. Over time, I have come to understand it is my job not only to foster the children, but to foster the family as a whole.

As a foster parent, you get attached. You love every child, and as your love grows, you wish they could stay forever. You begin to wish maybe somehow you really could be their dad. But in time, you get a phone call saying the parents are ready to talk with their child. The calls begin to come more frequently, and sometimes the parents begin to visit. You realize the chances of adopting this child are close to zero. You’re reminded of your role, and you begin to refocus on the best way to foster this child happily back into their parents’ arms. I’ve learned the only way to do this is to embrace the parents with the same open heart I offer their children.

When you foster, you love all of your kids as though they’re your own. You feed them, clothe them, teach them. You sit with them through restless sleep and nightmares. You love them through the darkness of trauma. You run to them on days when they’ve been at school and are waiting just to hug you. You see they find joy in your attachment, while knowing in the back of your mind you will only be able to love them for a short time.

Courtesy of Peter Mutabazi

How do I manage these conflicting emotions? I love my kids in the moment. I accept their trauma and their history and their families. I care for them when they’re in pain and when they’re in laughter. I hold them when their parents don’t show up for a visit. When they wait all night for a phone call from their mom or dad and it doesn’t happen, I tell them it’s going to be okay. I love them so dearly because holding back would be so much less than they deserve. It becomes my daily battle knowing I will soon have to let a child, and my attachment to them, go.

Courtesy of Peter Mutabazi

For the past ten months I have fostered a seven-year-old (he just turned eight). He’s one of a sibling trio. I couldn’t take all three siblings at once, so my best friend, who is also a foster parent, took the girls and I took the boy. Our close proximity means I’ve been able to provide respite care for the girls and they’ve seen their brother often.

Courtesy of Peter Mutabazi

Over the past few months, my foster son visited his parents every weekend in preparation for his return home. Every Friday night I’d say goodbye, knowing I would have him back on Sunday. It was always a joy to see him excited to come back to me. He’d tell me what he missed and everything he did with his parents. I loved seeing him happy, but in the back of my mind I thought about how one of those weekends, he wouldn’t be coming back.

As a foster parent, you learn about the children’s parents and how their kids ended up in foster care. I don’t ever judge. I understand anything can happen to anyone. We never know what causes people to make certain decisions. We can’t understand their experiences. My job is not to judge parents, but to help them by caring for their babies. I do everything possible to foster their relationship with their kids while they’re in my care. No matter what the history, it’s always a good thing when parents want to be in their children’s lives.

Last week, it was time to take the three children home to their parents for good. It was a difficult week for me, and bittersweet. It’s been such a joy having them in my home, and it was equally heartbreaking to let them go. When the day arrived, I gathered all of the positivity I could. I went into my room to cry privately at intervals throughout the morning. Eventually I gathered myself, loaded the kids and their belongings into the car, and we began the three-hour drive. As with any family road trip, there were many stops and a few backseat arguments. The kids told me what they were going to do with their parents, and that they were going to miss me. They asked me if I was going to visit them one day. I promised them I would.

Courtesy of Peter Mutabazi

When we finally arrived at their house, seeing their parents so happy and excited to see them brought me joy, but also imparted the reality this was the end of my being a dad to these little ones. They would no longer shout out to me when they were hungry. They would no longer run to me for hugs. As they carried their belongings from the car into their bedrooms, I was happy to see a different life for them, but beneath my smiles, my heart ached.

The kids I have considered my own for the better part of a year will now live differently, eat differently, sleep differently, and live in a different community, but they have a mom and dad who love them. I teared up hearing them asking their parents to fulfill requests I normally would. But in hearing this, I also understood it was time for me to go. As I drove away, the tears came flooding. I felt peace knowing I had done some good for this family. I hope our relationship will continue. It is comforting to know I can call or visit, and they may even come to my home for a sleepover.

Courtesy of Peter Mutabazi

Something about this goodbye has cemented for me that as a foster dad, I am in service to the whole family. I didn’t foster just one child, and his sisters in respite care. By caring for the children while their parents settled, I fostered the future of a family.

Seeing them together again gives me more drive to foster more children, and to continue to build bridges between myself and their parents. Part of loving my foster kids is believing their parents can recover from difficulty. When I return children that I have loved and nurtured as my own, I have to trust their parents will be the best they can be. If not, I will always be here, with open arms and heart.”

Courtesy of Peter Mutabazi

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Peter Mutabazi. You can follow his journey on Instagram and YouTube. Submit your own story here.

Read Peter’s incredible backstory here:

PART ONE: ‘My father sent me out for cigarettes. I decided to run away. I needed to find a place he’d never find me.’: Man rescued from abusive family, returns favor by fostering children in need

PART TWO: ‘At 11, his adoptive parents abandoned him at a hospital, never to return. ‘Mr. Peter, can I call you my Dad?’ I began to cry uncontrollably.’: Single dad adopts 11-year-old boy from foster care after biological, adoptive family abandon him

PART THREE: ‘Would you be willing to take in a 7-year-old boy during quarantine?’ I knew it was a risk, but I also knew all he needed was love.’: Single adoptive, foster dad says ‘my house is not a blessing unless it’s shared’

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