“My decision to become a foster parent didn’t start like that of most other foster parents I know. I didn’t decide to do foster care after experiencing years of infertility, or after hearing a moving sermon at church. I didn’t spend months discussing the decision with my husband, because I didn’t have one. The decision to become a foster parent happened like a lot of other life decisions have happened for me: at what pretty much everyone else would call the worst possible time.
I was paying my dues as a student-teacher by day and working as a part-time nanny in the afternoons and evenings. I was exhausted but exhilarated to be putting everything I’d learned about teaching students with disabilities into practice. One fall day, about a month into student teaching, I collapsed, exhausted, onto my desk chair, and opened my laptop to work on lesson plans while inhaling a peanut butter sandwich. At the neighboring desk, Frank, the kindly but rather sleepy older man who had been substitute teaching in our classroom that day, was eating his own lunch. This guy was a total dad type so of course, he started asking me all kinds of questions about my future plans. Did I want kids? Was I married?
I had always wanted to be a mom, and I had never loved the idea of waiting around for Mr. Right to come along. Adoption was a big dream of mine, but ever since doing more research about the cost and travel involved with international adoption, I had resigned myself to the fact, on a teacher’s salary, that dream would have to wait. As I babbled about this to Frank, I expected him to react like everyone else: confused, weirded out, and questioning why I didn’t want my ‘own kids.’
But Frank surprised me: ‘Have you ever thought about foster care?’
I hadn’t. I explained to him I was only twenty years old and would only be able to afford a small rental apartment in a low-income neighborhood after graduating with my teaching degree. Wouldn’t I need to wait until I was older, more stable, more like everyone else I knew who was a foster parent? According to Frank, the answer was no. He excitedly shared with me about his foster care journey. I had definitely misjudged this sleepy dad type. Before I knew it, he was shoving the classroom landline into my hand and dialing his agency’s number. On the other end of the line, a chipper social worker assured me Frank was right: I could start foster parenting classes right away since I would turn 21 by the time I was licensed (the minimum age for a foster parent in the state of Ohio). She assured me the county wouldn’t give a damn about a small apartment or the fact I was single: they needed foster parents, like, yesterday.
The next thing I knew, I was fitting foster parenting classes in on the evenings and weekends on top of student teaching and babysitting. I was slowly learning foster parenting was not anything like international adoption. In fact, adoption wasn’t supposed to be the point of foster care at all. That didn’t stop other future foster parents from focusing on that possibility, though. In fact, I was finding I had a lot less in common with my fellow foster parents to be than I had thought I would. I was often the only single woman in the room, and I was always the youngest person at any training.
But the biggest difference went deeper than that. A lot of these people had no intention of supporting the struggling parents of these children in their healing. Most of them made more money than I would ever see on a teacher’s salary, and I never met another family at training who lived in the city like I did. They were all suburbia, all the way. Even those who seemed somewhat open to the idea of reunification (foster children returning home) still had the ultimate goal of adoption in mind. I figure being more down to earth and less privileged than the rest of them would make it easy for me to be a great foster parent. And then I got my first two kids and realized I had no idea what I was doing.
I’ll never forget meeting them for the first time. The intake worker called about one child with intellectual disabilities, but by the time I arrived at the children’s services office, they had called me back. There were two brothers. They had asked the older child if he would rather be placed in a home quicker, on his own, but he told them no. He wanted to wait for his brother.
Both kids were terrified. Little brother, 5 years old, was crouched underneath the seats in the waiting area, and he did not feel like coming out. Big brother stared at me with huge eyes, his whole body wary. The intake social worker talked like an auctioneer. I couldn’t believe how fast our conversation was. I was horrified to hear about what these two small people had been through, and immediately felt righteous anger rising up inside me, as well as an instinct to protect them from the person who had made the choices that led to this: their mother. Within 10 minutes, I had signed the intake paperwork and was officially in charge of two little lives. I navigated getting them into the car, called for pizza on the way home, and got them fed, cleaned up, and put to bed at a semi-decent hour before collapsing on the couch, exhausted. They’d eaten nothing but pizza and more pizza, they hadn’t been bathed, and little brother had cried himself to sleep in my arms. Things were far from perfect, but I was doing it. I was a mama! Then my phone rang. It was reality calling, in the form of the person who actually held that title: their biological mom.
The social worker had given her my number, and she was just calling to make sure the boys were okay. She was crying, the kind of tears where you can barely breathe. Even though their family had had a preemptive safety plan for a while, even though she had to have known the problems in her home were getting pretty serious, she was still in shock her babies had been taken from her. Law enforcement had removed the boys from their schools, so it was a terrible shock for her to come home and find a social worker waiting at the door to explain they wouldn’t be getting off their school bus that day. My heart caught in my throat as I listened to her tears, the sound so similar to the cries of her small child who I’d rocked to sleep just minuted before.
In between trying to get her breath she sobbed defeatedly into the phone, words I’ll never forget: ‘You must think I’m such a monster.’
I had, I admit it. For a moment, I had allowed myself to forget about the challenges she must have walked to bring her to a moment like this, to losing her children. In the moment when she needed someone in her corner the most, I had thought the worst of her. But I didn’t think that anymore. I promised her I didn’t see her as a monster, only a human being who had lost her way, and I would be there for the boys and for her, for as long as it took.
What was predicted to be a short case ended up getting longer and longer still. I found myself with plenty of time to turn my words into actions as I struggled to learn to love and support my boys’ mom, even when she made choices that were harmful to the boys, or when she and I disagreed on how they should be raised. She had created and carried them with her body, and yet I was the one there every day, wiping up messes and tying up laces and picking up the pieces of their hearts. As the months turned into a year and very little had changed, thoughts of a different path kept creeping into my head: would these boys be better off with me forever?
The day of our one-year court date came and things looked bleak for the boys’ mom. The county told her if certain things didn’t change quickly, she would lose her boys. That night at our visit, she looked at me with shining eyes.
‘Lauren, if I can’t get them back, would you… adopt them? I know they’re a handful, and I don’t want them to get bounced around or like, separated.’ Her voice was choked with tears. She could barely even put to words her biggest fear: losing her title of mother forever. But still, she was brave and selfless. She was still able to put her boys and their needs above herself and her feelings. This was the moment I’d been dreaming of. I looked over at them playing, the two children I’d devoted a year of my life and my whole heart to, and then back at her face, which echoed theirs. I was about to tell her how much I would love to adopt them, how I thought it would be good to have the boys out of the system at last, and how we could have the most amazing open adoption. The words were right there, all I had to do was say them, and the entire story could shift in my favor.
Then, as I looked into her eyes, I saw their eyes. Their eyes when we explained to them that they would never again live with their mama. Their eyes when others asked them why they had a white mom, their faces as they kept trying to justify their family to others for the rest of their lives. Their eyes when others asked them why they no longer understood their family’s native language of Spanish. Their eyes when they asked me, years from now when they towered taller than me, if I had done everything I could to help their mama regain custody, way back then. What would I tell them if I took this easy out now? How could I look into those dark eyes, more precious to me than any others, and tell them I hadn’t fought for her?
I looked at her and said, with my heart aching, ‘Of course the boys will always have a place with me, but this isn’t the end. You have to fight.’
And fight she did. It was another whole year before they got their happy ending, but 25 months after they came to my home, those beautiful boys went home to theirs. Days before Christmas with snow falling thick outside the window, I hugged them goodbye and then hugged the bravest person I had ever met: their mama.
My decision to become a foster parent didn’t mirror that of most other foster parents I know, but I’m hoping the decisions I’ve made throughout the journey will become more common. I know firsthand how hard it is when foster parents are faced with the choice of encouraging an ending or fighting for a new beginning that seems, at times, impossible. It can feel so tempting to fight for ourselves, for what we think is best: the child we love, close to us forever. It can be too easy to let that dream overshadow other dreams, dreams of families healed and generations of unhealthy patterns shifted. Foster parents, I’m humbly asking you to please not make that mistake. Keep choosing to hope for healing, and fight for it as long as you possibly can. I’ll always be so grateful I did. ”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lauren Flynn. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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