‘What if I stick with our plan even though he’s gone? Could I do it alone?’: Young widow shares journey becoming foster mom

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How We Met

“Leaving my college roommate’s rehearsal dinner in Seattle, WA, I closed the car door and thought, ‘Did I just meet the man I’m going to marry?’ It was August 22, 2014, and I had recently moved away from Seattle, back home to southern California to pursue my master’s in teaching. I made a quick trip back, not knowing my life was about to change forever. At the wedding the next day, I tried to focus on the bride, but couldn’t stop thinking about Matt, the groom’s friend who was kind, hilarious, and had a smile that lit up a room. We chatted some more and I discovered he had recently moved to Los Angeles to work with the Special Olympics World Games. We made tentative plans to meet up the following weekend and he said he’d find me on Facebook. I went to bed that night without a friend request, but woke up to a middle of the night message: ‘Sorry it took me so long to find you! Can’t wait to hang out next weekend!’ My heart did a flip and my stomach was full of butterflies. I carried that feeling with me for months.

Young couple walks down the street holding hands and looking at each other.
Courtesy of Bob Adams Photography

From our first date we were inseparable and I’ve always loved to tell our story. We obnoxiously loved doing everything together — traveling, running errands, helping at church, studying, watching movies, going to Disneyland — whether it was a simple day at home or an extravagant adventure abroad, we loved being together. We discussed having children from the very beginning of our relationship. We talked about getting married and having a family before we had even officially said, ‘I love you,’ to each other!

On a crisp, sunny December day in 2015, we were married in our beautiful church, full of poinsettias, twinkly lights, and a couple hundred people. It was perfect. Before the wedding, someone asked me what I loved about him. I thought saying ‘everything’ might be a little cliché, even though it was true, so I said it was his heart for people. He really never met a stranger and was kind to everyone. He could easily converse with someone 50 years older and then turn around and make a shy toddler laugh. Everyone loved him, young and old, coworkers, family, friends, baristas…really everyone. I felt so fortunate he had chosen me, and we had decided to build our life together.

Young couple take wedding picture together.
Courtesy of Bob Adams Photography

Matt was by far the most thoughtful person I’ve ever met. He’d surprise me with little gifts for no reason, sneak notes into my lunchbox when I wasn’t looking, and always made sure I fell asleep before him because I hate being awake alone. Whenever we were on vacation, he usually wanted to walk places saying, ‘Oh, it’s not that far!’ One time when we were in Barcelona, we accidentally turned down a street that took us straight up a hill. It was ridiculously hot and I wanted to turn around and go back. Reading my mind, he softly said, ‘You can do it. I’ll help.’ So he walked behind me with his hand on my lower back, gently pushing me up the hill. The perfect symbolism for all the ways he took care of me. We continued traveling to places like Paris, Stockholm, Tokyo, New York, the Grand Canyon, and more — always planning where we’d go next. We saved up to buy a home and even planned on working together in education.

Husband and wife take smiling picture standing together on vacation.
Courtesy of Emily S.
Young couple take winter picture standing outside in the snow on one of their many adventures together.
Courtesy of Emily S.
Couple take picture together in front of Disneyland castle.
Courtesy of Emily S.

Why Us?

But everything changed when Matt’s back started hurting and the pain wouldn’t go away. On December 26, 2018, we had an appointment with a spine specialist to figure out what was wrong. We thought maybe it was nerve damage or a severely pulled muscle. Oh how wrong we were. He had a tumor that metastasized on his spine. It was the size of a walnut, but in a few weeks it’d grow to be the size of a peach. The doctor also showed us scans of his liver and explained it was full of tumors. Not just one or two, but too many to count. I thought, ‘Why us? Why is my perfect, healthy husband full of cancer for no reason at all?’

Couple stand together at the beach, holding their shoes as they stand in the sand.
Courtesy of Emily S.

I close my eyes now and can see every aspect of those next six weeks as my life crumbled before me. I remember how all of a sudden he couldn’t walk, the smell of the hospital hand sanitizer, the sight of dozens of IVs hooked up to his arms and chest, the taste of the cafeteria macaroni and cheese he would order to his room for me. It’s forever seared in my memory.

We were living a nightmare and didn’t even know how bad it was. Every doctor and specialist made us feel like he could fight it. That we could win the cancer battle. After all, Matt was young and healthy and there was no good explanation for why this was happening. I wouldn’t even let him start a conversation with, ‘If I die..’ I wasn’t prepared for that. We really only talked about what we’d do ‘when’ he was better and continued praying for complete healing.

But on February 5, 2019, I woke up and I knew something was different… and not in a good way. He had been intubated a few days before to help the stress on his lungs. He’d been getting dialysis because his kidneys were shutting down. His body was in septic shock. He wasn’t even strong enough to start chemo. Nothing was working anymore and I knew he was done. That day our close friends and family gathered in the ICU and, at 4:32 p.m., said goodbye to the best person I’ve ever known.

The following months are a blur. I moved home to be with my parents and spent a lot of time watching ‘New Girl,’ going to Disneyland alone, and reading books on grief. Not only was I grieving the loss of my husband, but the loss of the future I was supposed to have with him. The family. The children. The life I had always wanted. My home felt empty and useless. I had no idea what to do next. In the midst of my immediate grief, I went back to work just 8 days after he died. I needed a distraction and my kindergarten students were perfect for that.

Young widow wearing pink Disney hat takes a selfie at Disneyland.
Courtesy of Emily S.

Becoming A Mom

About nine months after Matt died, I started looking into ways to become a mom on my own. I won’t ever know if we would have been able to have biological children together, but we always discussed foster care or adoption if that didn’t work for us. I’ve never felt a strong desire to experience pregnancy, so I thought, ‘What if I stick with our plan even though he’s gone? Could I do it alone? Would I be allowed to? How would it work practically?’

In February of 2020, I went to an orientation meeting and started the training classes the following week. I jumped in with both feet and didn’t look back. I was so nervous telling my friends and family about the idea of becoming a foster mom. Most were enthusiastically excited for me, while others were a little more skeptical. Some even said, ‘Why would you do that? You have so much freedom now!’ But I didn’t want freedom. I wanted to be a mom.

The licensing process to become a foster parent is no joke: 36 hours of prep classes; fingerprinting; CPR and First Aid training; creating a 5-day emergency kit; vehicle safety check; medical exam; rearranging my home; locking up sharps and medicines; buying beds, cribs, and car seats; cleaning out closets; and all the paperwork. So. Much. Paperwork. I was almost finished when the world shut down because of covid. Everything was put on hold and I was devastated. Frustrated that no matter what I said or did, nothing could move forward. Finally, in July of 2020, I was a licensed foster parent. I was thrilled but also incredibly anxious for what the future would hold.

Young widow holds up letter board announcing becoming a licensed foster mom.
Courtesy of Emily S.

Months passed with no phone calls. I thought, ‘Did they lose my number?’ But on October 23rd, I had just gotten home from Trader Joe’s, made a salad for dinner, and sat down to watch Jeopardy. That’s when my phone rang. It wasn’t the agency number I had saved in my phone, it was a random local number, but I thought I’d answer it anyway. It turned out to be the on-call social worker asking if I could take two sisters, a newborn and 10-month-old. I immediately said yes and called my mom in tears, ‘Can you run to the store for diapers and formula? I’ve got babies coming tonight.’ Needless to say, I never finished that salad.

My world was flipped upside down with appointments, phone calls, and social worker visits. Not only was I navigating life in foster care, I was also parenting two babies by myself and teaching virtually. Thank goodness for the help and support of my parents, but I was exhausted and missing my husband. He was supposed to be here for this. We were supposed to do this together.

Foster mom takes picture with young foster girl crouching down outside.
Courtesy of Elisabeth Girke Photography

My journey with these two babies only lasted 26 days. On the night of my 30th birthday, I got a call from the social worker, ‘Grandma cleared the background check. I’ll be by your house in the morning around 9 a.m. to get the girls. Please have all their things ready to go.’ I knew this was the plan, it was never a secret or a surprise, but I still sobbed. These sweet babies had made me a mom and I loved them so. That night we cuddled while I cried, but the next day I was filled with joy. It felt so bizarre to be happy about saying goodbye, but they didn’t need me anymore. They had a family who loved them and could take care of them. A good reminder that the goal of foster care is always reunification first.

Single foster mom holds baby sisters as she sits at table with cake and flowers for her 30th birthday.
Courtesy of Emily S.

A few more months passed and my phone rang a dozen times with calls for children. (One time I was even in the middle of a ride at Disneyworld, trying to figure out how to say yes and make it work when I got home!) Some I practically had to say no to as a solo parent who worked full-time. Others I said yes to, but they ended up not needing me. I knew my journey in foster care wasn’t over, but I didn’t know what was next.

Young widow stands in front of Disneyland castle and takes picture by herself.
Courtesy of Emily S.

On the night of April 1, 2021, I was getting ready for bed when my agency called asking if I could take a 2-month-old and a 14-month-old, both girls. I jokingly said, ‘Wait, didn’t I already say yes to this last fall?’ The social worker laughed saying I must be the house that takes baby sisters, and asked if I could go pick them up at the county office. A few minutes before midnight I met Cupcake and Jellybean (the social media names I gave them to protect their privacy) and once again my world was changed.

Foster mom shows side by side pictures of two different sets of baby sister she took in a year apart.
Courtesy of Emily S.

With every new placement comes a period of adjustment. What did they like/dislike? What schedule worked best for them? Did they have any health concerns? What did they know? We met with social workers weekly, got all their doctors appointments taken care of, went shopping for lots of new clothes and some toys, and settled into a routine as a family of three.

An Unknown Future

A big part of the reunification process is that children in foster care have visits with their biological family. Through their weekly visits, I’ve gotten to know their mom and many other extended family members. We chat and talk about how much the girls have grown and what they like now. While the visits usually go well, afterwards can be very difficult on them, needing extra cuddles and attention. Since they are still young, they don’t have the words to say, ‘I’m confused. I’m sad. I’m frustrated.’ Not knowing the future can be hard on all of us.

Single foster mom takes picture with baby sisters in stroller at Disneyland.
Courtesy of Emily S.

People outside of foster care sometimes don’t understand that reunification is the ultimate goal for these children. They are my babies and I love them deeply, so yes, I will be devastated when they go home. But I will also be so happy. It can be both. I can encourage their bio mom and root for her to succeed while also enjoying being a ‘right now’ mom to these girls. I can be sad and happy, excited and nervous, hesitant and confident, all at the same time.

Even though I’m busy being a mom and a teacher, not a day goes by where I don’t miss my husband. I wish he was still here and wonder what he would think of me parenting on my own. He would have been a fantastic dad. Knowing my girls may not stay forever puts a different spin on being a mom, but reminds me once again that nothing in life is certain. Life is short and everything can change in the blink of an eye. Every day is another chance for me to share love and kindness wherever I go, to make the world a little bit better, and to cherish each moment I have with the people I love the most.”

Baby sisters in foster care take picture in cute dresses standing in front of house.
Courtesy of Emily S.
Foster sisters stand behind fence looking at the Mickey Mouse roller coaster at Disneyland.
Courtesy of Emily S.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emily S. of Riverside, CA. You can follow her journey on Instagram. 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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