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Irises for Baby L: Thoughts from His Foster Mama

Providing foster care for a needy child. That shouldn’t be so hard, right? The baby arrives. You start caring for him. Then when it is time you just send him on, knowing you did something really important in the child’s life,right? Well, in reality it isn’t that simple. During the process of grieving the loss of my little foster son, someone said to me, “We aren’t wired to be foster parents. We are wired to be parents.” I believe that is true. We are supposed to love the people we care for. We want to nurture and protect and care for them. We are not “wired” to care for a child temporarily and then simply let him go. However, I also believe there are people who can be good foster parents, and some who do it multiple times, but at the risk of their own hearts.

Last summer, I received a baby boy to foster, who was about seven weeks old. He was my first placement, and I will call him Baby L. It had been almost 15 years since I was the fulltime mom of an infant. But you don’t forget something like that. Even though I knew the plan was reunification, that didn’t stop me from loving Baby L. And as time went on, it most certainly did not keep him from loving me.

Though he had visits with biological family members, he always came back “home” to us. I loved this little boy. He was a lot of work, but it was wonderful to watch him learn to do many things — clapping his hands, rolling over, crawling, the beginnings of language — showing in small ways that I was important to him. I remember one night months before I even knew when he would leave, getting him up one night when he was sleeping, just to hold him with tears in my eyes, knowing someday he would have to go.

When we had had him for 10 months, and just shortly before his first birthday, it started to look like he might be going back to family before too long. The week before his departure I was teary, but I thought that this would be the hardest part. Having the goodbye hanging over you is so hard. Two days before he left, I took the opportunity to spend some time alone with him. We went to see a favorite place of mine where there is a large plot of irises that bloom every year. We went to a park where he played and we had a little picnic. I will never forget this day, especially now that my memories of him will be tied to the irises there forever.

The morning of his departure arrived. He had recently turned one, and he had been with us for almost 11 months. He was to leave around noon, and my husband came home from work to be there. When they took Baby L out the door, my husband’s arms were there for me as I cried. I told him, “He may be their son and grandson, but he is MY baby.”

I have never had the experience of having a child I cared for die. Before Baby L left, a friend who has also fostered children told me having a child go is like a death. But I have never felt grief from a death like the grief I have experienced after he left. Maybe it is because most of the deaths I have experienced were older people and therefore seemed less tragic. I can see why a foster child leaving could be compared to a death. I miss him every day. I miss his smile. I miss his closeness.

As far as thinking the worst would be waiting to say goodbye, I was wrong. The time before was hard, but it is actually much worse after. I have desperately wanted to see him. I have cried so many tears and experienced depression. It has been a very difficult experience. And this story is really mostly about the feelings of the foster mom. It doesn’t say much about the experience from Baby L’s viewpoint. If he could talk and write, I am sure he would have profound things to relate from his experiences as he learned to love us but was taken away without being able to understand why.

I have shared this story as a tribute to the many foster mothers and fathers everywhere, including those fostering orphaned children in China. They deserve to be honored. We all want foster parents to truly love the children in their care. Yet after caring for them for weeks, months, and possibly years, they have to allow them to go, often to join another family through adoption. I am sure in some of these circumstances they experience extreme grief at this loss, like I have. I am also sure that children from the foster homes, where they have grown to love their families, also must feel so much pain, confusion, and loss to have their current world disappear in a moment. This must be especially true when they are too young to be told what is happening to them. Even when they can be told, it still must be so painful. As adoptive parents to children who had a life before us in China, we have to realize that real grief in their hearts is to be expected.

Foster care really is very important and greatly needed. It can be very effective in helping teach a child about love and family, provide the opportunity for security and attachment, and provide needed physical care for a child from a less-than-ideal situation. But I think it is important to remember that good foster care also often means that hearts will be broken when separation does occur.

~Suzanne Damstedt, Nutrition and Orphanage Assistance Director

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