What I learned from being a 25-year-old foster mom
I remember when I first had the idea that I wanted to be a foster parent. It was courtesy of the books A Child Called “It “and The Lost Boy by Dave Pelzer, heavy stuff about his experience with child abuse and recovering to the strong adult he is today. In one scene of The Lost Boy, there was a section about the foster parents who were working hard to do good by the children in their care, and one particular woman who rocked babies born with cocaine in their systems when they couldn’t sleep. Her image stuck with me. I knew I wanted to be one of them.
Fast forward several years, and here I am, a foster parent— not one to make it into the section of “phenomenal foster parents” at the back of a book by any means, but a foster parent nonetheless. For nine months now I have been a single parent to two children. For the seven months prior to that, I lived with three other women, and we worked in shifts of two to care for the four children in our house. I work as an intern for an organization called Casa de Esperanza de los Ninos, or House of Hope for Children. It’s a place run by generous, thoughtful people, and they work hard to take care of the foster parents and the children in their care.
Here’s the setup: There’s gated neighborhood with houses for residential interns to live in while they care for the children who need it. Most interns stay for a year and then go on to grad school or some other job. A few of us stay six months to a year longer, and a very few stay on for years more. This is slightly different from what most people think of when they hear the phrase “foster parent.” We don’t own our homes, and we aren’t married. In fact, most of the interns come directly from college (though, again, there are a few of us who took a year or three to find this place after graduating). It’s a young group caring for young children.
Before I got here, my story didn’t waver much. I had always liked working with children, and felt it was my calling to foster them in some way, whether in a group home or in my own. I had worked with kids as a nanny, a preschool aid, a babysitter, a volunteer, and a community worker— wherever I was, I found some way to work with children. About the time I read Dave Pelzer’s books, I also decided that I wouldn’t ever have my own children. I would adopt them. I felt that since there are so many children in the world who don’t have anyone to care for them, it made more sense for me to love those instead of having my own.
To say I’m an idealist is an understatement. I’ve even joined the Peace Corps and lived in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia for two years, where I worked as a youth development volunteer. Though I had hoped to work with youth, I found myself working more with teachers to train them to work with the youth. It was good practice for some unforeseeable future professional job, but I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. So when I came back, I found this organization in Houston, Texas that works with the youngest of all youth (0-6 year-olds). I thought I had found my home.
This is where any idealistic visions I managed to cling to got a kick in the pants. As all parents can attest, the insights you gain about yourself from parenting are not always pretty. Living in a yurt alone in the desert forced me to get to know myself on a level I didn’t know was possible, but single parenting has forced me to come to terms with some aspects of myself that I could not have faced any other way. It hasn’t been easy. There were days I questioned if I would survive to the next one, let alone till the end of my contract. There have been moments when the love I believed I had toward all children was buried somewhere underneath the frustration and fatigue and annoyances that come with the territory of having children. That image I held for so long of the woman quietly and devotedly rocking those babies to sleep was quickly corrected. But no matter how messy the details were, how much the picture deviated from my expectations, I’m so grateful for the experience.
At the end of June, I will pack up and move out. My contract will end, and the children in my care will move to different homes. By that time, I will have been a single parent for almost a year. Though I had seven months of shift-parenting before becoming a single parent, I learned the most— and the hardest—lessons after making the move. I learned that it’s easier to judge when you’re outside of something, whether that be parenting, the foster care system, or any other situation. Not only do you begin to realize that everything is much more complicated than it appears, but you also have a hard time judging others anymore. I now know how heavy a certain weight can be. I have more compassion for people.
I’ve also learned how to let myself change my mind, to admit to myself that the image of the Adult Me I had for years does not match up with who I turned out to be, and to let that be OK. This lesson was probably the hardest one I’ve had to learn. I no longer have the desire to parent any child anymore. I still enjoy children and will love being an aunt some day; I have even more gratitude to my parents and grandparents for going through the mess of parenting to raise me, and I am in awe of all parents, biological and foster, who do this day in and day out throughout the entirety of their children’s lives. But I won’t be doing that.
The guilt I carry for leaving the children I have and for not caring for more beyond my time here will stay with me, I know, and I think it’s better that way. It will be something I keep inside to hold me accountable, to use as a way to devote my energies for the social good in a more personally sustainable way. I just don’t know what that looks like right now. Regardless of how difficult some of my experiences have been, I’m thankful. I still have a great capacity to love. But that love might look different than I imagined it under the harsh light of reality than it does in the soft glow of dreams. My path—my version of fulfillment— is taking a different direction than I expected. I’m simply choosing to follow it.
(Image via Shutterstock)