About a month ago an unfamiliar blue car pulled up in the driveway. The kids started yelling, “He’s here! He’s here!” and I ran (to know me is to know that I do NOT run) down the stairs, out the door and barefoot into the freezing cold to hug a young man I hadn’t seen since he was 10 years-old. He is now 19. I cried for so many reasons I have a hard time articulating– for all he’s been through, for all we lost in not being able to be part of his story for these years, for my own regrets, for the joy of having him with us again. I don’t know that I’ve experienced a combination of emotions like that and I don’t know that I will again.
This story is too new for me to feel confident in telling it all quite yet. And much of it isn’t my story to tell at all. But I want you to know that a little bit of the story of the Prodigal Son came alive to me in a very visceral way that night. Not because this child who returned to me was in any way a prodigal, but because I now know the joy of a child taking that one step toward you, and the total overwhelming emotion of running out of your expectations and fears and into the reality of restored relationship. I know the relief of what felt lost being found and sleeping under your roof and eating your grilled cheese sandwiches.
When we first started on our journey of loving other people’s kids, I knew relatively few people doing what we were doing. Fresh out of college and newly married, we jumped right into the world of raising teens in a group home environment. As we fell in love with those kids and their families, we became passionate advocates for them and their needs. This has lead to over a decade of supporting and encouraging other people to join us on this path. It has been a learning experience for us and with each phase we’ve experienced, each new lesson we’ve learned, we’ve tried to pass it on down the line. Since we’ve been at this as long as we have, we’re now seeing more of the longterm implications of the decisions we made at 22 and 23 years-old to step into this world and there’s a reality I want the rest of you to be prepared for.
What if that temporary child of yours wants to come home? Are you ready for that kind of reunification?
I know the grief I experienced when each one of our kids left us over our years in group home work and the even more intense grief I experienced when WE left the group home. (For clarification– the children in our group home weren’t technically “foster children” because they were placed voluntarily and parents maintained all rights.) I didn’t really anticipate ongoing relationships with those kids. But over the years (and thanks to social media) I have been able to see that for some of our kids (who are now men), I still have a role to play. I’ve felt pride at their accomplishments, been able to talk to them about the difficulties they experienced in their childhood years, told them the honest truth when they had questions, and had sweet unexpected moments together when our paths crossed. Just a few months ago I got a message from one of our boys saying, “You’re a Grandma!” with a picture of his baby daughter. These things are so precious to me and I didn’t know to anticipate these sweet experiences when we initially signed up for this.
Foster care by definition is meant to be temporary. When we think about being a short-term caregiver for a child, I think we underestimate our ability to make a difference in the life of this child or family. One of the reasons we work SO HARD to have positive relationships with the parents of our temporary kids is precisely because we want to have the option of ongoing communication and influence in the lives of these people we love. This is why we don’t burn bridges at reunification, we don’t close doors even though that might make the grief process easier for us.
But these kids aren’t temporary people. They don’t cease to exist when they leave our home. They take our lullabies and embarrassing moments and life lessons with them when they leave. We learned that even when they leave on terrible terms, even when they leave in anger and you literally have to chase the car driving out of your driveway in order to tell them you want to give them a hug goodbye (true story), they may come back to you as a treasured part of your family. (I love this post from Angela Tucker who was part of the documentary “Closure” about her feelings when she reunited with her foster parents.)
Attachment is a painful process for children who have been hurt. Learning to trust you may be the hardest work they ever do and it may scare them to death. They may push you away and act like you mean nothing to them because the truth is too scary for them to process– the truth that they care about you and what you think about them. They want to be loved and they are terrified of your ability to reject them, so rejecting you first seems like the safest option. When all evidence seems to point to their disdain for you, you may be incredibly surprised when they reach back out to you for love and support.
So have you communicated to them that you are there if they need you? Even if their childhood days are long past? After the court system no longer determines who they can call “family”? Have you worked to maintain positive relationships? Could you make space in your heart and home and life?
As I’ve written about previously, we didn’t do this without a lot of thought and some guidelines to make sure we were preserving the safety of everybody involved. And there have been aspects of this process that have been challenging and stretching for him and for our family. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that this is not an easy decision, but I want it to be a reality we as foster parents always have in the back of our minds. Would we be willing? What would it take to make this work for both parties?
The other night I was up late talking to the young man now in my home while we shared some fries. I told him I was glad he knew he could come back to us, but after a decade of separation I wondered HOW he knew he could come back. He told me he always knew he could come to us, that we would want him. I got choked up when telling my husband later about that conversation. That’s all I wanted for these boys– that they always knew, somewhere deep in their hearts if they wanted us, we were here.