Starting Over With a New Foster Child

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Foster Parent Diary

We stand in the bedroom together, side by side, clothes and toys piled up around us and empty boxes tossed into the hallway.

“So, tell me,” I say. “What do you want to keep on the walls, and what should come down?”

The colorful train decal on the wall of this bedroom looks babyish now compared to the basketball posters this 9-year-old boy brought with him today. So does the framed alphabet print and the stack of board books. The stuffed animals. Even the white bookshelf and small, matching dresser I picked out back when my husband and I were first licensed as foster parents two years ago. Back when the age of children we were willing and able to accept was capped at 5 years old.

It was the perfect room for our former foster son, a boy who came to us at 3 years old and lived here for nearly a year. Now, a year after that little boy left, another boy is standing next to me, surveying the room he’s been sleeping in every weekend for the past month. The room he dragged thousands of Legos into the week before. The room he’s now moving into, we hope, to stay.

I wasn’t sure I could do this again. Our first round of foster parenthood took a lot out of me. The physical toll from living in uncertainty. The mental toll from navigating around the inevitable potholes of a flawed system. The emotional toll of saying a permanent goodbye to a child I had parented and loved for a year.

Even once we decided to do it again, even once we decided that this time, we would pursue the adoption of a waiting child in the foster care system, I wasn’t totally sure I was up for it. I wanted to do it. I wanted to grow my family. I wanted to provide a family to a child who needed one and was waiting for one to present itself. But this time, I knew better than to feel ready for something so unpredictable.

The first time, our foster son left our home after 11 months to live with extended biological family members. It was an outcome we knew was a possibility, one we supported and one we tried to emotionally prepare ourselves for. Even so, it left me, my husband and our biological son, Ryan, who was 5 years old at the time, with a deep sense of loss.

This time, we think, will be different. This time, reunification with biological family isn’t an option. This time, with this boy, adoption isn’t just a possibility but a probability.

Still, I wasn’t sure until I saw his face. I wasn’t sure until the moment he turned toward me and met my eyes for just a second before looking back down toward the ground. The moment he said, with a soft but clear voice, that it was nice to meet us. Nice to meet us. Despite the fact that so much of what had happened in his life to bring him to this point, to this moment of meeting us, was anything but nice.

It was in that moment that I realized what had really been holding me back. I was afraid that my desire to adopt was actually rooted in a subconscious need to replace my first foster son, a free-spirited, wild little thing who could never be replaced. But like all parents who panic before meeting their newest child, like all parents who think they couldn’t possibly love the next one as much as the one that came before, all I had to do was see his face to know what a fool I had been to worry about such a thing.

The next child doesn’t replace or displace. The next child adds to.

I look down at him now, this boy who captured my heart with one quick glance. This sweet kid whose hugs are more like tight squeezes. The one with the dark, soulful eyes and the candy obsession. Yes, I can do this again. Because doing this means I get to have him in my life and already, so quickly, I can’t imagine it otherwise. “We can take it all down if you want,” I tell him. “We can start fresh.”

“I think that should come down,” he says, pointing first to the alphabet poster and then spinning slowly around the rest of the room. “And that, and probably that, too.”

He is polite in his dismantling of the room. He is deliberate in his word choice and careful with my feelings. In the end, he chooses to keep two things.

The first thing he keeps is a framed, hand-painted picture of a bird, which I hung in honor of our former foster son, whom we nicknamed BlueJay. He doesn’t understand its significance; he just likes it.

The second thing he keeps is something I hung long before we were even licensed. A wall sticker I had applied slowly, carefully, using the edge of a credit card to smooth out each and every air bubble. When I was done, a hot-air balloon hovered permanently on the wall above turquoise letters.

“That should stay?” I ask him.

“That should stay,” he says with a nod. For a moment, we stare at it together. We don’t read the words aloud, we keep them inside our own heads: “Oh, the places you’ll go.”

“O.K.,” I say. “Let’s keep unpacking.”