More Alike Than Different
The first time I came face-to-face with one of my foster kids’ parents was not a planned meeting. Since my training had taught me that seeing biological parents was something that occurred at my discretion, I assumed foster parents were kept in a separate, “secure” location, away from the birth parents. I was a brand new foster parent, and didn’t fully understand the procedures of the county. So at the end of my first placement, when I brought the boys to be reunited with their mother, I was standing directly in front of her as I held her children. It wasn’t an interaction I had planned for, and probably wasn’t one I would have chosen. It was awkward, to say the least. But today I’m grateful it happened the way it did. Having my first birth parent meeting under my belt, I was better prepared and open for future birth parent meetings.
We took in Leo* during the summer of 2013, shortly after becoming licensed foster parents. He was a surly, serious three-year old when we brought him home from the receiving center. He cried for his dad when it was time to go to sleep, and I had little to offer him but empathy, smiles, and bowls of macaroni and cheese. Over the three weeks we had him in our care, we saw many more sides of Leo. When his protective walls fell, he was the funniest, smartest, most loving little guy. He made us cry from laughing so hard, schooled us in the sport of getting toddlers to eat vegetables, and broke our hearts more than a little when he left after just three weeks. But what I remember the most about our time with Leo was getting to know his mother, Ana*. Ana was living in a halfway house when I met her. I admit that I had judged her before our first meeting. Without knowing anything about her I assumed some things of which I’m not proud. I assumed she had been neglectful. I assumed she was an addict and didn’t deserve to have her son returned to her. I assumed she was not a good mother. And, since I also assumed she would not react well to meeting me, I was terribly nervous to meet her. Along with my husband and little Leo, we drove to our designated meeting spot, a park just a few miles from our home.
Ana was quiet during our first meeting; she seemed to avoid looking me in the eyes. It had never occurred to me that she may be feeling embarrassment or shame about her son being placed in foster care. As her visits with her son continued, and I transported him to and from those visits, she began to open up a bit. Our initially brief conversations and sharing of Leo-related information turned into more personal sharing of our stories. Most notably, I learned a lot about Ana’s tragic past.
Ana had been in foster care as a youth. Her own mother was a single mother suffering through alcoholism and drug addiction. In her lifetime Ana had never experienced what it was like to live in a safe, stable, and loving home. To this young woman who only knew chaos, addiction, and mental illness, I appeared to be an “angel”. She actually viewed me as “a guardian angel sent from God” to take care of her son until she could provide for his needs.
God gave me empathy for Ana. I wasn’t expecting to be able to feel her sadness. This twenty-eight year old woman had an undeniably tumultuous childhood. Even as she tried to make positive changes as an adult, her son was removed from her care. All she desperately wanted was to be the best mom she could for him. That was clear to see.
As she cried her story to me, I knew I was no better than her. I very well could have been Ana, but I was born into a middle class, Christian family. I was given guidance, resources, and privileges in my young life. I was set up for a bright future because I was born into a family that was able to care for me. I had influences all around me that helped maintain that straight path I was set on from the very start. Ana didn’t have those things. If I had been born into similar circumstances, I have no reason to think I’d be doing any better than Ana.
Ana’s expression of gratitude humbled me. In her view, I was some kind of angel, but I knew better. I wasn’t an angel. I was just a woman, like her, trying to do my best. Although I was appreciative of her kindness towards me, and I was thankful that she could be at ease and know her son was loved and well-cared, I couldn’t accept her assessment that I was somehow above her. We were more alike than we were different.
All of these thoughts bring me to a quote from Jason Johnson. He writes, “At some point we come to the realization that it's not so much ‘us’ helping ‘them’ - it's just ‘us’, together - all uniquely broken humans, wired for struggle, worthy of grace and in this thing called life together.”
Those meetings and phone conversations I had with Ana changed my outlook on interactions with birth parents. With every child placed in our home since Leo, I haven’t shied away from meeting a child’s birth parents. Instead, with appropriate caution, I hope for those face-to-face opportunities. When I get the chance, I love to share all the things I treasure about their child, and I love to allow them to tell their story when they decide to.
I’ve been privileged to meet at least one birth parent for every child that has been placed in our home. I’m not saying it’s always a safe, smart, or beneficial decision. It just so happens that it has always turned out well for our family and the kids we love and care for.
Now I carry around in my mind many of the faces that brought my precious little ones into this world. I remember what these parents look like, what they sound like, and even facial expressions I’ve seen them make. Almost daily I see those same faces, voices, and expressions in smaller versions on the younger members of my household. When I do, I pray for those adults whom my children resemble as they are out in the world without the babies they brought into it. Sometimes I cry for the loss I believe they must feel. I think of my kids’ birth mothers on Mother’s Day and their birth fathers on Father’s Day. I wonder what those days are like for them. I hope and pray they have some kind of peace from God, and that they are doing well. If one day my children desire to meet the birth parents, I hope that’s something we can all do together, because I do believe we are more alike than we are different. “All uniquely broken humans, wired for struggle, worthy of grace and in this thing called life together.”