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Yesterday, a judge decided I’m no longer a parent. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and perhaps that’s the part my Type A personality can’t quite come to terms with. It’s just that I’m a foster parent and the judge decided Mom was now capable of giving the minimum acceptable level of care. With a signature on some paperwork, my services were no longer needed.

My husband and I knew when we decided to become fost-adopt parents that this day could come. But after 16 months of tucking these three sisters in each night, it’s hard not to think of them as ours; it’s hard to comprehend that at 7:30 a.m., my husband was blissfully combing their hair, and by 5:30 p.m., we had put them in Mom’s car and said goodbye. The most disconcerting part was being unable to offer any reassurances; I don’t know if they will see us again; I don’t know if everything will be okay.

Foster parent regulations prevent me from using the children’s names in public ways, so I have come to refer to them by the age they were when they were placed with us: the Toddler, the Infant and the Newborn. Those names are now so wholly inadequate. Sixteen months is a long time, and it’s an especially grand stretch with kids so young. The Toddler is starting to read and write; she talks about studying dinosaurs in college. The Newborn can now walk and speak.

The law prescribes a precise timeline children can stay in foster care before they must be released for adoption. We were approaching that time and I won’t say our hopes were up, but the decision yesterday certainly blindsided us even though we knew — and were happy — that Mom was making good progress. The case had stalled in clogged courts and had been continued 12 times. We’d reached a point of equilibrium, a point where we just expected another continuance.

Instead, we got our hearts broken.

In the parlance of the foster world, my husband and I are known as “stranger care” because we’re not related to or previously known by the birth family. It’s an odd term, even in context. Certainly, the girls don’t think of us that way. The Infant routinely slumped against the curve of my body in relief when I picked her up after one of her many nightmares. For the Newborn, who cooed with glee each time she saw us, we were the ones she trusted to clothe and feed her.

As foster parents, time was compressed in ways that are unimaginable to “normal” families. We picked up the Toddler and Infant less than 24 hours after receiving the call that they needed to be placed. A good chunk of that 24 hours was spent trying to get out of the parking lot of a Babies R Us. It was just three days before Christmas and we normally wouldn’t allow ourselves to get stuck in the holiday shopping rush, but we needed a crib and car seats.

We were only certified to have two children in our home, so when Mom gave birth again, we thought the Newborn would be going elsewhere. Instead, less than two hours after the county decided to detain her, we received a waiver to have three children in one bedroom. I frantically ordered supplies on Amazon, making my choices based on what was available for same-day delivery.

Time was equally compressed for the girls’ exit. We received a “heads up” call at 11:15 a.m. that the court was going to do this. The decision was made official at 3:50 p.m. and we were expected to have the girls at the county office, possessions in hand, by 4:30.

We didn’t make it on time.

It’s funny the things you think of as something like this unfolds. I was pissed that I had ordered diapers that morning and was now past the cutoff to cancel. I was frustrated because I’d been sick the past week and had been skipping our nightly ritual of a dance before bedtime. I wondered who would drink all the milk in the fridge.

And then there was the guilt. I’d been wishing for a break, for one night of decent sleep. Was this the classic “Be careful what you wish for” scenario?

We’d prepped the girls that this day might come, but when we explained that it was now happening, their emotions were just as mixed as ours. After we told them, we didn’t know how to spend the time waiting for the official call to come. My husband later said it was like breaking up with someone but still being on a train with them. In this respect, the compressed time was merciful.

When we got to the drop-off, all of us were depressed. When I put the Toddler in her mom’s car, she clutched the giant stuffed ham that she likes to sleep with and refused to hug or kiss me goodbye. The Infant slumped in her car seat. The Newborn wailed.

As we walked back to our car, the social worker fretted that she didn’t know how to validate our parking ticket because we’d parked in the wrong lot. We told her it was the least of our concerns.

And then she shocked us by asking us to take another set of kids. We explained “not yet,” maybe in a few months, but she persisted. She had this “adorable baby boy” who was being released for adoption. Finally, we just walked away in disbelief. To her, we were a much-needed commodity; and as “strangers,” it was incomprehensible to her that even though we had congratulated Mom and wished her well with smiles on our faces, we were deeply in mourning.

Over the past day, friends have reached out to comment on how we were “selfless,” to note the way we have left an “indelible” mark, to reassure us we gave those girls “a gift.” One friend called us “saints” and another, “heroes.” I bristled at these. We’d become foster parents because we wanted a family, not necessarily because we were unselfish or brave. But that last remark reminded me of a video my husband made of me dancing with the kids. The first time I watched it, when he shot it nearly a year ago, I felt haunted. I watched it again today, to see if the lyrics I thought were in the clip were there, or if memory was playing a trick on me.

Turns out my memory was perfect.

“Though nothing, nothing will keep us together,” David Bowie croons as I bounce around our kitchen with the Infant on my hip, “Oh, we can be heroes, just for one day.”

Georgene Smith Goodin lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the cartoonist Robert Goodin. Follow her on Twitter @gsmithgoodin, or read more of her writing at Georgenesmithgoodin.blogspot.com.

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