Two months ago, a judge ordered the three girls my husband and I were fostering to reunify with their mom. With just a few hours’ notice, we stood on a street outside the Department of Children and Family Services and loaded them into a taxi.
For the 16 months these girls were in our home, I took care to be honest; I didn’t make promises I couldn’t keep, or offer false assurances. As I buckled them into their car seats that day, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I would see them again. I couldn’t promise everything would be okay.
All three girls came to our house recently to visit. It wasn’t their first visit since reunification, but this time they brought a special guest. For the first time, Mom saw where her children had lived for those 16 months. How we reached this point is a mash-up of the accidental and the extraordinary.
When my husband and I couldn’t have children the old fashioned way, we turned first to science and then to foster care adoption. Children whose families were having issues would stay with us while their parents got their acts together. If the parents didn’t straighten up, we’d adopt the kids.
Part of our extensive training was determining our ideal placement. We wanted more than one child, so we decided on siblings. In for a penny, in for a pound as my grandmother would say. We had one bedroom for children, so legally they had to be the same sex, and we could only have two. We decided on girls, and capped their ages at 6.
They arrived Dec. 22, 2015, with just one day’s notice. The Toddler was 2 ½. The Infant, not quite a year old. I impulse-bought their Santa presents at a CVS on Christmas Eve while on a desperate search for baby wipes.
My husband took paternity leave. I crammed freelance work into late nights. Slowly we stopped feeling like babysitters and more like parents.
A week after my husband went back to work, Mom gave birth again, and the Newborn needed a home. “But we only have one room,” we protested. “We’re legally maxed out.” Oh no we weren’t. There was a magical thing called a waiver.
Just like that, we tossed our careful family planning into the wind.
Throughout the girls’ stay with us, Mom visited them at the foster family agency twice a week. The first time we dropped them off, my husband asked to take a photograph so the girls could have her picture in their bedroom. She agreed. In hindsight, his request set in motion a relationship we hadn’t anticipated.
We were respectful of Mom. We helped the girls make her birthday cupcakes and Mother’s Day gifts. At Christmas, I pressed their hands into dough, baked it and wrote their names on the backs of the ornaments. I took her on a tour of the special early-learning center they attended and made sure she knew what she had to do to maintain her eligibility if they reunified.
At a meeting set up by one of the girls’ service providers, I assured Mom that we wanted her to still see them if we adopted the girls. She told me she hoped we would continue to have a relationship if they came back to her. But when I put them in that taxi outside of DCFS, I wondered how sincere Mom’s desire was. It’s an easy thing to aspire to when reunification doesn’t necessarily seem attainable.
About 10 days after the girls reunified, that same service provider arranged another meeting for me and Mom, who asked to make a plan to preserve the relationship her children had with us. I was so close to tears, I could only nod in response.
Three days later, we had our first visit. We now take them one full day on weekends. When we went on vacation, Mom texted me a video in which I heard the Newborn say my name for the first time. I watched it over and over.
The Toddler insisted that she wanted “Mommy to come to our house.” After much discussion, my husband and I issued an invitation. By law, our address was confidential; Mom had no idea where her girls were while they lived with us.
We were now firmly in uncharted waters. Mom has no legal obligation to let us see her girls. For most birth families, the time children spend in foster care is an incredibly painful chapter they wish to close the door on as quickly as possible. But Mom faces that pain head-on every weekend, by choice, when she drops the girls off with us at a bus stop in downtown Los Angeles.
The cynical part of me wants to believe she’s just happy to have a day off, that having three children this young is overwhelming and she needs a break. I certainly did when they lived with us.
But there are signs she genuinely appreciates the bond we have with her girls, and that we have come to have some personal value to her as well. That helpful service provider recently told me Mom refers to me as her “other Mommy.” That seems so sad and beautiful. Maybe that’s why she decided to accept our invitation.
Mom seemed comfortable during the hour she was here. She admired our claw-foot tub and mentioned how much she likes to take baths. She laughed when I showed her the pile of the girls’ orphan socks I still have in the dining room.
At some point, my husband and I will take another foster care placement, crossing our fingers that this time we get to adopt. We wonder how we will manage our weekend visits — five kids this age defies overwhelming; I mentally play Tetris with car seats and wonder how I will explain to the girls that “their room” is no longer theirs.
And then I shrug off my concerns. Nothing about this journey has gone as hoped or expected. But somehow, it’s gone okay.
You might also be interested in: