Nearly a year ago, my husband and I said goodbye to the three girls we’d been fostering. That afternoon, a judge had ordered them to reunify with Mom. Just like that, they were moving out of our lives.

It was a bittersweet moment. We were happy for Mom and the girls. But 16 months is a long time to spend with children, and the holes in our hearts were huge. The youngest had been just nine days old when she came to our home; the middle one, not quite a year, and the oldest, two and a half.

Foster parents have no legal rights to see the children they’ve nurtured once they return to their birth family. But in a twist we never imagined, nearly a year after reunification, Mom continues to allow us regular visits with the girls. It has been a blessing we are so grateful for, and a conundrum we never anticipated.

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When the girls reunified, a social worker pressed us to take new children immediately. We held back. We needed time to heal and we wanted to make sure reunification went well. We only had one bedroom for children, meaning that if reunification fell apart, the girls could not legally come back to us while we were fostering other kids.

Mom has her ups and downs trying to juggle everything, but our fear that the girls would end up back in foster care has eased. We told ourselves we’d wait until January and then we’d consider fostering again. But January came and went, and we haven’t jumped back in. The more access Mom gives us to the girls, the harder it is to know how to move forward.

Initially we saw the girls one day on the weekend, but that has grown to include the occasional sleepover. And holidays. And the occasional midweek hangout. Over the past few months, Mom has begun reaching out for help when she has child-care issues. She seems to know she can count on us, and we want to be a safety net.

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We don’t know if Mom keeps us in the girls’ lives out of her own need for assistance or a genuine appreciation of the bond we share; most likely, it’s a complex combination of the two. We would love to talk with her about what she wants from us, what she sees our roles being, but there is a language barrier and our recent attempts to find a suitable translator for a meeting have been unsuccessful. The foster care system isn’t set up to support the sort of ongoing relationship we have.

My husband and I became fost-adopt parents because we couldn’t have biological children. Adoption was our long-term goal, and we knew we were entering a system where reaching that goal was not guaranteed. We knew we would come to love the children placed with us, and we knew that we could lose them. Still, we did it.

When we chose this route, we assumed that if our first placement reunified, we would take a new one and move on toward adoption. We never anticipated this complex middle ground.

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When we talk about accepting new children, I wonder how the girls will react to knowing their room is no longer theirs. I realize how space constraints would complicate their ability to sleep over. Will the girls resent the new children, feeling their place has been usurped? And how would new children react to being forced to spend half their weekend with the girls?

There are also time constraints to consider. New children mean new schedules that will make it harder for us to be on deck for Mom during emergencies. And we aren’t getting any younger. Visits with the girls sometimes wear me out, so how exhausted will I be if more children are thrown into that mix?

At times I feel like a divorced parent wrestling with remarrying and having stepchildren. But if I take that analogy further, I’m a divorced parent without a custody agreement; a divorced parent without any legal recourse if Mom decides there is no longer a place for me in her children’s world.

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We toy with possible scenarios. What if we bring in just one child instead of siblings? What if we wait until the girls are all in school and a little more independent?

For years I’ve read about the pitfalls of women trying to have it all, the problems that arise from juggling a career and a family. And so I waited until I had the financial stability to give me flexibility. But I never imagined that I would have to decide if I could manage a part-time family and a full-time one.

We ask ourselves what we meant when we said we wanted to have a family. Why did we want children? What does it mean to be a parent? These are questions that I think are impossible for anyone to answer completely honestly. And when we’re being brutally frank, we realize there are benefits to doing this part-time. If our goal was to leave a mark on the next generation, aren’t we doing that through our relationship with these three little girls? What is it that sometimes makes me feel less than because I don’t have a family that’s “mine”?

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Until now, we’ve made every decision with the best interest of the girls in mind. Bringing new foster children into our home would be an attempt to fulfill our wishes for a family of our own and, while those new children would benefit, the selfishness inherent in that choice, and the effect it could have on the girls, makes it difficult to make that leap.

So we continue searching for someone to help us talk to Mom, to help us understand who and what we are from her point of view. We tell ourselves we need a better understanding of whether she sees this continuing for the long run. We kick our decision about new kids further down the road and sometimes it feels like we’ll never reach a point where we actually decide.

But then visit day comes and the girls clamor at the door as we approach their gate. They tumble down the stairs, calling our names and squealing with delight. There’s high fives and hugs and sometimes a little jump for joy. And when that happens, all feelings of being less than a permanent family vanish, and deferring this decision feels just fine.

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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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