Every joyful experience with him and his family was tinged with grief. When he laughed or smiled, we wondered exactly how many more times we would get to snuggle him, tickle him, play peek-a-boo with him.
On the day our foster care license went live two years ago, my husband and I were asked to pick up a newborn baby boy from our county's Human Services building. At our respective jobs, we clutched our phones and talked about what this would mean for us. For me, it would mean accessing DC Government's new parental leave policy and becoming the primary caretaker for an infant—for as long or as little as needed. For my husband, it would mean juggling his busy job with parenting.
With about an hour to make our decision and little to no information about this little boy's family, we said yes. And immediately, we were in love.
This sweet boy was everything we could have imagined he would be. He was tiny. He was beautiful beyond words. He kept us up every two hours. As first-time parents, we relished in the everyday with him. We color-coordinated his outfits. We held him on our chests as he napped. He was a planet unto himself and we were thrilled to be in his orbit.
Almost as immediately, we were introduced to his parents, and our hearts broke.
They broke because it was obvious his parents loved him—deeply—and were struggling with the loss of their precious baby to another mother's arms.
They broke because our foster son stood to lose at least one set of parents, the ones who created him and welcomed him lovingly into the world, despite their challenges, or the ones who were tasked with bonding with him, with giving him a normal infancy despite the upheaval in his life.
And yes, our hearts broke for us. Because we loved him. Because having been his parents for a moment, we wanted to have that privilege for life.
A moment turned into 18 months. Every joyful experience with him and his family was tinged with grief. When he laughed or smiled, we wondered exactly how many more times we would get to snuggle him, tickle him, play peek-a-boo with him.
As his parents gained confidence and skill with him, we rejoiced in their progress while struggling to accept our dwindling days with him.
Then, one day last summer, we dropped him off at his mother's house for good. Typing out those words still remains painful. We grieved—hard.
In empty moments, we wandered into his room, everything still in its place and cried. For some time, his parents invited us to spend time with him a couple times a month. We cleared our schedules. We held off making plans with friends and family members, just in case we might have the chance to see him.
After each visit, we collapsed—the grief returning in waves that we felt might overtake us entirely. We tiptoed around each other, trying to be strong for the other. And when one of us gave the other the opportunity to unload tears, to reverse the feeling of drowning for a moment, it seemed the other would then be subsumed.
Our visits with him became less frequent, but so did the tears and the feeling that we might never again experience the joy he brought to our lives.
Slowly, we began to fill our calendar with activities we had once enjoyed. We vacationed with family members. Friends came over to eat dinner and keep us company. When we came home from a visit with him and his family, we were no longer undone and could continue the day's activities. We began to hope that they could truly trust us to be in their lives for good.
One evening, we were able to arrange for his family to come to our home for dinner. We welcomed them into his room and showed them where he had slept, where we had kept his little clothes. For all of us, it was an opportunity for healing. Eventually, we also saw the bigger picture of what had been accomplished by two families who were willing to work together, despite their unique grief.
Here's what two sets of "parents" did together: we took on the grief that this little boy would have had to carry for his entire life had we failed, the grief of losing his first family, the parents who gave him his beautiful name and his luminous smile. For some children, that grief is inevitable. But for many more whose parents, while not abusive, have struggled with mental illness, addiction or poverty, that life-altering heartbreak is preventable.
And in the end, like many foster parents before me, I can tell this story. I can share this experience with nearly universal responses of acceptance and praise, whether deserved or undeserved.
But this little boy's mother and father? Like most parents who have struggled to keep their family together and afloat, they won't receive many expressions of admiration for their hard work, for their tenacity when all seemed hopeless, for saving their son the grief of losing them.
We don't regret our choice to be foster parents and plan to foster again in the future. For now, we are regaining our strength. But there are children who will enter foster care today who deserve foster parents that will fight for the right outcomes to their stories, to their parents' stories, the stories you won't read online or in the newspaper.
Perhaps, rather than only trying to recruit lifelong foster parents, local governments should also begin welcoming families who may be willing to foster just once or twice and become lifelong supporters of fragile families who deserve the chance to be together.
It's difficult to take something on that will break your heart. But once you love a child, you'll gladly do so for the chance to help heal theirs.