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When Being a Foster Parent is the Most Heartbreaking Love

Ana’s joyous screeching carries through the house and wakes my 16-year-old from her afternoon nap.

“You suck,” the surly teen growls at the boisterous infant before bending down to kiss her downy head as it bobs up and down in the Exersaucer.

Both of our daughters, our biological children, have been remarkably loving and accommodating with this baby – far more so than they were with the puppy they promised to care for when my husband and I relented to their begging five years ago.

“If we’re going to become a foster family, we have to be all in,” I told them when the discussions began nine months ago. “Everyone has to help, especially if we get really little kids. If any one of us has doubts about this, then we just can’t do it.”

Our girls have made good on this promise.

She is perfect, this smiley little Ana with the enormous blue eyes. Though the fatigue that comes from waking at night to attend to a six-month-old has confirmed my belief that babies are a young person’s game, the awareness that she will eventually return to her parents offers a sense of relief that is both optimistic and wistful. The thankless drudgery of caring for a tiny, helpless human won’t drag on for years, but neither will the pure delight.

Ana’s parents, Sandra and Tim Thompson, are always in the back of my mind, like a low-grade headache. Did she sleep through the night for them? Would her dad take her out in this cold? Will her mom like this outfit? For some foster parents, particularly those interested in adopting their charges, I imagine a tepid or antagonistic relationship with a child’s biological parents might offer a protective emotional barrier. My husband and I are not looking to adopt, however, and I bear no ill will toward Sandra and Tim. I want to do right by them.

Every Wednesday, I take Ana to the Children and Youth Services office for a one-hour visitation with her parents. I am humble and gracious when I see them, always striving to make sure they know that I understand this is their baby, not mine.

The Thompsons sent a good-sized wardrobe along with their daughter when she was forcibly, unexpectedly removed from their home, but the seasons were changing and she needed warmer attire. I purchased several new outfits with a clothing voucher from CYS, but when I’m getting Ana ready for visitations, I always make sure to dress her in something Sandra and Tim sent so they don’t think that I think their clothes aren’t good enough.

One Wednesday, as the Thompsons and I rode together in the elevator to the third-floor CYS office, a stranger inside the cab was fawning over the infant in my stroller and asked her age. I consciously stopped myself from replying and allowed Sandra to explain that Ana would be six months old the following week.

That day, answering questions about the cute baby in the soft, floppy hat was her mother’s privilege, bragging rights she hadn’t enjoyed for weeks. I have plenty of opportunities to gush about Ana, but on visitation days, I’m just the stroller jockey.

The Thompsons lost custody of their baby because CYS found evidence of drug use in their home — what types of drugs and how much, I’ll never know. Her caseworker initially told us that Ana would be with our family for at least a month, when her parents had their first custody hearing. If the Thompsons attended scheduled visitations, passed their regular drug tests, and received substance abuse counseling, they could regain custody of the child after the hearing. If not, Ana could remain in our care for an additional six months.

This is the story I repeat to friends and acquaintances I encounter when I’m out with the baby in our town, a sleepy suburb west of Philadelphia. My words are often met with a sad, sympathetic gaze at Ana and an eye roll that silently conveys disgust at the child’s situation: How could her parents be so irresponsible? How could they choose drugs over their baby? The response often smacks of hypocrisy.

While our family has provided care for the children of individuals making bad life choices or failing to put the well-being of their children first, it’s wrong to assume that every child in foster care is there because his or her parents don’t love them or aren’t trying. Sometimes, there’s a lot more to the story.

When the Thompsons, a low-income working family, asked for assistance from CYS, they willingly opened themselves up to a kind of scrutiny that the financially secure parents of our community don’t have to endure and would certainly never tolerate. The fact that there was evidence of drugs in their home doesn’t necessarily mean Sandra and Tim are bad people or incompetent parents; they clearly love their daughter and took great care of her, despite their substance abuse issues. When their baby came to us, she was in excellent condition: alert, healthy, and above average weight, with the disposition of an angel.

The privilege enjoyed by the residents of our community doesn’t make them better or worse parents than Ana’s. They are not saints (neither am I) and I bristle at their blind assumptions. Though I am not a religious person, I’ve had a single phrase stuck in my head since the day I first met Sandra and Tim Thompson: There but for the grace of God go I.

“Will it be hard to let this little girl go back to her parents?” people always ask me. “Don’t you want to keep her?”

My answer is always immediate and unequivocal: No. When the time comes, we will happily surrender this baby to the Thompsons. They are decent people and competent parents, and I have no reservations about returning their child to them. Though we will miss Ana’s joyous screeching, downy head, and enormous blue eyes, she was never ours to keep. Ana was always a borrowed baby with a strict repayment schedule, here with us for a little while before returning to live out her own unique story, separate from ours.

Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

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I had big plans to be a "good mom" this summer. There were going to be chore charts, reading goals, daily letter writing practice, and cursive classes. There would be no screen time until the beds were made, and planned activities for each day of the week.

Today was the first day of summer vacation and our scheduled beach day. But here's what we did instead: Lounged in our pj's until 11 am, baked the girl's pick, chocolate chip cookie brownies, started an art project we never finished, then moved to the pool.

It's so easy to be pressured by things we see on social. Ways to challenge our kids and enrich their summer. But let's be real—we're all tired. Tired of chores, tired of schedules and places to be, tired of pressure, and tired of unrealistic expectations.

So instead of a schedule, we're doing nothing this summer. Literally NOTHING.

No camps. No classes, and no curriculums.

Instead, we're going to see where each day takes us. I've dubbed this the "Summer of Me," so workouts and clean eating are a priority for me. And also giving our girls the freedom to pick what they want to do.

We may go to a local pool and check out the swimming programs. And we join the local YMCA. But whatever we do—it will be low key.

It will include family time, too much TV, a few trips, lots of sunshine, some new roller skates, water balloons, plenty of boredom, rest, relaxation, and reading. (Because mama likes to read!)

So if you haven't figured out what you're doing this summer, you're not alone. And guess what? It's OKAY! Your kids will be fine and so will you.

Originally posted on Kristen Hewitt's blog. Check out her post on 30 ways to have fun doing almost nothing this summer.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

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