The fifth baby we have fostered as a family came to us at six days old and, earlier this week, left our home as a toddler, 2.5 years later. I want to tell you about the experience not so that you are impressed with me, or even to inspire you to start fostering babies. I want to tell you about it so you can know, even if you have your doubts, that there is an abundance of joy, love and peace in the world around you at this very moment.
We spent 928 days with Miss M, one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Her passion for playing outside and incredible sense of humour are impressive, but overshadowed by her love for dancing and books. She wakes up singing. She speaks a little bit of three different languages. She laughs at her farts. She calls me “Pop Pop”.
Wife (Julie): That can’t be your nickname.
Me: It’s what she and I chose while reading “Hop on Pop”.
Wife: It’s for a “grandpa”, you can’t use it.
Me: Well, I think you should use something other than “Ju-Ju”.
Miss M: Ju-Ju! Pop-Pop! weh aw you?
Wife/Me: *hearts swooning*
THERE’S NOTHING LUCKY ABOUT LIVING IN OUR HOME
In the first couple of years of her life there were a lot of different people responsible for caring for her. Including us, many of those people are documented in pictures displayed beautifully in a collection of “Life Books” that we have sent with her as a personal record of her infancy. When she and others look through these books, today or years from now, one reaction they may have is that, living with us, she was “soooo lucky”.
I don’t believe that there’s anything lucky about starting life as a baby with Children’s Aid. Everyone involved worked very hard to ensure she was safe and loved. But, the truth is, starting life in Foster care is an unlucky situation. What I also believe is that her unlucky situation wasn’t anyone’s fault.
When we started fostering over seven years ago, we learned that a primary goal of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto is to reunite children with their families. More recently, the organization has embarked on a program called “Journey to Zero”, with a vision to not only reunite, but keep children with their families in their communities. By supporting families in their own homes, the goal is, as a community, to reduce the number of foster children to zero. In my opinion, this shift is an important statement about social justice, and a move towards accountability and change from privileged communities that will bring financial, health, educational and social resources to all citizens.
With respect to infants, children and youth who have come into foster care up to this point in history, for various reasons, reunification has not always been the end result. In some instances, for example, parents have been unable to overcome extremely difficult challenges that are a result of their own unlucky situation. More than unlucky, their situation may be the result of long-term, systemic racism and violation of their rights.
When I think of people who might have become involved in the fostering system over the decades that it has been operating, some may have come from vulnerable communities, with limited resources, facing challenges that I can’t even imagine trying to overcome. The experience of having, or being expected by others, to make difficult or even insurmountable changes in your life in order to get your children back must be profoundly daunting.
I have also been imagining what it might be like to have added to that daunting experience the stress of accommodating to the COVID-19 pandemic. What if the people involved with Children’s Aid during this crisis are dealing with poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health conditions, food and shelter insecurity, or perhaps discrimination and social ostracization? Is it fair to judge people experiencing any combination of these challenges for not practicing “physical distancing”, or not ordering their groceries online? People experiencing these challenges may not have the option, like me, to binge on Netflix shows and Zoom with family and friends to stay connected during a pandemic. I wonder, do people in these “unlucky” situations know what “CERB” is? Do they even have a bank account, or a MyCRA profile?
It is heart wrenching to contemplate.
THE SADNESS WHEN FOSTERING BRINGS BEAUTIFUL STRENGTH
Miss M’s pathway has led to a positive outcome that makes us very happy for her. I can say this with confidence even though, now that she has left, l may snot-sob into a pillow and food-soothe on nachos for a month.
Our family has prepared for the departure of babies we love four times prior to having to say goodbye to Miss M. We already knew that there would be nothing we can do to avoid the sadness or to prevent our hearts from breaking. While she was the longest we’ve had a baby in our care, that only adds a little extra to the sorrow. The true depth of our heartache is measured by the remarkable girl she was when she arrived and who she has become.
Raising someone else’s child is not the same as when one of my kids has had a friend over. Don’t get me wrong, I care about my kids’ friends. But, when the grilled cheese I’m making for lunch falls on the floor, it’s not my kid who gets it. It’s not the same as pretending the “park is closed” so I didn’t have to take their “spirited energy” buddy outside for a playdate. With fostering, I have found that, while a child is with us, it’s as if they’re not someone else’s child. I care for them and love them as if they are my own. At the same time, I am genuinely committed to fulfilling the expectation that I will respect and support the parents and cultures of the babies I am fostering. It’s the most remarkable experience I have ever had to navigate and (try to) explain.
Our three kids have been central in fostering all of the babies we have loved in our home, especially Miss M. All five of us have been experiencing swells of mixed emotions in anticipation of her departure from our home forever. Actually, we were faced with our own challenge: because we didn’t expect to have her past a year old, we didn’t expect to have to potty train her. It’s been over a decade since we’ve done this! We gave away all the books! My wife and I were worried we might have to craft some sort of wild excuse for why she’s not yet out of diapers.
FOSTERING IS NOT LIKE TAKING CARE OF SOMEONE ELSE’S CHILD
I like to joke that I’m also noodling some “long-con” type tricks to teach her, in order to prank her family now that she’s left our home. Months from now when they keep finding toothpaste squeezed into their shoes, she’ll tell them it’s because “it makes you a better dancer”. And she’ll be right.
I also taught her the vowels. I taught her to count. I taught her sign language, and I taught her to “shake her sillies out”. She taught me that there are many people, from communities unlike my own, who must be supported with compassion, justice, healing and resources, especially to make it through this COVID-19 crisis.
So, the more important truth about saying goodbye to Miss M after fostering her over the past 928 days is that there is a unique positive relationship between the intensity of the sadness and the wondrous joy of having her in my heart forever. This entire incredible journey of self-awareness, empathy and compassion has come from my experience with a single baby in the comfort of my own home. What I want you to know is that you don’t need to foster a child to discover that, even in the unusual circumstances of our vast world in crisis, in your home, at your office, in your community, an abundance of joy, love and peace is there for you to embrace at this very moment, one human at a time.
There’s not much I can remember from the first 2.5 years of my life, so I don’t know that it will be any different for Miss M. What I do know is that my broken heart will be nourished by the knowledge that I will always be her “Pop Pop”, and that her family will one day learn from her that dirty diapers DO go in the dishwasher. I also know that when she looks through her “Life Books”, of all the pictures she sees, it is Pop Pop, Ju-Ju, Jack, Emma, and Lily who are the ones who were “soooo lucky”.