January 7, 2012

Saying Goodbye

Although I’ve heard the question hundreds of times, I’m never quite sure how to respond when someone asks me, “Isn’t it hard when one of your foster children leaves?”  Well, I could offer the emotional reply:  “Every child that leaves my home takes a piece of my heart, and I spend weeks crying my eyes out.”  It sounds pretty sappy, but it is entirely true.  Or I could give the spiritual/philosophical answer:  “I know that no matter what happens, God is in control and loves the children more than I do, and He will watch over them wherever they go.”  Thankfully, this statement is also true.  Actually, that question itself is so ridiculous, that I’m often tempted to give a sarcastic retort:  “Oh, I’m basically a hard-hearted person, so it doesn’t bother me at all when a foster child leaves.”  Of course, there is no truth to that at all!

No matter how I respond, however, the truth is that I have a difficult time explaining all of the emotions that I experience when a foster child leaves my home and care.   The feelings range from grief and loss of the mother/child relationship I have enjoyed - how can I be a mother one day and not the next?; regret that I can’t see the fruit of my labor as the child continues to grow and develop; anger at a system that disrupt families’ lives; sometimes guilt that I didn’t do more to advocate for the child’s best interest; gratitude to the Lord for providing another loving family for this child, especially if they are going to be adopted or reunified with their restored biological family; and quite frankly, occasional relief that this particular child’s problems are no longer my responsibility.

Interestingly enough, my emotions or the unique attachment with an individual child don’t necessarily depend on the length of time that I have known him or her.  Several times throughout the years, my husband and I have been asked to care for a newborn baby for just 10 days, which is the waiting period in our state for a birth-mother to change her mind after she has given up a baby for adoption.  It is such an honor to fill that short-term role!  I truly enjoy every minute of it:  cuddling the tiny bundle, journaling every miniscule detail of his day and night (surely someone somewhere cares how many diaper changes he had and how many ounces of formula he drank, right?), and snapping photographs that I know will some day be treasured.  At the end of the 10 days, it is a magical experience to see that baby placed in the arms of adoptive parents who have prayed for him, and who will nurture and care for him for the rest of his life.  And yet, during that short time in my care I may have become thoroughly smitten with him, and yes, when he leaves he will steal a little piece of my heart and I will cry my eyes out.

On the other hand, there have been a few children who have lived with us for a year or even two years, who, for some unexplained reason, never quite endeared themselves to me.  Of course I cared for them and kissed them and sang them songs and tenderly tucked them into bed at night.  But when we said goodbye, I experienced no overwhelming emotions, except maybe a lingering sense of guilt that I hadn’t been able to connect with them.

Here comes the brutally honest part . . . sometimes I welcome a child’s departure with a huge sigh of relief.  During the initial application process, potential foster parents are asked to decide what kinds of children they will accept into their homes:  specific ages, gender preference, different physical handicaps or medical conditions, and an endless variety of emotional or behavioral challenges.  Being young and optimistic, and having no prior parenting experience, it was easy for us to put and “X” in the yes column; to believe that love will conquer all.  

However, the realities of caring for a toddler whose attachment disorder prevented him from ever once looking me in the eye; or continuously cleaning up after an 8-year old with encopresis (I really should have researched that one beforehand!); or driving to pick up a teenager from high school only to find out that she left early to sneak off with her boyfriend . . . I quickly discovered that my love can be quite selfish and may require reciprocation; that my patience is indeed finite; and that my wisdom is practically non-existent!  It has truly been humbling to realize that I am simply not equipped to care for every child who is placed in my care.  When a foster child moves on under those circumstances, of course I feel a tremendous amount of guilt, but how can I not also feel relief as I optimistically reassure myself that he will find a family whose capacity to care for him will match his needs?

Of course, there are the heart-breaking farewells that tempt me to quit and wonder why in the world I wanted to become a foster parent in the first place.  The three-year old girl who is returned to her father because his skilled lawyer convinced a judge that he would never touch her inappropriately again.  The half-sisters who are separated from each other because their grandmother only wants the younger one.  Several fragile babies whose medical needs are painstakingly met, who then go to live with family members once they are healthy.  And one little black girl who wasn’t allowed to stay with us because her social worker insisted that “it wouldn’t be fair to her siblings if she was raised with all of the privileges of an upper-middle class family.”  When those things happen, every instinct within me cries out for self-protection of my heart, to say “It’s not fair!”, and to vow never to allow that emotional torture to happen again.

Fortunately, there are the bittersweet good-byes as well, the children whose stories have happy endings.  When they eventually leave my home, I am left with feelings of overwhelming pride at how they have thrived in my care, or powerful joy at seeing them reconnect with their biological family or adopted by their forever family.  

One of my fondest memories is of two brothers who came to live with us when they were 8 and 10 years old, innocent victims of a drug-addicted mother and an absent father.  During the year that they lived with us, it was extremely rewarding to see the boys thrive physically, excel academically, and able to pursue their interest in sports.  The older brother even went to camp with the youth group at our church, and ended up committing his life to the Lord.  It was like having a front-row seat to watching God work in their young lives!   

However, most of the Lord’s plans are invisible to the human eye, as He quietly works behind the scenes orchestrating events to accomplish His will.  When the boys were taken into foster care, it was a “wake-up call” for their father, who had left the family when they were young in order to live a life of alcohol and irresponsibility.   Miraculously, over the course of the one year that the boys were in foster care, their dad was able to successfully complete a rehab program, attend parenting classes, secure a stable job, and find a safe place for the three of them to live.  When the day came for the boys to leave our home and go live with their father, yes it was sad for me, and yes I felt keenly the loss of their vibrant personalities in my home.  But oh, what joy to see them reunite with their father and begin the process of learning how to become a family!

“Isn’t it hard when one of your foster children leaves?”  It is impossible to describe all of the emotions that a foster mother experiences when a child leaves her home.  Every foster child is different, with varying circumstances, personalities, abilities and disabilities.   And each one fits into our family in a slightly different way. However, I know that every child who lives with me, whether it is for one week or two years, is specifically placed here by the hand of the Lord for His purposes.  After they leave, and after I have cried my eyes out, eventually I can look back and remember the blessings of caring for them.   And I’m so grateful that I didn’t quit.  That I continued caring for these children to the best of my ability.  That I didn’t deny them my loving arms in order to protect my heart.


  1. Thanks for sharing your heart with us! I am so profoundly grateful to u for the love you gave to B before we adopted him. He made such amazing strides developmentally with u all. I think a large part of his success is due to the love and nurturing you lavished on him those months he was with you.

  2. Kaleb J. and I are facebook friends so when he "liked" the link your hubby proudly posted it showed up on my newsfeed this morning. So while I sipped my coffee I clicked in. This was a question on my heart as I marveled at the love and grace your family showed to your little foster guy as Joe and I raced in and out of your house during Lego season a while back. It was a blessing to read. In Him, Kathryn