Archive for January, 2012

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benefit of the doubt

January 30, 2012

Val and Alex had a visit with their family this weekend and then a tough evening coming back to us, as usual. They understand that we get to go through this process one more time and then their next exit will be for good. Wow.

I may have mentioned this in vague terms, about a month ago, one of the kids opened up about something that had happened unrelated to the kids’ time in care or with their parents that led me to play my mandated reporter role and let the authorities know what had been said. I’m being deliberately vague, but let me say that this seems fairly minor in the scheme of things but still worth investigating, and that investigation (plus added support for the kid in question) is going on and has support in both our family and theirs. This weekend, the kids’ dad had a conversation about the same thing and his first call was to me to make sure we’re on the same page about it, which we are. We think the same parts of the story are credible and suspect the same parts may be covering up something quite different. After I’d made the initial report, I’d called their parent to make sure the family knew about this too so that it didn’t seem like I was doing anything behind their backs, and since this didn’t have anything to do with their case I’d told the social workers I was going to do this.

All of that is just background to say that almost all of the interaction between the kids’ parents and me does not involve intermediaries, and that’s a good thing because it lets us really know what’s going on. It’s also hard because it can be awkward, because we all feel uncomfortable at times with our roles. (For instance, I found myself lying to make it seem Val’s school photos had been cheaper than they actually were because I didn’t want them to think they needed to reimburse me when they have so many better uses for their money, and I reminded them that we get a stipend to care for the kids and I’m just caring for the kids in buying pictures. Just a little weird because the situation is weird.)

Their mom told me at one point that she’d been so relieved at the first meeting to see that I have a pierced nose, that she trusted me more after that. On both sides (in many ways theirs more than mine) we have to be willing to reach out based on little more than that. I mean, I got to hear the kids talk about how much they love their parents and (even though I wasn’t supposed to be able to) read the court documents that told me what the family crisis was, though I’d picked up on a lot from what the kids said. They were just heading into a meeting with the stranger who was raising their kids, although I guess I also put things on a good note by seeing them in the waiting room outside our meeting, “Hey, are you [Name] and [Name}? Here are some pictures of the kids, since I know you haven’t seen them in a few weeks and I know I’d want to know my kids were okay.” We’d also been lucky because on the first full day of placement I’d run into the kids’ old next-door neighbor while I was out with Alex, and she was so thrilled about how calm and happy he seemed that she went right home and told his relatives he was doing well, so they’d gotten that message even if the family social worker wasn’t relaying all the things she was supposed to. (I’d ask that she share my cell phone number with the family member who’d been caring for the kids and who was now grieving terribly about having to ask to have them placed in care, but she didn’t actually do that until I made a point of giving out my number at the meeting a week later.)

Where we live, the assumption isn’t supposed to be that foster parents and biological parents are in some sort of adversarial relationship. We keep being told that we’re pushing the team idea more than most foster parents, but I thought that was generally the goal. It’s not the norm that we let them come to our house, I don’t think, but in this instance it really seemed to make sense and I absolutely don’t regret it. I also absolutely do think there are cases where we wouldn’t want someone to know where we live, though that doesn’t mean I’d stand in the way of visitation elsewhere.

Um, all of that was just background for what I actually wanted to talk about. A week or two ago, Val asked as I was driving her home from school what color Mara’s skin was. So I asked what she thought and she said “brown!” and we talked about that for a minute. Then she said, “But after we go home, my daddy won’t let us play with Mara because he doesn’t like people with brown skin and I can’t talk about that with Lee or Mara!” And that’s where I had to keep myself from falling into Oh HELL NO HE DID NOT SAY THAT ABOUT MY BABY mode and remember that I was listening to a (sometimes unintentionally) manipulative five-year-old and not the man himself. (And if he did avoid black people? Well, he was raised way out in the county and it’s quite possible there are racists in the family, but I know how kind he’s been to Mara and polite and friendly to Lee, even though I’m the one who handles most of the contact. So even if he is a racist, he’s not someone who’s actively trying to undermine our family. Yet. So, yeah, I was a little nervous.)

I pushed Val for a little more and found that this conversation had definitely happened over the weekend when she wouldn’t stop talking about what she’d learned in school about “Martin Loofah King,” if you take her version at face value. Her story about him basically was: the holiday is his birthday, he was killed on his birthday, he was killed because he thought black people and white people should do the same things together, and before that black people and white people couldn’t eat together or use water fountains together or ride on the bus together. And boy oh boy did we hear a lot about that, and we were only with her a few hours before she went with family for the weekend. Honestly, I’m glad she’s comfortable talking about that and while we’ve talked a fair bit about why Lee and I have each other and don’t want boyfriends instead, which still leaves the kids skeptical sometimes, we haven’t talked a ton about race other than noting differences about hair and skin and how people look like their biological parents.

What I eventually got from Val was that her dad had advised her to stop talking so much about race because it might make Mara and Lee uncomfortable. I understand what he was trying to say; the standard message about race in America is that talking about it too much is rude. I think he wanted to keep Val from saying something that might be unintentionally offensive. And hey, maybe he wanted to get through a whole conversation without having to try to convince her that no, seriously, there’s no Loofah in Luther, regardless of what she thinks her teacher said.

But I’m saying all this because it took me some time to trust myself on my interpretation of this, to trust him. I’ve thought a lot about how Mara’s family surely didn’t hope that their beloved little girl would end up with an interracial lesbian couple, and yet they’ve embraced us nonetheless because they see that she’s loved. I hadn’t thought as much about to what extent it may have been a leap for Val and Alex’s parents to accept us because they seemed to accept us so readily and mentioned some lesbian acquaintances of theirs to signal that they were able to deal with that just fine. I told them at that first meeting that my partner was a woman and the pictures of the kids included a few with Mara, so whether or not I mentioned that Lee was black they knew from early on that we were a mixed-race family.

After the kids go back, I know that we might not see them again. I don’t think that’s the case. I think their family is committed to what’s best for them and that what’s best for them is going to include knowing that we miss them and are absolutely thrilled that they’re with their family. If we don’t end up with much contact, I don’t know if it will be because we’re gay or because Lee’s black or because their parents are involved in a whole lot of time-consuming bureaucracy already and don’t want to be dragged down with more reminders of the kids’ time in care. There are so many unknowns in this for all of us, and I appreciated getting the reminder that some of them are going to stay unknowns. I’m not going to call Val’s dad and ask him what he thinks about black people, but I’m going to trust that if he’s calling me when he hits a tough situation with his kid, that means that we have an understanding of each other as parents, as supports for these kids. Whether or not that lasts, it was worth having that faith. And I also have faith that things can go really, really well for these kids and the parents who love them. It won’t be easy, but I still have trust and hope.

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two-week wait

January 27, 2012

I hope I’m not offending any of my readers who are trying to conceive in using this title, but it was the first thing that sprang to mind when I heard that (assuming that the judge rules the way we assume the judge will rule) Val and Alex will be transferred to their family’s care and custody two weeks from Friday, meaning my birthday will be the first day as parent of one again.

Right now I’m getting the practicalities done. I’ve informed all their teachers. I have loads of laundry going so we can send some clothes back with them tomorrow. I called my parents to see if instead of a dinner for my birthday we can go to the restaurant where we took Val and Alex for their first meal with us and have a goodbye celebration of sorts. I’ve collected and disseminated all sorts of information about what they’ve done with us and what they’ll need to do in their new home.

All of this is hard on the kids. They’re thrilled about going home, of course, but they’re also sort of scared and conflicted. We’ve been loosening up a bit because it doesn’t really matter if Val plays for an extra half hour and doesn’t get her homework done since in two weeks she’ll have a new classroom anyway. Her teacher knows we’re doing this (though pushing homework when we can) and said she’d do the same thing, just as Alex’s teachers have noticed him acting out and being wild more as he tries to deal with the transition and have chosen not to confront him about it too much but to let it slide because they know where it’s coming from.

At first, it was easier to connect to Val because she was excited about living with us and she was so verbal, whereas Alex seemed to just zoom around and never take in anything any of us said. It was clear pretty early on that he was taken with me, though, and by now he’s extremely attached. When he started talking today about how maybe I’m his mom right now, I think it wasn’t the manipulative testing I might have heard from Val but something more plaintive, that he feels conflicted about how much he cares for me. And even Val, with all her manipulation because she’s so desperate to be loved and respected, has clearly come to care about us a lot. I wish I’d made more progress with her than I think I have, but I think she’s learned a lot in her time with us and she knows that I love her and hope for a great future for her, especially if she can learn to push herself when she doesn’t want to do something. (Um, I struggle with that myself, though having kids helps on that front.)

Alex’s teachers are worried about his transition but positive about his resilience and how much he loves his parents. He doesn’t deal well with changes anyway, but the brusque director of his daycare is convinced that the stress will mean he won’t be able to be prepared for kindergarten. I generally tend to discount her because she’s such a grouch, but I do worry it’s going to really hard on Alex. He’s made a lot of progress and already is more prepared for kindergarten than Val was when she began, but I realize that they’re both coming from academic backgrounds that are less than ideal. Alex can write his name and recognize many (all? most, at least) of his letters and some of the sounds they make.

Then there’s Mara, who may or may not believe us that after two more visits with their parents Val and Alex will go back there for good. (After all this I expect to hear more about how she wants to go live with her parents like Val and Alex got to, though I know she recognizes all the things they’ve done that her parents didn’t.) She’s going to get the benefit of having two moms with their attention on her rather than more like one and a half moms caring for three kids. I know it’s going to be hard for her, though every sort of “sibling” she’s lived with before has ended up not living with her.

We have two weeks with three kids and two weekends of Thorn-Lee-Mara and Val and Alex with their family to make some sense of all of this and get some closure before this era comes to an end. I do think the relationship between the two families will be ongoing, but I don’t know what it will look like or how it will work. I do expect a lot of fallout from all three kids, and it’s a weird feeling to know that I’ll only be dealing with one of them. It’s not that I don’t trust the other kids’ family to be there for them, but I think it’ll take me a while to not be in the mod of thinking about what they’ll need next and what I can do to help them. I’ll get to deal with Mara, a little girl who’s had a whole lot of loss in her life and is about to have a lot more, and trust that she can handle that loss with help from the moms who love her while I trust that Val and Alex will get what they need from the family that loves them desperately and intensely. Hard as it’s going to be, I’m glad we all get to go home.

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and they have a plan

January 23, 2012

Today was what I thought was going to be the transition meeting when we learned about when Val and Alex would be leaving to go to their relatives’ house to live with their parents. It sort of was that, but there was a whole lot of processing and discussion to get to that point and it left most of us (our worker, the kids’ family, certainly me) feeling a bit misled and confused. I’m also pretty sure that if their family social worker had realized she’d need a court order, she’d have filed for one a few weeks ago rather than waiting until this week, especially since she and her supervisor were under the impression that Lee and I were on the verge of disrupting the placement.

That all sounds complicated, but I can at least say that everyone’s on the same page and we have the sort of plan I expected. In another two or three weeks, there will be a court hearing where the family’s social worker recommends that the parents no longer be required to have supervised visits (which I actually thought had happened already and certainly should have given what we’d been told about how much progress the parents had to make to be granted this) and that the relatives whose house they live in be granted temporary custody of the kids while the parents finish everything on their case plan to regain permanent custody.

I see no reason the judge wouldn’t accept that plan, though I suppose I should prepare myself for the possibility. The plan will be that the week the decision comes through, the kids will stay with us through the school week, as usual. Then when their parents come to pick them up that Friday as usual, they’ll move out permanently to live with their extended family.

This sounds like a good plan, though I’m frustrated that we still don’t have a date for when anything will actually happen. I’m frustrated, too, at how much their worker kept assigning blame to other people and minimizing her own involvement or what she’d told all of us in preparation for what turned out to be a mediation session. I could say more about that, but there’s no point.

At any rate, we’re going to make these last few weeks as fun as we can. I gave the family and the social worker a page where I’d written out all the children’s medical providers, their contact information, when the last appointment was, and when the next appointment should be. That way if it ever gets lost in a move or whatever, the worker will have a copy of it all in one place. So that was something that the worker actually appreciated and I’m glad it felt like I was doing something right. I’m glad that progress is being made, but as always it seems painfully slow. I guess we should be used to that by now.

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another pat-on-the-back post

January 19, 2012

I need this, because sleep isn’t happening and because I have too much of a tendency to self-criticize, so bear with me as I’m awkward about saying nice things about myself. Both Val and Alex are having more than their usual sleep disruptions as they get closer to reunification, and that means I’m up a lot a lot a lot during the night, so this is also to remind me that things get better and what I’m doing is worthwhile and not just exhausting.

First, I’ll skirt the issue by saying that Lee has been fantastic lately and I think that our relationship is getting to be in really great shape. The tension that was there between us has faded to a reliable comfort. Having the week while Val and Alex were with their family and we were home as just a family of three made a huge difference, I think. I still don’t leave her with all three kids while they’re all awake, but doing extra work myself to keep her from getting too stressed seems to be working without completely destroying me. (The sleep thing is brutal, but I only have to get through one more night of it before I can sleep! And that makes it doable.) She also impressed me by putting barrettes on some of Mara’s twists before they left for school the other day, the first time she’s ever done that. Often she’s unhappy with how Mara’s hair looks but I can’t intervene since I’m on my way to work/school dropoff by the time she wakes Mara and so Lee has just been ignoring it. This is a big step too. And I don’t mean any of this to sound dismissive. There are things that are hard for her because of emotional blocks or whatever and so getting over them is huge.

Our worker came over for our annual homestudy update and her regular monthly visit. She was very complimentary about how we’ve done with this foster placement, though she knows about the hard parts and how close we got to disruption. She thinks that the case wouldn’t be at reunification if I hadn’t worked so hard to create a united front with the parents, which helped us connect with them so that advocating for the kids meant advocating for what was best for the whole family but also because they trusted us and got more than the minimum level of contact and were able to use that as an inspiration to do what they needed to do. I still really look at this as just having done my job, but going to our local support group has made it abundantly clear that lots of other foster parents disagree and our worker certainly thinks we’re exemplary in this regard. (Oh, and things also got done mostly because Lee would get fed up and send a strongly worded email to the family’s worker, sometimes copying her supervisor. I wasn’t always happy about this, but it was certainly effective.)

I told her that my goal long-term is to be one of the experienced parents who teaches the various classes required for licensing. She countered with something even better that I can do now, some sort of committee on best practices. Some caseworkers, foster parents, and biological parents (I’m assuming whose kids are no longer in care, but I don’t know all the details) meet to talk about what can be done to improve foster parent-bio parent relationships. I think that could be a great fit for me and I’m very excited about the opportunities.

Oh, and she looked into the sibling group I’d asked about, two older (tween and teen) kids available for adoption. There are no red flags, but there might be some benefits to keeping them in their home city. There’s just something about one of them that made me feel like I had to ask, even though we’re not ready for more kids yet and even though Lee is really going to have to prove a lot to me before we ever are ready again (and maybe vice versa) but I’m glad I got my answer and I’m glad we’ll get a few more answers from their worker. And there’s also a local girl who’s going to need an adoptive home but will spend the rest of the school year with her current foster family. I wasn’t immediately thrilled by some of the description, but I think that’s because I really, really want older kids, not early grade school. Still, our worker thinks we could be a good fit for cultural and other reasons and we’re not ruling anything out.

One part of me would love to keep fostering but just do it in a very mindful way, only taking placement of children who really meet the criteria for what we think we can handle best. But I’m also terrified, because it puts a lot of pressure on me to be the more primary parent when my job is not always flexible. Well, I’m hesitant because of that. I’m terrified because if we did this again and Lee’s response was as negative as hers initially was, I don’t know how long I could keep running everything. For way too long, I was effectively being a single parent plus dealing with tantrums and seemingly unrelenting hostility from Lee, not to mention all the extras that come along with being a foster parent regardless. With the imbalance we’re dealing with now, it’s doable and would be more doable with older kids who were more independent and definitely if I could sleep through the night more often. I know there are no guarantees, though, and I really don’t want us to get in over our heads. But I like that the agency staff and the kids’ parents think I’m a good foster parent. Even I think I’ve been one. And so if I can use that to do something positive for other kids in care even if I don’t get to foster again, that’s going to be better than nothing.

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in flux

January 13, 2012

Today I’ll pick up Val and Alex from school and then their parents will meet us at the house to take them for the weekend. Both kids are annoyed that their parents can’t just get them from school, and I’ve been framing it as how, well, that wouldn’t make sense because then they’d have the kids but not their clothes or toys or the lovey Alex sleeps with rather than just saying that no, sorry, they have paperwork on file at their schools that bans their parents from picking them up. Being partway to reunion is hard on kids, maybe especially kids like these who don’t really understand time. We can use little calendars I draw or just count down how many days, how many breakfasts until they’re with their parents again, but I still know that every day is going to bring the question of whether this is the one when they’ll be picked up and get to go with their parents.

Lee has been trying to talk to Mara more about her thoughts on Val and Alex leaving. Last night Mara’s input was that Val should go with her mom and dad but Alex should stay here and play with her! We explained that it wasn’t going to happen that way, but I suspect Mara still thought her version was better.

I know she’ll miss Val and Alex a lot, but I think she understands what’s happening. I love that all the possible duos within their little group of three work well. Val and Alex are used to being together at all times and love to play and sing together. Alex and Mara both have ridiculous four-year-old senses of humor and make each other laugh and laugh and laugh as their stories or jokes get more inventive. Val is very much into gender segregation, which is appropriate for her age, and she’s gotten Mara doing more “girl” things like getting frustrated trying to put shoes on Barbies and spending ages working together to fill the chalkboard with drawings.

Tomorrow, we’re supposed to pick up Mara’s three oldest (half)siblings — a 16-year-old I’ll call Desiree, 9-year-old Franca, and 8-year-old Andre — and take them to watch a game at Lee’s school. This will be the same scenario in which we met Samara’s brother last year, but these are three of the kids being raised by their mom’s sister Odelia rather than the one being raised by mom’s former stepsister Samara, so I haven’t gotten to hear through the grapevine whether he’ll be there too. This will be our first time with Mara’s siblings when we aren’t also with their guardians, which is why I’d initially asked to take the younger two. I think it will help Mara and us get to know them better (and vice versa!) to see them in smaller groups instead of among the dozens of extended family members who seem to be involved every time we have a get-together. We’ll keep doing those too and I know that Mara’s grandma and others will be there to see us when we get the kids tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to forging more personal connections too.

Oh, and Mara’s aunt asked us if we could find a mentor for Mara’s oldest sister, Desiree, or mentor her ourselves, which would be my preference. She and Lee love the same sport, so I’m hoping they’ll hit it off and I can bring her into my ACT prep tutoring at church when she’s ready for that. (If anyone remembers back in the first year of the blog when we used to formally mentor two young girls through a local program, one of them is now 17 and also will be part of this group because she’s reached out to me for help, which is pretty cool.) I’m hoping we’ll click with her and the one time we met her was very pleasant, so I’m looking forward to getting more time to talk, even though having three extra kids means having to borrow my mom’s van to do safe transport.

I’ve been thinking about open adoptions and the relationship I want us to have with Mara’s siblings and extended family. I was reading somewhere online (probably on Open Adoption Support) about a family saying they’d never let their adopted child’s birth family spend time with the child without their being present, and I realized that that’s not really my goal. I mean, at this point Mara’s not comfortable enough to be at her aunt’s house for the afternoon without us there but that’s because that’s how she is at this age, not because I have any reason to believe she wouldn’t be safe or cared for there. In fact, I expect she’ll eventually have overnights with the sister closest in age to her whether with us or with them, that I may even loosen a little of my control and leave her there to get her hair braided while I go out to get groceries or something. I read this comment and remember thinking huh, that I didn’t feel guilty about asking Mara’s aunt to let us take some of her siblings out, though I’d specifically asked for more than one at a time so it would feel more comfortable for them and for her. And I wonder if general classism would say that of course it’s fine for us to offer to take these kids who are living in public housing out for a meal and a sports event or to the zoo when the weather is nicer or whatever else, but actually taking our beloved daughter to the housing projects and leaving her there is something really different. I think my goal is to do what I can to help not just Mara but her siblings too feel comfortable with the kind of code-switching that means you can go to the projects or to the zoo or to a college and know what the local rules are, know how to behave and feel comfortable.

I think Mara’s family is in the same boat. They’ve made a commitment to considering us family, just as we’ve done with them, but it’s not entirely clear yet what that will mean. The aunt, Odelia, said something like, “Anything you or anyone can do for these kids is great. I never turn aside a blessing.” I do think that’s her attitude to parenting, and it would sort of have to be to manage being the single parent of eight, I think. She’s not trying to use us, but anything we can do to help enrich the lives of any of Mara’s siblings or cousins is going to be welcome. We’re interested in helping because it’s good for Mara to spend time with her relatives and keep them part of our larger family, but also because they’re all sweet, smart, funny kids just like Mara is and it’s a pleasure to be around them. I don’t have any idea how our little family is going to grow after Val and Alex leave, but I know that incorporating Mara’s family into our collective extended family is going to be a part of that. I think it will be good for Lee and me too. Knowing and loving Mara certainly has been!

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Parent and Child Reunion (foster parenting edition)

January 10, 2012

Yesterday, Val and Alex got to see both their parents for the first time since Halloween, if I remember correctly. It had been way too long for a four-year-old and five-year-old who missed their incarcerated parent terribly. That parent was released yesterday morning and both arrived at our house right before I got the kids home from school, so they were able to spend an hour together before their parents had to go to one of the mandatory classes the non-incarcerated parent has been taking for months and months. Getting your kids back takes work, and these people are absolutely doing the work.

It great to see both how happy and relaxed both kids were with their parents, but it also seemed good for all of us that the kids got overstimulated and exhausted and emotional and they got to see their parents and foster parents address it in a consistent and supportive way. When Alex went into the living room with a sippy cup, his dad said, “Well at least he can’t spill that as easily as usual!” and I said that he was doing better, generally getting almost to the end of the meal before spilling his drink. His mom laughed and said, “Yeah, but how many times has he fallen out of his chair by then? He always does that!” And maybe that sounds cruel written out, but there was sort of a palpable exhalation then as the three of us acknowledged that yes, our interactions with him while he’s been in my care, at home with both parents before entering care, with the other parent at the visits during the incarceration have all been about the same kid we all love and mop up after with stunning regularity.

It’s always been clear how much their parents love them, but seeing Alex’s mom cry because she’s so proud of him as he showed her how he can write his name now (albeit with most of his letters mirrored) was just awesome. Seeing Val curl up between her parents as they casually draped their arms around her showed how ready they are to go back to normal day-to-day family life. Val showed off her homework and the hairstyle her half-sister had given her over the weekend. Meanwhile, I was able to empty the dishwasher and tidy up the kitchen without having to worry about what the kids were up to. They were being parented. They were safe, secure, happy.

I’m tying up the loose ends to get us ready to transition them back to their parents’ care, whenever that will happen. We’re still a week or two away from the meeting where the details will be decided, but I’ve gotten their cavities sealed, taken them to the eye doctor. I’ll print out a list of all the doctors they’ve seen and when they’re supposed to go back again. I gave their parents a big stack of photos, but I’ll also have to gather all the pictures I’ve taken and make sure I burn cds or something to make sure the parents have copies of all the originals and can get more made if they ever want to. I need to finish the kids’ lifebooks, which in this case will be a little bit about where they lived before coming to us and then mostly just what they did while with us, and get them printed.

Assuming everything stays on track, starting after school Friday the kids will get their first weekend with their parents since before they came to us in September. They’ll be spending the school week with us and their weekends with their parents until we have a plan to do more time there (which would be logistically difficult as they’ll be living almost 30 minutes away) or move them permanently.

Lee has been doing so much better these past few weeks. She’s taking a more active role in parenting to some extent, but mostly it’s just that she’s supporting me in ways that are actually helpful. When we have our weekends without Val and Alex, our little family, she’s been making it a priority to stay with us and be actively involved with us, where in the past she’d have wanted to go out and socialize with her friends or take long naps or watch sports with minimal interruptions. I still don’t know whether this means fostering again might be in the cards for us, but it’s made my life so much better and improved our relationship significantly.

I know there’s been a lot of grief in this whole process — Val and Alex missing their parents and the relative who’d been raising them, their parents deeply hurt by their lack of access to the kids, what I think was Lee’s trauma-influenced response to having extra kids around, the way I had to put my life on hold to pick up the slack, Mara’s chance to love another “brother” and “sister” who won’t live with her forever — I also think it’s been as positive as it could be in many ways. I don’t think the kids’ parents would have been as open with us as they have been if this had been the kids’ first placement after removal, but they’d had time to get used to the idea of separation and were able to want the kids’ needs to be met while they got themselves ready to parent again. Our worker thinks that it helped that I laid the groundwork for trusting and supporting them from the very beginning, made it clear that they were welcome in our family and our lives because their children were going to be a part of our family and our lives. The more time I spend at the foster parent support group, the more I realize how rare that is, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes I really think just because the foster families are insecure. While I assume Val and Alex will have to switch schools and that grates when the reason we accepted a placement outside our parameters was to keep them in their schools, they’ve gotten through half the year with that stability and security and I’m sure that being with their parents will help smooth the transition to a new school. And the odds are good that if they’d gone to another home rather than ours, it wouldn’t have been in the rural area where their relatives live and so they’d be changing schools for a second time this year, which is definitely not good. Val and Alex have had their ups and downs, but their teachers and parents agree that they’re thriving here, that we’ve helped them do well in school and emotionally, which I hope will help give them the grounding to get them through their next move.

They could be with us another month, but it was clear to all of us that yesterday was the beginning of the end. And it was a beautiful thing.

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Mother and Child Reunion (Christmas surprise edition)

January 4, 2012

I typed all of this up over the break, only to find it didn’t post and my wordpress app hadn’t been saving and so I sort of gave up, which was fine. All the kids are back at school now and I’m finally back to work, though I have to take the day off tomorrow to take Mara for her four-year checkup at last, after two cancellations from the doctor’s side, and the other two to get their eyes checked, because the eye doctor will only make two appointments at a time. We’ll know more soon, but I think Val and Alex will start every-weekend visitation this weekend and we’re about two weeks away from the final transition meeting that will decide when and how quickly they’ll move to the relatives’ house where their non-incarcerated parent lives. (Before then, we’ll get to the point where they have two non-incarcerated parents, which will also be a good thing, but there are other complications there.)

For now, though, I want to tell the whole long story of Mara’s Christmas dinner. I’ll put the spoiler first by saying that when Lee was asked later in the week what her favorite Christmas present was, she didn’t hesitate before saying, “Meeting Mara’s mom.” (She may have said “birth mom” or something like that; I wasn’t there. But she speaks about Mara’s mom/birth mom/bio mom/first mom with a lot more respect than she does her own and often without any qualifier.) And yeah, that was my favorite too, and probably Mara’s.

See, Mara’s grandmother (her mom’s mom) had called me a few days before Christmas and asked us to have dinner with the family. Saying yes was a no-brainer, especially since Lee had gotten all mopey about how we weren’t going to have a traditional Christmas feast and I was not at my best in responding to that whining. But the family was going to be attending a free meal at a local convention center, complete with free toys for all the kids. Obviously this was geared at people who couldn’t afford a big celebration, which is not really a group that includes us. I got all mentally twisted up about it, whether it was us taking advantage of the system or if it was a way to do what we want to do in helping Mara learn to comfortable cross class lines. Eventually I looked up the website of the sponsoring organization and saw that it was listed as being for people who wouldn’t otherwise have a large celebration (us!) and that the main sponsor was a local grocery store, where I’d made donations toward their feeding-hungry-people programs several times already. So I felt fine justifying it and would have gone even if I’d felt a little uncomfortable just because I think it’s important for Mara to see her family, and especially good for all the kids to link that to Christmas.

We arrived a few minutes before the rest of the family, which was a group of 15 or so, her grandmother, two aunts, and their children plus Mara’s four siblings that her aunt is raising. We’d already gone through the buffet line, where I did in fact take one of the last little servings of cranberry sauce even though someone hungrier than I might have wanted one, and were trying to get a big table when the others arrived. Mara’s aunt immediately took me aside and said, “One of the kids said she saw that Mara’s mom is here.” She looked a little nervous about this, though I’m not sure if that was because this meant the kids she was raising would see their mom, which hadn’t happened since summer, or because she wasn’t sure how Mara’s mom (and let’s call her Veronica) would respond to us, or maybe just because she was trying to herd 15 kids through a lunch line.

I went back to our chair, told Lee this, and we had a second to think about what we’d say, since surely we’d end up interacting with her. Before we had a chance to do much more than take a few breaths, a woman came up to us and introduced herself as Veronica. She has Mara’s forehead and cheeks exactly, though I read a sort of slow sadness about her. She’d come with friends and was finishing her meal before dashing off to her job, but she wanted to make sure she said hi to us. She’d gotten the photos I’d sent her social worker, which was news to me, and she appreciated seeing that Mara was being cared for well. She told Mara how much she loves her, that she thinks of her every day. She told us what a relief it is to know Mara’s safe and that she got all the paperwork for the termination of her rights and knew what was going on, which tells us that as we’d suspected she didn’t want to fight the process but didn’t want to sign away her rights either. (This is sort of too bad since now the state has grounds to remove any future children at birth, but they might have anyway if she’d had another voluntary termination with Mara.)

We talked a little more, but I was amazed both that she was brave enough to come up to us and just talk to us and by how easy it was to talk to her. I told her a little about how we talk to Mara about her and she and I both cried some. Mara was mostly quiet during the whole time, but shyly and carefully watched her mother. I know she has more mixed feelings about her mom, whom she’d last seen around her second birthday and who did fail at parenting in ways that eventually got Mara removed, than the seemingly all-positive feelings for her dad, who left her life much earlier and seems to have been almost entirely a positive part of it before then. Mara wasn’t scared at all, though, and didn’t hide against one of us the way she sometimes does with strangers. She sat and looked her mother over, drinking it in. I got a great photo of Mara with Lee on one side of her and Veronica on the other where it’s clear how much she gets her looks and her smile from her mom.

Veronica went to talk to her other children, but I’d brought extra photos of Mara and her siblings from the last visit, so I gave one of those to Veronica with my phone number on the back and she gave me her number to put in my phone. We’ve been in touch since then, and I hope we’ll meet again this weekend, which should let Mara feel more comfortable with her and let all of us talk a little more. It’ll also almost certainly mean Mara will grill her about breastfeeding, which has been her most common question since we saw Veronica. I do know from medical files that Veronica breastfed Mara at least sometimes, though she was pregnant again when Mara was awfully small and so it may not have lasted long. Mara’s fascinated with this and will probably be disappointed to learn that Lee and I are right and Veronica does not in fact have milk for her anymore, but I’m sure she’s going to ask.

Veronica never seemed to talk much to the adults in her family. Mara’s grandmother insists that this was a Christmas miracle just like it was God’s plan that Samara’s brother recognized Mara and approached us almost a year ago, setting off the chain of events that let us finally reunite Mara with her siblings on her mom’s side and basically bring her back into the family socially even after she’d legally left it. Lee’s on the same page she is, seeing a divine plan in all of this. I’m not convinced, of course, and I’ve always expected that we’d run into family someday just by luck but also because I’ve put a lot of work into looking for her family members, letting them know we’re interested in contact, laying the groundwork that is helping this go smoothly.

Mara was able to celebrate Christmas with us, with her brothers and sisters and cousins, with her and aunts grandma on that side, with her mom that day and her dad a few days later, with my parents a few days before they left to visit my grandmother and again when they returned with gifts from the relatives who’d been there, with Val and Alex at our house and by phone at her request on Christmas evening, when the social worker did her monthly visit and brought donated presents for Val and Alex and I supplemented with presents I had ready so Mara would have some too, at Lee’s office where coworkers threw an adoption shower, not to mention at school with friends and probably other places I’m not thinking of now. For a little girl who came to us fifteen months ago seemingly so disconnected from everyone, that’s a lot of connection to people who love her. I’m so happy they all get to see how amazing she is and I’m grateful to have met some wonderful people I probably otherwise wouldn’t have. Last Christmas, I was connecting Mara to my extended family and grieving the absence of hers. It’s not an either/or now, just love and love and love. And that’s a gift.

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