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Children of the Heart: A Foster Mom Reflects

This article is from a four-year-old journal entry. Sarah is now six; we adopted her and her brother Christopher in 2005. I hope you enjoy the jaunt down “memory lane” as much as I did! 

Every night before we tuck her in, two-year-old Sarah watches intently as we perform a series of little rituals so familiar to most parents. Each step must be executed perfectly if we hope to get any sleep that night.

Closet light on, check.

Shades pulled down, ceiling fan on, check-check.

Piggy, Dolly, and Dorothy the Dinosaur tucked in, check-check-CHECK.

This week we added another step that we ignore to our peril: pajamas must go on backward, or she will ditch her diaper, soaking the carpet and/or bed linen, depending on where she decides to sleep that night.

My favorite part of the routine comes next. “Snugga, snugga,” she reminds me. Lovey in one hand, bottle of water in the other, she straddles my lap and presses her chin into my chest, arms flung out in an all-embracing hug. I drape a special blanket over her and hug her tight, and her little face peeks out with a serious expression. “I-la-OO! I-la-OO!” she prompts, swaying back and forth. As I begin to sing, she pops her bottle contentedly in her mouth and for once that day, sits perfectly still:

I love you, a bushel and a peck,

A bushel and a peck and a KISS upon the neck,

Kiss upon the neck and a barrel and a heap

Barrel and a heap, and I’m talking in my sleep about you, about you …

The second time around, Sarah casts aside the bottle so she can chime in the last word of each line: “ … PECK! … NECK! … SHEEP!” (Okay, so her diction isn’t perfect.) It’s all very precious, and I know if she is still with us years from now, when adolescence hits, I will long for the days when she used to hug me with such abandon.

Yes, if she is still with us. Sarah is my foster daughter. I’ve had her and her brother since she was six months old. (Christopher is partial to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You.”) Sometimes I watch them sleep at night, and marvel at how much I love them—I never expected that love could be so fierce, so all-encompassing, so unabashed. Biology, schmiology; these kids are mine.

Becoming a foster mom has been the single most formative experience of my life. All the little flaws I try so hard to hide bubble to the surface. Sleep deprivation will do that to you. Slowly I’m learning how to manage my temper, how to guard my tongue, how to put someone else first. I suppose I should have learned these things before I turned forty, but someone it was never so urgent before. There is no putting a “Christian happy face” on for a four-year-old. He can see right through it.

Yet, the most important thing this whole experience has taught me is not about me, but about God. I am finally getting a clue about what it means to say, “I am an adopted child of God.” You don’t have to be a foster parent to know this. Anyone who answers the call to love a child with whom she shares little or no biological connection—stepmothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, custodial grandmothers—understand this instinctively. You don’t have to be a blood relation to carry someone in your heart.

God is the same way. The only blood tie your heavenly Father needs to bring us into His family is the one His Son offered up from Calvary. He knew and loved us extravagantly while we were still a twinkle in our father’s eye. Since I first became a foster parent, I’ve discovered three principles of “alternative parenting” that help me to understand what God must go through with us:

“Love hangs in there, even when it makes no sense.”

“Love risks even the good for something better.”

“Love is the most powerful and irresistible force in the universe.”

When our kids first arrived, there were three of them including five-year-old Cheyenne. The previous foster mom, Phyllis, said that Cheyenne and Christopher loved scrambled eggs with cheese, and so I whipped up a batch for our first breakfast together as a family.

Cheyenne eyed her plate suspiciously as I set it in front of her. “Eew. What’s that?!”

“Eggs. Scrambled eggs.”

“I hate eggs.”

“No, you don’t. Miss Phyllis said you like them.”

“NOOOOOOOO!” she wailed. Hearing his sister cry, Christopher joined in, followed by Sarah. Frustrated, I scraped the eggs in to the dog’s dish. “Little ingrates,” I fumed.

That was a Sunday, so we all piled into the van and drove to church. At the appointed time I herded the older two kids in front of me so I could receive communion, the baby nestled like a little kangaroo in the pouch over my midriff. As pastor bent over to give Christopher a blessing, my little cherub reached out and landed a powerhouse blow into the elderly gentleman’s midsection, shouting, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” Father Will was still muttering about ill-mannered children when I hastily retreated to my seat.

“Whatever happened to the honeymoon?” I wondered. As part of our foster parent training, we had attended a session with veteran foster parents who talked with us about the “honeymoon” phase of foster parenting a child who was recently placed in a new home. Initially, the child may be on his best behavior, especially if he has been placed in more than one foster home. In time, however, the child begins to relax as he realizes he is there to stay for the foreseeable future. At that time, the foster parents begin to see the child act out in new ways, as he seeks to express the anger, fear, and pain bottled up inside him that he didn’t feel safe to express before.

This phenomenon can be observed in “spiritual families” as well. Some of us have unseen issues, guilty secrets, and embarrassing truths that affect the way we respond to the world around us. However, we do our best to hide this unflattering side of ourselves in an effort to “blend in” to our faith environment. Some people never feel quite safe enough. As a senior in high school, I remember the day a friend of mine—someone who had sat next to me nearly every Sunday for ten years—told me she sometimes thought of killing herself. My sister’s friend waited six years to confide in her that her father sometimes touched her in places he shouldn’t. We struggle with sadness and anger and disillusionment and doubt, afraid to reveal our true selves. Instinctively we prolong the “honeymoon,” figuring that even if God loves us, our spiritual brothers and sisters may not be willing to cut us quite so much slack.

Those who find courage to show their true selves, however, are rewarded a hundredfold. God loves us, even when we are at our most embarrassing, and in His grace has provided the means to be cleansed even from our darkest deeds, if we but turn to him. It is this process of turning, of learning to trust, that helps us to conform to the image of our beloved Father and His Son.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption …
(Romans 8:22-24).

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