When I told my mother that we were beginning the process of becoming foster parents, long before we ever met T, she told me a cautionary tale: someone in her community became a foster parent to a young girl who began sneaking out, and it ended badly, in what is called a “disrupted placement”—in other words, she did not stay in that home.
Unfortunately, my mom’s reaction proved common; many people responded to our news with concern and consternation. Stories of impending biological parenthood are usually greeted with congratulations and optimism, but it seems that helping to raise someone else’s child attracts grave pessimism.
Biological parenthood hardly seems to be a recipe for uncompromised success, so I’m not sure why prospective foster parents get the undue portion of our pessimism. I hate the thought that we fear and reject children whose lives have been hard. If a baby is a blank slate for projecting our aspirations to innocence and perfection, an older foster child seems to serve the opposite function; the pessimism I hear echoes our fear of human darkness, anger, weakness and pain. Often I think one feels guilty hearing about the plight of older children in foster care, yet it’s easier to decide that such children are “too difficult” than to admit that we are too scared to try to help them.
I didn’t become a foster parent to prove my moral mettle, or to impress my friends with my selfless bravery. I never struggled with infertility, and I never tried to get pregnant. I just knew somewhere in my heart that I wanted to be a foster parent, and that imperfect as I am, my character made me well suited to parenting an older child. My partner and I feel meant to do this, and it just descended on us over time with a heavy, stubborn certainty. It just felt like something that needed doing by someone, and it might as well be us.
There are more than 30,000 kids in foster care in Los Angeles, and many of them are unlikely to return home to a biological parent. Thousands age out of foster care without anyone to help them make the transition—to loan them a deposit on a first apartment, or buy them their first car, or advise them about an important job interview. More important, after years of parenting my son and his friends who grew up in foster care, I know that too many of them grow up without an adult who believes in them, singularly, with the special favoritism unique to parents.
This blog will be my account of becoming a foster parent and then an adoptive parent to a teenage boy who is the light of my life. We aren’t a success or a failure, a horror story or a rare exception; we behave like a normal mom and a normal teenager in many ways. Sure, becoming his parent wasn’t easy, and there were times when I hung on by my fingernails, and times when he did the same. But today, five years later, we are just family. He teases us about getting older, and calls me at work for dating advice. I send him care packages and nag him by text message. I hope my account will serve as inspiration for someone contemplating becoming the parent of an older child, and an antidote to some of the fear and pessimism that dog potential foster parents.
In the city where I live, the foster care system has become a deformed bureaucracy that frustrates everyone who comes into contact with it. Despite the commitment and effort of some wonderful social workers and support providers, the system is building the conditions for failure every day. But there are kids like my son who still believe the world holds greater things in store for them, and there are foster parents and adoptive parents who can interrupt the dynamics of that system in one child’s life just long enough for him or her to catch a break. If you think you’re that kind of parent, you probably are. And don’t let hearsay about someone else’s experience deter you from doing what you know is in your heart.