One of the hardest things as a foster mom — a thing I didn’t see coming at all — has been asking my family and my husband’s family to live this life. They didn’t plan on it or sign up for it. But they showed up when we asked them to be our pit crew. They love our kids and, when they have no choice, they say goodbye. Without the knowledge of training, the insight of meetings, or the normalization that comes from exposure, they walk alongside us on this bumpy-as road. They catch us when we crumble in unexpected tears, they vent the rage we do our best not to feel, and, most of all, they open their hearts and homes. We are infinitely thankful, while also being painfully sorry that we brought this heartbreak into their lives.
My mom is an all-in mom and an all-in grandma. She is heart, head to toe. I have felt the whole spectrum of emotions watching her cry and pray over my babies. I will always feel a little — or a lot — guilty for volunteering her for this world, but I’m so grateful to have her in it with me. I’m so overwhelmingly glad that my babies get to call her Nana and know the inside of her heart: their forever home.
The remainder of this post is a raw, honest, and tearful interview with my mom, which was done while we were driving in a snowstorm. It was not my brightest moment. I asked her about what it’s like to be a foster nana and, truthfully, I was surprised by some of her answers. If you think I paint too pretty a picture of it all, here’s an unedited take on the alternate universe that is foster care.
How did you feel when we first told you we’d decided to become foster parents?
Great trepidation. I was proud of you but also, “Holy shit, you’re asking for a world of hurt!” I didn’t even think about how it would change the family. I just thought about what it would do to you guys.
How did it feel to meet your first foster grandbaby?
She was so sweet. But it also felt weird that her mother was “lurking” [because of her things in the room]. That felt really weird. I also remember feeling grief about her smell because that smell of a new baby is so intimate to a mother. That fresh out of the womb thing… that it wasn’t my daughter’s womb that she came out of.
What was the biggest surprise to you in the beginning of our foster care journey?
How easy it was to fall in love with this baby. And the protective instinct I had — against her mother I guess — and for you. All the times [her mom] was [at the hospital] when she wasn’t supposed to be there and wasn’t supposed to know who you were.
I distinctly remember you coming back from a weekend of Indigenous training and the dichotomy you felt of one day feeling “with” them and the next day, “What the hell do you want from us? We’re trying to help you and it’s not good enough.”
What has been the hardest adjustment for you?
I think the damage that has been done to the kids and how that manifests. The trauma that you can see in them. I don’t think I’ve ever adjusted to that.
What it does to you and how hard it is for you and Matthew.
What was your biggest fear at the start? Is that still your biggest fear? If not, what is now?
The biggest fear at the start was that you’d fall in love and have to say goodbye, if it’s a good situation or not. I remember Matthew saying, “Mom, we’ll love them with all we have for as long as have them.” Because I knew how much I loved [my other grandkids] I couldn’t imagine falling that much in love again and having them taken away.
I still fear that. But I also fear that the kids will end up somewhere unsafe and that something awful will happen to them. But I almost can’t even put that into words because it is too awful to contemplate. So I guess that is my biggest fear.
What has been your favourite thing about being a foster nana?
Having new grand babies! That’s easy!
Also, the sense that you’re kind of saving those kids; the feeling that you’re protecting them from trauma, which is life-altering for them. They still have some trauma, but you protect them from so much. Everyday that goes by is a day they’re protected from trauma. Everyday that goes by is a day their brains can grow.
What has been your least favourite thing about being a foster nana?
The foster care system. Because you can’t trust it; you can’t trust it to do what’s right for these children — or what I think is right for these children. It exemplifies that they’re not yours, at all.
The parents, which I know is bad. I want to say, “Stop bringing children into this trauma situation. Now that you’ve found someone who is willing and able to give your child a better life, let them do it.” I know they have legal rights and I know [the kids are] their children; I acknowledge that. But [the kids are] not a commodity. They’re human beings that deserve a chance. But as much as I say they don’t own the children, we don’t either. I really need to pray for a heart for the bio-parents. My heart is not in the right place for them. I guess I have to work on being more pro-reunification.
The kids aren’t ours, but in my heart they are. When people ask how many grandchildren I have or how many kids my kids have… “She had three and now she has two and I don’t know how many she will have.” They’re not really ours, but they are ours, but they’re not. Where do you draw the line on that? Does that change when you have lots of children? Do you feel as deeply when you have 6, 8, 10, 12?
Tell me about your most precious memory.
Holding Little Prince. There was that soul thing with him; there just was. There were a lot of them, laying with him on my bed all those times. But sitting in the chair that time was the deepest connection. It was so long and he was reciprocating.
I have a memory with Baby Jay when I was singing Christmas songs with her on our first Christmas with her and she was so at peace. That was a bonding moment and a Christmas memory.
And there was that time when we had to go get Little Prince’s heart echo and then there was no appointment. That was pretty precious sitting in the wheelchair with those two little nuggets. All helpless the three of us.
And Dad making Little Jay chortle that one time before you even got him. It was just a visit. They were so engaged.
Another good memory was watching you that time when Little Prince was really little and you put him in his car seat to go and he was really upset and you held him face to face and eye to eye and he calmed right down. How deep those connections were. Heart connections. I wonder if I make too much of stuff!
Tell me about your most difficult memory.
I remember getting my hair cut and you called and told me that you couldn’t have Little Jay until Little Prince left and that Little Prince would be leaving in a month. That was a devastating phone call. Because it was so blasé, like you’re moving a chess piece. Not [like] you’re taking a piece of our heart.
[The visit we just had with Little Prince] was hard too. I know they love him. But it was dark and dirty. He wasn’t talking. He wasn’t connecting.
Saying goodbye. That was so brutal. *tears* It just felt wrong. His little head and black curls and lanky little arms. And he was so unaware.
What kind of support and training do you wish there was for the extended family of foster caregivers?
Some! Any! Teach us what to do. Tell us what’s coming, what to expect.
A support group would be great. Someone who can counsel you to move on from loving and losing. And how to be supportive of your kids when you’re hurting yourself.
What do you wish people knew about foster care and being part of a foster care family?
That it isn’t a job. I don’t think you can describe what it’s like to someone. Because every time you try they immediately say, “I can’t imagine. I couldn’t do it.” I remember talking to an older couple who had fostered a lot, for decades, and when I told them about Little Prince leaving he got tears in his eyes. That validated the pain and the love for me.
That if they can do it, they should do it. But that makes me feel guilty, because I can’t. I just know my limitations at this age. I can be a Nana.
If you could wish for one thing for (a) foster families, (b) foster kids, and (c) bio families, what would it be?
That it would never have to happen in the first place. That’s the bottom line, right?
I also wish the communication channels were more open for everyone on the team.
What would you like to say to the extended families of foster parents?
Batten down the hatches, you’re in for a bumpy ride!
Commit or don’t. I would recommend that you commit.
If you’re not going to be involved, don’t be oppositional. If that’s all you can do, just don’t be oppositional.
What would you like to say to foster parents?
I’m terribly proud of you. You weather everything while you’re afraid, not knowing what’s ahead. The visibility is so poor. It could be a train wreck it could be a sunny day. It could be great or it could be grief and pain and damage.
You work so hard to build relationships with their families and not have a tug of war over the kids. I’m so proud of you for working so hard to maintain a positive relationship with bio-parents, when those are the very people than can inflict the biggest pain on you in this journey. And yet you do it, because it’s what’s best for the kids.
I think about that story that got into the press about a little girl who died. The results were released in July. At the beginning of her life she had a foster family that worked really well for her and she was very happy. She got put in a kinship family and that’s when everything went off the rails. I was so annoyed that her time with the foster family was just a paragraph when that’s where she was safe. It was like a side note. They didn’t even have a name. They were her salvation. I think about them and how she left and two years later she was dead. What the actual f*ck. How is that happening to our kids?
If your motivations aren’t right, don’t do it. That’s probably not the right thing to say, but the kids need someone who won’t add to their trauma. If you can’t come at it and put the kids first, don’t do it.
What would you like to say to foster children?
That you are loved. Little Prince is in my heart as a grandbaby and will always be there.
No one can really understand your life and what you feel and struggle with. We can’t pretend to understand. But you matter. We see you. You are loved. And I am so sorry. I’m sorry that the place that was supposed to be the safest for you wasn’t. And I really wish we could do better by you.
Mom, I hope I grow up to be just like you. I hope I jump in with both feet and all my heart when my kids ask me to do something incredibly, impossibly hard. I can’t thank you — any of you — enough.