Our second foster care placement came just two months after the first. We were still readjusting to life with an infant when our worker called with another child needing care, this one fourteen months old. The worker sounded desperate. I made a quick phone call to Erica to talk it over. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: "Can we take a 16-month-old boy?"
Her: "I don't know. What do you think?"
Me: "Where would we put him? Does he need his own room?"
Her: "Nope. The babies can share a room. Do you think we can handle another?"
Me: "We're crushing this right now. Why not?"
Her: "Okey dokie."
Saving the world one child at a time, we thought.
It was a Monday when we arrived at the Cabinet, where we were ushered back to a conference room and seated across the table from a mother and her young son. A social worker - not ours and not his - stood silently at the door. Awkward silence gave way to ice-breaking questions. Johnny* watched shows on his mom's phone and bonked his head on things as he walked around. After 30 or 40 minutes, the social worker spoke up.
"There's no one else coming. You can leave whenever you want." Awkward.
We walked outside, where Johnny's mother broke into tears, weeping hysterically as she buckled her son into the back of our car. "Please don't cut his hair!" she begged though tears as I closed the door. What do you say to a mother when you are about to drive away with temporary guardianship of her kid? I glanced at Erica, who was fighting back tears but failing miserably. It isn't typical to have the biological parents present when the foster parents take custody of their children. Now I know why.
I pulled out of the parking lot while Erica sobbed in the passenger seat, her heart breaking. As difficult as it was to experience this moment, it left us with a resolve to love this kid well and to support the mother however we could, so that the two could be reunited as soon as possible.
The next three weeks were the hardest I can remember in the life of our family. We had just added a non-verbal toddler to a household that was already in a state of change. The Winter had brought us our first placement, a newborn, which should have been enough of a shock to parents whose kids had been pouring their own cereal and dressing themselves for the last 6 years. As if that wasn't enough of an adjustment, I had, just a week after that, started a position at a new church. It was a healthy change, but one that brought with it a new 45 minute commute and an imminent move to a new city. Erica did all she could do to keep us above water as we tried to get the house ready to sell in the midst of all the chaos.
Within 24 hours of bringing a second foster child into our home, we questioned if we had bitten off more than we could chew. The boy was adorable, but unable to communicate apart from screams and tears. At times, he would play happily for a couple hours on end. More often, though, he was crying. Loudly. To top it off, a violent stomach bug worked its way through our home that first week, hitting everyone in the family, foster children included. In the span of 7 days, our household saw more vomit and diarrhea-stained baby clothes than we had in the past 15 years combined.
In just a matter of days, after exhaustion was besting determination at every turn, there was a seeping realization that my heart just didn't seem to be in it. Emotionally, I had not attached to Johnny like I did to Matthew. Perhaps it was the stress level in our house that seemed to hang steadily at Code Red, or maybe it was because I knew that Johnny's presence in our home was almost assuredly going to be temporary; regardless, I did not feel love towards Johnny like I did my other children. When I had to clean diarrhea out of the crib...again; or when he woke us all up screaming (baby included) at 2:00am...again; or when he wandered around the house crying inconsolably for 75 minutes on end...again, I found myself becoming resentful of his biological mother. She had been irresponsible, and now it's me changing the diapers and losing this sleep. It should be her. Now, these weren't constant thoughts - they were hardly conscious ones. These were the thoughts that crept into my mind in the darkness and sleeplessness and in the moments of pure chaos. Nevertheless, they were real, and I had to deal with them.
Erica and I found ourselves in our first real struggle as foster parents. How was it possible that we could bring one baby home and love him immediately as our own, but then add another child into the mix and feel little sense of connection to him? I felt guilty and ashamed for my lack of affection toward the toddler. We decided to give it a week - not to see if we would feel anything towards Johnny, but to see if we could hold him without breaking ourselves. By Saturday, we knew it was too much. All of our energy and attention was being poured out onto this child. Whatever we had left in the tank was spent taking care of the baby, who thankfully was peaceful and content. Our eldest two children were all but neglected. The only thing they received from us during this time was additional housework.
We contacted our R&C worker first thing Monday morning to put in a two-week notice requesting a new placement for Johnny. We had failed. At least, that's what it felt like. We failed the mother, we failed Johnny, we failed our social worker, and we were failing our family. The promises we had made in silence as we drove out of that parking lot just days prior had quickly been replaced by silent curses of desperation.
For two more weeks, we cared for Johnny, enjoying some moments of playful fun, but mostly counting down the sleepless nights until he would be moved to a new home. We felt horrible, but all we could think about was catching our breath. James 1:27 had been a guiding force for us in becoming foster parents: pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress. Foster care was supposed to be something that drew us closer to the heart of God. During those days, however, the truth is that I had never felt less like Jesus. Our emotions and tempers hung by a thread, and the slightest incident could sever all brain-to-mouth filters. Erica and I tried our best to serve one another through mutual exhaustion, but our relationship lacked any sense of affection or kindness. Self-preservation was the name of the game, and we were united and motivated only by the thought that the end was in sight.
Our two weeks came to a close, and a new placement had been found. As we dropped Johnny off with his ongoing worker the next morning, I felt relieved and ashamed. Erica cried. We had just done what we had both previously thought was unthinkable: we had welcomed a child in need into our home, and then sent him away because we couldn't handle him. I thought back to the ten weeks of training that we had worked through 9 months prior as part of our licensing. "Know your family," the instructor had told us over and over. Our exuberance and idealism about impacting young lives through radical, sacrificial love came crashing down to reality when presented with the wisdom of the age-old axiom: Never take temporary guardianship of two children under the age of 16 months while simultaneously changing jobs and trying to get a house ready to list on the market.
Three weeks with Johnny almost pushed us to the breaking point as a family. But those days also gave us clarity about a number of other things, not the least of which were our limitations as parents. All things considered, that's a valuable lesson. As we walked away from the wreckage of that experience, we were also all the more determined to love well those who were in our charge: our kids, Matthew, one another.
Saving the world, one child at a time. It's not a bad approach, really.
Dan is a pastor, writer, and speaker. He is the host of the Ordinary Faith Podcast and currently serves as a Campus Pastor for Southland Christian Church in Georgetown, KY.
* The names of our foster children will always be protected online. This little feller was our second placement, John Adams was the second President of the USA...so we'll go with Johnny.