In honor of National Foster Care Month...
Brave is such a powerful word. It’s right up there with saint and courageous. Innocent people seem to think it is a compliment to use such words to describe our super-sized family. Truthfully, it just makes me very uncomfortable.
Okay. I understand that most sane people don’t spend all the time, energy, and money to become an attorney, and then earn a Masters in Secondary Education, only to leave the professional world and the accompanying salary to foster and adopt a total of 53 children and counting.
Most men I know aren’t willing to give up most of their favorite things to become the sole provider, working hard to support a mega family created because we willingly choose to raise children born into other families.
I am even willing to acknowledge that as parents to three biological children and 18 that are legally ours - my husband and I are in the minority, both literally and figuratively. If it weren’t for the recent wave of reality shows about large families, not many could imagine what it would be like to live in our unique family. Even fewer could picture themselves as parents in an interracial family with some kids that come and go and others that are permanent.
I can even force myself to concede that living in a home with 8 bedrooms, 4 refrigerators, 2 washers/dryers, 5 freezers, a semi that delivers frozen food to our home, 100+ dishrags, 7 kids under the age of 8, and a load of hormonal teens and young adults is a little extreme.
Seventeen years ago, my husband and I recognized a need and made a choice to commit to changing the future one child at a time. We never planned to raise quite this many children. In fact, we started slowly back in 1995 as a respite home, offering a place for a 13-year-old girl to spend summers and holidays with our family instead of the group home where she lived.
By 2000, when we went from five to nine children in less than six months, every person who knew us thought we were certifiably insane. Even our pastor, who has since eaten his words and now remembers when we only had nine girls, declared that we should not try to raise that many children.
At the time, I was still practicing law and my husband had his own CPA firm. We had become pregnant on our honeymoon and had three girls by our fourth wedding anniversary, so it certainly wasn’t a fertility issue. We had no desire to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. We weren’t contemplating a television deal with TLC. We really had no motive, other than keeping siblings together whenever possible and to honor our faith by answering the call on our lives.
We are intelligent, educated people. At least our degrees say that. We know that the numbers don’t make sense. Financially or otherwise. But we try hard not to think too much and just follow the need wherever it is.
We literally met the first teen we adopted on our fifth wedding anniversary while she was on a group outing in a state park. That seemingly chance meeting was the beginning of our adventure, because it was the moment that my husband realized he could love a child that was not biologically his own.
Our second adopted child is a wild, exciting and heartrending story all by herself. By the time she was six-years-old, she who had already been placed in six different homes. When we heard about her, her adoptive placement was disrupting because of her psychological assessment and she needed a new family immediately. There was never a question that she was our child, but every day was hard for all of us. Tragically, our daughter was killed in a single car accident while texting and speeding, exactly 12 years to the day after we met and chose to adopt her.
Our third child’s attorney had met us at a foster parent training session. We were the only couple that expressed a willingness to foster and adopt a teenager. Less than a week later, when one of the kids on her caseload suddenly needed a permanent placement, she called us to take a thirteen-year-old girl.
Without much thought, only an awareness of need, she became ours.
Within a few months, we were asked to foster our next three children for the weekend while the State waited on three separate placements to open up for the sisters. We couldn’t bear the thought of traumatizing the girls even more by splitting them up. Thirteen years later, we can safely say that this has been the longest weekend in our lives!
And the stories number all the way to 53 kids and counting….
Even now, many mornings we wake up wondering how we can possibly meet all of the varying needs of our children on a budget that is half of what it used to be and with sanity that is quickly waning. On good days, we rest in our faith. On bad days, we try to do it all by ourselves.
Our peers are well into planning the details of their retirement and we have no idea how many more children might come through our home before we die. We just take each day as it comes.
So why do I hate the thought of being called a saint, or brave or courageous?
It’s fairly simple. There are well over 100,000 kids in the United States who need to be adopted. There are approximately a half-million children in foster care at any given time. And there are far too few people who are willing to foster and adopt these children.
And therein lies the problem. If what we do is labeled special. If a person can put us on a pedestal and make it seem like caring for children in need of family is brave or noble or sacrificial. If others think that we must be more patient or wealthy or giving than they are. If people are convinced that the life they imagine for themselves can’t happen if they bring others into it. If they believe these things, then it is easy to trick themselves into believing that they can’t possibly be the ones to step into the role of foster or adoptive parent. And that makes me sad.
Sometimes, I feel like no one could be more impatient or militant or less nurturing than I can be. Other times, I conclude that I must be the most patient person in the world because I haven’t actually hurt any of my children and God knows I’ve wanted to put one of us out of our misery on more than one occasion.
But brave is a word I reserve for others. Like my children – some of whom have been neglected, beaten, raped and abused and who choose every day to overcome their past.
And my children who were neglected or feel abandoned by their families and who struggle to accept our love and find their special place in our family.
Or my birth children, who have shared their parents and walked alongside the struggles of their adopted and foster siblings without complaint since they were pre-schoolers.
Brave describes my children who grew up in poverty and who could barely read or write by middle school, but who worked hard and managed to graduate high school and even attend college with some scholarships.
Brave is a perfect word to describe my adult children of addicted parents, who are ensuring that their children are not forced to endure the uncertainty of that life.
These are the people for whom I reserve the descriptions brave and noble and courageous.
Because admittedly, although this life we chose is not always nice and pretty and happy by the world’s standards, my husband and I gain far more than we sacrifice. Our lives have meaning and purpose.
And if that makes us brave, then so be it.
But I still don’t like that word.