“Never forget that another family has to fall irreparably apart for your family to come together.”
I can still hear the gentle, soothing voice of the social worker who said this when my husband and I trained to become foster-adopt parents — people certified to foster children and to adopt them if the children can’t safely reunify with their birth family. And seven years later, when I signed the adoption contract for my son, her words ricocheted through my mind.
When I shared the news of the pending adoption, well-meaning friends and family showered me with congratulations. “You must be so happy!” they said. “When’s the party?” Even the social workers at our foster family agency texted and called to express their excitement.
It was hard for me to know how to respond. I understand why this appears to be a joyous occasion. But the idea of throwing a party strikes me as dancing on a grave.
I fostered my son for three years before we signed the adoption contract. He was 11 months old when he came to my home, and he isn’t yet old enough to understand adoption or what it means for him. If he has feelings about it, he can’t yet express them.
But his three older sisters are old enough to understand. They’ve been in and out of my care for six years, and their thoughts and feelings about being adopted run the gamut.
For the oldest, who is 8, adoption is a spotlight on the fact that her and her siblings’ biological mother, Mom, will never be the mother she wants her to be. She isn’t yet ready to make that concession. The middle girl was excited to join our family, but she also has tough questions and wants to hold Mom accountable for the choices she’s made. And the youngest girl? She’s spent so much of her life in our home that she’s absolutely baffled that a process still needs to happen for us to become her legal parents.
The girls sense an injustice in their brother’s adoption contract coming through first. They’ve been cycling through the foster care system twice as long as their brother has. Abject failure at every level of Los Angeles’s child protective system has delayed their adoption for nearly three years, a bitter irony given that the circumstances were so egregious that the case was classified as “fast track to permanency.”
I’ve assured the girls their contracts are coming, that this is just a paperwork technicality. But that hasn’t stopped their nightmares. The middle girl dreams of monsters eating our family. And the oldest? She dreams that Mom, Grandma, and a social worker come to her school to move her back in with her birth family, never to see me or my husband again. And while she still professes strong love for Mom, the dreams scare her.
We had a family meeting to discuss the changes adoption would bring to our daily lives. Many of them are superficial. The kids would no longer have to sign forms each month stating that we bought them clothes or gave them their allowance. I wouldn’t have to ask permission to travel with them. I could take them to get their ears pierced.
But there are also big changes. The youngest two girls wholeheartedly want the same last name as me and my husband, and the oldest is adamant about keeping the surname she was born with. I understand that. She’s old enough for a name to be well-integrated into her identity. It’s her choice to make, and I fully support what she wants. But I also worry that having a different last name will make her feel separate from her siblings and disconnected from our family.
When I talk about our pending adoption, I sense that many people feel that foster kids should be excited to be adopted, that they should be grateful. Some view us as saving the kids and believe the kids are lucky to have us. That perspective ignores the tremendous loss and trauma these kids have experienced. Why should they be excited or grateful to join our family when a loving family that can provide adequate care is every child’s birthright? Lucky kids are the ones who never suffer the sort of neglect or abuse that warrants a trip into foster care.
Over the past six years, I’ve gotten to know Mom quite well. Her upbringing was chaotic and complicated. She started having children as a teenager and never finished high school. She has been a victim of abuse. And while I fully agree with the court’s decision to terminate her parental rights, I also deeply grieve her potential. I look at her kids, who are smart and brave and funny and fierce, and I wonder who Mom could have been if only she’d gotten what she needed as a child.
Even with all of Mom’s faults, and there are many serious ones, some of the kids love her deeply. I do, too. The finality of adoption brings a loss of connection. Prior to parental rights being terminated, Mom had weekly video calls supervised by a social worker. We’d hoped to continue that sort of contact for the kids who wanted it, but Mom made choices that make that ongoing interaction no longer feasible. I continue to reach out to her via text in the hope that some kind of contact with the children might one day resume.
Someday, I will explain to my children that I love them enough to wish I had never met them. Even though they bring me intense joy, I would gladly give up every bit of that happiness if that sacrifice meant they were born into a family that could love and care for them the way all children deserve to be loved and cared for. If I could go back in time, I would go back to craft a new life path for them, and for Mom — a path with less pain and loss, a path that doesn’t veer off on a detour through foster care.
But that time machine doesn’t exist, and I don’t have superpowers. So instead, I’m relieved there’s no longer a chance that my son could be returned to the parents who caused him so much suffering. I wait anxiously for the contracts for the girls so they’ll feel secure they’re staying in our home. And I’m grateful that my husband and I have been chosen to be their guides through life, that we’re the ones who have been chosen to keep them safe.
That’s the one part of all of this that I feel I can celebrate.