A Time to Bathe, and a Time to Cuddle

I have been uncharacteristically private in regards to our current foster placement. With past kiddos it has felt appropriate to share snippets here and there while protecting their privacy and stories. For this placement, it has not felt appropriate.

However, last night as I rocked Little One and the tears were flowing I wanted to share something on my heart.

Many times when we get a child back from a visit, we are tempted to bathe them immediately. Sometimes this is necessary if the child comes back obviously soiled, caked in grime, or sticky from treats. I’m sure there are also many germaphobes like me who like the ritual of the after-visit bath to cleanse away the host of germs you imagine them to have touched in a county visitation room where countless children have been snotting, slobbering, and chewing on the same objects all day.

Yesterday, Little One came back from visit smelling very strongly of their parent’s preferred fragrance. The smell of this fragrance was incredibly harsh. I am really sensitive to perfumes and colognes, perhaps more than most, but this time it was particularly bothersome. I began sneezing, my eyes were watering, and I even broke out into hives on my face as I cuddled Little One after the visit. As I was scratching my chin and blowing my nose while rocking this very upset, post-visit child, I thought “I’ve gotta bathe this baby.” As soon as I had the thought, Little One went into another fit of screaming, and I thought “Wait— this is all this child has. This scent. There is no physical touch from their bio parent to cling to, no article of parent’s clothing, no face to reach out and touch. There is only this scent.” If I bathed the child there and then, I would be stripping away the one sensory reminder this child had to hold on to as they went to bed. So I didn’t bathe Little One. Instead I put my head down close to theirs, ignoring the itching hives and runny nose I had. I prayed and sang over the child, and though this baby usually goes to sleep without any rocking, I rocked Little One to sleep.

Once I left the room, I cried. Yes, Little One is secure with us. Little one is loved, cared for, and knows us, having spent over half their life living with us. But Milkman and I are not, nor will we ever be Little One’s blood relatives. There is an invisible bond that this child will have to their biological parents that has and will continue to confound me, no matter how infrequent visits may be. The fragrance may have been offensive to my nose, but if I washed that away, Little One would be devoid of that lingering memory of their parent.

I’m not here to say that you shouldn’t bathe or shower a child after visit. I’m not here to say that you should always choose to suffer with an unpleasant or lingering cologne or perfume. I’m not saying that if you immediately bathe them that you’re a bad foster parent. I’m just saying these are the things we should seek to remember when we are caring for other people’s children.

Keep up the good work, foster parents. The little unnoticed things you do may go a longer way than you think at helping shape a child for the rest of their life.

Teething Blues

Sweet Little Gordito,

Today you are teething and it must be very painful. You are normally such a happy baby, but today, nothing is working. You scream and arch your back, you nurse constantly, and won’t let me put you down. Your feelings are so big, but you are so small, and it must be really hard to process that.

My feelings are big, too. I’m touched out, my ears are ringing from the constant switch between screaming and white noise, and sometimes both combined. I’m trying to get my kitchen organized and there are piles of dirty dishes and pantry items strewn about. Every time I make progress in one cabinet or on one shelf you awake or begin to fuss, and I have to stop what I’m doing, leave a half done job, and pick you up and nurse. My breasts are sore from the constant popping off and latching on, back and forth to either side, and gnawing as you teethe.

I remember it was about 6.5 years ago when your oldest brother Captain was a baby. He had lots of big feelings, too. Especially at night. I remember these endless nights where we would be up constantly. And I was so tired. One night he was up 23 times and I thought he was broken and I was broken, and we took him to doctors and chiropractors, tried medicines and tinctures, tried routines and methods, and nothing worked, and we were exhausted. Everyone had an opinion, so we tried them all.

One time we decided to let him cry. He cried and cried and cried. The books said he would stop, but he didn’t stop. He cried so hard it hurt, and each night we tried it got worse, and we set timers and sat outside the door waiting for that break, but it never came. A few days of that and your daddy and I decided we would never do that to one of our babies again. We remembered how as Christian parents it was particularly important for us to remember that we were called to treat our children how God treats us. We remembered that we were ambassadors for Him, and that every time we were tired and weary God always listened to us and responded. We remembered that when we cry out to God, he is gracious and loving. We remembered that even when we are being irrational in our adult tantrums, the Lord is patient with us.

And when we remembered this, our mindset shifted. We learned to accept the long nights, to realize that our baby was just pushing us closer to Jesus, and that he wasn’t broken. I went to bed every night knowing I would be awake in 30 minutes, to nurse, and every 30 minutes for the whole night. And I changed. I literally changed. Yes, I still had nights where I felt like I was losing my mind and I was so exhausted I googled “can you die from sleep deprivation?” But overall, I was less angry, less anxious, less depressed, and less frustrated and daddy was, too.

Since Captain, each of your older siblings have slept better than the sibling before them. Most nights, I’m only up 4-6 times with you, which is a delightful change from Captain’s usual 10-12 a night. You meld so well into our routine and are so low maintenance that I’m not used to fussiness in a baby, so when you are, it comes as a shock. A reminder to switch off the part in my brain that grows weary and frustrated, angry and upset and fights, and turn on the part of my brain that remembers that you are only small once. That you aren’t trying to ruin my day or my night. That accepting these interruptions are for growing me and also slowing me so I can spend more time kissing your pudgy cheeks and soaking in your delicious scent.

My feelings are big, your feelings are big, but I am bigger than you. So it’s my job to hold yours and my own, to breathe and remember that soon— too soon— you’ll be reading books and riding bikes, and I’ll be missing your teething snuggles.

I love you, little fatling.

Love,

Mama

Happy 4th Birthday, Ezra

Dear Ezra,

Today is your 4th birthday. 4. I can’t even believe this will be the 4th year we have celebrated your birthday without you here. Wasn’t I just in the hospital waiting to deliver your tiny, lifeless body?

So much has happened since that day, Sweet Boy. 4 months after I delivered you, I became pregnant with your little sister, our rainbow, Peachy. But that’s not all. There were 4 foster children in and out of our home since then. We moved— my goodness leaving the house we lived in where you lived and died in my womb nearly shattered my heart. I’ve experienced hosts of physical ailments, and a few diagnoses. Your big brother and big sister have gone from toddlers to elementary aged kids. After saying goodbye to you and two of your baby foster brothers who came and left after you, the Lord blessed us with a forever baby boy, your brother Gordito. He’s sleeping now in my arms with a full belly of mama’s milk and swaddled like a chubby burrito.

There has been so much change since you left us, and yet? I still miss you. I still feel your loss in physical and tangible ways.

Sometimes when I am kissing your baby brother, his soft, bubble gummy cheeks, I wonder if you would have looked like him if you had made it. I sniff in his pungent smell and remember all I have of you is a little box of ashes.

Sometimes I think about how different life would be if you had lived. There would be no Peachy, in all her wild insanity, I love her so much I can’t fathom life without her, and yet if you were here, she wouldn’t be. That makes me feel guilty if I think about it too much.

Sometimes when I’m in the living room with your brothers and sisters, I count their heads “1, 2, 3, 4…” and then I go into a mild panic scanning the room looking for you. Where is my other child? There have been times where I have gotten up and looked in other rooms in the house for a fifth child, and as I do, I am overcome with sadness again remembering you aren’t here. There’s no fifth head to count.

Ezra. My beautiful, itty bitty boy. I’ll never stop grieving your loss. I’ll always have a piece of my puzzle missing with you not here. I’ll forever remember you and keep your memory alive in the hearts of your siblings, so that even when I’m dead and gone and holding you in Heaven, your name will not be forgotten on earth.

But for now my love, I know you don’t miss me. You’re complete. You have lived a fuller life in the 4 years you’ve been in the presence of the Lord than I have 32 years on earth. You are held by arms more capable than mine, you are cared for better than I could have done, and you are loved even more than this imperfect mama ever could. I have such great joy knowing you are not mourning, you never have and never will.

God is good— all the time, and I take comfort in knowing that one day, we will be reunited together with Christ.

I love you, sweet Ezra Eugene.

Love,

Your Mama

Nursing to Sleep is Not a Bad Habit (or What Do YOUR Instincts Say?)

Hey Y’all!

Today’s post is written by one of my favorite writers, the woman who taught me to write– my middle sister, Beky. Beky is my senior by 4 years, but became a mother 4 years after my first child was born. My two sisters are my dearest and closest friends, each of us parents a little differently, but I respect each of them immensely. Yesterday my sister Beky was sharing how glad she was that she relished the long periods of holding her first for naps as she nursed, and said she wished she could reassure other first time mothers that it’s okay to hold and nurse their babies for sleep. I told her I had the perfect place for her to share that reassurance, right here on She Rocks the Cradle! So without further ado, here is a guest post from my big sis, Beky.

–Rachel

———————————

As I nursed and rocked my little one (we’ll call him Small Fry) down for his morning nap, watching carefully for that magical moment when I was sure he was OUT, so that I could successfully transfer him to his crib, so that I could get back to momming my 3-year-old (we’ll call him Nugget), it hit me. This is why I did it.

This is why I held Nugget for almost every nap when he was a baby. This is why I allowed him to nurse sometimes for entire naps. This is why I stayed firmly planted on my rocking chair, hardly daring to move a muscle for fear of waking him. This is why I never bothered to “train” him to nap in his crib, independently of me. This is why, in my first-time-mom uncertainty, I posted on a local mom group on Facebook to ask if it was ok to nurse my baby to sleep, to let him nurse in his sleep, to hold him in my arms until he was ready to wake up.

Among the many responses, one stood out. “What do YOUR instincts say?”

I responded, “My instincts tell me that this is a unique experience, having only one baby right now, and I should relish the freedom to be as responsive to him as I can right now because I know it will be harder when the next one comes.”

“There’s your answer!” came the sweet and reassuring reply.

Nearly three years later, that post came to my mind as I gently laid Small Fry in his crib this morning. I took a few seconds to gaze at his pursed, pink lips, his curled up fingers, and the rise and fall of his chest. “Mamaaaa!” came blaring from the living room as Nugget pulled me back to the reality that my days of long, sleepy cuddles on the rocker are no more. Those days of an hour or more of side-lying-nursing in bed while lazily scrolling Facebook, watching a show on Netflix with my headphones on, or just simply closing my eyes and embracing the forced rest. Nope, those days are gone. Naps are business with Small Fry. Get him to sleep as quickly as possible, keeping an attentive ear pealed for Nugget in the other room, transfer him to the crib, and pray for a decent nap so I can catch up on laundry, dishes, and maybe a few moments of quality, one-on-one time with Nugget before Small Fry awakes.

I knew back then that I was right to embrace the once-in-a-lifetime flexibility that came with being a stay at home mom to my first baby. So I followed my gut without apology. But the epiphany I experienced this morning gave me such a surge of confidence in my choices as a new mama, that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops to all new mamas out there: “YES! It’s ok! It’s ok to rock and shush and nurse and hold your sweet baby until they drift off to sleep! It’s ok to continue that *while* they sleep if that’s what keeps them asleep! Don’t feel guilty for breathing in the fragrance of your precious baby’s fuzzy head, for staring at them the whole time they sleep (while you ‘should’ be sleeping according to many) because you still just can’t believe they’re yours, so perfectly and beautifully yours. It’s ok, mama. It’s ok.”

What practice or habit are you second-guessing yourself on today? What piece of advice have you received recently that has you wondering if you’re doing it all wrong? The answer is the question: What do YOUR instincts say?

[Fun fact: That response “What do YOUR instincts say?” came from none other than our favorite mom-blogger, SheRocksTheCradle. Thanks, SRTC!]

As Much— but Different

One fear I had going into Fostering was “what if I don’t love the children as much as my own biological children?” And then the follow-up was thinking, I suppose if I didn’t love them as much and they are only here temporarily, that’s not the end of the world, but what if I adopted and I didn’t love that child as much as my bios?

I read blogs, Facebook posts, and books where people always just said they loved their foster and adopted children as much as their bios. But, it still scared me. Okay, so those people love their kids as much, but what if I don’t? And frankly, no one can answer that question before they begin fostering or before they’ve adopted, and it may be on a case by case basis. You may have that “as much” love for one child and not another.

Last night, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel with a former foster youth who aged out of the system, a reunified parent, and I was representing foster parents during a training for new foster parents. As I was answering a question about the dynamic in our home between bios and fosters, I came to this realization, and voiced it: I love my foster child with the same intensity that I love my biological children. I often think that no one has ever loved their foster child as much as I love mine. But I would be lying if I said it was the same type of love. Before you judge me too harshly, let me give you an example.

I love my husband intensely. If the dial goes to a 10, I love him at an 11 (name that movie reference!). I also love my bio children, and I love them at an 11. But it’s a different type of love. Same goes for my parents. 11… but on a different dial. I love them all to the same intensity, but my love for each of them is a love that plays out differently. So, when I say I love my foster son just as much as I love my biological children, I don’t want to give you a false idea about how it may be for you, by leaving it as simple as that.

You will (hopefully!!!) love your foster child just as much as you love your bios, but don’t be surprised or feel guilty if that love is different. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe because I co-slept and nursed my bios, so there was that really early physical bonding. Maybe because they are a permanent fixture in my life and in our home. Maybe because I’m parenting with just their father, and not co-parenting with a stranger. I’m sure there are lots of components to the puzzle.

My encouragement to you today is this:

If you are considering foster care or adoption (yes, those are two very different categories!) and the fear of loving a stranger is holding you back, I’m here to encourage you, that it is very possible to love a child who is not from your body, just as much as you love your bio kids.

If you are currently loving on a foster or adoptive child, and you love them just as much, but it feels a different? That’s okay. I think it’s that way for a lot of us. It doesn’t mean you love them less— it’s just a little different.

You Can’t Fix “The System”

No one sits behind their desk and says “Lets emotionally scar a child”.

No one speaks out in a courtroom and tells a judge, “Your Honor, we need to ensure this child ends up with RAD.”

No one sits at your dining room table and says, “We really ought to set this baby up for complete emotional failure in life.”

In foster parent circles, you hear a lot of people saying, “The system is so broken! It must be fixed!” And indeed it is broken. Like the public school system, it is a one size fits all path. So while slight variations may be made here or there, it’s designed to work for the average case— whatever that is.

In my county, young children are not supposed to end up in the system terribly long. This is a good thing. But what is supposed to happen and what does happen are two different things. A child whose life hangs in the balance. A baby who has formed attachments to people other than their parents for months or even years, suffers from the instability of belonging nowhere. An older child passed from home to home, racking up a line of diagnoses and worsening behavior with each disruption. A teenager, ready to age out, with no real hope or plan of what comes next.

So we should speed up the process, right? Well, if we reunite these children too quickly, their parents will fail. Often times, parents have a long history of struggles to overcome in a short time. Addiction, mental health problems, abusive tendencies, and the like cannot be fixed with the swish of a wand. These hurdles can take a long time to overcome. We set children up for failure and re-entry into the system, we risk their physical and mental health, and sometimes we risk even their lives by reuniting too soon.

But, if we terminate parents’ rights too quickly, we needlessly rip families apart. This leads to resentment on the part of the adoptee. We see depression, RAD, we see regret, we see that a family may have been reunited if the parents only had more time. We see two families worn down and broken.

So what’s the fix? How do we “reform the system!”? I don’t think there is an answer to that. Call me a pessimist, but there is no fix that would work in a one size fits all system. The system, “broken” though it may be, is the most effective formula for the middle cases. The ones on top and the ones on bottom get the short end of the stick, but there simply has to be a middle of the road procedure they slap on every case.

Individualizing every case would be ideal of course. But this would require so much more manpower, so many less hard and fast laws, and so much more personal interpretation of the rules on a case by case basis by the decision makers. While that sounds great, it is, of course, a lawsuit nightmare waiting to happen. You terminate the rights of one parent at 3 months into the case, give others 6 years, and you’re asking for revolt.

So what happens? What happens is you sit awake all night with a screaming baby on visit days who is torn apart by anxiety because you left her with a stranger for a few hours. Except that stranger is her mother. You have a little boy, so shaken up by instability that he eats obsessively, hoards food, and steals more for later, because it’s the only thing he can control. You have a preteen girl punching holes in walls, completely conflicted by the stability she gets in one home, and the love she feels for her mother— no matter how unstable her mom’s home may be. You have an adolescent boy shooting up heroine to stop feeling the rejection he has felt from being bounced around home to home for the majority of his life.

So, no. There are no lawyers asking to inflict RAD on a child. There are no social workers providing drugs for foster youth. There are no judges sentencing small humans to a life of depression and instability— but it’s still what’s happening. Fix the system? I don’t think you can.

Sound bleak? Yeah. It is. I’m worn out. I’m weary. I’m tired. I’m wrecked. What can I do? What can you do? If we can’t save the foster care system, how do we make a difference?

By taking the punches— sometimes literally. By being a child’s rock to cling to when they’ve been shipwrecked in a stormy ocean of instability. By praying for that baby while you rock him, since he is too small to understand why he is so scared of visit days. By advocating for resources when you are personally tapped out, and that young lady needs clinical help. By not giving up on the child— even when you’ve given up on the system.

You cannot control the system. You cannot control the parent. You cannot control the judges, lawyers, and social workers. You cannot control the child sometimes. But, you can control the conscious decision to keep going.

So. Tired though we may be. Exhausted. Wrecked. Jaded. Bruised and broken. Soldier on. Keep going.

I Don’t Want To

I don’t want to co-parent today. I don’t want to pretend that it isn’t frustrating that someone parents differently from me. I don’t want to get a child back with a diaper put on incorrectly. I don’t want to smell someone else’s strong perfume on him.

I don’t want to have to spend 3 days getting eczema flares down after a visit. I don’t want to deal with the meltdowns that will plague us for the next 24 hours. The clingy baby who refuses to let you pee alone, because he’s so afraid you’re going to leave him with someone else again. I don’t want to deal with crappy naps and night terrors for the next day.

I don’t want to send texts and pictures every day. I don’t want to give updates that aren’t appreciated. I don’t want to spend hours writing up parenting instructions per the social worker to find out they were never read. I don’t want to spend hours every week transporting and dealing with 3 other whiny children stuck in a car. I don’t want to make pleasant small talk at drop off and pick up.

I don’t want to worry. I don’t want to be scared about something going wrong. I don’t want to spend hours with my stomach in knots in fear. I don’t want to get a baby back who has gotten hurt.

This is the point where you ask “Then why are you a foster parent? Stop complaining and find something else to do with your life!”

Because this is what I’m supposed to do. Because doing the right thing is hard— but you still have to do it. Because being selfish isn’t a right– and it’s a pretty crappy character quality. Because, if I don’t do it, someone else also might not. Because this is what i signed up to do. Because being a co-parent is a necessary role for a foster parent to fulfill. Because this is how I can help a family reunite. Because sometimes you have to fake it ‘til you make it. Because this baby is worth trying for. Because his mama is worth trying for. Because it’s not about me. Because, today is just a bad day. Because, tomorrow will probably be better.