On a Tuesday afternoon last October we got the call. “Would you take a 5 day old baby boy?” 3 hours later we were pulling into the driveway with a tiny stranger, screaming both from withdrawal and hunger.
We jumped out of the van, unbuckled everyone, ran into the house and I yelled to Milkman, “Make him a bottle!” He looked at me completely confused.
“How? Do we use hot water? Cold water? How much do we scoop in? How much does he need?”
I was frustrated– not because of *his* lack of knowledge on the subject, but of our collective ignorance. As I fumbled with the pacifier and white noise, Milkman was googling and so was I. “Okay! Warm water, sanitized bottle, 2 ounces, so that’s one scoop!”
How is it that 2 adults who had been parents for 4.5 years to 3 children not know how to make a bottle and feed a baby?
As a nursing advocate, lactation hobbyist, and exclusive breastfeeder, I was (and am!) steeped in all things human milk related. I can help you latch a newborn, hook you up to a pump, make you lactation cookies, and assure you at 4am that that screaming gassy 3 week old you have is totally normal, and it’ll pass. (No pun intended…) but formula feeding? Totally new. We were lost.
So, we began to educate ourselves, learned proper handling, preparing, and best practices for formula feeding. I thought time and time again how much easier it would be if I could just give him breastmilk. I did some googling and found that while it was not common to get approval for human milk, it was in the realm of possibility.
Because of the baby’s particular set of health concerns, I presented the idea to his pediatrician. She agreed that human milk would be optimum for him. The next step was to get approval from the social workers, who surprisingly were also in support of the idea. The last (and most important) approval I needed to receive was from the baby’s mother. I was so nervous, it was my first time meeting her, and while all the social workers had told me his case would go to permanence and he would likely end up apart of our forever family (he didn’t by the way, because foster care!), I knew this was still her baby. I told her of his particular struggles and that the pediatrician had recommended human milk. Before I could even finish my question, the response she gave was, “Ew. No.” Of course I was disheartened. It was a long road to get him on the right formula, to help with his various health issues, but thankfully we were able to sort his problems out with Gerber Gentle formula.
I had been cautiously optimistic about being able to give human milk to our foster baby, but once I talked to other foster parents I began to realize how rare approval was. Since then I’ve been asked dozens of times in breastfeeding groups online, crunchy mom circles, and friends “since you have milk, can’t you just nurse your foster baby?”
So let’s break this down.
Biologically, can I nurse a foster baby while still nursing my bio child? Yes. Absolutely. I’ve spent almost half of my nursing journey tandem nursing– that is, nursing two babies (of different ages) at the same time. Milk production works based on demand. In general, the more you nurse, or the more children you nurse, the more milk you make. So biologically, it would be possible for me to nurse a foster child– or any other child for that matter.
Legally, could I nurse a foster baby? The short answer is no. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but the general rule is, this isn’t my baby, so I don’t have the authorization to feed this baby whatever I please. In my county, I can’t even switch formula brands without pediatrician approval. The other issue we fall into is the matter of that of physical boundaries. We live in a culture that has re-assigned the human breast to one task: sexual arousal. Of course, we know biologically that the primary purpose of the female breast is to provide nourishment to children, but nonetheless, offering your breast to a child who is not yours, and may have experienced sexual abuse is going to be a logistical nightmare.
So can you bottle feed pumped human milk to a foster baby? There will be times where a baby is struggling badly with withdrawal, is having serious digestive problems, or is premature, and a doctor will approve human milk, likely from a milk bank. If a biological mother were to refuse this recommendation and it was deemed to be medically necessary for the child to receive human milk, with proper documentation and approval, it could go to court for a judge to overrule the mother’s protest. Again, there could be a biological mother who says yes, and it’s approved that way. On the other hand, some mothers send their own milk with baby, which (if pumped safely and mom is sober and healthy) is a great option. However, the most common answer is going to be no. Of course, this is a hard pill to swallow for me as an advocate for human milk for human children, but it all comes back to this: these foster babies are not my children, so it is not my choice to do something I have been told not to.
Imagine if you were an exclusive breastfeeder and you found out that your child’s day care provider was feeding them formula every day. You’d probably be pretty floored, right? Well the same goes in this situation. I’m caring for this child, I make decisions to keep this child safe, fed, and loved, but generally it’s not in my jurisdiction to change their food source if I’ve been denied that request.
Do foster parents breastfeed or bottle feed human milk to their foster children? Yes. I’ve talked to many of them who have. Some in hushed tones, others with boldness. Many social workers will say “don’t ask, don’t tell”, some doctors will say the same, and some bio parents aren’t around to give approval or denial for the request. Most of these foster parents have the best interest of the child in mind, I’ve never met anyone doing it maliciously. Some counties care less than others and leave more decision making up to foster parent, so it’s not as big of a deal.
The important thing is that we feed babies using best practices. Clean hands, sanitized bottles, properly prepared, and portioned. So if you’re a crazy breastfeeder like me who ends up formula feeding, instead of being too crestfallen at your denial for human milk, do all you can to become educated on formula feeding so the baby has their best chance at a healthy start! And if you’re a formula feeder who has been told to feed human milk, do your research for best practices on handling human milk!
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on foster parenting, breastfeeding, or everyone’s experiences ever with feeding every foster child on the planet, these are merely my thoughts, experiences, and observations. If you’re unsure about human milk and your foster baby, contact your social worker!
Before you bristle too hard at the title, stick with me.
Back when Milkman and I started our journey to welcome non-biological children into our home, it was with one goal in mind: adoption.
We knew that we wanted to adopt, and we knew that private and international adoption was costly, and were familiar with fostering enough to know that it was a good thing, and thought of it as a means to an end. The end? To adopt a child.
When going through our training and our initial home study interviews, we made our goal clear to our agency from the onset. We were a “Foster to Adopt” home. Foster to adopt… that’s totally a thing, right?
Our first placement was last July. We were asked to take 2 children for a 3 day stint. We agreed to it firstly because it meant our paperwork would be expedited, and secondly because it was so short term. Those 3 days turned into 3 months, and by the end of it, we informed our agency we were no longer looking strictly for “adoptable kids”, but that we were happy to foster with the intent of reunification.
The next baby we fostered came into our home at 5 days old. He was an “open and shut adoption case”. Guess what? He left us to live with a distant relative 3 months later. Not so open and shut. It was really hard, but he was never ours to begin with.
Our current fosterling is headed toward eventual reunification, and though we desire to one day have our forever child via the system, I’ve learned something really important: There is no such thing as Foster to Adopt.
The very point of foster care is to be a temporary caregiver. Your social worker could tell you all day that this is a for sure adoption case and even still, foster care should be looked at as a temporary thing. You are to welcome a child into your home, care for them, feed them, love them, protect them, all with the goal of them reunifying.
You then tell me, “Well, I have a friend who adopted through foster care! And I’ve seen all those cute pictures with families holding signs that say how long the child has been in foster care, posed next to their forever family on adoption day!” Yes, we all know people who have adopted from foster care. I hope to be one of those people one day. Some of those people didn’t intend on adoption, but it happened that way. For some, adoption was the initial hope. But let’s think about what has to happen for a child to become “adoptable”.
If a child in foster care is supposed to be a temporary fix while their biological caregiver gets their ducks in a row, how is it that children are adopted through foster care every day? Because something has gone TERRIBLY wrong.
“WRONG?? Adoption isn’t wrong!” I didn’t say that. For a child to become “adoptable” a parent’s rights have to be terminated. Let that sink in for just a second. This means that (in general, there are always exceptions) a parent has been given the tools they need to get their child back, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t use those tools in order to reunify. That’s tragic. Even if the foster family that is set to adopt them is the best family in the world, we cannot brush past the real and awful reality that parent and child have a tie that has been severed. Their flesh and blood has lost the legal right to raise and nurture that child. That’s a terrible thing to have to happen.
Would you not agree, that assuming a parent has followed the steps they need to, and is safe, the best place for a child to be is with their biological family? When I say this I really mean “safe” not “my standards”. It’s easy to think you need to fight reunification because your house is bigger, you provide higher quality food, and you dress them nicer. Those aren’t qualifications for being a parent, though. Your job as a foster parent is to love and care for this child, all the while supporting reunification.
But what about the parents who are really far gone? Well, of course if a parent is abusive, neglectful, crippled with addiction, or can’t see their way out of a relationship with someone who is, those are the cases where adoption becomes necessary.
Am I saying adopting is bad? Absolutely not. It is still mine and Milkman’s deepest desire to adopt a child. But adopting via foster care is a bitter sweet act. One in which a child has to lose one family in order to gain another.
And this is why I say, there is no foster to adopt. You foster to foster. You foster to reunify. To help this child and their parent get to a place that is safe enough to become a family again. Adoption, is merely a bittersweet tributary off the main course of foster care. A beautiful, yet tragic thing.
So you still want to be a foster parent if it means giving every single child back to their family? If it means your heart is broken into a million pieces, so that a biological mother’s can be made whole again? So that a father can raise his child with his own culture and blood as their bond? If the answer is no, foster care may not be the right road for you. But if the answer is yes? Then you are in the right frame of mind. And maybe, just maybe, your family will grow through adoption one day. But let that not be your main goal in this journey, lest you be entirely disappointed and crushed. However, if you’re willing to take the risk, I can promise you, it is worth every step if the journey.
Want to read more unpopular opinions, follow our foster care and bio parenting journey, take a look at our life living on a working farm, and laugh at the stupid memes I post? Come check out She Rocks the Cradle on Facebook.
One week from today, I will be waking up to your cries for the last time. We will be wearing you in your favorite carrier for the last time. When it is time to go, your temporary siblings will kiss you and say goodbye–not really understanding what it all means.
I will take you to your new home. I’m not sure how I will be able to say goodbye. I can’t even imagine turning my back after I have kissed you for the last time. As cliché as it sounds, how do you willingly leave a part of your heart behind?
I will go home and while my house will be filled with the sound of 3 young children, it will be too quiet without your steady snoring underneath my chin and you will not be asleep strapped close to my heart. There will be no bottles to heat, wash, or sanitize. Your bassinet will sit empty in the living room. Your clothes will sit cold in their drawers in the nursery. The Rock’n’play still and undisturbed by chubby toddler hands trying to rock you to sleep. There will be no middle of the night bottles to feed you, no songs to sing to you.
I will worry that you aren’t swaddled how you like, that you aren’t buckled in your seat properly, that you aren’t held in just that special position we’ve found you like. I will wonder if you are confused by your new environment, by the new people in and out of your day, the new sounds, smells, and environment. I will pray constantly that you are safe, loved, and well-cared for.
I’m sure for a week or two I’ll come across a tiny sock, a burp cloth, or a renegade pacifier and the loss will wash over me afresh. My children will see my weep. They will learn what it is to give sacrificial love. They will learn that defending the fatherless is a hard but worthwhile job. They will learn how to mourn, how to grieve. They will learn that loving as the Father loves is a great risk. Just as their father and I are learning.
But for the next week, I will hold you close, I will give you an extra kiss every night before bed and tell you it’s from your mama, I will sing to you, call you by the nickname you will no longer hear once you leave, and rub my cheek against your fuzzy little head, soaking it all in, before you are taken away and we never see you again…
To be a Foster parent does not take incredible strength, it does not take super powers, or special gifts. The right timing isn’t needed, nor is a perfect home. It does not require great wealth, a heart of gold, or above average patience.
What fostering takes is much simpler. It takes the ability to love someone who needs love, when you aren’t sure if that love will be reciprocated or how long that love will last. So, it basically takes what you need for any relationship, whether it be of a romantic, friendly, or parental nature, as my friend Jessica put it to me today, it’s being willing to risk a piece of your heart.
One thing I hear from a lot of people is, “Wow, you foster? I could never do that, I would get too attached.” It’s always such a strange statement to me, as nothing in life is ever certain. I suppose we could say the same thing when people get married: “you pledged your life to someone? Man, what if s/he dies and leaves you a young widow? I could never do that, I would get too attached.” And the same goes for friendships and biological children. Getting too attached isn’t really the problem of fostering, because as a foster parent you SHOULD get “too attached.”
If you loved everyone you love with a guard up to keep you from getting too attached, you would not know real love. Loving people is always a gamble. But it’s what we are made to do and called to do.
I some times wonder if people think you have to be a robot to be a foster parent. Foster parents aren’t people who have a special switch they can turn on and off that keeps them from getting too attached. By saying *you* couldn’t do it because *you* would get too attached, insinuates that I don’t get too attached.
I currently have a 3 week old baby sleeping on my chest. I feel his chest pushing into mine as he takes breaths. A little whistle in his nose squeaks as he does so. His head is soft, with the most delicate blonde fuzz, and has that newborn smell that causes oxytocin to flow whenever you breathe his scent in. Every now his little feet dig into my tummy to readjust himself, 10 itty bitty toes, delicious and sweet. When I move my face towards his, he opens his mouth like a baby bird for what I like to imagine are baby kisses (but actually are just lips in search of milk!) Some times when he’s asleep, he smiles and laughs– don’t tell me that’s gas, it’s a smile and every time we see it we ooh and ahh. When he cries at night, Milkman interrupts his sleep and leaps up to change his diapers and feed him his bottles. During the daytime we wear him hours each day close to our hearts so he can learn how to bond and form healthy attachments, we seldom put him down. I some times weep when I stare at him, completely overtaken with his innocence and beauty.
Do I sound like someone who isn’t too attached? Do we sound like people who can just take care of an innocent human life and then not shed a tear when we get the call that it’s time for him or her to leave us? Of course we are attached. We love our foster children.
I am not special. I am not more gifted than you. I do not produce some sort of magical half love reserved for fatherless children. I do not find goodbyes to be easy. What I am is willing. I am willing to have my heart broken for those who have broken lives. I am willing to get attached. I am willing to risk the pain of saying goodbye. I am willing to love.
Can you be willing to love too? It could mean the world to a child.
We were both wearing black shirts, blue jeans, and had our hair up in black bandanas tied at the top of our heads. Her children ran to her. I hung back so she could greet them. I came closer and held out my hand tentatively for a handshake, and was pulled into a hug.
One child holding on to both our legs, one child between us being held in the middle of our embrace. Tears fell, our bodies shook with emotion as we hugged. The words of trust she spoke softly in my ear will not soon be forgotten.
She is their mother, they are her children. I am their caretaker, I am her cheerleader in the sidelines. We are on the same team. We are on their team.
After 6 years of discussing it, 4 years of deciding to do it, 1 year of going through classes, background checks, paperwork, and fingerprints, Milkman and I got the call to become Foster parents. The last week and a half of my life has been so exhausting and such a learning process. It brings more emotions each day than I normally experience in a month.
Thankfully, we expected uncertainty, we expected to work through a lot of emotions, we expected to be exhausted having 5 children aged 4 and younger… But one thing I didn’t know I would feel is intense love and compassion for the mother of our Foster children.
There are so many horror stories of biological parents who get their children taken away and put into foster care. There are parents who truly don’t care about their kids, parents who abuse their kids, and parents who grossly neglect their children. Many of those stories are sad and real. These are the stories that made me want to become a foster mom as a teenager, so I could help remove a child from a scary situation.
However, in my VERY short time as a foster parent, I’ve come to the realization that some (hopefully many!) mothers whose children get placed in foster care are not so far gone that they are not in shambles at the thought of their precious babies being handed over to complete strangers. I don’t know the parents of our placements. I don’t know their ages, what they do for work, or what kind of struggles they are going through. What I do know of most parents whose children end up in foster care is that things got tough enough in their lives that someone needed to step in to help out while they get the right things into place.
I am not the hero. The parents of these children are not villains. We are not fighting some war on opposite sides of the battle field. We are, in fact, on the same team. We are on the same team as their children. We all want the same thing: for their children to be healthy, happy, and safe.
When I hold these sweet children close to my heart and sing them bed time songs, I think of how their mother must be wondering who is tucking her babies into bed. When I push one of these children on the swings and hear them giggle, I think of how their mother must miss that sound. When I look into their eyes, I wonder if they look like their mom or dad did as children, and think of how I’m staring at a piece of this mother I’ve never met.
How her heart must ache. How empty her arms must feel. How many tears must her eyes have shed…
When I put myself in her shoes, I imagine her desperation, fear, love, and yearning to feel complete again.
There may come a day when we have children in our care who have been in truly deplorable circumstances, and whose parents I struggle to love. But for now, I’m so glad that God is teaching me to practice empathy for these people I have never met.
I wish I could tell the mother of these children that her treasures are safe, and hug her when she cries. But for now, I’ll just keep holding these little ones close for safe keeping, until she’s ready to hold them safely again herself.