I remember the first time I almost hugged *her.*
We had just ended my foster son Z’s developmental playgroup and were walking out together. She and I didn’t interact much during the week — but this was a short time we had together. A time where she saw Z interact with me, and I saw her with him.
He loved both of us in his own way.
As we were leaving, and I held Z out for her to give him a hug good-bye, I almost stretched my arms out as well to embrace her as I would a friend.
Something stopped me in that moment.
She wasn’t a friend. She was Z’s biological mom.
The moment Z entered our home, Z’s mom became “other mom” to me. And I to her. We both loved the same kid, we both mothered him in our own ways — me up close, and her from a distance. She had legal and biological rights to him. I had no rights, other than the intense emotional bonding that formed over the 17 months I loved Z as my own.
Maybe a part of me wanted to be her friend. But the part that won out, it seems, was the part that wanted to hold her an arm’s length away.
I don’t think anyone who is a foster parent comes to the table specifically hoping to push the parents away.
I think it’s just a byproduct of loving the child who becomes yours by heart — and feeling that intense mama bear reaction to protect that child from anyone who has hurt them, or will hurt them. All of the sudden, you feel it’s your job to insulate this child from any more trauma, and provide a nurturing place for them to heal.
I didn’t know how I could ever include Z’s mom in that nurturing place.
In the beginning of our relationship, I have to be 100% honest and tell you that bio mom felt like the enemy.
We spent countless hours trying to undo what had been done to this child. We lost what felt like decades of sleep. Every aspect of our schedule, the privacy of our home, the makeup of our family was dictated by our son’s history. We grieved over his losses while advocating for him constantly. To the doctors. The social workers. Guardian ad litem. Judge. Physical therapist. Occupational therapist. Nutritionist. WIC staff. Caseworker. Allergist. Gastroenterologist. Dermatologist. Family. Friends. Anyone who asked why we do foster care.
We were so wrapped up fighting FOR him, that we got confused on who exactly we were fighting. Was mom our enemy? Or were we fighting her choices and circumstances and the repercussions of those decisions?
Honestly, it all got muddled together. It was so much easier to have a person with a face and a name to call your enemy than just abstract ideas like “choice” or “lifestyle.”
After we got Z, it took a long time to meet mom. During that time, we had a lot of time for Z and I to bond. By the time mom and I met, I already felt established as Z’s mom. After about 6 months in our home, we still did not know what the future held. But if things progressed as they had been, it didn’t look like it would include mom.
Then things started turning around. Well, I should say SHE started turning around.
She was making an effort. Doing what she was supposed to do. And at that time, I was told I need to start working on a relationship with mom.
“What???” was my initial reaction. I became a foster parent to advocate for vulnerable kids. Not to be friends with the parents who dropped the ball on those kids.
At our caseworker’s suggestion, we started a journal back and forth between visits. Our entries were always short. Nothing outright rude, but tinged with underlying competition.
“Would you please make sure he comes with shoes on?” she wrote once. “It’s very important to me.”
“I don’t put shoes on,” I counter, “because I wake him from his nap to go to visits. I take him straight from the crib to the visitation supervisor’s arms. I always have shoes packed in the diaper bag for you though.”
All of this is a farce really. It’s both of us scraping for some semblance of control. She can’t control anything, so she wants to control when his shoes are on. I feel as though I’m losing control over the child I’m raising, and defensively push back. I want to say, “I am doing EVERYTHING for this child, could you please cool it over the shoes?” Instead I just keep hearing from visit supervisors about how she’s upset about the shoes. And so finally, I give in and put shoes on before passing him off to the supervisor.
In hindsight, I should have just put the shoes on in the beginning. What would I have lost by putting his shoes on? Why did I need to be RIGHT? Would it not have been better to let mom feel heard?
Next came the emails. I needed to set up a separate account so I could email her dates of doctors appointments and send updates and photos. I did send photos, but not as often as I should have.
Then she began coming to his playgroups and doctor’s appointments. When I was talking to Z, I would always refer to her as “Mom” at these appointments. But she was at a loss for what to call me. I remember her one day trying to hand Z back over to me, and saying, “Here, go back to ———” and she trailed off. What to call the person your son calls mom when you don’t WANT her to be mom? She finally settled on “Miss Rachel.”
During our times together, Z did go to her. And it was hard for me to see. But I have a feeling our times were more difficult for her. Because it was clear as day that Z had a primary attachment to me. I remember near the end of my time as his foster mom, his mom was changing his diaper. All the time he had his hands outstretched to me, calling out “mommy!!!”
I imagine whatever emotional hang-ups I had about her, she had twice as many about me.
There were moments where I could feel a shift in our relationship.
The days I gave her rides in our car. We talked about Z — and she opened up a bit about her. I wondered how her life might have played out differently if someone had stepped up for her the way we stepped up for Z. Could this all have been avoided?
The day in court she broke down crying in gratitude for our family. That was the only day in court I didn’t feel like a cog in the wheel of a system. One of the few days I felt like I didn’t just matter to Z — but I mattered to her as well.
Then came the time for me to consider giving her my number. It took several days, but I finally decided I would. So we began texting back and forth — “By the way, Z didn’t nap for me this afternoon, so he might be cranky for you. Try to lay him down if you get a chance.” Or “Here’s a photo of Z with his cupcake. He tried to play peek-a-boo with frosting all over his hands. Isn’t he so cute?”
And after all of this — the handing back and forth, the texts and emails, the silly struggles over shoes — it was time for transition to start. We had to come up with a parenting plan (for lack of a better term) for a month. Who will get overnighters on what days? Who would have him for Christmas and Christmas Eve?
And during all of this — there was this underlying tension.
You see, I had come to learn more of who she was. I came to see her as not an enemy, but someone who needed support in her life earlier and didn’t get it. Someone who was probably doing the best she knew how to do. And I also felt God calling me specifically to LOVE her. Not just tolerate her. Not feel sorry for her. Not even support her. But to LOVE her and PRAY for her.
Can I be so honest? I didn’t want to.
Because to love her would mean that I wanted her to succeed. And by default, that would mean we would lose Z and Z would lose us.
But then again, I didn’t want her to fail either. I didn’t want to see her lose her kids.
It was this horrible catch-22.
At times, I despaired that anyone was truly winning in this foster care race. Whose idea was it, anyway, to tell a child to bond to a family he couldn’t keep?
Even so, things seemed to be going OK. At least as OK as they could when you are co-parenting a child with a practical stranger. Until the First Big Thing happened in December. The thing that threatened our entire relationship — the thing that caused the Second Big Thing that almost took Z immediately from our home.
So much distrust bred in both of us. So much undoing of all the progress we had made. So much unraveling of the fragile fabric of our relationship we had so tediously woven together.
And even as we both apologized, and tried our best to patch things up and make it so that the Big Things didn’t affect how we communicated from then on — it was too late. We had so little time left before Z went home.
And so that’s how things ended. Tense. Unsure. Both of us playing nice, but deeply wondering how things were going to look from here on out.
The un-Christian, very human, part of me still gets angry. I want to blame her for messing up in the first place. For putting us, and Z, in this position. I want to make her wrong so I can be right. In my very worst of moments, I resent her for succeeding. Because I am too acutely aware of Z’s losses and our loss of him.
And in the best of moments, I’m thankful he had a mom who fought for him. That she didn’t just give up and let us parent him, but that she overcame all her obstacles for the love of a little boy. In the best moments, I write her an empathetic letter thanking her for fighting. I pray for her and I hope the best.
And in between the best moments and the worst moments are all the every day moments where I have to choose what to do with my grief. In those moments, two sides of me war against each other. Love and compassion for mom. And feeling sorry for myself and blaming her for my pain.
And through it all, the question that changes everything: Will I love the way the way Jesus did?
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
— Luke 6:27-36, NIV
What about you? Have you ever loved someone that was hard to love? What did you learn from your experience?
Often I am asked, “May I share this?” While my blog is personal in nature, my hope is to reach others who need to know they are not alone. So if you are encouraged, or maybe someone came to mind while you read this, or maybe you think everyone should read this, please know you are always welcome to share.