With tearful eyes and one of those really good and genuine hugs, a friend recently choked out the words “my wish for you on adoption day is that you go to sleep that night breathing easier.” I look forward to falling asleep tonight because I have no doubt that will be the case! I feel lighter and my mind is clearer. Today, Malachi is no longer a foster child. Four years and six months later and he is legally our son.
When we made the decision to become foster parents our biggest fear was falling in love with a child and having to hand him back over to someone not equipped to parent. Reunification with biological parents is always the goal with family court and we did know that up front. The word “hard” does not begin to describe the reality of foster parenting. But then again, the word “love” does not even remotely begin to describe how I feel about my son.
I have become very familiar with every emotion that my brain can comprehend and now I feel like an expert at juggling several of them at once. I didn’t know it was possible to get news that could make me feel anger, frustration, hope and excitement in the same breath. In addition to the intense adoration and development of love that happens when you watch your child grow, my mind has been full of emotional instability during every stage of his young life. I anticipated that today would be nothing but joy, and even though I am definitely over-the-moon happy, I am also experiencing some upset that I wasn’t expecting.
Maybe it’s because I don’t really believe that it actually happened. There have been so many setbacks and mistakes made throughout this wonderful, miraculous but VERY bumpy journey, that I keep waiting for someone to call and say that there was a conflict of interest or that a form wasn’t signed or that there was a part of the process missing altogether (all things that have happened). I definitely wasn’t counting on feeling ANY form of sadness on this day, but the fact that there are so many children who need stable homes is forefront in my mind, just like it has been since we started this life-changing adventure.
I can’t help but reminisce today about the day we picked our little man up from the shelter downtown Chicago and the one-day of prep that I had to get ready for an 9-day-old infant. The excitement, fear, anxiety and utter shock I felt those couple of days has been forever tattooed in my heart.
That first day at home was intoxicating, exhilarating, scary and surreal. As guarded as we wanted to be, it was impossible not to fall in love right away. The time since then has been spent like any other family with a new addition – minus the visits with bio-mom and dad, sibling visits, licensing visits, case worker visits, medication logs, parenting classes, attorney meetings, required development screenings, fights with said caseworker, hoops to jump through for quality healthcare, diagnoses that I’ve never heard of, DCFS case reviews, court dates and several other ridiculous requirements that have nothing to do with anything important. I am so grateful and proud of my daughters at how awesome, supportive and helpful they have been with the whole process and the strain that it put on our family… they are the mega stars of big sisters.
My favorite part of early motherhood with my girls was nursing them. I loved the way their innocent eyes studied me and how their tiny heads fit perfectly into the crease of my arm with their bodies curved around my mid-section. It was magical then and it was absolutely the same feeling when I fed Malachi his bottles. There was unquestionably no difference in the maternal bonding. I felt protective and defensive and I loved him more every day, every moment. I cherished watching him explore the world and observed with adoration as his little personality got bigger and more charismatic. He has taught me so much about living in the moment and how powerful love is.
From day one, the constant barrage of required visits with bio-mom and dad, siblings, caseworkers and licensing home checks were extremely stressful. I had done quite a bit of mental gymnastics to prepare for the onslaught of emotions that would come with “sharing” him with his bio-mom, but in the end it was an epic fail. Not something you can prepare for. It was a bewildering thing to feel the teeter-totter of emotions that went between compassion for this woman who was doing her best with what she’d been born with and the melancholy of what might actually happen if she’d been given another opportunity with my son. Her son. The shame I felt when I started to look forward to her failing was not a shining moment for me as a woman or a mother.
Nature versus nurture… that is the question. Five years ago you could not have convinced me that nurture would not win every time. It’s easy, right? Provide a stable home filled with love, discipline and follow through. You teach values, respect and consequence and good behavior just falls in place. Reality has completely kicked my ass in this regard. Malachi has taught me SO MANY lessons but I think one of the biggest ones is never to judge a book by its cover (or a “bratty” behaving child and their parents in public). It’s such a cliché but it’s so accurate to say that you never truly know what’s going on in someone else’s life. I am acutely aware that we have many battles ahead of us and we face those hurdles with optimism and confidence. There have been times when I have been blurry-eyed, bone-aching exhausted and disheartened with the process, the assistance (or lack thereof) regarding the special needs that have come with my son, and the challenges of actually dealing with those needs, and I picture how life would be so smooth if we hadn’t made this choice. I have actually allowed myself to whisper “what did I do to our life?” Within seconds of allowing that thought to creep into my already drained frontal lobe, I would feel an obnoxious and almost painful nausea creep throughout my body… and then sob into a mound of guilty goo. As I melted down I would picture where he would be if not here and then I would cry a bit more. He is right where he is supposed to be. The choice we made to foster is the same as the decision we made to get pregnant. The ultimate commitment.
He is my son and has been since November 1, 2012, but now that his name is legally the same as mine there is no one that can take him away from me, or threaten me, or force me to take him somewhere I’m not comfortable. I never again have to get permission to take him on vacation and provide the sleeping arrangements planned for the hotel, give him a medication or take him to a specialist doctor. I don’t have to violate my babysitter’s privacy by asking for their social security number so that I can hand it over to the state of Illinois. I no longer have to welcome people into my home to check on my parenting and act as if I am their babysitter. Strangers can’t invade my space and ask me if I’m feeding him the same foods that I feed “my own” kids or check his closet to make sure he has clothing. No more explaining the way I discipline him and then taking advice from a know-it-all, 20-something-year-old with no children on how to properly handle ADHD tantrums while staying within “DCFS guidelines.” If I am not happy with a doctor we are seeing I can just find another one without being placed on a nine-month waiting list and pending approval from the state.
I often hear compliments like “he is so lucky to have you,” or “I hope he realizes how blessed he is.” I do appreciate the kindness behind those sentiments, but want those people to understand that WE are privileged to have HIM. He is such a light in our lives… sometimes an overly energetic and difficult light, but definitely a bright one. There really is something so special about him. He greets me in the morning with his head cocked to one side, middle finger up and pointing like he is discussing a very philosophical topic and with a furrowed brow and narrowed serious eyes he says “how was your sleep mom?” Regardless of my mood he makes me smile or laugh every single day with his over-the-top excitement as he tells me one of his train facts or the way he assuredly, but politely tells me “no thanks mom” when I instruct him to pick up his toys. I adore him. Now that adoption day is over I can watch him develop and grow with a lot less weight on my shoulders. I am so eager to see what my little man will do in this world. We are honored to be his parents.
Our reality is best stated quoting the chorus from a song the famous big purple dinosaur sings: “A family is people and a family is love, that’s a family. They come in all difference sizes and different kinds but mine’s just right for me.”
As happy as I am today, I am still heart-broken for the thousands of children who will not be afforded the same opportunities my kids have.
Thank you to ALL of our friends and family who have supported us throughout this process. We are so lucky to have such a strong network of people who love us. Your kind words, hands of help and cheerleading did not go unnoticed! We wouldn’t change our current lives and our decision for the world and cannot imagine life without our beloved and precocious Malachi.
When I realized how little control I had in my son’s life, it became therapeutic for me to write “letters to the judge” so that I could communicate to the one person who, in the end, was going to make the decision about where Malachi would ultimately spend his life. I never intended on sending the letters, it became a chronological diary that helped me cope through the past four years. This has been such an eye-opening and perplexing process for me that I feel compelled to share it. My goal is to publish those letters on this blog one at at time. The topics range from why we decided to embark on this journey, the classes taken, all of the visits and obstacles that stood in our way and why it took so long to reach this awesome day. The good, bad and the ugly!