Love is not always an equivalent exchange: some thoughts about my future in the foster care system

A thought occurred to me just moments ago, as I shook an Easter egg full of jellybeans that was gifted to me by my Mom. This time just a couple years ago, I was talking with an underage friend whose mother had been abusing her all her life. On this day, she had given her an Easter basket and my friend was proclaiming her love for her mom. “I can’t believe I said those horrible things about her, she’s really not so bad, I was just exaggerating it.”

I’d witnessed the abuse myself. It wasn’t long after that her mother abandoned her completely and I worked to get the girl into a shelter, and eventually the foster system. Facing her parents across a conference room table, and holding back from tearing into them as they pretended the blame all fell on their child for their inability to care for her. I remember having to look my friend in the face, and tell her that her experiences and the abuse still exist on the “good days,” that her fears and anxieties are still real, that she didn’t exaggerate a thing, and she doesn’t need to feel ashamed of ‘the horrible things’ she’d said about her parents just days before. Good days have their way of covering up bad ones in our memories, like how it always feels that bad news interrupts a good time.

And it got me thinking about the parents of the kids I might be caring for one day, as a foster parent myself. I’m not able to, yet, but housing older fosters and even adopting, are my biggest goals. It’s what I feel is my purpose, to have and give love to those most in need of it. But these kids aren’t necessarily orphans. They have families, they have relationships with their parents and relatives. And those parents may have unkind things to say about me to their kids, who they may feel have been unfairly taken, or are being stolen by me.

But that’s okay. I don’t care if they don’t like me. I don’t care if their kids don’t like me. I don’t care if I’m the least popular member of the household, and my name is only said in vain. Because I will still house, clothe, and feed their kids. I will still educate, nurture, culturally and socially enrich their kids. I will still fight for them in and out of the system, I will always do my best for them, because nobody else is right then. Their family certainly can’t, for whatever reason there may be, but never will I ever let the family or child’s opinion of me impact how much attention or care the kid gets. Maybe someday, those kids will go home with their parents. But until then, I’ve been entrusted with them, so it is not in my right or intent to hold prejudice or reservations in the doling out of resources and necessities.

Love is a necessity.

But love is not a commodity, and I am fully aware that some of these kids just won’t like me. They may never be fond of me, they might not ever show an ounce of appreciation. And they don’t owe it to me to be grateful. They will never owe me even a smile, a nod, a half a hug. I think that’s a misconception that many parents have, that they give so much to and for their kids, that they are owed respect, loyalty, gratitude. But we are not, any of us, owed anything from our children. As caretakers and guardians, we owe them everything we can give them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do it right, they’ll say thanks on their way out.

Parenthood — especially foster parenthood — is not waiting tables or delivering pizzas. There’s no built-in 20% tip and no one’s leaving cash under their empty glass. You don’t become a foster for the praise and awards, you become a foster because you have extra helpings of love to go around and there’s no use packing it up in the coat closet when it could go to someone who needs it. Someone who might still love their abuser, on the good and bad days. Someone who might still text the parent who lost custody, and listens when they say, “That foster mom of yours, she’s no good. She thinks she’s better than me, she’s trying to steal you.” If we let that cloud our judgment, if we stopped shielding and schooling the kids of those people, we’d be offering up those kids as sacrifices to injustice, and hunger, and cold. And how could we ever sleep at night?

So, kids I will meet someday, hi. Your room is here, the bathroom is there, let me know what foods you like or not. I hope to get to know you, but it’s okay if I don’t. No one’s keeping score here. And that’s how it oughta be.

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