What the picture doesn’t show

The emotional ups and downs of foster parenthood.

Photo: Meghan Moravcik Walbert

You see the picture I post on Facebook of two boys walking down the street, hand-in-hand, and you leave a comment describing it as “joyful.” You are happy for us, you are happy for them—for that one boy in particular.

You’re thinking: he’s lucky. He’s lucky to have landed with a real family. He’s lucky to have secured safety, love and opportunity, when so many other children in foster care will not.

You note how comfortable those boys look side-by-side, how much they already look like brothers. You know we hope to adopt the 9-year-old, who is actually our second foster-to-adopt placement. You know how much that means to the 6-year-old, our biological son, who knows what it feels like to say goodbye to someone he calls “brother” and who wants nothing more than a sibling who will stay forever. You see this picture of five black fingers entwined with five white fingers as proof that in a volatile world, hope abounds. You see a happy ending.

But this picture isn’t an ending. For my foster son, it represents yet another beginning in a long line of beginnings. It’s one more fresh start with one more new school in yet another new town. It shows a new life, devoid of anything familiar, except maybe that neon green T-shirt from his old school with the slogan on the back about respect. Or the play astronaut helmet a favourite teacher gave him as a farewell gift. And that picture—the only picture we have of him—from when he was eight years old. Everything else—the faces, the landscape, the rules, the expectations, the bedroom, the family members, the family dog—is different.

In that picture, you notice how straight those boys carry themselves as they walk away from the camera, as if they are headed toward a bright new future together. What you don’t see are all the steps we stumble backwards as we attempt to navigate trauma, attachment issues and jealousy. You don’t see how my husband, Mike, and I question everything, but mostly whether we’re knowledgable enough or patient enough or good enough at this.

This picture doesn’t show how the stress layers itself upon my shoulders, day after day, as I try to secure the services we need to function as a family with some semblance of normalcy. It doesn’t show how it feels more like we’re spinning our wheels and less like we are moving forward, despite the endless phone calls and emails and appointments that fill up our days. It doesn’t show how I find myself retreating from the people closest to me because right now my life feels too disconcerting to explain. It doesn’t show me so maxed out that I’m snapping at the very people who most need my kindness and understanding.

The truth is, I post this picture not to spread my joy but to soak up yours. I wish you could better understand what we’re going through, yet I’m relieved that you don’t. I want you to come away from that photo with the feeling that adoption from the foster care system is a beautiful thing. Because it is.

Foster parenthood can create the sort of anxiety that rises up within you and sits on your chest with a heaviness that would strangle your breath if you let it, but just when I think I’ll have to gasp for my next thought, something happens:

I see my husband pick my foster son up and swing him upside-down by his legs, both of them throwing their heads back in laughter.

I hear the voices of those two boys in the picture drift toward me from the next room. They’re playing with a hula-hoop, taking turns doing tricks and calling out to each other, “Nice!” “Good job!” “That was awesome!”

Or I sit still as he draws something slowly, carefully on my hand in invisible ink, then, with a flourish, shines the light on me to reveal his message: a glowing heart with the word “love” written inside of it.

I take pictures not to prove that he is lucky to have us or that we are lucky to have him. Luck has no place here. But laughter does. And hope does.

I don’t want to pretend this is easy, but I also don’t want to dwell on the hard parts. I’m just another mom trying to document the moments I most want to remember. I capture them, I hold them close and I share them with you so that the sweetest memories rise to the surface—the sweetest memories of this painful, complicated, beautiful time.

Read more:
What makes a “real” mom?
How foster parenting changed the kind of mom I am
Elliot: A new kids’ book about the foster system

No Comments