Becoming a foster parent taught me empathy in a way I'd never experienced

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Being a stay-at-home mum to three children, I started to feel this nudge to do something more. I knew we had a good family full of love, consistency, and fun — not something that every child grows up with.

That's when we came up with the idea of providing foster care and decided to open up our home to a child that could benefit from what we could give.

We entered the system with hopes of offering a loving family to a child in need, but what we actually ended up doing was giving our whole family to another family trying to put their life back together.

The purpose of foster care is to provide a stable, loving environment to a child while their parent(s) get back on track so that eventually the child can return home.

Unfortunately, not every child ends up going back to their birth family, and in some cases, foster parents can apply to adopt the child.

And while we were reminded of the goal of foster care several times throughout our training, we knew we'd adopt a child if their parents couldn't take them back. Even knowing there was a chance we could fall in love with a child who would return home to their birth family, we decided to move forward.

After nearly a year of training, home inspections, health exams, and background checks, we were finally on the foster parent call list, meaning we could receive a call at any time asking us to take in a child.

A few months later, we got a call for a one-week-old girl and coordinated to pick her up from the hospital. She was in the NICU on morphine, battling symptoms of withdrawal. It took longer than expected to ease her symptoms, so we didn't end up bringing her home for another week.

The county keeps details of birth families as private as possible, but knowing that our little girl struggled with addiction led me to believe her birth mother struggled as well.

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It didn't take long to fall madly in love with the little one, and I vowed to love and protect her like I do with my other babies. Which was complicated, because it compelled me to protect her from her birth mother.

While I knew nothing about her birth mother, I knew the result of the decisions she had made, and I didn't want this baby girl to experience anything like that again. So instead of empathising, I focussed on the consequences of the birth mother's choices. But my feelings changed when we started spending 10 hours a week together at visitation.

Over the next two months, we talked motherhood, rehabilitation, healthy relationships, and the future, and I transitioned from wanting to keep this baby under my protection to championing her mother. I knew I would miss our girl so much, but I also knew what a gift it would be for her to be with her birth family.

Unfortunately, shortly thereafter I noticed changes in her mother's behaviour that led me to believe she was struggling with substances again. About that same time, I began to take our baby to see a social worker at a prison, so she could visit her birth father in custody.

As a kid, my parents always taught me to stay away from people who made poor choices. I think it's a lesson most parents ingrain in their kids — to do the right thing and "stay out of trouble."

It was that belief system that made this situation very uncomfortable for me. But reflecting on something we had learned in our foster care training classes helped me cope: I am an adult and I can process hard emotions. I needed to find a way to be OK with what I was feeling, because these situations were important for our child to thrive.

I learned from the social worker that her birth father was being deported, and I knew my husband and I needed to meet him before that happened. We met with our social worker and discussed a plan with her.

One day, instead of having the social worker take our baby in during special hours for authorised county officials, my husband and I decided to take our baby for a visit during regular visiting hours.

Things with her birth mother weren't getting better, and I was beginning to understand that there was a chance our baby could be with us forever. I, my husband, and our baby waited nervously in the visiting room of the jail, the three of us snuggled in a plexiglass booth.

We'd never met her birth father before, but when he walked in, we knew it was him. He greeted us with a smile and tears streaming down his face. I watched him intently as he looked at his girl. He loved her so much. We chatted for 25 minutes before our time was up, and we left.

As we walked out, I couldn't help but imagine how our girl would feel knowing that her birth parents struggled. I knew it was something she'd grapple with her whole life, but I wanted her to know the important lesson that I learned — that struggle and love are two separate things. One doesn't make the other less, they can equally coexist.

Her parents' inability to win the fight was not reflective of their love for her. I'm so grateful that I have memories with both her parents that I can share with her as she gets older, so she can know just how much they love her.

In June 2019, 21 months after she was placed in our home, a judge determined she would not be returning to either of her birth parents. It was a decision that filled me with joy and broke my heart at the same time. We began the legal adoption process late last year and hope to finalise her adoption this year.

Before we started our foster care journey, I believed that any parent who loves their child would never risk losing them. I know if I'd never said yes to becoming a foster parent, I'd still feel that same way. I needed this journey to find this space. I needed to feel their pain in order to understand it.

This story originally appeared on POPSUGAR Australia, read it here.