My son, Jeremiah, was in foster care for more than 10 years. Eight of those years were spent as a “freed” child – a child to whom no one had any parental rights… a child we often describe as “waiting.” He moved 33 times before he came to our house, and most of those moves were from one institutional placement to another. He spent his time waiting in places where he was hurt, inconsistently medicated and asked to repeat the ninth grade five times. He waited in places where there were no birthday parties, no stories before bed and no trips to the supermarket to pick out your favorite cereal. When I met him at age 16, he had a bruise on his face from a restraint at a residential facility. The restraint had happened months earlier, but the bruise was still visible. The staff person who inflicted the bruise was investigated and found to have acted improperly, and then later honored as Employee of the Month.
We adopted Jeremiah in December 2016. He had just turned 17. One month later, he left in the middle of the night to tag along on a burglary spree with his recently-paroled biological brother. For the last seven months, he has been behind bars.
“I could never do what you do,” people say to me all the time. “It seems so hard.”
“Of course you could,” I think. “The hard part is what my son has done.”
My son and more than 110,000 other children in this country waiting to be adopted, like he was, are asked every day to do the impossible. They are asked to accept their realities even though they had no say in the making of them. In becoming a foster parent, I chose to engage with this broken system. My children did not have the luxury. No one asked them whether they thought it would be “too hard” to be removed from their families of origin. No one asked Jeremiah if he thought he could handle 10 years in foster care. Instead, they expected him to wake up every day and behave as though his life had value when all evidence seemed to point to the contrary. They expected him to wait for something he never had the opportunity to understand and knew might never come.
My son waited for parents for 3,877 days. Nothing can live up to the expectations that come with that kind of wait, and certainly not something as messy and gut-wrenching and complicated as a family. Institutionalized behaviors are like parasites, eating away at children until they simply cannot function apart from the institution. We knew a family setting might be too hard for Jeremiah. I told him all along, “I want to be your mom wherever you are, whether that’s at home or in prison. Wherever you go, there I will be. That’s what it means to have a mom.”
At our last visit in county jail before Jeremiah was transferred to state prison, he looked at me through the glass and said, “You came. I thought maybe you might stop coming.”
“Of course I came,” I said. “That’s what I do. I show up.”
Parenting is hard. Parenting children adopted from foster care is also hard, but it is not nearly as hard as actually being that child. They are doing the hardest work. They carry on their tiny shoulders the burdens of trauma and grief and continued systemic oppression, and all the while they wait.
My son waited for me for 10 years. That was the hard part. Now all I have to do is love him and show up, and really, anyone can do that.