Saying Goodbye to a Piece of our Hearts: What Reunification is Like for Foster Parents

Today, I am writing vulnerably about real life events that have nothing to do with my kitchen. This weekend is significant because tomorrow marks the 2-year anniversary of a rite of passage for Mr. Bean and I in our foster care journey. We knew we should expect it at some point. We had heard about it happening at all of our trainings. But “knowing” about the possibility of reunification, and experiencing it in real time, are two entirely different experiences. So, to put it bluntly: two years ago today, we said goodbye to a piece of our hearts.

 

I will call him Man Cub for the sake of confidentiality.

 

This title slide for Mrs. Bean's post on foster care reunification depicts train tracks in the background.

 

On a random Tuesday, a couple of weeks after we finished our foster care certification, we got the call from our agency social worker. There was a 2-year-old boy who needed a home. Today. But just for a little while. “One-and-a-half to two weeks max.” Famous last words! (We have since learned to take these initial communications with a grain of salt. Not because social workers are not truthful or competent, but because foster care is a fluid situation and things can change on a moment’s notice.) I called Mr. Bean at work to see what he thought about this crazy proposition. His words were: “Let’s go for it!” (For the record, he has said this every time we’ve received a call for a foster care placement. How I love that man for his ability to love so recklessly generous!)

 

So with exactly that much information about this child, we moved forward to accepting placement of him, and a couple of hours later, I was picking up Man Cub at the children’s receiving home. (The receiving home is the county-operated facility where children are placed, temporarily, when they cannot be placed in a private home for foster care.) While at the receiving home, I met Man Cub’s county social worker. I also met his older brother and sister, who were old enough to stay at the receiving home for a little while. (They would eventually be moved to relatives). That was how I found out that, sadly, Man Cub would be separated from his siblings while he was placed with us in foster care. I showed them my ID, signed some paperwork, picked up a few clothing and toy items from the donation closet, and we were off!

 

This is how, on a few hours’ notice, Man Cub came to be a part of our family for a time. And exactly how we began our parenting journey. Our friends and family came to our aid. There is nothing like a new foster placement to send everyone into high gear. Most people get nine months. We had three hours! So, with a high chair on loan from Grandma and Grandpa, some clothes and a car seat from friends, a crib from a co-worker, and a big trip to Target and the grocery store, we were up and running. Suddenly we were catapulted into the crazy world of foster care: the social workers, the public health nurse, the doctors, the PAPERWORK, the visits Man Cub had with his birth family, … and always the questions in our minds (usually unanswered) about what was happening in the court proceedings, and how would that impact the length of Man Cub’s stay with us. Our minds were constantly dwelling, while trying not to dwell, on wondering just how badly our hearts would be broken … when reunification inevitably happened.

 

As it turns out, Man Cub was not two. He actually came to us 3 weeks shy of his 2nd birthday. He was sick (with a raging case of hand-foot-and-mouth that that his birth mom was concerned about, but sadly had not received medical attention in his previous foster home) and wild (the first night I remember him running around the house shouting NO and MINE a lot!) and scared. Those first couple of weeks, he cried so much at bedtime. And at nap. And how could he not? Because only two months earlier, Man Cub and his siblings were removed from their birth family’s home and placed in a foster home. (Not ours.) After living in that home for 60 days, he was then moved to our home, only this time to be separated from his siblings (who it was obvious that he had a deep connection to).

 

Let that sink in for a moment.

 

This one-year-old baby was now living in his third home in less than three months.

 

With strangers (us). Except that now, he didn’t have his big sissy and brother to help ease the transition for him. So no matter how loving and starry-eyed we felt from the first minute we laid eyes on him, … he didn’t know us at all. He didn’t know if we were safe, or if he could trust us to meet his needs. He also didn’t know when he would get to see his family again. He. Was. One. No wonder he was scared, and no wonder he cried!

 

Shortly after we met this chunky, insanely handsome young man, we began planning his second birthday party! Planning a second birthday party for a child you have just met is fun and strange at the same time. In fact, a lot of things about foster care are downright strange if you think about it. Don’t get me wrong: I love me some party planning! But it was sobering to be planning to celebrate such a big milestone for him, given that I barely knew him. A milestone that, in typical circumstances, would have been celebrated at his own home, with his birth family and friends. At the same time, Man Cub deserved to be celebrated and showered with love and presents, even if we were new in his life! So we made it happen. Because he enjoyed The Hungry Caterpillar, it was entirely fitting that his birthday should have that theme. We kept the celebration low-key, but had all the stuff that any good two-year-old birthday party should have: family and food and presents and even a Hungry Caterpillar cake.

 

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As time went on, we found out Man Cub was a very easy baby, in spite of all that he had been through. Mr. Bean and I often talk about how spoiled we were with our first foster placement. The Lord knew that we needed a soft start to this roller coaster we signed up for. Man Cub’s all-night crying episodes quickly spaced out to only a couple of night wakings, and eventually to sleeping for uninterrupted 12 hour stretches! (Truth!)

 

When Man Cub arrived, he spoke two words: “NO.” and “MINE.” But as the summer went on, this “gentleman and scholar” learned to count to ten, and to identify all of his basic shapes and colors! He was a quick study! One of my favorite memories of those five months is of reading with Man Cub. He loved lap time so much (and quite frankly so did I). Those were special times. Mr. Bean and I love to reminisce on times of reading to him on our laps, and rubbing his big belly (cutest pot belly I ever did see!) before bed. If I would stop rubbing his belly, he would pick up my hand, and put it back on his belly to show me that he wanted me to keep rubbing. And he would color. OH how he would color! Very unique for a young man of his age! Much to the surprise of our social workers, he could sit and color for 30-40 minutes at a crack. Man Cub also loved choo choo trains, going to the park, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and bean dip.

 

A Rite of Passage for Us

During the time that Mr. Bean and I cared for Man Cub, we grew, too. Our initiation into the chapter of life called parenting didn’t look anything like most families, and we weathered it together, coming out stronger than we went in. Together, we have navigated the foster care and adoption certification process, the invasive home study interviews (there is nothing quite like having your social worker ask how fulfilling you find your sex life), getting set up for a new kiddo on short notice (a process that we are now getting better and more efficient at, after four times!), those first very hard weeks helping Man Cub settle in to our home, changes in routines, sacrifices of personal comforts, nurturing a relationship with Man Cub’s birth mom, and JOYFULLY pouring in to little Man Cub’s life, even though reunification was most likely inevitable.

 

I know foster care is not for everyone. It is no picnic, and you can even read here about the time we almost gave up. But for Mr. Bean and I, it has been a crucible that has forged us together like no other. That is why, as I scroll through my TimeHop app, I am remembering what a transformational five months we had with Man Cub, culminating in one memorable last day in our role as his foster mom and dad.

 

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Reunification Day

When I broke it to my high school students that Man Cub was going back home, there was a collective “awwwwwwwwww,” and total support for me to spend the last day with him. They got attached to him, too! So once we had Man Cub’s reunification date, it was an easy decision for Mr. Bean and I to take the day off of work. Although we were sad beyond words, we wanted one last fun and memorable day with this precious little manchild before he left. We decided that the Railroad Museum would be just the ticket. And it was PERFECT!

 

As I mentioned, Man Cub had a special love of choo-choo trains. He’d read about them in his books, played with his train set at home, and even seen trains as we were driving. Seeing a black steam engine up close and personal, though? WOW. It almost takes your breath away! They are so big, and he just couldn’t believe it! Mr. Bean and I laughed non-stop as Man Cub would dart from train to train, exclaiming: “Oh BOY! Oh BOY! Oh BOY!” His unbridled enthusiasm was a joy and privilege to be a part of, and helped us to keep our minds off of the actual reunification, which would happen later that day. We enjoyed our day, and ended with (what we felt was) the essential purchase of a conductor’s hat for Man Cub. He didn’t love the hat as much as we thought he should, but he sure did look adorable! 

 

Eventually, the time came to leave the Railroad Museum, and although Man Cub was unaware of what would soon be happening, Mr. Bean and I couldn’t get it off of our minds. It was a quiet ride as we made our way home, packed up our car with his clothes, toys and belongings, and headed to his house. That’s right. We actually took him home. That’s because over the past five months, we grew into a comfortable relationship with Man Cub’s birth mom, and because of that relationship, we were able to avoid having our last moments with him spent at an impersonal (and to a foster kid, maybe even emotionally triggering) county-run facility. Even though our communication with Man Cub’s mom has since trailed off, we are thankful that when we took him back home, we were able to do so in the most comfortable and connecting way possible.

 

As you can imagine, Man Cub’s mommy was beyond excited to see him! His brother and sister were also thrilled! Big brother could not wait to get his hands on the Tonka dump truck we had gotten Man Cub, and as we gulped down the lumps in our throats and exchanged phone numbers with Man Cub’s mommy, Man Cub and his big brother raced around the front yard with the dump truck, chasing each other and laughing. They were obviously so happy to be reunited! Man Cub’s mommy thanked us profusely for taking good care of him … and we drove home in silence.

 

A Grief That You Live With

It would be so neat and clean for me to say that now, … two years later … we are “over it.” Over the loss of him. But the heart doesn’t work that way. You don’t magically forget a kid who you invested in, 24-7, even if he is no longer with you. Some people think we should get over this quickly because

  1. We knew he would be going home,
  2. He was not our “real” child anyway, and … {my personal favorite} …
  3. He didn’t die.

My answer to this is that there is no doubt that we have accepted this loss and moved on with our lives. But to be frank: that’s a callous load of bull! Saying goodbye to a foster child after reunification is a grief that does not fit into a box that most people understand or are willing to hold space for. People understand and empathize with a miscarriage, and thinking about their angel babies brings up emotions for years after. Maybe for forever. And with good reason! At the same time, for five months, I held Man Cub in my arms, kissed his boo boos, made his favorite macaroni and cheese, taught him how to count to ten, walked him to the park, and read to him on my lap. And that is no lesser grief. It is very real and comes in waves. It is just a grief of a different kind.

 

I’m happy to say that since that day at the Railroad Museum, we have been able to re-open our hearts and home to three more children. (One of whom was eventually moved as well.) But I would be lying if I said that we don’t still think about Man Cub, remember his birthday every year (he is almost 4 1/2 now), reminisce on the unique and adorable “Man Cub-isms,” and wonder how he is (and whether everything is OK in his home now). 

 

We have moved forward with our lives, but he will always be a part of us. Man Cub was, after all, our first. Our first diaper change, our first time singing Jesus Loves Me to a kiddo at bedtime, our first time establishing kid-centric family routines, our first time having way too much fun shopping for those tiny clothes, and our first time enjoying the simple bliss of sitting on the floor with no agenda but a pile of blocks to stack up and watch him knock back down. 

 

So, this weekend, he is on our minds. We are healthy and whole and enjoying all the joys of our new post-adoptive life with Little Bean! But we will never forget the first little man who stole our hearts … and turned us into Mom and Dad.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Darcy
    August 27, 2016 / 12:14 PM

    Man Cuba perfect description ty for sharing your journey with me ….I will never forget that beautiful child

    • Mrs. Bean
      August 27, 2016 / 12:21 PM

      Ms. Darcy, you were amazing with him, and I’m so glad that you were a part of his life for a season! <3

  2. August 27, 2016 / 1:30 PM

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes! People don’t understand our walk. I’m so glad that you too are sharing the story as well. Remembering our little ones with love, holding them forever in our hearts, and moving forward by the grace of God! So glad we “met”.

    • Mrs. Bean
      August 27, 2016 / 1:31 PM

      Likewise, Dana!!!!!! Thanks for taking the time to read, and I look forward to chatting more!

  3. Hope Kiner
    June 29, 2017 / 12:00 PM

    Thank you for this, its beautiful

    • Mrs. Bean
      June 29, 2017 / 12:03 PM

      Thank you, Hope! <3

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