There are different foster systems. I am part of a program that provides support to minors of different ages, who come from refuge camps from around the world or come into this country undocumented from Latin American countries. What they all have in common is that they’re underage and they’re alone.
To become a foster parent in this program, you actually go through the same process as you do if you’re adopting domestically. There needs to be a certifying agency, background checks, training, inspection of the home, references, and all kinds of documentation. The whole process, in my case, took about a year. People can do it in less time than that, especially if there is an emergency situation, where there is a child in quick need of a home.
When you enter into this system, basically you are making yourself available to whatever child is available. Of course you can always make the decision not to accept a particular placement. For youth coming through the refuge system, little is known about the child. You are opening yourself to the child or children who arrive. I was expecting to meet the child when they arrived in the U.S., but A. was already in a foster situation, when both foster parents lost their job and needed to move to another state. A. made the decision to stay in this area, where she already had a lot of friends. She lived with another foster family in the program and finished the school year and then came here to live with me in June. We didn’t follow the usual route.
The first time we met I was attending one of the family meetings. It was odd to observe her and at the same time, it felt like a really nice and gentle way to get to experience her. I believe we talked on the phone for the first time and then we met at her interimfoster home. It felt… It still makes me cry today. I felt right away like it was the right match.
Unlike with having a baby, there wasn’t this slow getting to know each other. I remember her moving in here with all her belongings, her suitcases and stuffed animals. That first night, we went to the store together to select foods that she was accustomed to eating. We both slept about 11 hours that first night, which is so unusual for me. I think there was an anticipation and exhaustion that we both felt, where we could finally just let go and accept that this was going to be our family now. There was no prescription for how that transition should occur. We took it day by day.
A. grew up in Guatemala and experienced a lot of poverty and challenges in her upbringing and I was raised here in San Francisco and had a very privileged childhood compared to hers. As a parent, I found and still find it very, very difficult to understand and be with the great difficulties that she experienced and survived in her childhood. As a parent you want to protect your kids from these experiences, but in her case they had already occurred. At this point, it fills me with such pain that she’s had these experiences, but I also see how she has met these difficulties with resilience and courage. The challenges she’s faced have shaped her. She is an intensely motivated young woman and she’s also very committed to improving the lives of others. The experiences don’t seem to have diminished her zest, her love of life, or her ability to enjoy life and help others. That’s not to say that she’s not also burdened by what she’s experienced, but I also see in her case a willingness to forgive. She’s an example for me and for others in how to live with really emotionally challenging experiences in a way in which they don’t consume you.
She is also a mirror. She helps me see my strengths, but also my limitations. Yesterday, A. and I attended the orientation at UC Berkeley, where she was accepted on a full scholarship. I could see how, on the one hand, I was able to help my daughter tell her story in her application to this university. I felt an intense pride and happiness for her to have this opportunity. I also felt a new appreciation for everything my parents did for me. Parenting her also brings up so much anxiety in me. Because I am by nature a pretty anxious person, I see how I project that onto her and she becomes anxious. I’ve heard people say that parenting is like a meditation practice. If you are aware, you can see so much about yourself and gain so much insight.
We’ve known each other for three years. I had originally expected A. to move to Berkeley in August, but now it’s sooner, because she will be participating in a summer program. It’s the, you know, empty nest syndrome. Even though she’s twenty years old now, and she hasn’t been with me for twenty years, in this shorter timeline of our being a family, it is really, really difficult to imagine her not being here every day. I feel like we’ve poured many more years into the three years we’ve had together. We’re not bound by genetics, or linked by any sort of legal arrangement. I didn’t adopt her, which was intentional and not possible because she has a biological mother still living. However, it’s been amazing to experience the force and level of commitment based purely on love and acceptance and a willingness on both parts to surrender to this, and say, this is permanent. This is for life.
How have I changed? I’ve discovered a capacity that I didn’t know I had… I’m curious now to see what will happen now that A. is going to college. I know I’ll still be very involved in supporting her and helping her. I do feel sort of an opening up because there will be less daily interaction. When A. first moved in, I had just started a new relationship with a man. I just didn’t have the time for both relationships. I used to think that everything was possible. That there was time for everything and everyone, but have learned over time that at least initially being a mom had to take precedence and priority. She has helped me understand how parenting a child—it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a new baby or more grown one—is such an investment of time and energy, of love and care.
My advice? First, it’s a wonderful, wonderful experience, and it’s also really challenging. Ensure that there are support networks. I was fortunate in that the program provided a really high level of support—financially, emotionally, and practically. I couldn’t have done it without their help. That is essential, especially if you have a kid that has experienced trauma or abuse. There are a lot of behaviors that a foster parent needs help understanding so we can provide the most stable home possible.
One of the greatest skills a parent can develop is to ask for help and not feel bad about it. It’s really true that it takes more than one person to raise a child. I find it very difficult to ask for help, but I had to. I really feel for parents who are working or single or traveling for work.
It’s been an incredible experience. It’s opened my heart in so many ways. I feel so, so fortunate to have had the opportunity to have had A. and experience her and care for her and love her.