Someone Else’s Child Made Me A Mother

Photo: Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock
woman holding baby

I’m standing in line at TJ Maxx feeling like the definition of someone in their thirties when I overhear the pregnant woman in line excitedly telling her friend about how she’s preparing for motherhood. “My husband is scared of the baby’s soft spot,” she says. “I told him you just have to check it from time to time. He was like, ‘Nope.”

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I never really check the soft spot, I thought to myself.

They then went on to discuss solid food and helicopter parenting fears. I glanced at my 5-month-old foster daughter, the baby who will likely be my last for a while. She stared up at me from her cozy spot in her stroller. I’ve had six children, but no one would ever know it.

The six children were never really mine at all.

When you’re caring for them, though, they feel like yours. How can they not? Strangers and your own family refer to you as “mom” even if you’ve only known the child for a few days. People stop you in stores to ask you questions about the baby.

You spend hours in the offices of pediatricians and therapists. You tend to fevers and tears. You sing songs, read books, keep memory journals, and buy overpriced baby clothes. I’ve thrown three first birthday parties in three years.

We never had time to prepare, not really. One day, we just walked into a hospital NICU and were handed an infant. We didn’t have a baby shower.

Our parents didn’t stay over with us to offer advice. I don’t even remember any of my old friends checking in. No, I brought home my first infant when I was 28 and parented with the use of Google. She’s 3 now, and I sometimes can’t believe that I held her in my arms and now she’s gone.

I’ve held down an infant while a nurse inserted a catheter. I’ve been exposed to radiation so that a baby can receive a chest x-ray, my hands strategically holding her in place without getting in the way of the film. I’ve changed diapers for six children. I’ve sacrificed myself, so much of myself, and my marriage, for children who would end up going to a place without me. I don’t even know if they’ll remember us.

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I have no biological children. The children of others make me a mother. Then, all at once, I am no longer one.

I relate to mothers, but mothers never seem to be able to relate to me. They don’t know what to do with me, with someone who raises kids for days, months, or years at a time and then says goodbye. I can’t blame them.

I always feel awkward when I’m asked if I have kids. I respond by saying that I’m a foster mother. It feels wrong to ignore my years of caring for children. No one ever responds positively. They always look at me like it doesn’t count, or they say something to me that lets me know they don’t understand.

I feel like I‘m supposed to say something inspirational when I write about foster care. I see so many foster parents posting beautiful, inspirational thoughts about fostering. It isn’t that I don’t have any positive feelings, it’s just that my feelings are so much more mixed. Fostering, for me, has been deeply painful. All of those foster parenting posts always say that my adult heart should be able to take it. I can only take so much.

I’ve said goodbye so many times. It doesn’t matter that it’s what I signed up for — it still hurts. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, it hurts forever.

I can’t stop thinking about the kids who left our home. We still regularly get to see our first daughter and we’ve been having video calls with the child who just left. I’m incredibly grateful, but I’m still in so much pain. I miss them. I love them. I wear their names on a ring every day. I don’t know how to let them go.

For a period of time, I was their mother. How do I walk away from that? How do I stop caring and worrying about them?

I think, for us, fostering was a season in our lives — and that season is rapidly coming to a close. I sometimes imagine my old life, my life before I knew this level of pain, and I wonder if I made the right decision in becoming a foster parent at all. How’s that for inspiration?

The truth is, though, whenever I think about the children we’ve lost, I can’t imagine not knowing them. I can’t imagine them having gone to a home that wasn’t ours. Hopefully, in the time that they lived with us, they knew love and happiness.

It isn’t a poem, a video, or a touching meme. It’s just real life, which is messy and complicated.

It will have to be enough.

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Summer Warner is a freelance and creative writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @seagreensummery.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.