“I just want to be a mom.”
I have said this – to myself, to friends, to caseworkers, to God – so many times in the past two-plus years. In September 2017, I officially became a foster parent when the state placed a 3 1/2 year old girl in my home. I’ve had two longer term placements since then, and done respite care for several others.
The journey has been every adjective you can think of (minus “easy” and “glamorous”). Sad, joyous, funny, frustrating, maddening, nerve-racking, challenging, heart-wrenching, and heartening. I don’t know how much longer I will remain a foster parent – in part because “I just want to be a mom,” and adopt. But also because every child takes a piece of your heart, and every case will break your heart in ways you could never imagine.
But every time I am ready to quit, I think of ALL the children out there who just need a lifeline. The crappy parents are not their fault. The dysfunctional system is not their fault. So when I want to quit because I am so fed up with the system bureaucracy and the parents who act like children, I remember there are actual children who just want love and safety, and I say yes again.
These are the stories of my foster children. I miss them every day. And in my heart, they’re mine forever.
September 15, 2017
Friday afternoon. The minivan pulls up outside the house, the one I’ve been waiting for. But now it’s here and I’m not sure what to do. Wait for them to bring her inside? Go out to meet them? What’s the protocol?
Does she have a suitcase? Does she even have clothes? A toothbrush?
All I know is her name. That she came from Marianna. That she is 3 1/2, and is coming to me – my first foster child – because her mother was arrested the day before for neglect. This toddler was wandering the streets of Marianna alone, half a mile or more from home, while no one back home even noticed she was gone. Later I would learn she once got lost in the woods for more than an hour. She would visit a particular neighbor because she has the Disney Channel and gives her attention. Her mother got a few chances, and finally the chances ran out.
So now this little girl is in front of my house, in the minivan. I don’t know what she looks like. I don’t know her favorite foods or colors. I don’t know if she has allergies, if she likes vegetables or refuses them. I don’t know if she likes dogs. I have two. I don’t know anything, really. Except that it’s now my job to take care of her. After a yearlong process to get licensed to foster a child, a child is here.
I walk outside and introduce myself to the investigator. She tells me the little girl won’t get out of the car. She was asleep and now she is awake again, and scared. She slept in a strange bed last night, and is an hour from home or anyone she knows.
So I walk around to her side of the minivan and look at her face. Even in her scowling, she is beautiful. Big green eyes. Blond hair. Freckles sprinkled across her nose like fairy dust.
I don’t really know what to say. So I tell her my name, and I ask her what her name is. She says it softly, barely audible. And then I ask her, “Do you like puppies?”
Her face lights up.
“I have two puppies inside. Do you want to come meet them?”
She smiles and shakes her head yes, wriggles to get out of her car seat, and takes my hand.
This is foster care. Day 1.
September 16, 2017
Lice. All over her head. An infestation that has clearly been growing on this little girl for awhile.
I spot them Saturday morning, not even 24 hours after she arrived. I text some mom friends and my case manager from Florida Baptist Children’s Home.
“I’ll be right over with lice treatment,” she says.
After she arrives, we bring the little girl to the bathroom and get her undressed. When we tell her we have to wash her hair to get the bugs out, she refuses to get in the tub.
“I not! I not! I not!” Crying, wailing, stiffening her body so that we can’t get her into the tub.
So I pick her up and get in with her – me fully clothed, her naked and hating every second of this. While Pam gets the shampoo on her head, I just hold her and rock her to calm her down.
We will end up doing this once more over the weekend, and then letting a professional do a third treatment on Monday. The whole weekend is spent trying to get rid of these bugs that have taken over the head of an almost four year old who has never even been enrolled in daycare.
So where did she get these from? I wonder. How bad was her home that no one noticed this, that no one bothered to wonder why she was constantly itching her head?
Did she just sit home and watch TV all day? Judging by how often she asks me to turn the television on, the answer is yes. She is almost 4, but her speech is more like that of a 2 1/2 year old. Sometimes I can understand her, sometimes I can’t.
Already, on day 2, I’m exhausted. But also having so much fun with this little girl who has a huge smile and an even bigger laugh.
This is foster care. Day 2.
September 22, 2017
Today marks a week since little Princess came into my world. It has been a whirlwind of scheduling, preschool signup, emotions, new lessons, and confirmations about both the grace of God and the resiliency of little humans.
Being honest: I have cried a lot this week, both happy tears and sad ones, at the enormity of this responsibility but also the joy and blessing of it. I have cried in learning about the life she came from, but smiled in seeing how she is thriving with structure, nurturing, and a routine that gives her the safety and security she needs to feel.
She is smart, independent, as sweet as she is sassy, and funny. She has a deep belly laugh that makes my level of fatigue worth it. She loves her morning milk (chocolate almond milk!), the Disney channel, and stroller runs. And pizza! She also loves the “puppies.” When she puts her hands on her little hips and declares “no bark!,” I see a glimpse of her in 10 years.
I’m still learning every day about this amazing little person, as she is still learning about me. I’m still learning the challenges of single parenting. I’m still learning a lot about the foster care system.
There have been moments when it is SO overwhelming. Like when she calls me “Mama,” but cries for her mommy and grandma in the middle of the night… and I feel helpless because I cannot fix that heartbreak.
But then there are moments like Thursday, when she woke up so happy. I told her “I love you!” And she smiled and said, “I wuv you more.”
I don’t know how long Princess will be with me. But I know she makes my world an adventure every day! And that is such a blessing. I’m also acutely aware of how many children there are like her — and that there aren’t enough foster homes to take them in.
This is foster care. Week 1.
September 27, 2017
The first couple of days I dropped her off at preschool, she cried. This is a whole new experience, this school thing — with teachers and nap time and rules and so many new little faces.
She’s never been enrolled in any kind of structured school or daycare until now, and coupled with the trauma of being yanked from home just a couple of weeks ago, I sense she is just overwhelmed.
But now, a week or so in, she cries less and smiles more as I drop her off and wave from the car. She stands in the window while I drive off. She is figuring out, I think, that we go every day at the same time. That I always come pick her up. That she is safe. That there is a routine she can count on.
We are still struggling some with her behavior at school. I don’t think she’s ever been given any rules. Children need rules.
At home, she seems more secure. She isn’t waking up suddenly in the middle of the night like she did the first week, and some nights she goes to sleep without crying for her Mommy or her Ninny. She loves bath time and bedtime stories – Find the Duck is her favorite.
I wonder every day if I’m “doing this right.” Speaking of rules, there is no guidebook for regular parenting – much less the “insta-parenting” that happens when you’re a foster mom.
So I cling to little things – like a good note from her teacher, or how she has learned to start each meal by saying grace — as a sign that she and I are navigating this thing OK.
“Deah Word (Lord). Fank you food. Amen.”
This is foster care. Day 12.
September 28, 2017
Today, my friend Stacy asks “How is Princess Pigtails doing?,” and suddenly we have an official nickname! Princess Pigtails. It is perfect.
This is foster care. Day 13.
October 6, 2017
I just love it when I plan the entire afternoon – including missing an hour of work and Princess Pigtails missing an hour of school – for someone who calls half an hour late to inform me “I won’t be able to make it today…” with no promise of a rescheduled appointment.
The caseworker from her home county, about an hour away, has been less than communicative. Curt emails. Very little information. And now, this. He misses his first scheduled visit. So here we are, three weeks in, and no one from her county has been here to see where and how she is living. A “courtesy” case worker from this county visited the first week, but that was it.
I am providing a safe and loving foster home. So whether he visits or not won’t change that for Princess Pigtails. But I am angry for all the other foster children out there who fall through the cracks because their foster homes are NOT safe or loving – and caseworkers (overworked and underpaid) fail to find out until it’s too late.
This is foster care. Day 21.
October 20, 2017
Today marks five weeks with Princess Pigtails. Not that long, yet it seems like she’s always been around.
There are highs and lows, frustrating days and victorious days – for her as a little toddler human navigating all this transition; for me as an “insta-mama”.
But her smile and her belly laugh and her huge heart for everyone she meets are everything. Her singing (remarkably good, actually) fills my heart.
And when she hugs me in the morning and I say, “I love you!” and she replies, “I wuv you more!”- that’s when I can hear God whispering: Keep doing this thing. Even if it is not forever.
This is foster care. Day 35.
November 7, 2017
This morning Princess Pigtails looked sad as she was getting ready for school. I asked her why she looked sad.
“I miss my dad.” And my heart broke, because I know too much about WHY he is in jail, what he did to get there. But she doesn’t understand – nor should she yet. Because she isn’t even 4.
So I struggled with what to say. I told her, “I miss my dad, too. He is really really far away, and I hardly ever get to see him. So I get sad sometimes, too.” And she looked at me and said, “My dad far away.” I tried not to cry and told her, “Yes, but I bet he misses you, too. And I know he would be so proud of how amazing you are doing. And I’m proud of you, too, because you are so strong.” She smiled and said, “I strong.” And I hugged her as tight as I could.
I have no idea if I said the right things. But that was a really hard conversation.
This is foster care. Day 53.
December 4, 2017
Things that are true but not easy to be told: “You no mom. You Shannon.”
She says this, matter of factly, as we drive home from preschool. I should have expected it, since her visitations with her mother started last week. Still, it hurts.
Her mother wasn’t there this morning to explain the difference between diarrhea and “regular doodoo,” and why we really shouldn’t (albeit naively) use our middle finger to point at things or people. That was me, Shannon. Her mother wasn’t there to actually get Princess Pigtails through the diarrhea bug from school. That was me, Shannon. Her mother hasn’t been there to make her dinner, read her bedtime stories, get her dressed, hug her when she is sad. That was me, Shannon.
I know that Princess Pigtails doesn’t understand all this. That she is trying in her little mind to figure out why she isn’t living with her mother, yet now gets to see her mother for a few hours. She is trying to reconcile how it is that she now comes home to me – this person she didn’t even know three months ago, and I now do all the things for her that mommies do.
She is trying to differentiate this in part because her mother probably said, “She is not your mommy. I am.” And she is correct. But I also now love this little girl more than I ever thought possible.
It doesn’t matter that I didn’t give birth to her. So when I hear “You no mom. You Shannon,” it feels like a punch to the gut.
This is foster care. Day 80.
December 6, 2017
“That’s crazy!” is Princess Pigtails’ new favorite phrase. As in:
Me: “GUESS what?! You’ll be four in FOUR weeks! And we’re having a big princess party!”
PP: Squeals and giggles. “WHAAATT?! That’s crazy, mama!”
This is foster care. Day 82. My heart is full.
December 12, 2017
I’m standing with the other parents, watching the holiday show at Princess Pigtails’ preschool. She has been practicing her songs all week – including her favorite: “Tingle Bells! Tingle Bells! Tingle all the way!”
As she comes to center stage and rings her little bells, I hold back tears. She has come such a long way since her first preschool show two months ago. Her teachers are so patient, and they appreciate her strengths as much as they understand the reason behind her behavior struggles. I start wondering what the spring show will be like, but then I stop myself.
The caseworker mentioned in a recent email that he is going to do a home study of her grandmother who has had custody of Princess Pigtails’ half sister since 2011. The state always wants to reunify with the parent – and if they can’t do that, to place a child with family. But this grandmother wasn’t considered for the initial placement, so I am not sure what has changed now to make her more suitable than me.
Still I know that there is a possibility – even though she is thriving here – the state will move her again, just to place her with a blood relative. I don’t want to think about that possibility. Not yet.
December 14, 2017
When you’re a foster parent, you lose control.
You cannot control how a child’s past hurts will impact their current behavior. You cannot control how unresponsive and inept your caseworker is. You cannot control what kind of health insurance they get – or the fact that some random person assigned a St. Petersburg doctor as her primary care provider (even though you live 5 hours away).
You cannot control the case plan the state gives your foster child’s parent, to get them back – or how many chances they’ll give the parent to complete it. You cannot control how many caseworkers you’ll have to deal with, or when they’ll want to visit the house to check in.
But most of all, you cannot control the biological parent. And today, I could not control the fact that Princess Pigtails’ mother and grandmother failed to show up for their weekly visit. The one she asked me about this morning. The one that I told her would be happening, because that is what the caseworker told me.
I could not control the fact that Princess got so hurt and angry when she realized they were not coming, she punched another child in the face at daycare. Because she is disappointed that someone she loves did not do what they promised.
She doesn’t know her mother has been here before and lost 2 other kids. But I do. And I remember how disappointed I was when my own parents, also addicts at the time, did not do what they promised.
So before I go see her to try to explain what happened in toddler terms – and hug her and give her whatever her heart needs – I am trying to control the only thing I can: my anger.
Because if I’m being honest, what I really want to do is punch her mother in the face. But Princess Pigtails just needs to see love. And to know that she is loved.
This is foster care. Day 90.
December 15, 2017
Email from caseworker: “I will be approving the home study concerning her grandmother. Is there a set time that she will be available for pick up on Wednesday? I can be available anytime after 8am central. Thank you.”
When you become a foster parent, you lose control. She is going to live with her grandmother, because DNA rules. And there is nothing I can do about it.
This is foster care. Day 92.
December 19, 2017
Today, I’m just angry.
Angry at Princess Pigtails’ caseworker, who never bothered to even visit us to see what her home was like here. Who never moved quickly in ANYthing these last three months – and is suddenly taking her just days before Christmas, with just a few days’ notice. I’m angry that her placement with her grandmother means she is effectively back with her drug-addicted mother – giving her mother little sense of consequence for what she’s done, and maybe no real reason to get clean and show her daughter a better example. I’m angry that I let myself fall so hard for Princess Pigtails. As a foster parent, we’re supposed to expect these kids to be removed from our homes after awhile, right? We shake our heads yes in all those training classes. But it is easier said than done.
I am in love with her freckles and her deep belly laugh and her sing-song voice, and the way she crinkles her nose when she smiles. I’m angry that we don’t get Christmas together. Angry that all of this feels like I’m being selfish. Because SHE is who matters.
Still, I’m angry that my heart hurts so much, and she isn’t even gone yet. I’m angry that the child welfare system too often doesn’t look out for the best interest of the child — no matter how much the players claim it does. I’m angry that DNA seems to win in most of these cases. Even when it’s mediocre, or downright awful.
I’m angry that I won’t get to celebrate her birthday and give her the princess party she wanted so much. The one she deserves. I’m angry at myself for never taking her to Disney world. Because I thought we had more time. I’m angry that tomorrow is the last day. I’m angry that I feel this angry, during a time of year when I usually feel so much joy.
This is foster care. Day 96.
December 20, 2017
97 days ago, she arrived in a brown minivan. Covered in lice and bug bites. Today, a white minivan pulls into the driveway. To take her away… this girl who is safe and thriving and happy and learning new things every day. I feel like throwing up.
Princess Pigtails is watching her Disney show, PJ Masks, holding the Paw Patrol sleeping bag Santa brought her that morning. He came early because we left him cookies the night before, with a note. He brought Paw Patrol toys and coloring books and pajamas, a Minnie Mouse purse, puzzles, Disney princesses and a purple telephone that talks. He brought her favorite chocolate and strawberry sprinkle donuts for breakfast, with a note: “You have been such a good girl. I am so proud of you and all you’ve learned at school. You can do and be whatever your heart desires because you are so very brave. Love, Santa.” I tuck the note into her suitcase. I’ve packed her favorite bedtime stories. Her Bible. Her favorite outfits. The red coat she wore for pictures that never became a Christmas card. I get her dressed after lunch. Fix her pigtails one last time. She runs to the mirror like always. “Mama! I want see!”
I walk outside and greet the caseworker. He sees I’m trying to hold back tears and seems surprised. What did he think my emotions would be? “Are you ok?” he asks. I shake my head no and gather up her things. I’ve been telling her these last few days that she is going to live with the woman she sometimes refers to as “Nana,” a grandmother who is raising her half sister as well. I keep telling her she will be living there, and that we will miss her so much. She just says “Otay, I miss you too,” but I don’t think she will really understand until she is there. I’ve tried my best to prepare her for this goodbye, but maybe I needed more preparation than her. The caseworker assures me she knows her grandmother, that everything will be ok. I pray he is right.
So now it’s time for them to go, and I lead her to the minivan. I’m keeping my head down because I can’t stop crying and don’t want to upset her. I get her buckled into her seat and tell her where she is going. “I love you so much, Princess. Always remember that. And make sure to always follow the rules. What are the rules?” She recites the rules we came up with for school. “No hitting. No fighting. Listen teachers. Follow rules. Go bed. Go potty.”
“Good job,” I say through tears. I kiss her on the cheek and hug her as tight as I can. “I love you.”
“I wuv you too, Mama.”
I close the door on her side. The minivan drives off. And I break down into the arms of a friend, because I don’t think I’ll ever see Princess Pigtails again. Because it’s hard to imagine the days ahead without this little girl who has become such an important piece of my heart. I wonder if this is what the parents of missing children feel like. To know they’re out there somewhere, but to have no contact or control over their safety and care.
This is foster care. The last day.
December 22, 2017: Epilogue
My phone rings this afternoon and it’s a number I don’t recognize from Marianna, FL: home to Princess Pigtails and her family, including the grandmother she has been living with for two days.
I had asked the caseworker to give my number to her grandmother, in hopes she would call or let Princess Pigtails call me.
My heart jumps as I pick up. “Hello?”
But it’s not her grandmother. It’s her mother. This person I know so much about, but don’t really know. I’m not sure what to say.
She says she wants me to talk to Princess Pigtails, who has been asking about me. So I do. I am so happy to hear her voice. I ask her if she is having fun, if she is happy, how her Paw Patrol puppy is doing. And is she ready for Santa to come again?
“I love you and I miss you.”
Her mother comes back on. She tells me she and Princess Pigtails went through the photo album I made of our three months together, and she told her mom what all the photos were about.
“I can tell she was so happy with you,” her mother says, almost wistfully. “Thank you for taking such good care of her.”
I can hear in her voice that she is sad that those pictures showed her daughter getting experiences she could not provide. Or maybe just not yet?
So I tell her about my childhood. I tell her I was Princess Pigtails’ age when my mother struggled with addiction. That her heart for me was always huge, but the addiction, for a long time, was bigger. It never made her a bad person; just someone fighting a really bad disease.
Now we’re both crying. She’s not the monster I wanted to think she was. I’m not the stranger who tried to take her daughter.
I tell her that Princess Pigtails is worth fighting for. Worth cleaning up her life for.
“She has so much joy. She is so smart. She is amazing. I know you know this. And she wants her Mom. Just remember that. I would take her back in a heartbeat. But you are her mother.”
She tells me they have enrolled her in daycare. That they go to church. That their Christmas celebration with family happens on Christmas Eve. I can hear Princess Pigtails in the background, laughing as she plays with her sister and cousins.
Somehow, this call gives me peace. I can see now that maybe these three months weren’t just about giving Princess Pigtails a second chance. Maybe it was about showing her mother the life she wants to give her daughter, through that photo album.
This is my prayer, anyway.
That the photos – of tea parties and beach trips and petting zoos – will be her reminder that it’s worth overcoming the demons of addiction and struggle for what’s on the other side: A little girl with pigtails who is full of potential, and a heart that yearns for her mama.
This is foster care. Every day. For thousands of children and the biological parents who struggle to care for them — and for the foster parents who take on the job instead. If only for 97 days.
Shannon’s story continues tomorrow, in the post titled This is Foster Care. Part Two.
Shannon Colavecchio is a licensed foster parent who juggles: she has a full-time job in public relations, she is an Arbonne Regional Vice President, fitness instructor, mom to three rescue pups and foster mom in search of her forever child. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
To learn more about foster care and adoption, go to onemorechild.org.