It was Christmas Eve, 2016. The snow was coming down outside the Social Services office where my foster kiddo and I sat. A big storm was on its way, and I was nervously sitting in a dim meeting room, waiting for this sweet angel’s birth mother to join us for the first time. My foster youth was snuggled in a warm blanket with me, snoozing away. Mom was already 25 minutes late. The air hung nervously as my mind raced with negative thoughts and emotions, asking myself how was I going to get home in this snow? My drive was almost an hour! How dare she not show up on time!? I had to prepare for a two-hour visit and managed to be on time; why wasn’t she? Hasn’t she done enough?
This child was my first placement, and despite trying dozens of times to get mom to join us for activities, holidays, and events, she never responded. I had hardened to mom as I had this awful cynical mindset that there was no way this mother wouldn’t want to see these things. How could she not want to be there for their first steps? First words? What else could she be doing that was more important?
As I tried to sort through my emotions, I remembered my husband calmly saying to me as we left the house, “Try to give her a chance.” GIVE HER A CHANCE! The audacity! She is 25 minutes late! I’m sitting here alone trying not to panic about how much snow is on the ground!
Another ten minutes or so went by, and then the door to the office opened, and in walked mom.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, trying to remember to watch my facial expressions and listen to my husband’s advice.
She sat across from me. I looked down at the child and did my best to avoid eye contact. The longer I could avoid, the longer I could stifle my feelings of anger and resentment.
She softly said hello and I looked up and responded, “Hello, how are you?”
“I’m okay,” she said, “I am sorry that I was late. I had to get a ride from a friend and the snow was so heavy we had some trouble.” I could see the sadness in her eyes as she tried to help me understand the situation.
I instantly felt my anger fade as I saw tears forming in her eyes. She looked down at her hands and I could feel her mood shift from sad to ashamed.
I looked at her and asked, “Mom, would you like to snuggle your baby?”
Her face lit up with tremendous joy. In that moment, my true understanding of foster care shifted. I came into foster care with this idea that I was going to make a change; I was going to help everyone; I was going to take on this foster care system and shake it up!
Finding the Beauty in Family Connections
That night, I watched a beautiful moment between reunited mother and child. Cradled in her arms, singing to her baby, letting her tears fall onto the little one’s cheeks, it was the most precious and profound moment to witness.
We sat together and she shared the stories of her childhood – her extensive trauma, her mistakes, and her wins. She was so appreciative yet somber at the months missed. She expressed grief at missing their first word and could not believe how much they had grown. She asked questions about their diet and how they slept at night – and I realized that she was soaking in the moment as much as I was.
With me that night, I had brought every picture I’d taken, every video of first steps and first words. She and I laughed and cried together for over two and a half hours. I came to that meeting a hardened woman – unable to see past a wall I had built between her and I. Yet somehow, left our meeting feeling peaceful.
I would like to say that after that wonderful night we were able to turn towards reunification, but we did not. That isn’t to say that she and I didn’t reach out and try our best – she was only able to offer HER best. HER best was giving wisdom and understanding to me that I did not have. Teaching me about their culture, showing me the proper way to style their hair and what songs to sing.
Realizing Everyone's "All" Looks Different
When what surrounded her was generational trauma, addiction, abuse, and neglect, how could I not humble myself? How could I not take the time to see through her lens? Her lens might have been broken, but it was beautiful in so many ways. She was giving it ALL SHE HAD, and I had to realize that everyone’s “all” looks different. Giving it my all is not the same as my mother, nor my friends, or even my spouse.
I learned from her the dignity that comes from compassion and kindness. It is not my place to judge or put undue pressure on her – trust me – she puts enough on herself. My job is to love her where she is at.
Lover her where she is at.
Three years after that blessed Christmas Eve, my husband and I adopted that little nugget from foster care. It was a mix of joy and sadness at permanently severing a tie that they had to their family. I was so shocked I felt that way on adoption day, and when I expressed this to my spouse, he voiced the same feeling of joy and grief.
Several months after adoption, mom agreed to try again to work on a relationship. It was so wonderful to integrate her into our life and she now attends every birthday, holiday, and school play. That is not to say this is all cake and rainbows – we have had disagreements, but I am so happy to consider her family. She created a tiny human that I care for deeply, and for that I am so grateful.
This blog article was contributed by Christina Santini, Office Coordinator at Nexus-PATH Family Healing.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org