It was sort of like an impulse buy. There was a period when I was feeling this overwhelming need to fill a huge void in my life. I wasn’t quite sure what the void in fact was, I just knew that something – something – had to fill it. I remember that morning as if it were yesterday. Ken was reading the newspaper, drinking his hot and steamy cup of coffee, I was deciding on whether to wear the black short sleeve tee-shirt with slacks, or the white short sleeve tee-shirt with slacks. I chose the white. I walked out onto our porch, where Ken seemed so calm and peaceful and I stood there with my hands ever so firmly planted on my hips and said – or rather announced with great determination – yes, I’ve decided, I want to foster a child. Ken nodded, continued reading the Sports page and as he sipped his coffee, caught a glimpse of me over the rim of the cup. “Seriously, Ken, I want to be a mother.” This, a conversation, continuing from the night before.

Let me back track for just a moment. When Ken and I met there were two things that Ken never, ever wanted to do again: one, was get married, and two, was have a child. He had done both, and that was quite enough for him. I too felt when I first met Ken that marriage was a very iffy commitment. I mean, why? So that when you divorce, all the shit that was yours to begin with now has to get tossed into a legal heap and maybe you won’t get the CD’s and the few pieces of furniture you brought to the party to begin with. But a few months after our first date, along with the “I’m never getting married again,” lecture, we found ourselves picking out wedding rings and meeting with Unitarian ministers. We chose both within a week. Okay back to the foster children…

I had this urge, not necessarily to give birth, but to fill what felt like a unyielding emptiness. I am not, I repeat not, a nurturing kind of woman. But there was this need, this urge, this flu like symptom that didn’t seem to go away. I thought maybe instead of adopting a child, we could, for lack of better words, rent one. See if it works. I had heard both very good and very awful stories about foster care, and fostering children. I knew a couple who had brought a foster child into their home and two weeks later felt they were being tortured emotionally. I have friends who had huge success at fostering a child, ending up adopting the little girl, and another one whose child turned out to be the devil doll. But I understood that these children needed to be loved. They needed to be cared for, their place in the world was so fragile, so tentative, so scary.

And I, obviously, had an urge.

I stood there and waited for Ken to give me his blessing. “Sure, fine, you wanna do this, go check it out.” “Wanna come with me?” “Nah. I’m gonna watch football.” Ken thought, right or wrong, that it was like going to the Bide-a-wee, or the Humane Society. This isn’t something Ken cares to do, even though he is a very altruistic kind loving man. I was going to go the Children’s Aid Center and discuss the possibility of he and I becoming Foster Parents and while highly unlikely maybe come home with a happy loving child who Ken could garden with. Or at the very least, watch football with. I am such an optimistic fool.

I go to the Children’s Services office in our very small town. I am greeted with both a lack of enthusiasm, and much paperwork. Reams and reams of paperwork. I fill out most, call Ken twice (for his social security number which I couldn’t for the life of me remember, along with some financial information) and then I’m Ied to a small empty room with a scattering of very old magazines. I for one believe any and all public spaces should keep up to date magazines. This is a cause I will champion in the future. Nothing worse than old, old news.

A young woman comes into the office. She reminds me of an Amish woman, or a Mormon, wearing a long floral schmata and a very, very bad haircut. It looked like a very, very bad helmet. She says nothing, but gestures for me to follow her. As I walk out of the room with her, I casually mention that they oughta get some up to date magazines.

As an aside, in one of our continual (I am pushy) conversations both that morning, and the night before, Ken tells me that – if in fact I actually go through with this – he would prefer a boy, if in fact there’s a choice, and a boy who can garden, weed, since it’s summertime and if in fact we are going to foster a child for two, three, four weeks than I should take into consideration that it would be great for Ken to have a weeding partner slash buddy. I, of course, would love a girl to go shopping with and go to nail salons with and someone to talk to about Ken’s – her foster father – weeding issues.

I am now led to another room where the Mormon slash Amish woman has a desk. I sit across from her and I look around the room for signs, clues of a life, her life. I see not a photo, or a calendar, or any sign of life, period. In the corner on the radiator what appears to be a dead plant. But, I convince myself, that could happen to anyone. Not everyone has a green thumb.

She pulls out what appears to be a thick binder. She slides it across the desk and motions for me to open it. I am now beginning to think that maybe she is mute, since not a word was spoken. Perhaps I should move my lips very slowly when talking to her so she can read my lips, I think, as I open the binder. There in vivid color are snapshots, photos, 8 x 10 glossies of babies, young adults, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, mentally disabled, physically challenged, older, taller, toddlers, and teenagers. Thirty, forty photos. Some take your breath away. A sparkle in the eyes, a dimple in the cheek, a turned up nose, freckles, thick curly hair, missing teeth, a lazy eye, the gorgeous skin-tone. The sadness is palpable. The joy diminished. The desperation is obvious.

Then she speaks: she tells me it’s a fairly long complicated process, could take weeks and weeks, maybe even a month or two. Yes, yes — bureaucratic bullshit paperwork – my words, not hers. She doesn’t like that I use the word bullshit, I can tell. She continues, a lot of these kids are in homes and are soon to be removed, or have to leave. I ask why. She says well it didn’t work out, there was a clash, the kids, you know, have issues. Major, major issues. The foster parents have issues. Major, major issues. Sometimes there’s no patience or tolerance. Sometimes there are altercations. But they’re getting full up and pretty soon these kids are gonna be back to square one. Her words.

I stare out the window, and think of Ken. He’s probably soaking in a tub, bubble bath and all, watching his beloved Giants, screaming at the TV set, drinking a beer, or glass of Pinot Noir, and enjoying his life completely. Not a care the world. He likes it that way.

I woke up a few days earlier wanting to have a kid, I was hormonal and lonely. Hormonal, lonely and cranky and older than the day before. Not a great combo, I want a kid!!!! Stamping my feet, I’m sure, or the equivalent. Instead of going to the Woodbury Common Outlet stores, I went to Child Services. Instead of trying on a pair of shoes, I looked through a binder of children who needed love, and a home, and a place that was safe and kind and probably, more than likely, never owned a pair of new shoes, because chances are they were all hand-me-downs. And that’s when it all came together. The words: hand-me-downs. I wasn’t making a commitment to giving them a life or a future, I was teetering on making a decision to give them a place to live for a month or two, or maybe even less. In other words, they were returnable. I felt so profoundly sad – my heart breaking. I didn’t want a child for the rest of their life, I wanted a child to take away my loneliness, my crankiness, my hormonal imbalance for a month or two. And it dawned on me in this empty lifeless office with a woman who desperately needed a good haircut and a make-over, that I was being completely and utterly selfish.

I told the Amish slash Mormon woman that I needed some time to think about all of this. I couldn’t be completely truthful with her, and tell her that I had in fact wasted her time, because that would seem even more selfish. She asked me if I wanted to bring the binder home for my husband to look at the photos. I told her, no, and she asked, “Does he like catalogues, because this is just like flipping though a catalogue.”

I stopped feeling selfish in that moment. I looked at her and said: “These kids… in this catalogue, they need love, they need care. They need shoes. They’re not pieces of clothing you pick out, thinking, well if they don’t fit, I can return them, these children on these pages in this binder were not wanted when they came into the world, they’re not returnable. You’re job is to find them a home. A loving home.”

She looked at me, her eyes already filled with sadness, fill up with tears. “I don’t like my job, it’s just I feel so empty.” she said.

We were the same woman in that moment, except I had the better haircut.

“Hey listen,” I say, “I don’t really want a kid, I want to fill a void, and I know what it’s like to feel empty. I do, but while you’re working here, at the very least, please, oh, please … when you hand the person or the couple the binder, please, tell them that the pages are filled with huge potential and an amazing opportunity to love better, love more, and if you don’t wanna do that, maybe you should quit your job and find something you love to do.”

I hit a nerve, I could tell. I hugged her good-bye, a good strong hug. I told her that she should live her life out-loud, that everyone – EVERYONE – is scared, including me, that I was very, very scared; for her to find the thing she loves to do and do it, and … although I thought it, I did not say it: please, I’m begging, go out and get a good haircut, but what I did say was please, please, get rid of the dead plant, it’s not inspiring.

And then the moment of clarity as I drove home. Absolute perfect clarity. I didn’t go there to foster a child, I went there to foster my very own spirit. To awaken to my very own life, to live more fully, to love myself better, to love better period, to stop being so selfish, and to stop thinking I have to — in this moment, right now, this very second – fill a void.

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6 Responses to “non-returnable”

  1. Susie Bedsow Horgan

    Amy, I LOVE this piece. I can relate on every level. Early 40’s I was in the same place but my longing for motherhood HAD to be filled. The result is a 21 year old gift from God, named James. Your journey of that day parallels mine ofmany months. Thanks for sharing so honestly all the aspects of this complicated phenomenon we women deal with. You are a treasure.

  2. Cindy

    What a lovely, poignant, and honest piece, Amy. I am in awe both of your compassion for others and your capacity for reflection and self-knowledge.

    My mother was an only child; her parents very much wanted more children, but complications with my mother’s delivery apparently left my grandmother unable to become pregnant again. She and my grandfather fostered many children (as Census data documents), including some pregnant teens who stayed with my grandparents through delivery, and whose babies stayed with my grandparents until they were placed for adoption.

    My grandparents were kind, generous and loving people and incredibly caring parents; they helped to raise my sister and me, the constants in our otherwise chaotic childhood. My grandmother told me many times that she and my grandfather gladly would have adopted one or more of the children they fostered. Unfortunately, though, the “rules” back then permitted only married couples who owned their homes to adopt — unmarried people (which, at that time, included all GLBT people), renters, and people who received housing as part of their compensation for employment (my grandparents lived in a house provided by the golf club for which my grandfather was supervisor of grounds) were foreclosed from making the permanent commitment children in foster care so needed. Thankfully, most such restrictions have fallen in many jurisdictions; all have fallen in CT.

    In fact, I was honored to have testified (on behalf of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women) before the CT General Assemby’s Judiciary Committee in favor the bill (now a statute — it passed!) that authorized “co-parent adoption,” thereby allowing unmarried couples, gay and straight, to adopt children, either together or individually. As a result, the non-biological mom of a child born to one of two women in committed same-sex relationship could adopt (it took a few more years for CT, via judicial mandate, to permit same-sex marriage), as could the non-biological father of a baby born to a surrogate via insemination with the sperm of one dad and being raised by two dads in a committed same-sex relationship.

    The Connecticut Supreme Court had almost begged the legislature to enact such a statute when it denied a non-biological mother’s petition for adoption in a heartwrenching case — In re: Baby Z. The Court could reach no other result under Connecticut law, it noted, despite abundant evidence (including a conclusion to that effect by the Department of Children and Families) that Baby Z had been welcomed into the world and parented lovingly by BOTH of her moms and that permitting her non-biological mom to adopt her — and thereby take on all of the legal obligations of parenthood — would be in Baby Z’s best interests. Thankfully, the legislature took heed.

    Unfortunately, though, far too many kids whose families of origin couldn’t or wouldn’t provide the love and stability they need are still in our overburdened foster care system.

    I’m intrigued by a model that was reported in the New York Times a few years ago, if memory serves. It involves placing both a single mom who has come to the attention of a child protection agency because hasn’t been able to parent her child properly (perhaps because she, herself, was never parented properly and so didn’t learn the skills she needs) and her child with a foster family specially trained to mentor the mom while helping her care for her child — a family that can teach the mom appropriate ways to nurture her child and respond to his or her needs, both expressly and by example. Maybe because I’ve been a teacher, in one setting or another, for most of my professional life, I want to believe that programs like this one, at least in some cases, can work to keep children safe and families together.

    As your experience with the burned-out worker with the catalogue of kids whom the system — and we, as a community — are failing makes all too plain, removing kids from their parents all too often doesn’t solve their problems. Some foster parents (like my grandparents) are good and loving people, but sadly, some aren’t. And moving a kid out of one bad situation and into another (and sometimes another and another and another) is an exercise of state power that shouldn’t be acceptable to any of us. We need to do better.

    I’m so glad you wrote (and shared) this piece, Amy. Thank you.

  3. debra

    How sweet, I can picture everything in my mind, being from the same small town, the office, the plant, the sadness in all. Voids, in everyone’s life, the children, Amy and even the staff worker.

  4. Caroline

    What a lovely piece Amy. But I have to disagree with one point – I think you are a VERY nurturing kind of person 🙂 xoxo

  5. Carmen

    This is such a heart felt piece! Thanks for sharing your experiences. I too went trough the similar kind of thinking because I wanted to help children less fortunate than my own. I have found fostering to be a wholly enriching experience, although somewhat challenging at times.

    It is important to find an agency that are willing to give you all the support and help you need, I personally used who were fantastic but make sure you research into whatever agency you use and get recommendations from others who have used them.

  6. Judy N

    I love this column, Amy. I went a different way, finally having a child at forty-four, but you bring me into this experience.

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