Friday, May 4, 2018

Fostering Series: An Open Home

Once all the boxes have been checked, all the hoops dutifully jumped through, there comes a wait.

It varies for everyone, depending on your availability for number and age groups. Our family focuses on newborn/infant placements. While it hasn't been possible for us to have a large family with our fertility challenges, we're really good at the baby phase. Our lives are set up to absorb the shock really well.

I've been self-employed as a contractor for over a decade. I work for my dad and a few of his business partners. My work life is very flexible and able to hit the pause button if I need to because of other life circumstances. I can accept or decline contracts at will, sometimes I don't have much work for months at a time, sometimes I work every spare hour I can squeeze out of the nights and weekends. It's fluid. For the last decade, it's always seemed to ebb and flow perfectly with our family's financial and time needs. It's been an exercise in careful budgeting and trust in the lean times and saving and planning in the flush times.

This unusual balance allows our home to be a place that newborns can weave in pretty readily. Sometimes I'm working enough that we need a few days of daycare coverage each week, but mostly, it's okay if I can't get anything done during the day for six weeks until daycare is possible.

Many times, babies coming into the foster care system do so for a short time while extended family arrangements are ironed out. Being the stopping point on the way back to family gives everyone a little breathing room to figure out what's best.

Most times, there's a component of drug exposure with newborn placements that requires intense physical care. It's rare for a baby to be pulled from a mother's care without some kind of drug exposure because they're just starting out together, and few things can indicate such an early need for intervention, other than drug exposure (previous neglect or abuse histories with older siblings would be another reason).

Right now, our country is in the grips of an epidemic. Opiate addiction means some states have more babies with exposure history than homes to put them in. These, and other drugs, profoundly affect the neurological, digestive and nervous systems. Concerns can range from profound brain anomalies to poor circulation and food allergies.

In the case of many of these exposure borne differences, nurture changes the baby's world. Constant and vigilant services, therapy and care can make a change in the baby's ability to heal and develop that changes the trajectory of the rest of their lives.

This is why we wait for babies. Not because we think they're the cutest, or we don't want to handle other traumas, but because we've discerned this is the mission God gave us with our unique gifts. Our lives can expand to babies who only sleep 45 minutes at a time because their nervous system is so damaged. We have the resources and the support network to advocate well for early intervention therapies.

So, when we wait for a placement, our home is open a little longer than it might otherwise be, but we wait, with a certainty that God uses our gifts in perfect synchronicity with the special needs of a newborn foster placement.

Friday, April 27, 2018

An Anxious Pregnancy

It's Infertility Awareness Week. Can I tell you it's a really weird week to be pregnant for me?

Like I'm cheating on my fellow infertility sufferers. I've also been thinking a lot lately about the weight and space this pregnancy is taking in my life and in my emotions.

After dealing with secondary infertility for more than a decade, I could be trying every single fertility treatment and becoming pregnant is still a stunning occurrence. After two confirmed, and fairly dramatic losses, becoming pregnant doesn't equate to a baby for me.

It equates to an eternal soul, but when half your children are dead and you suspect you've had some additional early losses that were unconfirmed, the immediate sensation is not HOORAY BABY, it's PLEASE GOD PLEASE.

At the end of September, we were waiting with an open foster home for the word on placements. I had heard from my licensing rep that an expectant mother was due anytime and we were anticipating being the foster home for this baby. We didn't know gender, ethnicity, anything really, other than that we were on high alert for a hospital trip and it was time to make sure the baby carseat was ready to go.

On October 3rd, I walked out of the hospital with a baby who needed a foster home for an undefined amount of time. Our days and nights became wrapped in her care. We settled in to the newborn phase of life and a kind of magic surrounded us as I watched our family knit closer around this common purpose of new life.

A few weeks later, I thought to myself, "that's funny, shouldn't I be starting a new cycle?" New baby fog hadn't made for the best record keeping, but surely sometime around now was the start of the next month, right?

Feeling unsure what else to do, I took a test on a whim. As it turned immediately in the affirmative, I crumpled over the bathroom counter sobbing.  No, God, no. Not again. I can't lose another baby. I can't do this. 

I needed to call the doctor, I needed to start checking hormone levels and getting any necessary medications, but I was frozen in terror. The sobs wracked my body as I stood unbelieving in my bathroom. I frantically messaged my close prayer partners, I just got a positive pregnancy test. I can't stop crying. I'm having an anxiety attack and I can't calm down enough to call the doctor. Please pray.

Their love and prayers flooded in, and slowly, my breath stopped catching enough that I could make the call to the doctor with a wobbling voice. Tests were ordered, I went straight out to get them done, newborn in tow.

Progesterone was prescribed and levels were monitored. Always just on the cusp of sustainability.

Even as I worried the baby would survive, the waves of nausea rolled in. Standing upright left me shaking and dizzy. All my energy, all my effort was on just the next thing I needed to do to care for the girls.

In the background of it all, as I fought through the sickness laying over my life, all I could think was, this could all be for no baby. I could just be this sick and then have to survive another ectopic.

As I made it to the day of the first ultrasound at 7 weeks, I walked in with dread. Seeing the baby's little heart beat, I thought, this may be our only time seeing this baby.

At 12 weeks, my progesterone levels dropped dramatically and waves of anxiety rolled over me as I waited for my doctor's appointment that week. The nurse put the Doppler on my abdomen and nothing. No heartbeat could be found. My heart dropped and I focused on all the people who were praying for me at that moment as I struggled to keep my composure on the way to the ultrasound room.

That wait, those moments, I felt the tangible and physical presence of grace surrounding me. Nothing else kept me from hysterical sobs on that table, as they looked for the baby.

Expecting this to be the moment where my life crashed down around me once more, it took a minute for it to fully sink in that I was seeing my baby moving on the screen. There, wiggling around, happily alive, was this little warrior. An anterior placenta and scar tissue from a csection had blocked the doppler from hearing this fully alive and moving baby.

As we publicly announced the pregnancy, elation rolled in from everywhere. Friends who have watched us walk through dark and difficult passages reached out to share their joy at the news. Still, I would think, yeah, but the baby could still die, guys.

Each time these thoughts entered in, I would think about a story my mom told me. When my mom was a young grade schooler, her mother entrusted her to the care of Our Lady of Mount Carmel as she left the house. So I prayed, Mary, this baby is yours to hold. I give you this baby to guard and protect because I know your mother's heart will hold this baby as tightly as my own.

Mary had to take over, I could only rest in the knowledge that her heart, pierced with sorrows, would hold this baby close and mourn with me, if needed.

At first, I felt guilty to not be excited like my friends about the news of this baby. But, the Holy Spirit spoke clearly into me, let them hold the excitement for you until you can carry it too. This is the Communion of Saints at work in the Church. They can hold my excitement in their hearts as I walk a harder path set before me.

Each phase of pregnancy has carried different worries, and slowly, the baby coming home sneaks in as a possibility. At week 17, I drove to school pick up and was suddenly assaulted with the thought if the baby dies now, we're going to have to do a full funeral with everyone. That overwhelming thought settled in me and I answered it, that's true, and everyone will surround us if that happens.

Slowly, I counted weeks/days until that mark of survival, Week 24. Finally, if something happened with the contractions that had been sneaking in, the baby might not die. Each week past that moment was a weight removed, closer, closer, more possible, we might make it.

Each week was a practice in asking for help, letting others take on more for me as my body told me to slow down more and more.

Finally, now, I'm here in the third trimester, 31 weeks. Even more things have to be taken off my plate as I honor the baby's needs and my body. We need to keep baby in at least 4 more weeks, according to this week's doctor's visit. Almost there, closer, closer, and there, standing with me, are all the friends holding the excitement, loving us, caring for me, praying for us.

The journey through this pregnancy has been hard and heavy and physically painful and emotionally draining. But my interior growth as I've released the anxiety, let go of guilt over how I "should" feel and let others care for us is slowly transforming my interior, in step with the physical transformation of housing a person. So here I sit (or lay most times), waiting out the days until we all rejoice together that the baby is here.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Fostering Series: Licensing

The licensing process can work differently from state to state and between agencies; here's a look into our licensing experiences in 2011 and 2017.

Once we knew we wanted to pursue fostering, the next step was finding an agency. In our area, we have two private and one public agency that handle foster care. We switched agencies between license renewals to find a better fit. Here are some things you should consider when talking with agencies:
  • How quickly do they respond to your questions and inquiries about fostering? Every caseworker and licensing representative I've ever met is overwhelmed with a very heavy caseload, so there's going to be a lag everywhere, but really pay attention to how well you feel heard when inquiring about foster care. 
  • Ask about what resources they have to support foster parents. Do they plan monthly support and educational meetings? Do they have dedicated staff for visit transport? Will you be expected to provide all transportation? It might seem small to do a little extra driving for visits, but you have to guard your downtime against burnout, and you'll be driving to many, many doctor's appointments probably, so a support person to drive for visits is a big plus.
  • Do you feel camaraderie with the workers at the agency? These are going to be your teammates, you should feel comfortable talking to them. They're going to be in and out of your house and a part of your life.
We didn't find our best fit the first time with an agency. It was manageable, but the process has been so much smoother and our comfort level so much higher being in an agency where we feel like we just fit as part of the team.

After the initial inquiries and decision to pursue our license with an agency, we moved on to basic data collection, physical check ups with a doctor and home and background checks.

The licensing process is the first step in kind of laying your whole life out in front of others. Not just the cute pictures you'd share on social media, but the details of how you were parented, how you parent, what traumas you've been through in life, all of it. In my state, there's a pretty intense questionnaire around 30 pages long that's your whole life story, your relationship with your family members, everything, put in a file for the agency's review and records.

It gets personal when you open up your life to the state and an agency.

A licensing representative walks you through the initial process, interviews you, inspects your entire home for safety concerns, talks to you about foster care and what to expect.

I remember frantically scrubbing baseboards and cabinet doors before our first licensing inspection. Seriously, my house shone like the top of the Chrysler Building. Then, the licensing rep walked through with a glance around, and I thought she didn't even notice how clean my baseboards are!!!!

After we moved houses and switched agencies, we had our new licensing rep out. I still cleaned and tidied, but I felt so much more relaxed having learned my lesson; they're not going to glove test my baseboards.

Once all the initial questionnaires, interviews and paperwork are filed, you'll need to be fingerprinted, have a physical and have a background check. Obviously fingerprints and background checks are a safety requirement you may have already considered. The physical isn't as obvious, but it's also a precaution to make sure you're in good health to provide the kind of physically demanding care of young children.

Finally, there's the training. This varies from state to state, and the requirements and methods even changed in my state between our licenses.

The first time around, we attended an in-class session of 3 hours at a time for 9 weeks. It was a great place to ask questions and really get to know the material. During our second licensing, we were part of the pilot group taking the online classes. We completed two modules a week and had the whole process completed in about 5 weeks.

While it was mostly a repeat of information for us, and the convenience of online classes really worked with my husband's work schedule, I think if it had been our first time through, being in the classroom is really where it's at. I say this as someone who designs online learning for a living, so I'd really urge you to consider the classroom if you're discerning this process.

Sitting with other foster parents helps you gain future support people, and the classes are usually led by veteran foster parents who can help answer your questions.

Once we'd completed all of our interviews, safety checks and training, one day, a paper arrived in the mail. There is was, we were an active foster home. Thus began the wait for a call. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Fostering Series: Discernment

Discernment is different for everyone, we all walk such a unique path in our journey to heaven.

For me, the first whisper of fostering I remember came around 19-20 years old. I was watching a news story about children aging out of the system, and a small seed was planted.

How could these children be alone?

Where are the families to take them in?

 It worked in my heart for years, slowly distilling into an urgent calling. Each Sunday, I would kneel after communion and a weight would settle onto my heart, my children are out there.

Following an ectopic rupture in 2010, I felt a firm push that now, now was the time. After nearly a decade of slowly growing in intensity, the call was sounding loudly. I felt we'd done what we could with what we knew in terms of my fertility and God was saying that we needed to look outside our own biology with our family. The answer wasn't in us, it was outside us.

So, slowly, my husband and I began talking about fostering, what it would look like in our lives, whether we both felt comfortable with it. I somewhat jokingly refer to myself as the "gas pedal" and my husband as "the brake". You need both for a safely moving car, so it's a good pairing, but one that can cause tension. Perhaps the holy tension of two souls making their path to heaven, perhaps a little less holy and more frustration filled, depending on the day.

My jump into fostering was a wild leap with abandon. My husband took some time, made sure we had the information and resources we needed, and then he walked into it with the bravery and determination of a man who knows he's embarking on a difficult journey.

Our foster placements have taught me the hard lesson many parents learn in the loss of a child, these souls aren't mine. There is no guarantee. They are the purest form of what God is calling us to with each of our children, care for them, all in, all the way until they don't need us anymore. Slam straight into the wall of love and loss so that they can know the complete love we're all striving to give our children.

I have heard we are brave for fostering. I have heard people say that they don't know how we could do it because they would get too attached.

I don't feel brave. I feel worried and uncertain and blind to what my future looks like. But, we all have pieces of our journey that ask bravery, of which we're uncertain. We all walk through some area of our lives with our hands along the wall, feeling for the next step.

This is my family's, and it maybe looks a little radical if it's not yours. We go in scared of loving and losing, we get too attached, but this is our calling. This is the voice of God that leaves no rest until answered. The Holy Spirit called, increasingly loudly, urging me to jump. I could feel the unrest in my soul building until we leapt. Now, it's the peace of the flight, the landing is left to God. It may be a crash landing where we are built again anew, it may be a sweet story of how our family grew, but always our hearts are growing in the gift of giving them away.