Published on December 7th, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein0
Choosing the Bear: On Considering Foster Care
We’re on a journey, as they say, but I’m going to tell you about just one day of it. Take it one day at a time—that’s another thing they say. I’m no good at it. Possible futures, usually the bad ones, are always whispering at me from the bushes.
This particular Sunday in November seemed like it might be cold. We texted with our friends Craig and Kenny, on their way over for brunch, about whether we would eat indoors or outdoors. Variables considered: weather, vaccination status, medical histories. We decided indoors was acceptable, but by nine the sky was clear and bright, so we spread a blue tablecloth on our patio table.
Our six-year-old son, Dash, blew bubbles with their two-year-old twin daughters in our muddy yard. Before they came over, we asked Dash if there were any toys he didn’t want the twins playing with. He put away Pelman, the bear he received the day we finalized his adoption at the Edelman Children’s Court in Los Angeles. He was a baby then, but he liked me to tell him the story. How his birthmom had placed him, goopy and new, in our arms. How Judge Amy Pelman made it official.
“And then the judge said you could keep me forever? And I choosed the bear?”
Craig and Kenny had been to the Edelman Children’s Court too. Before they adopted the twins, they fostered a newborn and a one-year-old who stayed with them before going to live with her grandmother. Then they’d gotten the twins, but the one-year-old returned for a time.
Sometimes, when people ask Kenny how he manages twins, he says, “Start with three, then take one away, and it seems easy.”
Easy, of course, is not the right word for any of this.
Over eggs and coffee, kugel and mimosas, my partner C.C. and I vented our frustrations about private adoption, the process that, so far, had failed to make us a family of four.
“The professionals want to get paid, and the expectant mothers are in crisis, so all the risk lives with the adoptive families,” I said.
Kenny is a hairstylist by trade, and is accordingly upbeat and extroverted. He corrected me with the breezy kindness of someone cautioning a clueless client not to get bangs.
“You can’t really frame it that way, as ‘risk,’” he said. “You have to look at it as ‘I’m parenting this child, right now, in this moment.’”
The contemporary term for foster parents is “resource families,” as we had learned in Zoom trainings with two agencies the week before. I had to admire the honesty: You’re a resource for the system, a resource for the kids. This is not about you.
“I’m trying to work my way up to that mindset,” I told Kenny, “but I’m not quite there yet.”
Why is self-motivation so culturally acceptable when it comes to climbing a corporate ladder or buying a car, and so quickly dismissed when it comes to parenting? I’m trying to think of resource parenting as a really intense volunteer gig, which sounds harsh, but isn’t all parenting a really intense volunteer gig?
Craig said, “It’s true that the child who’s placed with you might leave, but—not to be morbid—that could be true with any kid.”
We looked at the three children in our yard, whom the courts had declared ours, as they populated a plastic treehouse with fuzzy owls and bunnies. Foster parenting sounded a lot like “regular” parenting, but with the blinders off.
C.C. is better than I am at living in the moment. I’m better than C.C. at paperwork. We’re both pretty good actual parents. Arguably, we’re a great resource-parenting team. But all I could imagine that Sunday was a future in which she and Dash played with babbling babies, and I mourned when they left.
Years ago, I worked for Father Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries, helping former gang members reclaim their lives and, in many cases, reunite with their children. Once, at a Homeboy family picnic, a boy briefly lost track of his dad. He was about nine, on the chubby side, wearing a tank top that hot June day. He was wailing like the world was ending, which for him it already had, the first time he was separated from his dad, by prison or foster care or maybe both. And then the world had come together again, through hard work and miracles. Maybe his father had dealt drugs or even killed someone, who knows, but that boy needed his father with every cell in his body (and found him again a few minutes later on the baseball field).
Homeboy’s mantra was No us and them, i.e. don’t stigmatize and divide people based on their life circumstances. But I worked upstairs in the development department. I had a layer of protection from the violence, poverty, and discrimination that clients lived. Walking into the foster care system, even carrying our relative privilege, seems like breaking down the door of the development office and slamming head-first into every injustice the County of Los Angeles has to offer.
I want to root for parents to get their kids back, but does that mean rooting against myself? Does becoming a resource parent make me someone who cares, someone who lives No us and them, or does it make me a masochist?
I knew I couldn’t ask anyone but myself Can I do this? but that was more or less the question I posed to Kenny and Craig.
“Some of the people in those orientations don’t have a lot of life experience,” Craig said. “You guys have had some losses.”
He’d known C.C. since college. Somewhere there was a photo of the four of us ringing in the new year, some new year, with raised glasses and silly hats, back before losing parents and losing babies and losing body parts and our youthful invincibility to cancer.
Craig could say, convincingly, what none of the social workers in the Zooms could: You are already resilient. All that shit you’ve been through wasn’t for nothing. You can do this.
2. Children and Art
All of a sudden it was noon and we were running late to meet our friend Faryl at the park. She was making a short film about an expectant mother considering adoption, a companion to Mary Meet Grace, her searing film about a woman meeting her birth family. Faryl was adopted as an infant. After having dozens of conversations with expectant mothers, we had our own perspective to add, and Faryl wanted to hear it.
As we were packing the car, the neighbor girls, Jasmine* and Juanita,* ran up, and soon they were on the way to the park with us. Look how flexible I am, I thought. Like some kind of badass foster—resource—mom.
C.C. spread out a blanket in a shady spot not far from a slide that looked like a coiled rattlesnake. Children climbed up, and the snake spit them out.
Faryl had lived in New York until a few years ago. She had a partially shaved head and two young daughters, one of whom shyly circled the playground in mismatched socks. Faryl had spent most of her life acting, and most of the pandemic learning how to be a filmmaker. For the first time, she wasn’t an actor for hire, asking people to put her in their plays and commercials. She glowed with the light of someone who has found a way into their own story.
When we told her about our foster care plans, she said, “I was in foster care for a month before I was adopted, and that family sent me a card every birthday. It meant so much to me to know I wasn’t just, like, in a basket somewhere.”
C.C. has noted how grounding and important it is for us to talk to adult adoptees. They are the people who matter the most in the so-called adoption triad, but as babies and young children, they have the least agency. In the stories and, sometimes, the battles that ensue, they become precious, they become pawns, they become symbols of parents’ desires and failures. As all children do.
But here was Faryl: a grown-ass woman, another LA artist, another mom on the playground.
“It sounds cheesy,” Faryl said, “but I keep thinking that all of it—parenting and making art—is about love. That’s the only reason to do anything.”
I could see why Faryl was such a good actor and storyteller. Her motivation was infectious. I was caught up. I wanted to ride the wave, do it for love, fuck the consequences.
Dash and Faryl’s daughter and Jasmine and Juanita homed in, each taking a spot on the bright checked blanket. The sun was low already, the afternoon hot, their faces flushed. C.C. pulled a deck of cards from her purse like a magician. Two other kids joined us.
During the late-afternoon golden hour, all of Los Angeles becomes a movie. That night, C.C. would say that’s what she wants to conjure as resource parents: the low-key bustle of a group of kids who come together for a minute. I got it. I felt the magic. I want it too.
Then, as we were getting ready to leave, Juanita took a final swing on the monkey bars. She was five years old: small and daring and limber. I often watched her twist on the swing in our driveway and exclaimed “Cirque du Juanita!”
Today, her hand slipped, and I watched her fall to the rubberized ground six feet below.
When she stood up, I could see immediately that her left forearm was at an odd angle. My stomach dropped.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“No you’re not,” I blurted. I backpedaled. “You might need some ice. Or, uh, a doctor. Can you wiggle your fingers?”
She could, but there was no denying her injury. We got her home to her parents within minutes, and they got her to the hospital, where she got X-rays and a bright pink cast. But the image haunted me.
Even if you don’t do anything wrong, people can break in an instant. Reality goes suddenly askew and takes a long time to heal. Unlike the brief beauty of the picnic blanket, this felt like mine to own. I don’t know why I’m like this, why I assign myself the hard parts and feel like the fun belongs to someone else.
The next day, sitting next to C.C. in a nearly empty theater, I would sniffle my way through tick, tick…BOOM!, Lin Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical about his starving-artist years, before he wrote RENT. Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm at 35, felt a breathless sense of urgency to be someone, to do something. Tick tick. The ultimate biological clock.
Jonathan Larson said You can’t buy love, but you can rent it, but it never stops me from trying to tie myself to permanency. Or the illusion of permanency. I see the stories that our lives are about to collide with, even as there is so much I can’t see yet. I’m terrified, but I can’t fully convince myself it’s a bad idea. Here we go. Leaping, breaking, blinders off. Knitting ourselves back together.
*Names have been changed.