“Mary.” My older foster daughter “G” came into my room early on a Saturday morning. She had reconnected with a relative online, and she was excited to tell me about it. I woke up as she crawled onto my bed beside me and read aloud the conversation from her phone. In her texting conversation with her relative, she gave him an update on her new living situation and then told him about me—that I was “amazing” and that she loved me “so much.”
I raised my eyebrow when I heard her read that part of her text. I tried not to show the surprise on my face. Over the last few weeks, she and I had had several conflicts, and it definitely had NOT felt like she “loved me so much.” I closed my eyes for a moment because I knew in my gut that I would need to hold on tight to those words. Those words would need to last me for awhile. (If you have a teenager, perhaps you know the feeling.)
Recently I read a foster parent give a description about his experience with his foster children. He said, “The highs are really high, and the lows are really low.” I thought, Yes, that’s so true!! There’s so much progress to celebrate, but then other nights, I go to bed feeling like I just got beat up. (Again: If you have a teenager, perhaps you know the feeling.)
Back up a few weeks before my daughter came into my bedroom on that Saturday morning. One Friday evening, the girls and I had gone to the movie theater and then stopped at Walmart to print off some photos to hang in G’s bedroom and also some photos to give to their mom. Unfortunately in the midst of that, the girls got angry at each other, and it escalated quickly, and I was doing a pitiful job of trying to mediate it. I just wanted to get home so everyone could go to sleep. But as I was driving my car through the Walmart parking lot, G jumped out of my car.
I watched her walk in the opposite direction. My emotions were also on edge and I forgot to filter my thoughts. I turned to “A” and said, “Are you kidding me?!! Why do you guys get angry at EVERYTHING?”
Then I parked the car and tracked down G on foot. The anger I felt a few seconds ago was turning into compassion as I caught up with her and saw her face. Silent tears were coming down her tough face. This was only the second time I had seen her cry. (The first was a few quick tears that she wiped away when she kissed her mom good-bye after a visit.)
I was afraid that if I tried to put my hand on her arm, I would just cause her to become even angrier. I walked with her in silence for a few minutes, then finally asked her to tell me what was wrong.
“I’m not getting back in the car,” she said.
So we kept walking in silence, in the dark. I finally asked her again to tell me what was wrong. She told me what she felt; she blamed me and blamed her sister for what had happened that night, and then she said, “When A is upset, you’re all like hugging her and kissing her forehead, and you never do that with me.”
“Oh, honey.” Then I put my arm around her waist. “I don’t do it often because you push me away when I try. You’re always so tough.”
We talked a little more and then I asked her to sit down on the curb with me. We sat down on that cement, leaning against the mulch and a few bushes. I pulled her into a hug and just squeezed her shoulders and rubbed her back there on that street curb. And I started crying harder than she was. The night air was chilly. Then that beautiful, brave girl told me that she wanted to make good decisions, that she wanted to go on a new path for her life. But I could tell that she felt scared and unsure about that—because who could she count on to help her?
Your Second Mom for Life
In that moment, I knew it was time for me to tell her something important.
Up until that point, I had always been so cautious when talking with the girls about our future together (because I was never sure what would work out with DCS’s plans), and I had been cautious of how I referred to the 3 of us. I was so busy thinking about what it meant for me to feel like a mother; I almost forgot how important it was for them to feel like a daughter. Oh, Lord, have mercy. We all need to feel like somebody’s daughter.
In the midst of my caution of not wanting to try to replace their mom and also getting caught up in my own little new-mom identity crisis, G started introducing me to people at her school as her mom. And I had a few serious conversations with A where I could see that she was questioning, doubting whether or not we 3 were “family”—because she wanted to know what her relationship would be like with me (and my parents, my siblings, my nieces and nephews) when she finally went back with her mom.
The girls knew that the goal was for them to stay with me for a few years until their mom was able to get them back. But I hadn’t yet expressed to them what I hoped our relationship would be like after they move out of my home.
So that night on the curb with G, I told her, “Honey, you’re not ever getting rid of me. I’m going to be your second mom for life. I talked to your mom about it, and we both want us all to stay connected. I’m going to be there to help you make good decisions.”
We cried a little more; I squeezed her shoulders a little tighter. Then she said, “Mary?”
“I don’t want a bug to crawl in my pants. Can we go back to the car?”
I laughed. “Sure.”
The next day, I sat with both A and G in our living room, and I filled A in. I told her that I would be her second mom for life. I told her that I loved her and that she was never getting rid of me. The girls didn’t look me directly in the eye, so I searched their faces for how they felt. It seemed to me that a sense of security fell upon each of our hearts right then.
But the month that followed that conversation was rough. People have told me that the girls were probably subconsciously (or sometimes I felt like intentionally) testing my love for them and testing my boundaries. I was also vaguely aware that Satan was trying to attack me into doubting our commitment to each other.
That month things were tense during most of our evenings. The girls were each having outbursts that were very concerning to me. The more these outbursts happened, the more I felt worried and confused and attacked. I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be our new normal—an emotional outburst to handle every other night. Some nights I was so angry; other nights I was so discouraged and sad. Either way, I could hardly sleep or eat (which really does take a toll on your overall wellbeing).
At the same time, I was thrust even further into the disciplinarian position. I had to put my foot down on a few things that are important to me, and they made it clear to me that they didn’t like me telling them what to do. (understatement, understatement, understatement)
One night I looked in the bathroom mirror, and for the first time I doubted that I had the strength to do this by myself. I remembered the day last December when I sat in my office in a meeting with two ministry leaders from another city. I told them I had just been licensed as a foster parent. They asked what age groups I was open to, and I told them that I was willing to take in preschoolers and elementary kids—and teenagers if they were girls.
The lady smirked a little and said, “You wouldn’t be able to handle teenage girls in foster care.”
I felt slighted by her comment. What? Did she think I was too clean-cut, too soft, too nice? I wanted to prove her wrong.
But that night staring into the bathroom mirror, I thought, Dang, maybe she was right.
But I could never ever, ever, ever give up on “us.” The next morning before I got out of bed, I texted my mom, my brother, and my friend Amy, asking for help. I needed to create a game plan full of support for the next week if I was going to make it through without having my own emotional breakdown.
Reaching out for Wisdom
For about 3 or 4 weeks, I felt like I was just handling their behavior everyday instead of delighting in who they were. I missed that feeling of giggling with them or listening to them talk about their day and just thinking they were so cute.
For about 3 or 4 weeks, I was just taking it day by day. I was losing too much sleep and losing too much weight. Sometimes my brain felt foggy, like I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t do anything except pick them up from school on time, buy them shoes, make them mac n’ cheese for dinner, sit next to them on the couch, hug them goodnight. I was meeting their basic needs, but I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing(s). I wanted to be more strategic in how I’m parenting them and guiding them on a good path.
I started reaching out to resources that I hoped would give me wisdom for my situation. I soon realized that learning from resources like this lifted the fog in my mind. I had been praying specifically that the Lord would give me insight into what was happening inside their brains and hearts, and I feel like these resources are a good beginning to helping me understand.
As I drove to work and as I ran errands, I would listen to podcasts. Whenever I was eating lunch by myself at work, I would watch videos by Dr. Karyn Purvis. When I was waiting in my car to pick the girls up, I would often read. To help me fall asleep at night, I would listen to Bethel Music.
Little by little, I received guidance for this journey. The information and encouragement has empowered me to become a better parent to them (although I cringe at that because I’m making mistakes everyday). I can only tell you that if you are feeling in over your head about something—reach out to find wisdom for your situation! It will help lift that “don’t-know-what-to-do” fog covering on your mind.
“I Love You”
The girls and I have been together now for about 6 months. In our first 6 months, we’ve been able to celebrate both of their birthdays. We’ve taken a few overnight trips—hotel in Cincinnati for spring break, Kings Island and Great Wolf Lodge for their school field trip, the lake with my family. I’ve seen the girls make new friends (which is amazing!) and play with my nieces and nephews (which makes my heart so happy!). I cheered G on in her first races for track, and I’ve been amazed at A’s paintings and drawings for school. I’ve taken them to their appointments for the eye doctor, dentist, orthodontist, pediatrician, etc. They’ve come to work with me often, taking over the chairs in my office, making the space their own. They’re getting to know my church family, and I’m getting to know a few of their family members and the friends they grew up with. I communicate with their mom often—the girls and I pray for her every night, and she tells us that she is praying for us every day too. And this is our life now.
One evening, after several rough days for me in a row, G was lying on the couch, and she said, “Mary, come here.”
I looked at her suspiciously. “What? Did you fart?”
She laughed. “No, just come here.”
I walked over and she pulled me into a hug, then whispered “I love you.”
I laughed, feeling perplexed at all the emotions that can go into a week or even just one day. I hugged her tight, kissed her cheek about 10 times. “I love you too, sweetie.”
 The One Factor by Doug Sauder.
Mary is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building and Believing.
Mary works at Brookville Road Community Church, where she leads children's ministry and women's ministry. She is the author of She Won't Shrink Back: A Story of Building & Believing.