Foster parents are entrusted with an emotionally charged task — to open their hearts and their homes to a child as they simultaneously prepare that child to return to her biological parents. In this excerpt from Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System, Sarah Gerstenzang shares her journey through a maze of public policy and conflicting emotions that led to her new daughter.
Sarah Gerstenzang, a social worker living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, became a foster parent to Cecilia, a five-week-old African-American baby. The fifth daughter of a disabled woman living in a shelter, Cecilia is caught up in a complicated and overburdened bureaucracy charged with her care.
Gerstenzang recounts her journey to parenthood as she navigates highly emotional terrain from taking Cecilia to mandatory weekly meetings with her birth family to fighting for good medical care for the child to walking the fine line between preparing Cecilia to return to her birth mother while readying her own family to embrace her.
As child-welfare consultant Madelyn Freundlich writes in the book’s foreword, Another Mother pulls us not just into the life of one family but into the broader world of foster care and foster adoption practice and policy. It offers the rarely heard voice of the foster and adoptive parent, whose experiences bring to life the tensions, conflicting values, and uncertainties of the foster-care system, as well as the triumphs and joys of a family enriched by a beautiful new daughter.
FEBRUARY 28: It was midnight, a Monday on the verge of a Tuesday. I lay in bed, shivering from anxiety. Although I had wondered if I should stay dressed for the visitors I was expecting, I decided to change into my pajamas to help myself relax. My two children — Sam, nine, and Emma, six and a half — were fast asleep upstairs in their bedrooms. My husband, Michael, was away on business in Chicago, just for the night. I kept wishing he were home with me.
The doorbell rang at 12:30 a.m. I walked through the hall and down the stairs, my footsteps silenced by the carpeting under my bare feet. As if in a dream, I opened the front door to the cold night air. Our street, lined with brownstones and alive in the daytime with traffic, children, and people walking dogs, was perfectly quiet, the only light thrown by streetlamps. Two strangers, an African-American man and woman, stood on the doorstep.
The man was cradling a tiny bundle wrapped in a soft, white blanket. Seeing this couple so neatly and professionally dressed for work at my front door in the middle of the night added to my sense that I had entered another realm — where it is someone’s job to take children from their homes and place them with another family, where they will be safe. Nothing about this situation was familiar to me.
My sense of the surreal was displaced by my desire to see inside that soft, white bundle. I invited my visitors to the living room, where we all sat down on my overstuffed green velvet sofa and armchairs. I offered to take their coats, but they said they wouldn’t be staying.
I reached for the bundle, took my foster daughter into my arms, and felt the soft weight of her almost nine pounds. Inside the blanket, her head was covered with the hood of a matching white fleece snowsuit. I looked down at her face, and she gazed straight back at me, her large brown eyes wide open. Experience told me that, at five weeks, she was too young to understand the precariousness of her situation. But searching for something, a clue to who she was, I thought I saw sadness in those eyes.
I signed some paperwork without reading it. I was given a copy of the Administration for Children’s Services Pre-placement Services Fact Sheet Report and the nurse triage form that confirmed the baby’s name was Cecilia and that, as of ten o’clock that night, she was medically cleared, with the exception of a diaper rash. The man and woman said a courteous goodbye, gave a little good luck pat to the bundle, and walked off into the night.
I carried the baby up to my bedroom, where I had hastily assembled a bassinet and some other necessities earlier that day. The handoff had been so unofficial and mysterious that I was uncertain. When Emma and Sam were born, watching the doctors examine them had given me confidence. I laid Cecilia gently on my bed and, alone now, took my time examining her, feeling her downy-soft, jet-black hair. I changed her into a white cotton T-shirt and a cozy blue sleeper that had belonged to a friend’s daughter.
Between outfits, I paused, looking for clues that might help me understand why a child would be taken from her mother in the middle of the night. She had diaper rash — nothing oozing and nasty, although the loss of pigment on her brown skin could have indicated some neglect in her first five weeks. But it was only a diaper rash. They don’t remove children for that, do they?
I reviewed the contents of the plastic bag the caseworkers had left with me a can of formula, some ointment for the rash, some clothing (several sizes too large), and a bottle, partly filled with formula, “I love my Mommy” written in pink on its side.
THE NEXT DAY, a legal aid lawyer called and introduced herself as the law guardian for Cecilia. She gave me her name and telephone number and asked me if we were pre-adoptive. I said no, but I was mystified by her question, as I had thought the plan was eventually to reunite the baby with her mother, not for foster adoption. I had been told that Cecilia was to be placed with an older half-sister in her foster home in June.
The question of whether we were pre-adoptive lingered in my mind over the following weeks and months. It also confirmed for me that my confusion about my own role was justified. Clearly, we were considered an option as permanent caretakers. I was relieved that we were confident in our plan to do only short-term foster care, and that I could answer the legal guardians question with certainty.
MAY: One evening this week, I was playing with Cecilia, who was lying on her back on our couch. Sam was sitting on a stool at my side. I said to Cecilia, “What are you so smiley about?” Sam answered, “She’s happy Mommy is home.” His matter-of-fact tone, which contrasted with my uncertainty (Am I her Mommy?), struck me.
Time is passing and I think about other, older children in foster care and how much the passing time affects their sense of self. Months must seem like years for these children. I wonder how it will affect their attachment to birth families and to foster families. I am thankful that Cecilia is a baby, unaware of her circumstances.
An article I read about premature babies described how a child’s fragile medical state could cause something called anticipatory grief. When parents are afraid something might happen to the baby, they may keep themselves from getting too attached, whether consciously or unconsciously. I wonder if foster parents suffer something like anticipatory grief, from never knowing how long the child will be with them.
JULY: Yesterday was the six-month permanency planning meeting at the agency. The night before, I woke up feeling anxious and helpless, trying to figure out what was right for Cecilia. The part of the meeting that was most painful to me was when the social worker documented the obligations Cecilia’s birth mother had not met. I understood the necessity of the meeting, but I know this mother loves her girls, and it was excruciating to witness.
SEPTEMBER: As the date for moving Cecilia to another foster home approached, and then passed, I began thinking about Cecilia’s future. She was now an adorable eight-month-old. She could play happily and independently for short periods. She would sit on the floor, picking up toys and chewing on them, scooting over to investigate others.
One morning, while waiting in line at a coffee shop, I met a woman who said that her husband had been in foster care (and had moved several times before finding the right place). She said that they have one son, and that they were considering becoming foster parents. I encouraged her to do so and gave her my number, in case she wanted to talk about it. I said that the most important thing was to be clear about why you wanted to foster.
As I told a friend about that conversation, it occurred to me that, while we had thought we were only going to be foster parents, I had changed my mind. I was attached and I had begun to think about adoption, although I felt selfish in doing so.
It might have been this change of heart that made the next weekly visit with Cecilia’s birth family so miserable. I had, by now, developed ways of feeding and interacting with Cecilia that we were comfortable with. And, of course, the birth mother had her own style of parenting.
During the visit, I met my sister, Natalie, to go shopping. While I used to really enjoy shopping, especially the hunt for a great deal, I rarely had time anymore. However, that evening it was a relief to abandon myself to such a mindless activity. As we stood in line to pay for our items, I told Natalie how stressful it was becoming for me to leave Cecilia at the agency for her weekly visits with her birth mother. The people were unfamiliar to her and the environment was chaotic. Cecilia seemed so unhappy there and it pained me to feel that I was abandoning her.
When I got home, I was exhausted. That night, I had stress dreams. In one, buildings were collapsing nearby, and I was desperately trying to figure out how to help the people inside.
Michael and I began to discuss the possibility of adopting, but it all felt so theoretical. We had become foster parents knowing that we were happy with our two children. Otherwise, we would have looked for an adoptive placement straightaway.
In any event, Cecilia wasn’t available for adoption at the moment, and the system had made it clear that we weren’t her parents. We had tried to honor this arrangement. We talked about how things were turning out differently than we had expected. We had hoped to care for a child until she could be reunited with her family, but it was beginning to seem unlikely that this would happen.
One night, as Sam played with Cecilia, he said he was really happy that she had come to live with us.
FEBRUARY 28 (the following year): A milestone passed. Cecilia had lived with us for one year. If plan A became adoption rather than reunification, we were now legally recognized as the first adoptive resource.
Exactly 15 months after Cecilia had entered the foster-care system, May 29, the agency lawyers filed a court petition to terminate the birth mother’s parental rights. It would take another six months, until the end of November, before the case would come before a judge.
Sometime between the November when we were identified as pre-adoptive parents, and the November when we had the first hearing for the termination of parental rights, I stopped referring to us as Cecilia’s foster parents. Depending on the situation, I would use pre-adoptive (at her new day care, for example) or adoptive (with strangers). The simple change in the way we identified ourselves had a dramatic effect on the questions people asked.
Most people stopped asking about where she came from and about her birth family. I don’t know whether people are more comfortable with the idea of adoption than with foster care, or whether our impending permanent attachment made it clearer that our family’s privacy boundary included Cecilia, as well.
SEPTEMBER 10: We adopted Cecilia and officially changed her name to Lily Gerstenzang. Although the process had seemed to take an eternity, the average length of stay in foster care in New York City is 4.3 years. Lily beat the odds by remaining in foster care for 2.6 years.
The adoption itself and the sense of security it gave us deepened our relationship with Lily. It felt as if we were finally able to transplant to our garden a beautiful plant we had been nurturing. Her roots could spread out and go deep, and there was no limit as to how healthy and full that plant could grow.
Maybe we weren’t the ideal foster parents, in the sense that we were unrealistic about how attached we would become to the child who was placed in our care. But it was that personal attachment that drove us to intensely monitor the options for Lily. Sometimes, I think about what might have happened if Lily had left our home, and then had to move again. This is a path that thousands of children in foster care in the United States have taken. If you think of each of these children as an individual, the thought can break your heart.
This piece was adapted from her memoir, Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System (Vanderbilt University Press, 2007). Reprinted with permission.