On a sunny Friday, a few days into the school year, I realized I had forgotten to give Yasmin, my newest foster child, her lunch money. I’d have to deliver it to her classroom.
This would be the first time Yasmin, surrounded by other fourth-graders she was just beginning to know, would see me at her new school. She’d been living with my family — me, my daughter, Tasia, a former foster child whom I adopted as a toddler, and my son — for about a month.
In the hallway, I peered through the glass, trying to identify my foster daughter by the pink and red barrettes in her braided hair. It took a moment before I spotted her hunched over a desk, pushed into a circle with three others. The teacher was writing something on the chalkboard, his back to the door. I took a deep breath and entered quietly. I tapped Yasmin on the shoulder and handed her the envelope, whispering, “Your lunch money.”
She looked up, startled, then quickly looked down at her desk again. If her skin had been lighter, I’m sure I would’ve seen her cheeks flush crimson red. I assumed that after I left, the other kids in class would ask Yasmin the question that was all too familiar to my adopted daughter, “Was that your mom?”
Kids around age 6 and up are apt to wonder how a dark-skinned child could possibly have come from such a fair-skinned mother.
Some kids know about adoption, but not all of them. My daughter, Tasia, learned awhile ago how to explain to the overly curious — when she chooses to — that adoption means becoming part of a new family if your old one, for whatever reason, can’t take care of you.
Foster care is different. Kids who come into the system, generally because of abuse or neglect, are not necessarily placed on an adoption track right away. Biological parents, if willing, and if social services agrees, are given up to 18 months of support to help reunify them with their children.
Reinforcement begins, usually, with regular, supervised visits. Then there is access to drug treatment programs, parenting classes, therapy, job training, and more — often court-mandated. If parental rights aren’t terminated voluntarily or by court order, children in foster care can ride a roller coaster of emotions, not knowing if they’ll return to the place that was once home — or if they even want to.
I want to adopt Yasmin.
Ever since Tasia’s adoption was finalized, I’ve fantasized about a more evenly matched family: my white teenage son and I, my African-American daughter, and her new black sibling. I’ve always liked balance.
But it isn’t just about color. I believe that Yasmin’s emotional scars are not so deep that they can’t be healed with love and therapy. Termination of parental rights is looking inevitable, and I want her to be able to trust again.
Still, it’s not totally altruistic: like most of us, I want to be needed. It nurtures my spirit. So when nine-year-old Yasmin rages, I make notes to myself so I can confer with her therapist on how to help. Sometimes I wrap my arms around her and rock her like a baby.
When she smiles, I wish I could curl up inside one of her dimples. Lately, she’s been giving me goodnight kisses. But I know I’m not “Mom” yet.
After school on that same Friday I brought her the lunch money, I asked, “Did anyone want to know if I’m your mother?”
“Yes,” she replied. When she didn’t offer more, I asked how she responded. “I said ‘no,'” she answered. I left it at that, turning on the stove and tearing open a bag of pasta for dinner.
Three days later, my kids and I went for a walk by the San Francisco Bay. The girls darted in and out of bushes and looked for good walking sticks. I was caught by surprise when Yasmin ran up alongside me and asked, “Can I change my first name if you adopt me?”
“Sure, why not?” I answered with a smile on my face.
I figure that when Yasmin names me “Mom,” I’ll let her name herself pretty much whatever she wants.