The shape of my family isn't anything like I had expected it would be. I was expecting a tidy circle, as most families seem to be. My husband and I tried to grow our family in the natural way, but we could produce no children of our own. We longed for family, though, so we decided to open our hands to embrace those adrift in the foster system, unmoored from their own family circles.
It is a good thing that I have always loved strays.
The foster care experience has been both hard and surprisingly beautiful. There is something uniquely fulfilling about expanding the circle of your family in this way—letting go of the familiar hands of your spouse to admit a stranger and pull them into the fold, then stepping back to allow them space to join you for as long as they need.
In this way, the circle of our family has grown, its dimension an ever-changing variable.
We have only known the experience of family under these uncertain terms.
Even our adoption has felt impermanent at times. The past can never be eradicated, and no matter how tight our bond with our daughter may be, I know that part of her will always wonder and long for another reality, another unbroken family circle that does not include us.
It is a sobering thought.
But it's not enough to keep my hands from squeezing tightly around hers. I want her to know she has a place in the family we have built both with and for her, even if her hands always long for the touch of the ones that held her at birth. She is ours, and sometimes we know we need to hold on loosely.
But we never let go.
Families are made by people turning towards each other. For better or for worse, our hands are bound to those we marry and birth, and within these circles we make, we focus our love and attention. We seldom look past the familiar faces across from us.
But foster care requires you to look beyond the circle of your own family to notice and embrace those who need a place. It is the decision to open your circle to others, to take an unfamiliar hand and hold it tightly and learn its curves and edges until it is familiar as family. It’s taking hold of that hand without knowing how long it will need yours.
It could be three days.
It could be three years.
It could be forever.
(I always hope for forever.)
In a way, though, I guess it always is forever, regardless of the court’s decision. The circle of our family does not shrink after their time with us is through. In my heart, they are all forever my children, and they will forever occupy space there.
We always leave space for them to return when they need us.
The arms in our circle are always open. Perhaps our family isn’t so much a circle as it is a parabola, its curved ends always reaching out, ready to receive whatever blessings might come.
Adopting you was on my vision board.
I don’t remember exactly when I made that vision board, but it was sometime between the moment the social worker dropped you off at our house and that beautiful court hearing that bound us together. The moment I set eyes on you, I fell in love, quickly and completely. I felt bound to you, even though your stay was only meant to be a temporary one.
Adopting you, officially becoming your mom, was a dream of mine.
It feels like you have always been with me, so it is strange to look back on that and recall a time when you were in foster care, when you were mine only in my heart and my hopes, when a seemingly insurmountable mountain of paperwork and red tape and legal fees and court proceedings stood in the way of us being a family.
In the beginning, though, taking you in was a bit like finding a stray kitten.
You were small and warm and snuggly, with arresting blue-green eyes. I wanted to hold you, to scoop you into my lap and stroke your hair and run my finger down the slope of your perfect nose. I wanted to claim you as family immediately.
But you had other ideas.
I grew up on an old country acreage where stray cats were common. We had some regulars that were always around, but it was always exciting when new ones appeared, even if they were only drawn by the promise of a consistent food supply. We welcomed these skittish transients with wide, enthusiastic arms, with every intention of making them part of our family.
But stray cats will bolt if you get too near, regardless of how much Meow Mix you pour into the bowl.
Anyone who has ever tamed a cat knows how much effort it requires. It takes diligence and patience and care and time to build trust with them. The trick is to prove through consistent care that you mean no harm, no ill will, that your intentions are indeed as good as they appear, that all you want to do is snuggle them and love them.
Just like a cat, you were terrified and skittish those first few weeks with us. You ran out of the room. You hid in corners. You screeched. You scratched. You hissed. You screamed. You were cautious, wary, suspicious. You tolerated my affections only long enough to accept food or toys.
We had to prove to you that we meant no harm, no ill will, that our intentions were indeed loving, even if the thought of returning that love terrified you.
I wanted this, to prove my love for you. I began to think of you as mine. I began to hope for it, wish for it, dream about it.
That’s when I put it on my vision board: “A family built by foster care,” it says. “Finalizing the adoption.”
I hung it on the wall.
(It’s still there.)
But there was such a long way to go.
Part of taming a cat is handling it, and with you, it was no different. Thank goodness you were tiny—I could pick you up with ease. And I did, as often as I could. I would snatch you into my arms, and even though you thrashed in protest, I held on to you until you gave in, until your tiny body melted into my arms and you finally let me truly hold you.
This is how I tamed you, wild one, with snuggle sessions that you fought at first but eventually grew to love as much as I do.
You are still so very catlike, darling daughter, even without the cat-ear headbands that are your favorite wardrobe staple. You love to sleep. You want affection only on your own terms. You are fiercely independent (which I both admire and despise in ways that only a true parent can). You are a world-class snuggler. You love to bask in patches of warmth and sunshine. You hate taking baths. You’re quick to turn up your nose. You’re playful. You’re distracted by sparkles and entertained by toys. You have a wild heart.
But you have allowed yourself to be tamed, and you have finally accepted your place in my arms.
Five years ago, child, you came to me, delivered not by a doctor, but by a social worker. You arrived at my front door with your entire world in a sad plastic sack: two changes of clothes, a pink hoodie, and a quilt that your last foster mom had given you. Before that, I couldn’t conceive of motherhood, because the doctors had told us it was impossible. Then I saw you, seven years old and fragile, dressed in pink capris with holes in the knee, a fringe of bangs above your beautiful blue eyes and a pink pad of paper in hand, already full of your colorful drawings.
“Can you take her?” your social worker asked me.
Five years ago, I said, “Yes,” and I’ve been learning how to love you ever since.
It has been five years, child. Five rich, hard, beautiful, and complicated years.
Five years of your sweet voice calling me “Mommy,” which you only called me in those first few weeks because you didn’t have another word for me.
Five years of gradually becoming your mother—not in an instant as in birth, but over the course of time, feeling my heart warm and reshape and melt around you, transforming you from complete stranger into my daughter.
Five years of pink dryer lint spangled with glitter.
Five years of you looking for my hand and squeezing it tightly in yours. Five years of breathing silent prayers of thanksgiving at the miracle of your touch.
Five years of watching you make fairy gardens out of antique jewelry and bird nests out of scraps to house eggs blown out of their tree by a storm.
Five years of “What Shape Is My Food?” played at the dinner table as we examine our meals bite-by-bite.
Five years of the sweetest nicknames: Doodlebug and Twinkles and Snuggle Nugget from me to you, and Poopy Loops from you to me.
Five years of Bob’s Burgers on the TV and snuggles on the couch, my favorite way to spend a Sunday night with you.
Five years of junk food picnics on the living room floor.
Five years of pet houses crafted from cardboard and duct tape and yarn and whatever things you found in the garage and probably weren’t supposed to take.
Five years of being moved to tears by the beauty of your voice as you sing in the shower, unaware that I am listening outside your door.
Five years of being completely amazed by your artistic ability. Five years of your drawings lining my office walls.
Five years of making space for you. Five years of learning how to push myself aside for you, of putting your needs before my own.
Five years of crying over dead grasshoppers and butterflies and raccoons with you. Five years of your tender little heart breaking at the sight of baby animals without a mother nearby, of swallowing my tears as you ask why the mother animal isn’t taking care of her babies.
Five years of tiptoeing around discussions of the past you don’t know that I know you have.
Five years of hearing you scream, “Mommy, don’t leave me!” when I walk into the next room and out of your sight because you are so afraid that I will leave you as you have been left before.
Five years of Reactive Attachment Disorder. Five years of “I love you’s” given but rarely returned.
Five years of you pushing me away and pulling me close, of alternately rejecting and demanding my affection. Five years of trying to love you but feeling like I just don’t know how.
Five years of crying in secret over your broken sense of attachment. Five years of locking myself in the bathroom and filling the bathtub so the rush of water drowns out my sobs.
Five years of hiding the pain you’ve caused me because I don't want you to hurt.
Five years of finding the strength to keep trying to show you love and push past the feelings of rejection.
Five years of catching you up in sweeping hugs as you run past me, of holding you as long as I physically can because I know that both you and I need it.
Five years of not having answers to the hard questions you have about your other family. Five years of only being able to offer you my arms, which always feel like not enough but are all I have to give.
Five years of holding you while you sob and ask, “Why did they leave me?”
Five years of only being able to say, “I don’t know.”
Five years of watching your understanding of your past grow, piece by awful piece. Five years of watching your confusion, of watching your love for your other family mingle with your pain at what they have done to you.
Five years of watching my own words, of being careful not to tarnish your precious memories of them with my judgment and disapproval. I know they are all you have left anymore.
Five years of biting my tongue to hold in my rage about the circumstances that brought you to me in the first place.
Five years of tempering that judgment, disapproval, and rage with joy and gratitude, because those ugly circumstances are what brought us together.
Five years, child.
Five years that feel at once instant and eternal: I always feel as though I’ve known you forever and yet have only just met you.
Five years ago, I said, “Yes.” I became your mother, and you saved me from the crush of loneliness, the landslide of infertility that had buried me.
Five years ago, you gave me hope for the future, for both mine and yours.
Five years ago, I met you, child, and nothing was ever the same.