I have one week left as a foster parent. It’s been a year and a half since I started. So much has happened in that time; so much hasn’t. A comprehensive list of everything I’ve learned would be long and boring, so I made a much smaller list of lessons that came out of the time I had to be both alone and constantly with other humans (albeit tiny baby ones). Below are a few general lessons that could apply universally, but for some reason I had to learn them from my particular situation.
1. I’ve learned that it’s ok to change my mind.
This was the hardest. I thought for years I would always work with kids, that I would be a parent for life, that I would find my career and devote myself to it. Learning that I might not want to work with kids as a career— or even have a career at all— and that I would be better as an aunt than a mother was a bitter pill to swallow. I was ashamed that I had built an image in my head of who I was and who I thought I would be, only to find out I wasn’t or wouldn’t be that person at all.
That broke down the barriers for changing my mind in other ways, too, like dying my hair and getting a tattoo— two things I once swore I’d never do. But this whole foster parenting thing has let me ask myself, why? What was I trying to prove with these declarations? What purpose does all of that serve? Maybe I had good answers at one point, but my responses now lean the opposite way: dying my hair and getting a tattoo have more meaning for me than if I didn’t do them and let me express myself without needing to resort to words. I want to allow myself the possibility to change and change again, not to hold too tightly to something I once thought I wanted to be and to simply let myself be who I am.2. I’ve learned that not everything has to connect.
At least not immediately. Some things are just weird or terrible or even beautiful and don’t tie in to one cohesive narrative. Meaning can be ascribed to them, especially after some time has passed, and they can help us if we want them to. But we don’t have to find profundity where it isn’t. Some things just are.
3. I’ve learned to create my own world.
I am not responsible for other people’s reactions to what I do with my world, and of course there are so many unknowns and out-of-my-controls. But there are so many things I can do. There are so many alternatives I can try, so many choices to make that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I may have felt trapped in so many ways over the past few years, but I also found some incredible freedoms through getting in touch with my affinities. Allowing my mind to conjure up ways to manipulate the resources in front of me has been so fun, and fun is freeing. Sometimes my own body has been my canvas; other times it’s been pieces of fabric. But play— not taking anything too seriously, even our concept of ourselves— is essential to growth.
4. That said, I’ve learned that no matter how much I work on myself, find outlets for my energy and creativity and emotions, nothing replaces the deep-seated need for connection.
Single foster-parenting is lonely. There’s no other way to say it. Even as an introvert who prefers solitary hobbies, I need to get out and talk with people and laugh with them. And I haven’t gotten that as much as I need during my time here. I am wary of using prison metaphors just because I don’t want to diminish the experiences of those who are actually in prison, but there have been so many times that I have felt imprisoned and felt the impotence of strong desires met with rules and regulations and the walls that enclose me. I have worked internally, yes, creating and writing and otherwise digging deeper into myself, but I need the balance of actual interactions with actual humans, too. Facebook and Twitter just don’t cut it.
5. I’ve learned that I am not afraid of my vulnerabilities, but neither am I defined by them.
I can talk about what I don’t like, what I feel, where I am, and where I’ve been, and all of these can be shame-inducing for various reasons. To open up about them takes courage, and I’m trying to find that courage every day. But just because I share them does not mean I am them, and just because I am choosing deeply personal things to disclose does not mean that those are the only things that make me me. I am multi-faceted. I am vulnerable. I am honest. But more than that, I am an entire human being with contradictions and full of paradox. By living that, I am not just asking others to see me as such but also giving them space to live in all of their humanness, as well. I don’t want people to assume anything, and I will try to do the same.
While I am ready to move on, I know that I will carry the weight of what I have experienced and felt here for a long, long time, and I will probably be haunted by the void made of what I’m leaving forever. I don’t know how I will live with that, just as I don’t know how anyone lives with a loss so engulfing they can’t breathe. But people do. I guess I will, too.