Deep breaths and being kind: A year as a foster parent

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Author Maggie Zehring, her husband Nick, and their growing family before their youngest son was born. Photo courtesy of the Zehring family.

“Hi! It’s nice to meet you,” I respond a bit forcefully. It feels like the millionth time I’ve heard the same question: “Are all of these children yours?”

We’re at the public library, and my double stroller has tricked another passerby. When you walk toward me and take in the scene, you see one of my children sitting in the front and another either holding my hand or hanging onto the stroller, walking beside me. It’s only from the side that you see the additional seat.

I have three boys under the age of 2. They were born eight months apart. They are all mine, but they are not completely mine. I am a foster parent to one of these precious boys.

All three have fair features and blue eyes, causing 99 percent of the population to do double takes as they try to ascertain the boys’ ages and their relationship to one another and to me.

So when I’m repeatedly asked about my boys, I try to take a deep breath, smile and speak kindly.

During my first year as a foster parent, I have learned that foster care is all about deep breaths and being kind.

Choosing foster care

In 2012, before I ever could have predicted I would be mothering three babies within such a short amount of time, I was starting my first job after college. Nick (now my husband) and I were dating. This was the year I learned about Arizona’s foster care crisis.

RELATED: Nearly 18,000 kids are in foster care. What happens next is up to us.

I remember reading about more than 20,000 Arizona kids who were then living without permanent homes. I felt like the rose-colored glasses of my youth had been ripped off and thrown in the trash. I wasn’t a child anymore. I wasn’t even in college. I was a full-time working professional, paying taxes, paying bills. Being a mother felt closer to a possibility than it ever had before, so in my mind, these children were no longer someone else’s problem.

As Nick and I looked forward to a life together, it was a no-brainer that we would become a family that somehow helped care for these children. We married in 2013 and welcomed our son, Zeke, in the spring of 2016.

Shortly after Zeke was born, we heard a sermon at church about service and using our talents for the good of those around us. For us, it was a direct and clear calling for us to start the process to be foster parents. It’s hard to explain how you can just know what you’re supposed to do, or that God is really talking directly to you, but we just knew.

When Zeke was 6 months old, we started foster-care training. We found out we were pregnant again as we finished our two-month training course. By the time we were licensed, Zeke was a few days past his first birthday, and I was four months pregnant.

This was all intentional. When we filed for our license, we told the state we were able to take one child between the ages of 6 weeks and our son’s age. We wanted to honor the birth order of our family so we could accommodate — if things moved in that direction — the adoption of any child who entered our home.

Nick and I recognize the incredible privilege we experience in our daily lives. We are loved and supported by family near and far. We have a close community of friends who care for us and cheer us on.

As we measured the challenges of foster care, we saw more and more reasons to say yes as young parents. We wanted our children to be close in age, and we wanted to pursue what we felt was a calling to bring love, support and compassion to children in need in our community. We felt called to be a light to everyone involved in each case we’d be assigned.

Choosing foster care was an intentional decision that has forever changed our family’s path.

The first six weeks

Just a week after getting our license, a 4-month-old baby boy came to us on a work night, just two hours after a state volunteer called to ask if we would take him. Everything we knew about this baby was shared in a five-minute conversation in our living room. The caseworker came with one piece of paper, a sleeping baby and a sack of donated baby items. She left with an empty car seat.

The first weeks looked like this: working alongside daycare providers to help implement a proper sleeping regimen; limiting exposure to additional family members and friends; holding the child and wearing him in a baby carrier as often as possible to encourage healthy physical touch; communicating our efforts and findings through a notebook shared during parent visits with the biological family; and documenting all of our experiences in weekly reports to the Arizona Department of Child Safety caseworker assigned to our case.

When any child is separated from his or her biological family, that child experiences a traumatic event. This is often in addition to experiencing a catastrophic trauma or a series of smaller, aching traumas while in the care of their biological family. These experiences can inhibit proper bonding and attachment to caretakers and trusted adults.

Our job as foster parents is to model proper bonding and attachment and help nourish a sense of trust. If the child is later reunified with his or her biological family, these bonding and attachment skills can make the transition easier.

For 70 percent of children in Arizona’s foster care system, neglect — not abuse — is a primary reason for removal from their home. Despite what many people may think, biological families in the foster care system love their children. Instability, addiction, poor socio-economic situations and lack of community can set many parents up for failure. We entered foster care determined to serve and love both the child and his or her biological family.

Long-term co-parenting, building memories

As the weeks wore on, this little man became more in tune with our habits and schedule and we adapted to his specific needs. We saw vast improvements in his health and well-being, and leaps of progress in communication and warmth between us and his biological family.

With each milestone, we made the effort to celebrate and communicate with his biological family. This simply felt like the natural thing to do. His family should know if he is sick, if he tries a new food or how he is sleeping. And whatever the eventual outcome — whether he is reunified with his family or parental rights are severed and we adopt him — that open line of communication will serve him well. We are his parents right now, but his biological family is forever his biological family. That is something to respect.

We’ve been fortunate to witness a true blooming of this boy’s personality in our home. The bridge between infancy and toddlerhood is a precious time when someone grows from helpless baby to a little person with a lot of personality.

Since we never know how long he’ll be with us, we make every effort to soak up the time. We call him “son” and he calls us “mama” and “dada.” These normal expressions of healthy parenting can help reverse (in small ways) the scars of trauma and rebuild an appropriate understanding of love, security and attachment to family.

So what do I conclude about my first year as a foster parent? It looks like typical parenting, but with enhanced intention. It involves talking about our child’s biological mom and having pictures of the two of them in our home.

It means sleepless nights, hard conversations and leaning on an incredible army of family and friends.

It requires lots of deep breaths and confronting challenge with kindness.

It means just being a normal family with three rambunctious boys.

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