Questions

One of the many common questions we are asked about fostering is, "How do you get ready?" and our half-joking answer is always, "Very quickly." Though we're hoping to some day celebrate the arrival of new family members with showers and thought-out fanfare (are puppy showers a thing?), for now our family grows quietly and quickly via frantic trips to Target and Wal-Mart and pleas to family and friends for anything they're not using that might be age or gender appropriate for our kiddo. Here's what I wrote the night we got confirmation of our very first placement - it's a little different that what we usually share, but it was some real-time processing of our whirlwind panic and emotion and under-preparedness for the first of our greatest adventures. 

This is what our "yes" looks like. Standing at our kitchen counter together, sharing gross, cold, leftover spaghetti for lunch, jotting down the wildest of notes and to-do list on the back of a used grocery list, questioning how we've lived this long without an apple slicer.

Yes to one question. A million other questions follow.

Where will they sleep?

Our most obvious hurdle.

"From what I've read, a daybed would be a stretch for even just a three year old..." Ethan says. I sigh, staring wistfully at the convertible crib that I'd so intensely researched and painstakingly assembled (currently in its toddler bed conversion from preparation for a previous placement that hadn't ended up coming to our home). "We need a twin."

Our second hurdle.

An ice storm is moving in this weekend. A half inch of ice, one weather report predicts, Hazardous travel conditions expected. Plan on staying home this weekend!

Off to the store today, then. We've been given a gift, lead time to prepare before there is a child on our front steps. We're determined not to squander it. On the way I research IKEA twin beds online (Ethan is driving). Should we call people we know with IKEA beds and ask them about it? I ask. Ethan, ever practical, shakes his head. "A bed is a bed," he says.

What will they eat?

We have no idea what he'll like, what food he's been raised on, or what food he's seen in his short life, so we buy one of everything - applesauce, fruit snacks, frozen fries, popcorn, pretzels, gogurts, eggs, 2% milk, whole milk, apples, oranges, bananas, cookies, bagels, Spagettios, Chef Boyardee - it all goes in the cart.

"We'll eat all of this no matter what," I reason, tossing pop-tarts into our cart. Ethan is delighted. Junk food for days. We'll save organic parenting for another year.

Do they have clothing?

I head over to the kids clothing section, Googling sizing as I walk. Are they tall or small for their age, gangly and all arms and legs, or still carrying a sweet toddler belly? 

It's best to buy three or four different sizes, says a recommendation from a popular foster care blog. I grab three different outfits, each a different size. Sweatpants, to allow for wiggle room.

"Save the receipts," Ethan advises, when I hold the outfits up for his approval. "Just in case."

What will they bring?

They can arrive with duffel bags or trash bags holding their only things in the world. The last placement we almost had would have come with nothing.

We have infant toys and a few stuffed animals. Ethan scuttles off to find more age appropriate toy cars and trucks.

As we shop an email from the social worker comes in - this sweet one is coming with toys, clothes, and books. It's a unique situation, but one that we're grateful for. Ethan hustles back to return the kids clothing we picked up.

We still buy a pack of cars - a peace offering for their arrival.

What does our time look like now?

We chat in the car about scheduling. Open up our shared calendars. Currently filling our weeks: two part-time jobs, church, youth group, rare social events, reminders to get the dogs groomed.

What now needs to be added to our iCals: doctors visits, therapy appointments, visitation for little one's parents and family, outings to make the first few weeks with us more kid-friendly.

There are already conflicts in the next two weeks where we're both scheduled to work at the same time. Future Ethan and future Lisa will work that out, we decide. "Yay! A reason to use my planner again!" I add. The organizer in me can't be contained.

What now?

Our cart is full. We're tired. There's a haircut appointment this afternoon that can't be rescheduled this last minute. A meeting tonight that needs to be attended. The regular hustle of work and life doesn't stop or even acknowledge that our life is changing at all - there's no grace period or adjustment period to rely on. We know our lives are about to change, but for now, it’s our normal rhythm for a few more days.

We get home and find our older dog has ripped open and eaten an entire bag of treats I'd left within reach. Normal rhythm, indeed. He burps in our face when we kneel down to discipline him. "You're about to be a big brother again," Ethan warns him, "You have to be better than this."

What are we going to tell people? What are people going to say? How do we share this? How do we bring him to church? What will he call us? Does this child even like dogs? Will our dogs like him? Will they scare him? Why does our dog's breath smell like dead fish now? What flavor were those treats?

Endless questions to be asked and answered. We're going to get really good at this.

How are we feeling?

We can't decide. One moment, stressed. Another, surprisingly peaceful. Equal parts terrified, nervous, excited, ready, not ready, okay, not okay, parents, not parents. Feelings that can't be reconciled, but will probably all simultaneously evaporate and multiply by a billion the moment he steps through the door. 

For now: chipping away at the do list. IKEA furniture to assemble. Scheduling. House rules. Moving our bathroom things around to make room for little hands and feet. Grooming appointments for the dogs. Googling developmental expectations for his age. Unpacking the car seat and begging one of our already-a-parent-friends to tell us which strap buckles to what. Questioning if practicing buckling our younger dog in the car seat would be considered animal abuse (for the record: of course we didn't). And finally: getting back to the store at some point... We remembered the clothes and the food and the toys and the apples... But we forgot the apple slicer. 

Little Ninja

We really didn’t mean to drop off the face of the planet for the past three months. 

Many people know that in January we got our first foster placement, and since then we've been hiding away in our hobbit hole trying to process the entire experience. Privacy is a dear and sacred thing in the foster world and though we wish with all of our hearts we could share each and every bit of our foster babes, we can’t. Ethan and I agreed we wouldn't post much about any of our foster kiddos until they weren't living with us anymore, and after this first placement, we took a couple months to reset and we're finally ready to share a little bit of our first little one with you. Many people know his "real" name, but on the interwebs we call him Little Ninja. 

Foster care is every bit as hard and much harder than we ever expected (we think that might just be parenting in general) and we'll be honest in saying that our weeks with him were the hardest weeks we've experienced as a couple. Adding a tiny human to our mix threw off every rhythm and routine we had, and we scrambled to create new rhythm with Little Ninja, who was old enough to understand that everything was different, but not old enough to really understand why. We can't even pretend to understand the emotions involved with being removed from everything you've ever known to live with two strange people and their dog, but we can say that it's a big, big mess of feelings for a little one to feel. 

The first few weeks drained all three of us in every way. Little Ninja cried for his mom at bedtime almost every night. One night, Ethan had to take over bath time and bedtime routine because I started crying and couldn't stop. Another day, Ethan had to call into work last minute because Little Ninja was struggling with some big feelings and desperately needed both of us home to help him through it. Still, squeezed into the margins between all these hard things were the tender and precious moments we shared with him and those are the ones we are choosing to share because those are really the only moments that matter. 

There is nothing more surreal than watching a caseworker pull into your driveway and lead a child into your house - the child who made us "parents" for the very first time. He stood silently in our doorway, stone-faced and expressionless, while his big eyes took everything in. The awkward silence was broken by a quiet whimper from our dog, Bilbo, who was waiting in his kennel. This prompted Little Ninja's first words to us:

“Is that a dog?” 

It was like magic. Suddenly we were temporary parents to a bubbling little boy who started talking (and kept talking and talking and talking and talking and talking)... And so it began. 

Sweet Bilbo accepted his position at the bottom of our attention totem pole with all the grace of a good dog. Little Ninja was working on not being too rough with animals and Bilbo was learning how to play with tiny humans so they didn't always get along (#siblings), but even in the most difficult of moments they were the best of friends. One night after they'd had a small tiff, Little Ninja burst into hysterical tears and sobbed, "I can't apologize to Bilbo... I don't speak dog!" I think Ethan and I both laughed out-loud, but we hid our smiles and assured him that Bilbo understood apologies even if he didn't understand the words. Truly, I think Bilbo understood more about Little Ninja than we'll ever know, because our little puppy grew up overnight into a calm and nurturing companion. These two chased each other silly, snuggled, and shared secrets on a daily basis, and if you've ever wondered about the therapeutic nature of dogs, I invite you over to meet ours. 

There are entire forums dedicated to supporting foster parents whose own families struggle with accepting foster children, but fortunately, we didn't fear that issue one bit. Little Ninja met every member of our immediate families, and over the weeks he was with us they climbed into blanket forts, brought toys, read books, fixed us coffee, babysat, texted us encouragement, and reduced me to tears every time they did any of these things because having two families who accepted this sweet foster kiddo into our family tree without question is a humbling and precious gift.

And then there were all the other moments: 

The first night he hugged us goodnight. 

The time he had a really good day and we celebrated by going to breakfast, the aquarium, AND (after some pleading, mostly from Ethan) Legoland.

The time we were at a park and a sweet woman told me that "he had my eyes".

The first time we took him to church and our church family welcomed him in without hesitation. 

The day he'd had a really difficult morning, but then voluntarily cleaned his room up by himself to surprise us and turn the bad day into a good day. 

The first day he conquered an issue he'd worked hard on and we all jumped up and down in our living room celebrating like it was Christmas morning. 

The night he asked us alllll about our wedding and our marriage and looked through all our wedding photos and, after some quiet consideration, told us that he hoped some day he'd be married like us. 

The day we asked his daycare if we could pick him up early and their sweet director placed both hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and goes, "Sweetie, you can pick him up whenever you want. He's yours." 

Our "stay home weekends" when we built an obstacle course in our house and he and Bilbo ran that course until they were both exhausted. 

When Ethan and I tried that same obstacle course and Little Ninja laughed himself silly seeing us struggle to squeeze through some of the obstacles. 

The nights he cuddled with Ethan and rocked while they read bedtime books and played our special letter game.

The nights he and I "slow danced sadness away" in small circles around his room. 

And on and on and on. 

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We'll be upfront and honest in saying that Little Ninja was moved to another foster home for very, very hard, but necessary reasons and we intentionally took this long break afterwards to reset and honestly question if we were actually cut out for this. Yep - we'll admit we've questioned ourselves and debated whether we were way in over our heads doing this. There's a tap out button for us; we can shut our doors at any time. But if we can sing "Oceans" at church on Sunday, we need to actually be willing to go to the places that force us to keep our eyes above the waves. God calls us out of the boat for a reason, right? 

We really don't mean to be too TMI-ish, or weirdly over-emotional in sharing all this. We just think the Internet has more than enough horror stories about foster care, and not nearly enough stories about the good in this messy system. At the end of every horror story is a child walking through every child's worst fear, and we wish people would remember that those bad stories are only chapters of a novel. The bulk of Little Ninja's story isn't ours to tell, but when we do share our chapter, we want the world to know that he is an amazing, super SUPER smart, sweet, precious, treasured little boy with the sweetest smile and the most tender heart, and he's forever part of the good. 

You are so worth it, Little Ninja. Forever and ever. We love you.