We return the call an hour later. She’s two years old. We get some of the details, hang up, discuss things a bit, and call back again. “OK, bring her over,” we say.
Our hearts break anew as her exhausted form appears at our front door with nothing but a teddy bear, a security blanket, a few articles of clothing in a trash bag, and a face full of wide-eyed fear. Her eyes, underscored with dark circles, scan us with the intensity of someone four times her age. She hangs close to the social worker, but isn’t really sure who to trust.
Barely a half hour later, my wife Sue (the “toddler whisperer”) has somehow managed to become her new confidant, but she’ll have nothing to do with me. The next day, her guard comes down long enough for a brief smirk when I make her teddy bear “talk”, but she still keeps her distance. After a short protest, she lets me read her a bedtime story on the third day. A week later, she’s sitting in my lap and giggling as I tickle her. Two weeks later, she’s laughing out loud as I give her a piggy-back ride around the house.
Two months later, the dark circles are gone and she looks much healthier. Until this point, the exploratory mischief of the “terrible twos” was not even on her radar. Now she can press parental buttons with the best of her age group. We feel an odd mixture of impatience and joy as we watch her explore the boundaries of the emotional and behavioral safety fence surrounding our family. Within its confines, she is taking huge gulps of love and security that are purging the fear from her system. She is blossoming into a “normal” two-year-old.
Six months later, she insists on being the one to give thanks before dinner every evening, launching into long prayers about everything and everyone. At their latest meeting, her attorney is flabbergasted by the improvements in her emotional health. Like most parents of a three-year-old, we celebrate her progress with profound satisfaction and offer our own silent prayers of thanksgiving.
But hugs and kisses are the still the exclusive property of her “real” mom and dad. We don’t want to replace them, but we long for more of her affection – for her sake as much as our own. Although her unwillingness to attach is certainly understandable, we want more for her and more from her. We are invested.
We see gradual improvement over time. She’s still not all that affectionate, but she does manage to return most of our hugs with enthusiasm. She is glad to see us each day at pre-school pickup time and even brags to her classmates about us. We offer up more prayers of thanksgiving as her teachers tell us that she is becoming more considerate of the other children with whom she interacts.
A month before she leaves for her adoptive home, we are playing soccer in the back yard. She suddenly stops and says “Rich, I wanna tell you a secret.”
“OK, I’m listening,” I say.
“I need to whisper it,” she says.
So I bend down with a look of earnest anticipation and place my ear next to her mouth.
“I love you,” she whispers.
I am speechless.
Her bumpy journey from fear and suspicion to love and trust was just one of the amazing transitions we were privileged to witness during her stay with us. Arriving as a wary and withdrawn toddler, she left as an outgoing and expressive pre-schooler. Despite its shortcomings, our family was an instrument of positive change in a formative period of a little girl’s life. No, it wasn’t easy, but rarely so are the most meaningful experiences in life. So when the call comes again, we will probably shake off the jitters just as in many times past. We are foster parents.
Of all social institutions, none is more powerful and influential than the family. A little love and stability go a long way in the life of a child in crisis, and at this moment, at least one such child probably lives within a few miles of your home. Take a walk through your home today. If you find an empty bed – or a place to put one – imagine it occupied by a sleepy-eyed foster child who is just waking up to a life of renewed hope.