Fact: In the United States over 550,000 children are in foster care. Over 150,000 of them are awaiting adoptive placements.
My foster baby is sleeping. He’s breathing puffy breaths that are slow compared to the rapid beat of his heart. I know its rhythm well, because with
each heartbeat a green light flashes on the monitor that’s connected with wires to electrodes on his chest. My foster baby is tiny in his cotton nightshirt, the wires snaking out beneath it. The light pulses green over and over, and if he stops breathing it will turn red and the monitor will shriek like a smoke alarm. Maybe I’ll have to perform CPR. So far, I’ve only performed CPR on plastic dummies provided by the Red Cross during the refresher courses I take to continue being a certified foster parent.
I think he’s number 16, but I’m not sure. I’ll have to check the ledger where I write down the names of all my foster children, the duration of their stays. This one is with me because of testing positive for methamphetamine during the premature birth. His mother received no prenatal care and was ordered to complete a drug treatment program before he could be returned to her, so for now he lives with us.
My son and daughter accept the comings and goings of my mostly younger foster children as easily as if it’s normal for every family to house a rotating cast of “throwaway” kids: premature babies who need to be hooked up to monitors lest they die in their sleep, children and toddlers who were starved by neglectful parents, abused by relatives, or developmentally delayed due to drugs or alcohol.
Last night was rough. The baby began crying and didn’t stop for two hours, even after being fed and bathed and massaged. I put on a CD of classical music and then one of Mexican lullabies and when those didn’t work I tried reggae. My son said, “I think you should take him to the hospital.”
“You don’t take a baby to the hospital because he’s crying,” I reminded him, adding, “Maybe he’s crying because on some subconscious level he knows his mom rejected him.” I halfway believed myself, and finally when my baby dozed off I hooked him up to the monitor before placing him gently in his bassinet.
To relax, my son and I stayed up late watching old eight millimeter home movies of me in the family I’d grown up with during the ‘60s and ‘70s. My dad has been putting them on videotapes for us. Lying on the sofa I asked my first-born, “How would you rate my appearance as a thirteen-year-old on a scale of one to 10?” Without hesitating he answered “Oh, four or five.” I smiled to myself, not really offended, merely noting how much less important my physical appearance is to me than what I’m doing with my life that gives it shape and purpose—being a foster parent.
We watched the strangely soundless but happy scenes of my youth: me turning somersaults in the backyard wearing paisley bellbottoms, then mischievously pushing my sister off an inflatable chair. I thought of how my foster baby, and many of the other children I’ve fostered for varying lengths of time might never know the easy stability of a permanent home with loving parents. Thought of how I’ve felt occasionally self-righteous but simultaneously humbled being foster parent to children with biological families whose realities I try not to judge: parents too often helpless to fight a system that takes their kids and might never give them back; men and women vulnerable to the ways society still preys on minorities of lower socioeconomic status, causing stress factors that can make it difficult to raise children without instances of abuse or neglect.
Impulsively I asked my son, “How would you rate me on a scale of one to 10 as a foster parent?”
“Eight,” he responded.
Then, before I had a chance to say anything, he added “...teen.”
“Eighteen?” I asked, flattered. “On a scale of one to 10?”
“Yeah,” he said, expressionless, embarrassed to acknowledge his pride in me.
“Wow, thanks, kiddo. That makes me feel really good.”
Just then the foster baby started crying—a jagged, raspy cry, from the bassinet in my bedroom.
Freelance writer Annie Kassof lives in Berkeley with her son and her adopted daughter and foster children. She is certified with A Better Way Foster Family and Adoption Program, which is always recruiting new foster and fost-adopt parents. They can be reached at 601-0203.