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“I don’t think I could give them back.”

Those are words I have heard many times. Through my years of fostering, I have come to understand that we are not “giving them back.” We are helping them cross the bridge. 

There’s a lagoon at the heart of the university town where we have raised our children. As a college student, I carried my backpack and my garage sale coffee carafe along the edge of this lagoon on my way to my classes. 

When our first babies were small, we saved our crusts of bread to feed the ducks on our afternoon strolls. We would stand at the bridge, the boys and I, watching the fish as they bubbled to the water’s surface.

In springtime, the babies would follow the mother duck as she swam across the water and under the bridge. There were geese, toooften angry ones that sometimes even spit. They would chase after me as I pushed the stroller with the empty bread bag crumpled in my hand, and it was terrifying. The bridge at the lagoon opens onto a tiny island; some might say that it leads to nowhere.

Foster parenting is not an easy task. More than once, I have been the unsuspecting target of misdirected rage when fear and frustration became too much for a small child to bear. As an adult, it’s hard to make sense of so much of this. For a child, it’s impossibly confusing. It’s scary, much like trying to navigate a bridge with eyes closed. I, too, would be angry.

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As a foster parent, much was out of my handsthe big stuff, anyway. The little things, thougheach tiny step, measured in watching two girls dance together in the grass, in hearing the car sounds made by a little boy playing on the floor with his foster father, in being part of the palpable energy in the courtroom as the judge lets a mother know her child will come homelead us across to the other side.

Had we known one or the other of them would be returning home, would we have cared for them differently? Of course, we wouldn’t have. Still, though, I am happy for the things we didn’t know.

We didn’t know much about what had happened before.

We didn’t know what she thought about all of this.

We didn’t know if the little thingsthe counseling appointments, the school conferences, the times we stood in defense of the unsettling behaviorsreally mattered in the end.

We did know, however, that the times we shared cocoa and marshmallows at the kitchen table, when we watched the dog chase after the new kitten, when the big brother helped the smallest one pull up his socks, when we lined up all the little shoes at the door, mattered more than we could have known at the time

What if we had to “give them back?”

These children are not mine. None of them are, not even the ones I birthed. They belong to a higher power, and of that, I am reminded with each golden pink sunrise and with each silver moon. 

When we signed up to become foster parents, we agreed to take care of the children who came to our home for as long as they were with us. Some have stayed for just a night. Some will stay forever. The goal of fostering is to support families, to be a sturdy bridge during the unthinkable times.

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When we signed up to become foster parents, we signed up for the unknown. We signed up for the nights of lost sleep, for the feelings of inadequacy, for the angry crayon marks on the wall, for the hours spent trying to comfort a child when we had no idea what to say, and for the empty place at the table and in our hearts when the child is no longer with us.

We also signed up to love harder, deeper, and more fiercely than we could ever have imagined.

We signed up to be the bridge between what had been and what was to come. We signed up to take care of these children, to be what they needed us to be in the space of time they were given to us. 

The lagoon was still and quiet on this crisp winter morning. There were no footprints on the freshly fallen snow that covered the bridge in a sparkly blanket. I am reminded of the times I held a sticky hand across the footpath or stopped with a tiny companion to watch a frog hop back into the water. I am reminded of this bridge, and I am grateful. 

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Patty Ihm

Patty is a writer, author, hobby farmer, and mother to many through the child welfare system. She writes Middle-Grade Fiction and Memoir Nonfiction.

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