This two-year-old beats at my leg and I scoop him into my lap. He has spent the last ten minutes indiscriminately throwing objects within reach and screaming drooly screams and thrashing his body to slam cupboards or furniture or whatever will bring an appropriately satisfying crash.

In short, we’ve been riding out a typical two-year-old meltdown. But he’s not a typical two-year-old. He’s a foster kid with zero calming strategies. There is no pulling him back from the ledge he has emotionally stepped off. There is only existing in this space together and being there to hold him once exhaustion turns the tide of tantrum.

He climbs into my lap and I pull him close. I watch my hands stroke his back while I steep annoyed on the inside. Annoyed at him for not getting it yet. Annoyed at his parents for not giving him structure or safety or self-worth. Annoyed at myself for losing patience. Annoyed there is even a need for foster care in the first place.

Dealing with bio parents and social workers and report logs and behaviors wears me down. My heart begins to crust at the edges. Stay soft, heart, I demand. I quit in my mind by 4:00 pm daily, followed by an immediate prayer of renewal. In the midst of the hard I grasp to remember why we started this in the first place.

My hands stroke his back; he looks at me through old tears and a new smile. In the little sentences he works so hard to form, he croaks, “Hi, Jenny. Love you, Mama.”

This brokenly loved two-year-old child has cracked his heart wide open and offers it to me. Surely I can do the same.

I stroke his back. I hold him close. I pray for my heart to melt and his future to form.

I thought I was here to teach him about love, but it seems to be reversed. He deep sighs and sags heavier into my chest. This may not look like much, but this is what healing feels like.

I stroke his back and give it away. All my tired. All my annoyance. All my love. All my hope. I pocket this moment as strength to keep going and as remembrance that sometimes we get to illuminate a little bit brighter than the box of darkness our foster children carry with them.

He is only here for a question-marked length of a meantime. He will not remember this moment or me. But maybe, just maybe, inside our home he will trade a portion of his pain for a fractal of healing.

We chose to bring this box of darkness into our home. We ushered it across our threshold; even bought new sheets and a toddler bed for the child attached to this pain. We are not saints. We are not naive. We know there is only an exhausting, occasionally maddening, rarely simple path ahead as a foster family.

We cannot control his future, but in this moment I can sit with him. I can look into his eyes. I can draw him near. I can receive the push and pull of his tantrums and his snuggles. I can consistently respond to teach him an emotionally healthier way.

I can be the attention he has not received. It is as simple and as difficult as that.

Jenny Leboffe

Jenny lives in San Diego with her husband and five kids. She writes about everyday family life, foster care, adoption, and the spiritual expansion of motherhood at Join her story on Facebook or Instagram