By Meghan Moravcik Walbert
Illustration by Linda Willis
I make a list of all of the essentials. The things he needs and the things I know he will really want. The things that will help him fall asleep at night. The things he will cry for.
I put the finishing touches on the photo book I will send with him so that hopefully he won’t forget our faces too quickly.
I order yet another copy of Goodnight Moon. This time, it’s a recordable version that will help him remember how our voices sounded as we read to him each night at bedtime.
I will stock him up on size 4 T-shirts and summer pajamas. Maybe a new pair of Crocs. Yet another pair of sunglasses even though I know, I know, he will probably break them in the first week. I will buy him these things in advance to get him set up for next season, which he will spend without me.
I am un-nesting. I am preparing not for the arrival of my child but for his departure.
He’s not my child, though. Not legally. He is my four-year-old foster son, a boy whom I have never had any real claim over, but a child I have fed and hugged and cried over and corrected and laughed with and loved for the better part of the past year.
He’s not mine, but oh, how it feels like he is.
I prepared for him, the little boy we nicknamed BlueJay within the first day we met him. I prepared for him in ways that mirrored the ways in which I prepared for the arrival of my biological son, Ryan, who is now 5 years old.
I decorated BlueJay’s room just as I had prepared Ryan’s room. My husband, Mike, and I made announcements to family. I read parenting books and Google’d endless topics.
I also prepared for him in ways that looked completely different. Foster nesting requires training sessions, invasive questions about your marriage, health assessments and, in our case, four separate background checks.
BlueJay was wanted. Long before I knew he was, in fact, a he. Long before I knew he doesn’t walk, he only runs. Long before I knew about his macaroni and cheese obsession or his fear of fireworks or the way he crosses his arms with an audible HUFF when he’s mad, he was very, very wanted.
I used to sit in his bedroom, back then. Back when my heart swelled in a way that felt strangely familiar to the way my belly swelled as I grew Ryan. I would sit on his bed and imagine it. I would rub my hand back and forth across his quilt and try to picture tucking a child beneath it’s warmth.
I tried to picture it all. Two kids jumping in waves at the ocean’s edge on our annual family vacation. Two kids clad in costume with two pumpkin buckets clasped in tiny gloved hands. Two kids running down the stairs on Christmas morning. Two kids laughing. Two kids yelling. Two kids playing and fighting and making faces at each other over their dinner plates.
I imagined the first hello.
The surreality of it left me breathless.
In the moments when I’m strong enough — or are they the moments when I am the weakest? — I un-imagine it.
I picture the way our house will once again be quieted. The half-empty backseat of my car. One pair of rain boots instead of two. The way our family will no longer fill up an entire booth in a restaurant.
I imagine the last goodbye.
The pain leaves me breathless.
If this were to happen, I had thought back then, we would be fine. Yes, we ultimately wanted to adopt, but we were well aware there are no such guarantees when you foster a child. Reunification with the biological family is almost always the primary goal. It’s an important goal, a goal we fully supported then and still support now.
That’s why we thought if our placement didn’t end in adoption, everything would still be OK.
Sure, it felt at the time like maybe there was a small gap in our family where a fourth person could permanently fit, but the hole wasn’t gaping. We weren’t woefully incomplete. We were a regular family with a happy, typical life that happened to have room for a little bit more. More joy, more love, more noise, more family.
If our foster child reunited with his family, we would simply bask in the warm knowledge that we were able to provide a stable, safe and loving home for him at a time when he needed it the most.
But BlueJay is the giant bell in our lives that can never be un-rung. He’s no longer an idea or a possibility. There is nothing abstract about him anymore. He’s not a category on a sheet of paper or a series of checked boxes indicating who we can – or are willing to – accept.
Now, he’s the loudest, fastest, clumsiest and most hilarious piece of our family puzzle. That piece you might hold up initially and think, “I’m not sure where this fits,” until you fill in everything else first and then suddenly realize you needed that piece all along. The piece that somehow pulls the rest of you together.
After him, you do not simply return to the same old content life of a family of three. He changes you.
I am running out of time. I want to somehow cram a lifetime of parenting into the next few weeks.
I want him to know he should never look in a lady’s purse without asking. Or that he should chew with his mouth closed, then swallow, then speak.
It isn’t polite to point, kiddo. Sit on your bottom. Don’t just look both ways when you cross the street; listen, too.
It’s OK to feel frustrated or angry. Deep breaths will help.
Your words have power, so choose them carefully.
Your choices have consequences, so make the best ones you can.
If you’re sorry, say it. When you say it, look directly into the person’s eyes.
If you love someone, say it. When you say it, look directly into the person’s eyes.
Be kind. To friends and family, to strangers, to the person taking your order at a restaurant.
Be yourself. Be the boy whose favorite color is purple. Be the loudest person in the room. Be the bull in a china shop. These are the things that make you stand out, make you special.
Remember that I always love you. Always. No matter what. No matter where you are or what you’ve done, nothing will ever stop me from loving you. Even when you can’t see me, especially when you can’t see me, I am loving you.
I have no idea how much love and respect and pride I can imprint on him before he leaves. I have no choice but to focus on the things I can control.
So, I make the lists. I will pack up his favorite stuffed puppy dog and his Ninja Turtles bathrobe and his toy guitar. I will type up notes detailing his bedtime routine and his favorite foods for the far-away relatives who will raise him after me. I will give suggestions on what to do when his emotional triggers are tripped or when he regresses and it seems like he truly can’t distinguish blue from orange even though we know he can.
I will tell them, when all else fails, to turn the radio up and let him dance.
Meghan Moravcik Walbert is a freelance writer, a stay-at-home mother to her five-year-old biological son, and a foster parent. She writes about motherhood and foster parenthood from her home in Eastern Pennsylvania, and she is the author of the Foster Parent Diary series on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. More of her writing can be found at phasethreeoflife.com.