Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Whisper Before the Calling

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On the table in front of me is a small plastic container with trinkets, next to a dish filled with bite-sized candy bars. It's dinnertime, and while my stomach is growling, I haven't yet mustered the courage to pull out my salad from the paper bag next to me. Instead, I am overwhelmed by the realization that I am actually here. I stare at the candy, fighting my sugar cravings and wondering if these things are intended to make us feel like the children we will be learning about. I'm uncomfortable in this chair, in this place, under these too-bright lights—all I can think is that perhaps we shouldn't have come.

Since I became a mother 24 years ago, the call to help children in need has followed me everywhere, boring a tiny hole in my motherhood. Eventually, I recognized this feeling as the call to adopt a foster child who was in need of a permanent home. My heart longed for the sweet feeling of providing love to a child who had been suffering, wrapping her wounds with the comfort of my motherhood, and knowing there might be one less child in pain. This unyielding whisper is what led my husband and me to our first foster care class at the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

We are committed to 30 hours of learning in this classroom in order to get our license to foster, a step that is required before we can adopt. The overhead lights are harsh, revealing insecurities that sunlight would illuminate more kindly. There are 30 of us sitting at plastic tables that run in a square around the room, facing each other like elementary school children. Each of us is here to obtain or renew a fostering license. Some will provide children with a temporary home, while others will take in a child whom we will eventually adopt.

Our teacher is standing in front of an easel, going through some of the basics of trauma. That is what we're here to learn—what trauma looks like, how it manifests in a child, and how we can best raise a child who has experienced trauma once he or she is placed with us. It feels instead like we are learning about the terrible things that people do to their children, things I'd rather not have galloping around my head in the early morning hours when I cannot sleep.

Listening to our teacher, my brain lists fears like a menu of warnings, what ifs, and worst cases. I ask myself why I am here—try to materialize the prompting that dragged me from my comfort zone as a parent who is nearly done raising three children. My oldest is married, and he and his wife are living with us while she attends grad school. The middle child is a senior in college pursuing her plans to attend medical school.  The youngest, about to leave for college. I was on the verge of freedom from the intensity of raising children, yet this feeling, this quiet, restless yearning would not relent. The thought of not being entirely done with the business of motherhood, of still having a child in the home, makes me feel hopeful. But, what if the child changes our happy family life, disturbs the peaceful balance we have worked so hard to achieve? This—being here, making the decision to adopt a traumatized child out of foster care—begins to feel bittersweet, like the spinach and strawberry salad waiting in my bag. So much depends upon the bite.

I flip the pages of the large black binder to follow along with the instructor's lesson. The list of homework assignments and due dates inside the front cover brings me back to high school. Most are simple writing exercises, intended to help us examine what fostering will look like and to decide if we really want to make this commitment.

I wonder if anyone else feels overwhelmed. I glance at my husband. He is eating the dinner I packed for him. Then I scan the faces in the room. There is a young couple. He is soft-spoken, and she is bright and enthusiastic. They both participate a lot and seem very warm and real. I think how lucky a child will be to live with them. There are a handful of women my age or older. I learn that they are grandmothers—divorced or widowed. One woman seems as nervous as I am. There are two couples who, like us, are still raising their own children. One man works the entire time on his computer. He chimes in here and there with something funny with the confidence of someone who believes his quest will turn out okay. I wonder if I will ever find that confidence. Another woman's jaw is set as solidly as her mission. She talks about all of the foster children she has already raised.

I can't remember when I first understood this urge to reach out and take in a child in need, to place myself between her and the hurt she didn't deserve to experience. I do know it started after I had my own children. After loving them and being loved by them. Perhaps the strongest prodding came after reading Pictures of Hollis Woods, a middle grade novel, with my daughter who was 13 at the time. The story chronicled the life of a runaway child in and out of foster care, until she was ultimately "adopted" by two loving older women who had found her on the street. I remember thinking how simple it was, how much sense it all made. They had a home; she needed one. There were no forms to complete, no home study, no 30 hours of trauma classes. They just rescued a child in need, and the three of them lived happily ever after. I remember envying the feeling they must have had knowing they had saved a child. I imagined relief hugging the child like a warm blanket.

The pull became stronger as my own kids got older and my time became more free. Perhaps, for a fleeting moment, I saw it as a fairy-tale solution to my ever after. But soon it became much more than that. It became a feeling of personal responsibility to do my small part by parenting at least one of the world's un-parented children. In recent years, as my Christian faith grew stronger, I began to recognize the desire as something I felt directed to by my faith. Because I thought about adopting so often, I came to believe this was a call that God put upon my heart and that I was to answer this call with compassion.

At the same time, as much as I thought about it, I'm not sure I ever actually believed we would do it. The idea seemed outrageous, foreign, like a faraway country in a part of the world I didn't even know existed. Over the years, I've learned that if you think about something often enough, it begins to seem less outrageous and more familiar, the way a new slipper becomes an old one. I wore the idea, a little each day until suddenly, about five years before we signed up for this class, I found the courage to make it a part of my daily attire.

It's funny what happened when, at age 50, clock about to strike midnight on my motherhood, I told friends and relatives of my thoughts to adopt. I hoped someone would see the value in my calling and offer words of encouragement and a promise of support. Idealism descended quickly into reality, however. Friends and relatives didn't see the sense in this endeavor. They told me I'm too old. "Do something for yourself," they said. They asked why I wanted to "ruin" things when I had it "so good." They even questioned my sanity. "Go travel with your husband," they said.

Others said nothing at all. Their silence stabbed me. I lost my footing a bit, and then, just when I was feeling shaken, the typical struggles of life intervened, creating ready-made excuses: my own children got sports injuries, relatives got sick, tragedies almost hit. They were usual life things, but they were sufficient to make us back off. I let the idea fade, and resigned myself that adopting a child in need was never meant to be.

Yet, like a tiny frog resurfacing for air, that need returned a few years later when life's ripples had smoothed. The prompting was silent, invisible, but I could feel it inside someplace where the memories of my own happy childhood were stored. And finally, after sitting behind a family in church on Christmas Eve, watching the little boy look up at his adoptive mother with eyes that poured love, the idea began to burn again in me. My husband, who had initially hesitated because the time didn't seem right, had begun to feel the same calling. He too had grown stronger in his faith and had found the yearning, beneath the endless demands of his medical practice, to raise another child. We agreed that we still had some parenting left in us and that it was what God was asking us to do. The next week we signed up for the DCYF class, and so began this journey.

In class, we've just finished an exercise in which we were asked to close our eyes and imagine that we were taken from our home in the middle of the night and brought to a new home where everyone pretended to be our family. The strangers talked to us like we were their parents. They expected us to understand their family rituals and to know their stories. It gave me this creepy sense of living in a bad dream where you keep asking for help but blank faces stare back at you as if they cannot hear. It also gave me a small window into the feeling a child must have when she is taken from her home in the middle of the night. She doesn't want to leave. She just wants these intruders to leave it all alone, to glue the pieces back just as they were, and to allow her to fix it herself. If she keeps trying, she's sure she can make it better.

The instructor encourages us to open our eyes if at any point the visualization becomes too much for us to handle. What happens if the child opens her eyes, I wonder.

Now, there's a new a depth to my understanding of what we are doing here. So this is not necessarily a rescue, at least from the child's standpoint. In fact, the child often will resent the adoptive mother for replacing her biological one. My stomach flips a bit with this realization.

The man sitting next to me stands up and walks out of the room. I wonder if he has heard enough, whether he too has begun questioning. These children have suffered serious trauma. What we are planning is real-life hard work, and one had better be sure.

I wiggle in my seat, cross my legs the other way, and peek over at my husband to see if he's as terrified as I am. I expect to see his eyes bugged wide, his face looking tired. Instead, he is leaning back in his chair, resting his arms across his chest. When we catch eyes, he reaches for my hand beneath the table and squeezes it tight. Later he says, "I'm ready to take the good with the bad. I know the sacrifice will be worth it."

Uncomfortable with risk, I have always taken the safest path. I'm now learning that inviting someone else's traumatized child into our home is an endeavor fraught with risk. And this is what shocks me most about this moment as I sit in this overly lit room—not only that we are here but that so many others are here as well. So many wonderful couples, young and old, singles and widows, are willing to bear the risk of opening their homes and hearts to a stranger's child. I want to ask them "why?" I want to peer through each one of their windows to understand what brings them here. Then perhaps I will better understand my own "why" and, even more, I can know if I'm in the right place. And that is why I am writing this column—to understand this process—both to describe how we came to do this and how we will navigate the fears and struggles that will surface along the way as my husband and I brace ourselves to become pre-adoptive parents. And, for those who feel they might have just a bit more parenting to give—maybe even help them sort out the calling to take in a child in need.

The student who had left the classroom about 20 minutes ago returned with a hot pizza. Our teacher smiles when she sees him. A few chuckles greet him from around the room as he sits and opens the box. I admire his confidence, and with that, I muster the courage to bring out my spinach and strawberry salad. I crack open the lid and stab the crunchy leaves with my plastic fork. It's not the easiest meal to eat quietly, especially when you're trying to make sure each bite has both spinach and a strawberry in it.

Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published widely. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014) and the founder of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.

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Heather Vrattos is pursuing an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Center of Photography. She is the mother of three boys, and lives in New York City.

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