Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Finding My Voice

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Tonight I find myself hoping the next three hours will move more quickly than last week's foster parenting class. I have always dreaded class participation, and still, at 52 and having practiced law for almost 20 years, the thought of participating in a group gives me pause. Tonight, I'm less worried about whether my husband and I will be up to the task of raising a child who has suffered the trauma of losing her parents. No, my main concern is whether I'll have the confidence to raise my hand and participate in class. Committing myself to this path of fostering shakes at my core and leaves me frustrated with myself for my discomfort among these people, all of whom seem genuinely kind and giving. I wonder what it will take to actually get me to share something with my classmates?

The thought of helping a child perhaps.

One of our teachers keeps rolls of stickers on the desk in front of her. Sometimes when a student participates in class, she peels one off and awards it to the student who spoke. Like grade school. "By the end of the ten weeks, you're going to be really pitching hard to collect these stickers," she says. What does she mean? Does the number of participation stickers a student collects somehow correlate to whether or not he or she will be deemed fit to be an adoptive parent? Could it possibly matter? I'm not sure what effect class participation could have on our getting licensed to adopt, so I decide to actively participate tonight just in case.

I grew up a wordless child, hesitant to speak to anyone but my family. It was only after beginning a successful law career and having children that I found the confidence to share my voice. Motherhood will do that—allow one to forget her own struggles and focus on her children's needs. As I grew more experienced as a mother, I became an advocate for my children and eventually even for the children of others, always finding the courage to speak out in private meetings with school administrators, teachers, and coaches. I am not the kind of mom who becomes confrontational in a crowd or who is known to assert my opinions at group meetings. I am that mom who felt so strongly about the negative effects of abusive sports coaches that I would advocate for the children until the coach was replaced. When I learned of a child being bullied, I would speak on his behalf. When a teacher's classroom demeanor was causing undue stress to my young child and his classmates, I would sit with her and make her understand the effect she was having on her students until she agreed to change her ways. My voice became stronger as I gave defense to the defenseless. And, the more words I shared for them, the bolder I grew. But still I have retained some elements of my shyness—at least that part that makes me uncomfortable sharing personal ideas and struggles with a large group.

And so, as I sit in my second Department of Children, Youth and Families class, my voice is reserved. Perhaps it's because what we're doing is still abstract—there are no children here, and the child I will foster is still nameless to me. Perhaps, I have not yet been pushed to speak.

I look around the room now; most of the students have at least one sticker to their name. My husband and I have none. So, when our instructor asks for volunteers to participate in a learning skit, I raise my hand, hoping to dress up my name card a bit. My husband seems surprised. He's not concerned about the sticker threat. He doesn't worry about things like that. He just participates comfortably whenever he has something to say. I counted on him to be the class participator, but so far he hasn't been awarded any stickers.

The instructor chooses me and asks me to get up and walk to the middle of the circle. We are going to role-play an illustrative skit between the biological parent, the adoptive parent, the social worker, and the child. I have been cast as the Adoptive Parent, and as I stand there with a laminated sign hanging from my neck, I feel the eyes of my classmates on me. But, strangely, I don't care. I feel the warmth of being among people who are opening their hearts and their homes to someone else's child. I am safe among these people, and suddenly I don't believe I need to worry.

As I shift my weight between my feet, standing in the center of the tables, I am reminded of the days when we first floated the idea of fostering or adoption to our children. Our children weren't necessarily all on board as they are now. The oldest was very much in favor of us adopting but said, "You'll never do it. You've been talking a lot about this, but I don't believe you'll ever adopt." I thanked him for the vote of confidence and examined my life for inertia and lack of consequence. Strangely, I found neither. Perhaps, I realized later, he was just challenging us to get us moving forward with our plan.

My middle child, my daughter, was away at college during most of our discussions about adopting, and I don't think at first she really had a sense that we were thinking of this seriously. When we finally made her understand that we were, she gave us her seal of approval. "You're going to be great at this," she said.

The youngest was not yet ready to share his position in the family. Birth order is a strong directive, and it didn't surprise me that the youngest child wanted to enjoy being the baby for just a little a while longer. "Am I being selfish to feel this way?" he would ask. But his hesitancy was enough to give me pause.

That was a few years ago. Things happened, as unexpected roadblocks will often form in the way when one is trying to steer firmly in a new direction. Surgeries, illnesses, and other struggles. It was as if my tight bond with my children couldn't be loosened enough to let another child in. But now, after being unraveled by their growing older, the tether is more pliable.

In tonight's skit, the teacher wraps string around me, role-playing the adoptive parent, an older woman role-playing the child, and a gentleman role-playing the biological mother. She circles us, slowly winding the string around the three of us. After we've stood for minutes, feeling awkward in the closeness to each other, our instructor picks up a pair of scissors and snips the portion of the string that runs between the bio parent stand-in and me. When she does this, the entire string—with all of its connections—falls to the ground in a "pick-up-sticks" sort of way.

We are all quiet. Her message is simple. We get it right away.

Before adoption class I thought we were rescuing a child from parents she wanted desperately to get away from and that she'd be so happy to be with a new set of parents who would treat her kindly. I pictured her "aah" moment as we tucked her into her cozy bed in her newly decorated room, read bedtime stories, and then lovingly turned off the light. Now I understand that this child will likely want to be with those people, her real parents, and might not understand why she cannot stay with them. We will not be seen as rescuers at all but as people who must explain why we have kept her from her parents and who must prove that we will never abandon her.

With this string skit we are taught that, if we can form a positive relationship with the other people in the child's circle, she will see that the adults in her life get along. This will hoist her up and give her a chance to trust that we care about her welfare.

It is easy to understand how the people on the foster side can get along: the social worker, the temporary foster parents, and us. After all, we are all working toward what is best for this child. But how do we accept the biological parents—the very people who should have loved this child the most, yet who put her at risk? I can't make that promise yet. I can't know that I will want to allow the biological parents into her life again, even if the state suggests that it's best for the child to continue some connection. Further, I have my own children to protect.  Some of these biological parents with children in the system have done horrible things, and I expect I will never want them around my family.

According to our instructor, sometimes the biological parents will not play any role in the child's life after adoption. They will lose the right of contact for the rest of her childhood. But even then we are taught that we must speak of her biological parents kindly so as not to hurt her further. After all, she loves them and might not completely understand why she cannot be with them. I worry about the type of trauma the child we adopt will have been through, and wonder if I'll have the strength to speak kindly of her biological parents.

I glance at my husband to see his reaction. He smiles and winks at me, and his relaxed demeanor makes me feel alone in my anxiety. How eye-opening to learn that, when I thought I was being unselfish and magnanimous, I was in fact completely disregarding the child's feelings for her own mom. There is no heroic rescue at sea here, at least not from the child's point of view. There is only what needs to be done to help a child, doing our best, and hoping nobody hates us for it. I wonder, as I stand string-less in the circle—is taking in someone else's child more than I bargained for? Is this more than my heart can support?

At the end of the skit we head back to our seats. Our DCYF instructor reaches for her roll of stickers and walks by our table, passing them out to everybody in the room, not just those of us who got up to participate. Funny, I forced myself to play a role in the skit and I don't even get to catch up on my sticker count.

But tiny treasures are found in unusual places. As I lean back against my seat and as my stomach settles, I feel a bit more confident in our decision to adopt. By simply getting up in front of the class, maybe I allowed myself to see what I'm willing to do for this mission, how I won't let the little things stand in my way of helping a child. That feeling of advocating for the voiceless begins to fill me up again. Perhaps I'm less afraid of taking risks than I had thought. Perhaps my voice has grown even stronger than I knew.

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.

Julianne, the "string" lesson is certainly interesting. It's so important to consider our children's birth parents (some prefer the use of the term "first parents") with love and gratitude, whether we ever know them or not—and even whether our children want to continue a relationship with them or not. It's a simple matter to set our minds toward genuine appreciation of our children's original parents, and it's not much of a leap from longing to nurture a child, to caring enough to feel empathy for the adults who brought that child into the world. As for how to help our children deal with their own past story, that flows naturally from knowing and listening to them. Relax! You've already learned how to do that, and you'll be fine.
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