She came on a Sunday morning.
The call came at 6 am. When I didn’t hear the phone and wake up right away, it came again at 605. Then again at 610, and it would have kept coming, but J woke me up, sweetly, and said my phone had been ringing.
I knew immediately what it was, this call we have been waiting for. At 620 it was official: “It’s go time,” I said to J as I jumped out of bed and went downstairs. We made sure the room, empty and ready since last August was prepared. Nine months it’s been empty: how funny the time we have been waiting is the length of a term pregnancy, almost to the week.
We’d learned about her last week, this teenage girl who would need a safe place to stay for a night or two. She would be an “emergency placement,” the term they give to foster kids who are pulled out of their birth homes suddenly or, as in this case, are already in foster care but for some reason needs a new Foster home. We knew only the basics: name, age, general situation.
As we have for all but two other calls about potential foster kids who might be placed with us, we’d said, “Yes.” We’d had six calls before this: two, for varying reasons, we had to say “No,” to; all the others had been Yeses, but for various reasons they didn’t end up with us, in the end (either because a judge ruled against removal from their home or because a relative stepped up to take the kids).
So many times of deciding, of waiting and being ready. So many months of wondering when we would finally be answering this role we have picked that feels like a calling- feels like the thing we have been put here on earth to do.
She arrived with gratitude and warmth. I’d been expecting a disaffected teen- yet instead we received a beautiful young woman who was gracious and appreciative and open. We spent our first two days spending time on the couch, talking together. We all love music: the first night her beautiful, rich alto voice quietly filled the living room as she sang one of the gospel songs she sings in choir.
We still don’t know if she will stay. She has expressed the desire to stay with us, and we have expressed our desire to have her stay to our social worker. But in the foster care system these things are not so clear-cut: there are meetings to happen, talks with her mother and lawyer and all the workers that surround her and us to unfold. We don’t know when that meeting will happen: we don’t know what the decision will be. I imagine that for any child in Foster care this can be one of the hardest things, but maybe especially for the teens. All these people making decisions for you. She put it succinctly last night at dinner: “This is my life.”
And so we have started toeing, suddenly, along the line of providing a safe, stable, loving home to someone who barely knows us. And vice versa. There are lots of conversations to happen, between us and her, between her and those who make these decisions, between J and me.
Life changes so suddenly. Just last week I was expressing my frustration, our sense of waiting for this calling to happen, to a friend who has walked the adoption road- the sudden call that comes and changes everything. The expectant waiting where you try not to get your hopes up, try not to form expectations and plans of the future because it could always change. All it takes is one decision.
I’ve started cramming on teenagers, reading up in a book about the reality of teens today, their complex emotional outlook, how teenage-hood has changed since we were teens. I want to remember those tumultuous times, prepare as best as possible for the inevitable backlash that can come once she has settled in and the need for independence and stretching of rules kicks in. It will kick in: we know this. It’s a rule of teenage-dom.
Each night J and I have talked before bed. What are the rules she will need in place to stay safe. What are the things she might bulk at. What’s the best way to have this teenage girl who has had so many different types of being parented in the past few years stay safe and protected in this world we live in.
Already there are signs of the conversations to come and the feelings that will have to be ferreted out. Yesterday she casually mentioned a friend who lives close to our house. I answered casually as we walked into the house after I picked her up from school: “You know, we would want to meet your friends before you go hang out with them. Get their parents number at least. You could even hang out here with them the first time. I’d even pick them up if they don’t have a car. J and I would disappear.” J and I had already discussed this possibility the night before.
She’d looked up a bit with surprise: she wasn’t expecting this. “Oh,” she’d said and then walked into her room and closed the door, a different action than the day before when she sat with me at the kitchen table as I tracked down her doctor and made calls.
This morning the follow up conversation on the drive to school, just long enough to talk casually and ask questions but not too long as to trap her in a car with this new adult.
“Yesterday when I mentioned us wanting to meet your friends, it seemed like you were upset.”
A pause as she opens her mouth then closes it. “You know, it’s OK to be upset. It’s OK to disagree with us,” I told her.
“Well,” she answered, “I’ve just never had to do that before. It was just, ‘tell me where you’re going and who you will be with and what time you will be back.'”
Her friends don’t know she’s in the Foster system: she’s never had to tell them before. Her previous foster mom was older, her Grandma she told them.
We are white and she is African American and so she can’t just call us some other part of her family, an aunt and uncle perhaps. That would clearly not be the case.
These are the complexities of a teenager in the system – the very real stuff that matters. It is hard enough to be a teen without so clearly divulging that which makes you so different.
And so tonight, over dinner, we will talk some more: the boundaries and rules we have in mind to keep a teen in our house safe and protected, while still allowing reasonable freedoms for her to become who she is. “This is a democracy,” I’d told her, clarifying in case somewhere in the back of her head she fears a dictatorship. “J and I are the President, but it is a democracy.”
“We’ll talk and figure it out. It’s a team effort.”
Ultimately these are pre-emotive conversations. The adults that surround her may decide she is better somewhere else. She may decide, after hearing our “teen limits,” that the rules might be easier somewhere else. But still, we feel they are conversations worth having, even if ultimately they are for naught.
We are learning as we go, J and I, which I suppose isn’t so different from any other parent. Always at the back of my mind is how to set up fair limits and guidelines while still allowing her the independence a teenager needs. Sometimes it feels like a tight rope, bending under the weight of my thinking.