Recently I was asked if I could give one piece of advice to a new foster/adoptive parent, what would it be? Immediately, I knew what I would say. I wanted to share that with all of you, also.
It was cold the night they came to our house. Probably in the low 40s, which is cold for here.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
We had waited for what seemed like forever since they called to tell us they were coming. In what was actually about 7 hours from the time they called to the time they came, our closest friends helped us transform a drab guest room into a room fit for a sibling group of 3. They were boys. The oldest one was 4. The youngest had just turned 2. Other than their names, that was all we knew.
Months prior to their arrival we had taken all the classes. We had all the certifications. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we were prepared. All of our bases were covered. We knew CPR, we had clear backgrounds, our training classes had prepared us for things.
At 11:15 the phone rang and the case workers told me they were about 15 minutes away. We looked at each other and I don’t think we said anything, but we knew that our life as we knew it—with a 2 year old son and a 9 year old girl—was about to change forever. We were ready. We prayed for this day. With all of the circumstances that led up to this moment, we knew it was straight from the Lord. But still, we took a deep breath and held hands as we listened for the car.
When they pulled up, my husband kissed my forehead before we opened the door. “Here we go. Let’s do this.” I thought.
I did a speed walk to that car. I was so eager to meet my boys. I’ll never forget their sweet little faces, all sound asleep in their car seats. I looked at the social worker, unsure of what I should do next. She just smiled and told me I could take them out, that it would be okay. I noticed their tattered clothes… one in overalls, one in shiny black boots, and one in too small pajamas. Their belongings were in a trash bag. We came inside and sat on the couch for a little while. In that moment, my excitement took a very quick trip to the back of my mind. These boys… they were so scared. My heart felt nothing but brokenness because I could see the pain and confusion all over their precious faces. They matched my longing for them to be here with their longing to go home.
I struggled for words, but tried my best to hold them all as close as I could.
After a few minutes of trying to take it in and listening to their workers talk, I remembered that we had a playroom. I suggested that we go sit in there and talk. It was there that their little eyes first made contact with mine. C, the oldest, said his first words to me in there — about a toy Elmo that sang. He said, “J likes him. Can he play with him?” That’s just like him; he’s the one that takes care of everyone.
While we were playing, the social workers slipped out of the door and they were gone. There we were. It was midnight now. These boys were hungry. So I cut up some strawberries and bananas, and we shared them and talked a little. I don’t remember what time we finally got them to sleep, but the next morning they were up with the sun.
That next day and the days to come were full of questions… heavy, hard questions.
I answered them the best that I could, but didn’t know the right words.
I felt so inadequate.
As the days passed, I realized that perhaps this wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be. My boys carried a lifetime of hurt and pain around. I felt helpless. I wanted so badly for them to know that in this place they were safe, cared for, loved, and accepted. I would smile at my friends and laugh when they called to check in and then cry in my husband’s arms all night. This was hard stuff, y’all. It was stuff that no training could prepare you for. Don’t get me wrong, there were all kinds of things that I knew how to handle. The training classes and my own personal life experience came in handy, for sure.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the biggest thing missing in their lives was trust. They don’t teach you about this in IMPACT training. They don’t prepare you on how to answer questions or deal with behaviors that stem from the fact that every promise that had ever been made to these boys had been broken. We had our work cut out for us. We knew we had to earn the trust of these precious boys…and that it wasn’t going to be easy.
We started small. We made little promises and no matter what happened, we kept them. Every morning we would tell them something that we were going to do that day and something that we were going to do the next day. They needed to know that their tomorrow would be with us. If we told them that after lunch we were going to the park—then rain or shine, we went to the park. If we said that we were going to have hamburgers for dinner, then no matter what—we did. Every time we kept a commitment (no matter how big or small) we would point it out. “See, we said we were coming to the park! Here we are!” “Remember when we said we were having hamburgers for dinner? Look! We’re having hamburgers!” It seems silly, but I believe that these small realizations made all of the difference in our house.
It took a little bit of time and a lot of commitments that we wished we could have gone back on. Like the one time we said we would get ice cream after a game…and the game wasn’t over until 10 and it was raining, and we had to get the ice cream anyway. Eventually, they began to take us at our word.
Once we realized that they were truly ours forever, we began to make bigger promises that were longer down the road.
We would make weekend plans and keep them. We made plans for trips. We would make plans for Halloween and Christmas and birthdays. Once they trusted our small commitments, they knew that we would keep our long-term commitments. They began to doubt us less and trust us more.
Promise keeping helped them feel safe.
For us, Promise keeping changed everything.
That time in our lives was scary. More for them, undoubtedly, than for us. But, we all learned such an important lesson. It didn’t come easily and there were some bumps, for sure. But, here it is:
It doesn’t matter what you have or what you know… if you don’t have your word, then nothing else matters. It seems simple, but it’s really not as easy as it sounds. And here in our house, even now, it has made all the difference.