I debated if I would write this because I keep my personal life really personal. But this is one of those things that has provided me with so much change and inspiration in such a short time that it would be inauthentic to brush past it.
I’m approaching 3 months of having my foster son in my home. December 18, 2019 is a date that will be forever etched in my mind and heart. It was the day that everything changed.
I became a licensed foster mother mid-December after a full year of going through the trainings, and got a call for my first placement less than a week later. From that first call, nothing happened how I expected it to.
First, I got a nearly-two-year-old. I’m licensed for up to two, but in my dreamscape of fostering, I thought I’d get a little baby to start out with – grow with the experience, work my way up to loud personalities.
I almost said no. I was so scared to say yes when the call came in.
I saw the number on my phone, an unidentified Arizona number, and I knew right away it was about to happen. He’s almost two, they said. He has emotional issues. He doesn’t self-regulate. He has twos siblings. He needs to be moved immediately. You have 10 minutes to answer yes or no.
That was all the information I was given. I hung up, talked to my husband, and I told him I was scared. He reminded me to let go of my expectations, because we aren’t in this for us, it is for them.
I called them back, said yes, and they told me that he would be dropped off that night. He wasn’t. We waited hours to hear anything and I finally gave in and called the state. They told me they couldn’t find anyone to drive him, and asked if we could make the 3.5 hour drive the next day to get him. We accepted, though now I know we were being manipulated so that the state worker didn’t have to do her job.
The next day was surreal. We drove the distance, stopped for our last meal before becoming parents, and then pulled up to the address we were given. It was an unofficial daycare; aka, someone’s house who had a bunch of kids running wild inside.
We entered the home and their caretaker pointed to a little boy in a high chair. “That’s him,” she said. And within minutes we pulled him out of the chair, walked him outside, gathered two tote bags of his things, and put him in our car.
There was no state worker, licensing worker, or anyone of any official capacity to oversee it. Just us and the daycare worker, both taking each other’s word that this little boy is the one we are supposed to take home with us.
I sat in the back seat, trying to entertain our little boy for 3+ hours in the car. I had no idea what to do or say, how to change a diaper, how to comfort him. I sat in the back seat shaking out of fear.
When we got home, nothing got better. I was so sick with anxiety that for a week straight I barely slept, barely ate, and visibly shook. I hadn’t experienced anxiety like that since working a job I hated over a decade ago. I didn’t expect it. I thought I would fall into the role of mother instantly.
I need to be honest about my experience, because I have the distinct feeling that, like much of the internet, people sugarcoat their real experiences.
I didn’t feel connected to our little boy at all. I had no idea what to do. It felt like someone else’s child had been dumped in my lap. And that was exactly what happened. He was violent toward me – biting, pinching, slapping, kicking me. The first week he was with us he threw a toy truck in my face and my nose started bleeding. I remember entirely breaking down.
That wasn’t the first time. I found myself screaming when I had no idea what else to do or say. I found myself crying without control. I found myself hiding in any moments I could, unable to will myself to do anything but sit on the floor.
That first week my husband and I both got the flu, and it was the worst we had ever experienced. I didn’t know how I would get myself off the sofa, or how I could make it to the doctors appointments we had lined up for him, or how I would feed myself, let alone a baby. For 10 days we existed in this newness, and I hated it.
You read online about how adoptive parents just fall in love with their kids right away, like they’ve always been together. I thought fostering would be the same. Like I would see him and know he’s “mine”. But that is an expectation that cannot happen in foster care. He will never be “mine”. And I knew that – subconsciously, despite trying to tell myself to love him like he’s mine, I didn’t. I wanted him gone, and I hate admitting that.
The new year came and we had just started recovering from the flu. We went through a lot of ups and downs those first two weeks, attempting to get his anger under control, while I attempted to understand my own. I wanted to be a parent for so long, and now that I was, I felt inadequate. I didn’t even like it.
People online kept emailing me to say what an inspiration I am for fostering – how they are just certain I’m an amazing mother. But that wasn’t true, and those emails only served to make me feel more guilty and upset.
I would talk to other parents about expectations of two-year-olds. When I would share about the excessive tantrums and the hitting, they would say it was normal. It made me feel crazy. It wasn’t until a behavior specialist came to our home and told us that his behavior is not at all normal that I started to feel a little bit better – validated, and understood.
With all of that heartache, I started to feel love. We saw little breakthroughs. I started changing his diaper standing up because he was less likely to hit me that way. I started finding places to take him to get his energy out. I started becoming more comfortable with being his mom – carrying him, putting him to sleep, singing to him.
And somewhere in there, I came to love him. It wasn’t instant, and that is important. It is important for the inspiration I’m taking into my art, and it is important because you might one day feel the same thing and feel LESS because of it. You are not. I am not.
After a month I felt like we had a good thing going. I started thinking about the day he would leave us (which, at the time, was going to be very soon, though that fell through) and I started to feel pangs of panic. I didn’t want to lose him. I wanted to see this through, watch him grow.
The state has said they are going to move him twice with no results. We haven’t had a court case yet and everything is up in the air. That’s the hardest part – not knowing. I may receive a call one day that he’s being moved that night – or in a week – or in a month. We just don’t know.
The mental tax that occurs when you constantly live in a state of unknowing – and with no ability to give weight to your opinions – is excruciating. I have no autonomy, though they try to make you feel like you do, at times.
Three months in, and I love him desperately. He also pains me, and is absurdly difficult, but mostly, he’s loving and funny and so, so cute. And he knows it. In the beginning he used to get angry when I brought a book out, and now we read for at least an hour every day. He’s learning to swim. He has some friends at the preschool he attends twice a week. He loves to climb stairs and pet the cats. He runs into his room and climbs up on his giant stuffed teddy bear and asks me to sing to him. Lately, he wants to be held all the time.
We’re still overcoming obstacles, like his food addiction issues – which is not uncommon for neglected children. But we’ve made so much progress the behavior specialist said she can’t believe he is the same child as when he arrived in our home.
And that is the silver lining, that’s why we do this. You can never know the impact you have on someone’s life, not fully. There will come a time that our boy leaves our home and we may never see or hear from him again. We may never know the impact we’ve had. But I don’t doubt that my presence is helping. Even when I fail. Even when I overreact. Even when I do everything wrong and wish I could try again. I’m giving this boy what he needs – safety, love, and a place to grow.
I’ve taken a thousand pictures of him, a hundred videos. Sometimes I wish I could show you his face and tell you more about him and his story, but I can’t, and I wouldn’t anyway. It’s difficult, though, living with this much of my life in secrecy. None of my family have met him yet, but we video chat everyday with my mom, who goes by “Lolly”, and his favorite thing to say is “I love you Lolly”. My family is so on board for this chapter of my life, and that has been heartwarming beyond belief.
The support of my friends has been immense. Boxes of toys and books and blankets and food have made all the difference.
I take him for photo shoots sometimes, and he loves the camera – both taking pictures (which is precarious, but I let him) and being in front of the camera. I wish I could use him in one of my creations, but the risks are too high. My time as a parent is becoming easier. Preschool has helped so I can work, and I’m finding my footing as a multi-passionate mother. I learned to ignore the far-too-many-people who told me that I should be his sole primary caregiver since I “work from home anyway”. I’ve learned how to bang out some amazing work in the span of a nap, or before he wakes up. I’m doing this. And certainly on pre-school days, like this one.
In fact, my naptime, pre-dawn, and preschool day work sessions have resulted in: planning my Promoting Passion convention, starting an inspiration deck of cards, making a fine art book, shipping work off to various galleries, and creating work for my new solo exhibition in May. I’ve managed to make and release 8 new images so far this year. I’ve managed to create 14 total. I thought my life would go on as it was, and largely it is, but with a lot more excellent planning and hard work. And sometimes guilt. And sometimes tears. And sometimes epic joy.
I don’t know how this will impact my art yet. It will – I know that. In a huge way. But I’ve never been someone to create from the chaos of my emotions. I wait until I process it, and one day I will. That day is not today, however, and for now, I hope this update will suffice.
Thank you for your love,
Dave - There’s no parenting manual. It seems like you’re doing your best. That’s all anyone can ask. I think a lot of your reactions are exactly normal and to be expected. Just be as kind to yourself as you would a friend in the same place. Don’t feel like you’re all alone and can’t ask for help. If you need help, ask for it. And do it sooner, rather than later!
I believe in you. It’ll be ok.
Sydney Paige Richardson - So much love to you. Thank you for sharing and being so honest about your journy.
Laura B - I’m so moved by this essay, and proud of you for opening your heart to this little boy who has experienced immeasurable loss. As former foster parents I respect everything you’re going; including your commitment to both your own values and the privacy and well-being of your young dude. WTG Team Brooke Shaden!
Kim standish - You know how to be compassionate. You know how to love. I’m a special education teacher of students with emotional disabilities. I teach middle school. There are many days without answers. They often don’t express themselves in a way that we are familiar with. Most of their behaviors are their way of filling a need. Many don’t have consistent routines or people they can count on. Loving someone and helping them understand that there is someone there to meet their needs is soooo much of their struggle. You know how to love. You are compassionate. He is blessed to have you in his life.
Vincent - It’s a beautiful thing you’re doing!!
Elizabeth Haen - Thank you for sharing what you can and so openly. I have been thinking of you so much these past few months, know that it’s a tough road to walk and knowing that you would find your way through it. Sending continued love as you figure out what the future looks like one day at a time ❤
Margherita Introna - You have been on my mind a lot the last few days as I have been wanting to send you an email. Something you said the other day really touched me and it has been in my heart ever since. But I know I will need some time before I can put my feelings into words… so until then, I just wanted to send you a hug, love and light <3 xx
Nick Cormier - My wife and I did fostering for a year. It was the hardest, yet, more rewarding year of our lives. I feel your words and they bring me back to that year. Sending you lots of love!
Lucas - Brooke – As one of the people who expressed admiration to you, I feel terrible for adding to the anxiety. That said, I cannot help but respect and admire you more for persevering in the face of such circumstances. Parenthood under typical conditions (whatever that means) can be pretty rough. I can relate to many of the questions you raise about the impact you’re having but I cannot imagine the pain of uncertainty you describe nor the heartache brought on by the abstract yet imminent threat of your foster son’s departure.
I’m convinced that no parent is always at their best, and mistakes/overreactions/tears/uncertainty are part of the experience, for better or worse. At least I rarely know what I’m doing. All of that said, the same things that made me express my confidence in your parenting abilities are on display in this post. There is no cliche, platitude, or silver-bullet-wisdom that covers the range of scenarios and emotions that come with the job. I’m sure that’s twice as true as a foster parent. For all of the challenges you describe, I can’t help but zoom out and observe that you’re figuring it all out… a day at a time, and that is praiseworthy parenting.
brookeshaden - Lucas, your friendship and outreach have meant everything to me. I’m so grateful that kind and honest people like you are out there. My boy plays with his monkey everyday and your words have touched me beyond belief.
Anna Bruce - Someday we’ll share a hot beverage and share stories involving guilt and children. My best friend was/is a foster mom. The grueling experiences she went through, I would not wish on anyone. However, what you are doing IS a wonderful thing (not saying this to make you feel guilty in anyway) but it is so hard and there are so many moments that suck and so much unfairness in having little power of say and not knowing when the child might leave. But as you said, you are making a difference in his life and no matter what, I pray that that impact will stay with him all throughout his life. This experience will only make you stronger as a person even if it breaks you first. Even though I am not a close friend, know that you really do have someone to talk to/ vent to/ be listened.
Me Ra Koh - This was so vulnerable to share. And even though you are always so open and vulnerable with us…This is on a different level b/c it is about your ups and downs as a mom.
When our kids are doing well, we feel so proud and able to conquer the world. When our kids are suffering, we second guess everything, pray with urgency, wonder what we missed, what we can do better, how we can love more…even if it means tough love.
The heart of a mother tears you apart holds and holds you together at the same time. It is one of the strongest forces I’ve ever known. It will die for another. It will suffer for another. And it will never stop loving whether that love is returned or not.
You are in this powerful space Brooke. The love of a mother is carving a path through your very soul. Like a slow forming canyon with endless layers of color and depth, it’s path is slowly changing you…for the better…and you will never be the same.
Just like being a working artist, parenting needs community. Reach to the ones who speak life and wisdom to you. Find those who are prayer warriors (you’ve got me as one). And the moment you start feeling like you’re failing, pick up the phone. Over the last 20 years, I have found that is a trap. If darkness, not the good kind of darkness but the bad, can convince you to isolate as a parent, be ashamed, feel guilty, the darkness is winning. But the moment you pick up the phone, send a text that even says “Please pray” and that’s all, not only you but your whole family have a fighting chance again.
Do you know how much I love you?
Gallagher Green - I have had a lot going on, so I am a bit late to the fish fry on this one.
This is why I knew you and your husband would be great parents, not in the TV Braidy Bunch (whom I dislike) or Sound of Music (also dislike) fake bull type of way. But that you two would fight for whatever child came to you two, that you would do anything in your power to help and heal the child.
I knew you would be great parents for these forgotten children, not because you two are perfect (because no one is) but because you are both Warriors!