Last week, I took my preschooler to the clinic for a flu shot. I promised him we’d get yellow popsicles from the grocery store after it was all over.
In the exam room, I held him on my lap as the nurse swabbed his thigh with alcohol and then reached for the syringe. I held his arm tight, and in a moment, it was over and he buried his face in my chest. I rubbed his back.
“All done, buddy. Time for a sticker.”
In the car, I buckled his seat while he processed the experience. “When the nurse poked my leg, I cried,” he said.
“Yes, you did, and you were very brave.” I patted his clipped chest buckle.
He frowned, “No, Mom, I wasn’t brave. I was sad.”
“You can be both brave and sad at the same time, little buddy.”
He looked out the window, thinking it over. Or thinking about popsicles.
Last week I watched my friend’s two sons, ages three and four, overnight while she was out of town for a doctor’s appointment. I thought, No problem. It’ll just be a little more madness than the usual madness, which already borders on maximum madness, so how much worse can it be?
The boys raced around the house like a three-toddler tornado, dunking basketballs into our plastic basketball hoop and pulling cushions off the couch. My one-year-old daughter chased them, laughing. During nap time, while they were supposed to be resting, I overheard giggles from my son’s room and someone shrieking, “Goodnight poop!”
At bedtime, the boys asked when their mom was coming home. I knelt down and pointed to the darkening sky. “Hopefully, tomorrow, but we have to watch the weather.” I know better than to make a weather-dependent promise to toddlers in rural Alaska, where travel is dependent on calm skies and water.
The oldest boy looked out the window at the night sky. His stoic silence filled the room more than the rowdiness of the afternoon. I couldn’t make our bedtime routine fun for him because I didn’t know what his normal was. I’d never been his mom, and no amount of cartoons or chicken nuggets could make me feel like home to him.
I had done my best to prepare the kids for bed with baths and PJs and stories, while my husband, my partner in life, glanced up from the TV long enough to say, “You’re doing a great job, baby.” He’d been gone all day at work, staying later than he needed, telling me he “Didn’t want to be around the madness.” The madness was our family.
I stared at his back, his eyes on the screen. My silence lingered like a fog as I moved to our bedroom to fold laundry in our room. I carried towels and flannel napkins to the kitchen drawers, ducked into the kids’ room once more to comfort and hug and went to our bedroom alone. In my journal, I wrote one short line: I can’t do this alone.
The next day, I dropped my friend’s boys off at their house just as her truck pulled in from the airport. I helped her unload a bag and hopped back in my car, feeling like I should have helped more. I should have stayed long enough to ask how her doctor’s appointment went or offered to keep the kids a little longer so she could settle in. But I had nothing left to give.
While I floundered caring for two extra kids for only one night, our foster care paperwork moved closer to completion in the regional Child Services office. I’d mailed our thick application in an envelope covered in stickers and optimism back in the spring, taken online classes in the summer, and marked our home study on the calendar. Foster care and adoption have been my lifelong dream, but after one night babysitting two sweet boys, I wondered, should it be this hard?
When my husband and I were first dating, eight years ago, I shared with him my wish to adopt. He said he was open to it. I thought this was all I needed: His heart wasn’t locked, so surely it was open. We’d do it together.
In the living room after I dropped off my friends’ kids, I confront my husband about the night before.
“You didn’t help me with the kids at all yesterday. You weren’t even home. How can we be a foster family if you don’t want to be here with me?”
Unspoken, I feel the words from my journal: I can’t do it alone. He moves his eyes from the game on TV to me and sighs.
“Baby, I just don’t like little kids.”
I open my eyes wider but try not to make my face do anything else, to hold the space for him. Tears fall anyway, and my breath catches.
“What does that mean, Babe? Do we never get to foster? Do you even like our kids?”
“Of course. I love our kids. I just can’t add anything extra right now. I’m tired.”
I know what it means to be tired. I was exhausted after just one day with four kids under five. He’s been putting in fourteen-hour days at work, building the business we bought together. We’re on year three of a five-year plan we made together that involved (him) working (a lot) to pay off debt. We chose our life, but I’m impatient. I want a big family, and I want it now.
I tell him I understand saying “not right now” to foster care doesn’t have to mean never. But still, I’m sad. What if “not right now” becomes forever?
He can’t answer this.
I wonder if I should call our licensing social worker and tell her not to bother taking the plane trip to our small town for our home study. Will she read it on my face that I’m not capable? Will she be able to tell my husband isn’t on board? What a fraud we make together.
The words I told my son in the car after his flu shot come back to me: you can be both brave and sad.
I feel deeply, irreversibly unprepared to be a foster parent. But God put this dream on my heart as firmly as he gave my heart to my husband. Why not a different dream or a different husband?
My husband is still looking at the floor. I sense he truly wants to be on board with me, but he can’t get there right now.
One of us is sad, and one of us is brave. I’m worried I have to be the brave one.
I wipe my eyes and reached for my husband’s hand across the couch without saying anything.
In the morning, I don’t cancel our home study.
Maybe that’s as brave as I can be today.
Genny Rietze lives in rural Alaska with her husband, two young kids, and a dozen chickens. She writes in the early hours of the morning, runs a community compost program by day, and knits during bath time. She loves rainy days and coconut coffee creamer. She and her husband recently became licensed foster parents and are waiting, with open hearts and honest conversations, for their first call. You can find her work on her website.