This story is part of a series. Read Part 1, “Separation,” here. Read Part 2, “Re-Placement,” here.
Homesick. Both the word and the experience presents a complicated challenge for most foster children. Indeed, it has proven to be a challenge to merely try to relate a sense of what homesick looks like from a foster child’s perspective, even with the advantage of having been one.
For most children or young adults temporarily away from home, being homesick is a sensation that disappears when they remember or are assured of when they’ll return. For most foster children, being homesick begins with the tightly-strung tension between the innate desire for connectedness with one’s natural parents and family of origin, and the clear break with that connectedness. Layer on top of that tension a crushing fear that this desire will never be fulfilled, and you have a springboard from which your imagination can jump off and begin the free-fall into a foster care sense of homesickness.
Let’s begin that free-fall with a question: All other things being equal, which nine-year-old foster child likely faces the harder journey: the one whose natural parents are dead or the one who wishes his natural parents were dead? Yes, really. The same child can’t be in both positions simultaneously, of course. So any nine-year-old tossing that question around in his head will have to use his imagination, but not much. At least I didn’t, as I found it easy to reach the same answer each time.
As an adult, I ask why my nine year-old imagination even drifted toward that kind of question. I really didn’t want my parents dead, so why did I even poke at that possibility? Oh, I’m not the only one. Have you ever had a foster child scream at you, “I wish you were dead?” It doesn’t matter that you’re the foster parent doing the right thing. You’re the substitute parent and the blindly hurled anger is called transference. As a foster child, have you ever hurled those words, even if just silently? Think for a minute . . . right, I’m not the only one.
In fantasizing my natural parents were dead, my nine-year-old self was trying to end the free-fall pain of being homesick in foster care. I reasoned that if my parents were dead I had permission to also kill off any hope of reunification. With hope dead, desire would soon follow, and then I would be free of the excruciating pain of that break in connectedness. Because, you understand, in nine-year-old logic, there would be no home to return to and therefore no reason to be homesick. It made perfect sense at the time, and that’s how I discovered that foster care survival skill.
By third grade and my fourth placement, my nine-year-old self could no longer cope with my crushing isolation and insecurity. After months of desperation, I decided to try to beg and bargain with the God I heard of in my first foster home. One winter night, crawling from between a thin blanket and tear-stained pillow, I huddled on the bare floor and earnestly begged and bargained for my family to be reunited. To my unfathomable joy, my family was fully reunited the summer after my sophomore year of high school, although my dad was still drinking and destroying.
Admittedly and to my shame, I soon tried to forget my begging and bargain with God. In fact, I would spend at least the following decade with my back to any notion of a loving or caring God. Only as a young adult, after challenging God in anger, would I start to understand the possibility of that Unseen Hand that reunited our family.
Afterward my hope would be strengthened and my courage kindled to take up the challenge of successfully leading my family back to connectedness. As a child in foster care, I died daily for connectedness. As an adult I found that connectedness with my parents well before my dad died. God proved faithful. Nevertheless, some of my side of that third-grade bargain remains undone.
Does God hold a desperate nine-year-old foster child accountable to homesick begging and a bargain? While you imagine your response, I’ll confess, I do. And that’s okay.
Read Part 4 of this story: Describing.