What the social worker said:

It will be okay, Bobby. These are nice people, and they have a room all special just for you. What do you have to be worried about? I’ll only be a phone call away, and I’ll see you next week. I know this is hard, but you can handle it and it will be better than getting abused like you did in your last home. You just try to stop crying and put on a happy face so we can get out of the car and go meet your new foster mom. Don’t be scared. Here, wipe your nose. Okay, ready?

What the new foster mom said: “Hi Bobby! Welcome to your new home!”

What Bobby said: “Hi.”

What Bobby didn’t say:

I don’t know anything. And I don’t know these people. My new underwear is too small, my ear hurts, and I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m scared. What if we sit down to eat dinner and I don’t like anything she fixes? What if her other kids think I’m a freak? What if the dog bites me? What if I have to go to the bathroom and I don’t know where it is? What if I have a nightmare? What if they send me back? What if I don’t know anything at my new grade? What if the teacher doesn’t like me? What if the kids find out I’m in a foster home? You’re never going to be my “real mom.” I’m just a kid; why is this happening to me? I’m so afraid.

What the foster mom didn’t say:

I don’t have a clue how to help this child. He is so little and so hurt. I want to just put my arms around him and tell him it will be all right, but he has probably heard that before. After all my training and classes and experience in mothering, it really feels like I don’t know anything at all. When I look in his eyes, I am ashamed to be in the same league of motherhood that his “real” mother belongs to. When I read what has happened to this sweet child it makes my heart ache. Clean sheets and towels aren’t even the beginning of what this child needs to survive. His mouth is smiling, but his eyes are telling me he’s afraid. He’s the reason I’ve stayed home from work. He’s the reason I went to all those classes. He’s the reason we have an extra bedroom. He’s the reason we decided to open our hearts and our home. He’s the reason I can’t sleep at night. The Motherhood League. What kind of players are playing on that team? Did they draft someone who wasn’t quite qualified this year? Someone who will never hit a home run but will hit a child? Well, I can go to bat for this little guy. He’s mine now, and I’ll steal a base and whatever else he needs to get him back on the team and heading for home plate. I can only do my best. I just hope it’s good enough. I’ll never be his “real mom,” I know that. She will be the ghost in the room every time I tell him “No.” She will turn into this perfect mother who does everything right, while I am the mother who is here every day and every night, fighting her battles, and taking the blame.

He doesn’t know this yet, but “real” is there when he has a nightmare. “Real” is there when he goes out for the soccer team. “Real” is there when he has his first date. “Real” is there when he gets his report card. “Real” is there when he falls off his bike and needs a hug and a Band-Aid. “Real” fixes nice hot meals and tucks kids in bed. “Real” doesn’t hit kids. But your real mom hit you. No wonder he’s afraid. I’m afraid too. Starting over and over again with a new child, whether you plan to foster or adopt, can be like learning to ride a bike over and over again. You’re going to skin your knees. You’re going to fall off. You’re going to make mistakes. But you just have to keep trying for the sake of the children. You have the tools, you have the love, you have the desire, you have the patience. Well, most of the time you have the patience. You have a lap, you have a supportive family, and you have the training. So you just do it. You take this child by the hand, if he will let you. You show him where the bathroom is because you know he will wonder and will be afraid to ask. You show him his new bedroom and help him unpack. You will notice, for the fourth time since beginning foster care, that he doesn’t have any clothes that are appropriate for a kid who is loved, but they are very appropriate for a little throw away child. You make a note, as you have for all the ones who came before him, to go on a shopping spree, which he no doubt has never done. And some people actually do this for money? What a laugh. You tell him that he is special and because of that, you want to know what he would like for dinner. He tells you and you fix it together. You do most of the talking and he does the listening, evaluating, wondering, questioning. He says a few things, gives you a few hints. And you find out of course, that his “real mother” doesn’t do it this way or that way. Good for her. You say, “Well, you want to know a secret?” And like all kids he says “Sure!” and you tell him that one of your biggest jobs is to teach him that there are lots of different ways to raise a kid. And even though you aren’t his real mom, you have some really great ideas and you bet you and he are going to have lots of fun discovering what they are! He smiles, probably wondering if you’re going to like what his “real mom” liked the best: hitting him whenever something went wrong. You see he is wondering, and you say … “The best thing of all about how I raise kids is: I don’t hit and I don’t yell. Not ever. Not once. And that’s a promise.” And so you tentatively start, together. Oh, there will be times when you will question your sanity, when you will cry, when you will call the therapist or social worker and say, “Forget it, I give up,” but you won’t. Not in the long run. You might be his last chance, and he needs you. And in a way you don’t even realize, you need him. You’re a mother and he’s your child now, for however long that may be. He doesn’t look like you, and he doesn’t have your last name, but he’s still yours. It’s your job to do your best. To love him and teach him and help him get re-directed so that he can function as a healthy adult and learn to trust and be whole again. And when the phone rings again, and the social worker brings you another child, with no clothes that are appropriate and tennis shoes that are to small … you’ll start again. Why? Just because, that’s why.