By Peter Mutabazi. Written by Bonnie Koehn
I always wanted to be a dad. At 25 years old, I thought maybe this would happen in the next five years. By age 35, I understood that I was on a different path. This was OK with me, as I’ve always been hesitant in regard to the traditional rules about how to have a family.
Here’s why: I grew up seeing my mother being treated like a third-class citizen by my father. In my home, abuse was the norm; love and nurturing were not. Having been raised without a good example, I always worried that I might not know how to be the best dad or husband. I knew my life would be different and that I would come to have a family in a non-traditional way.
When I came to the U.S., I realized that even though I was not married and had no children yet, I could still be a dad. That’s when I decided to foster. It is such an incredible honor to open my door and meet a little boy or girl who has never seen me before but is willing to come into my home to find safety. They are often afraid, but they want to be loved while also hoping that one day they’ll go home and receive the same kind of love and safety there.
When I began this journey, I understood that being a foster dad meant I’d be helping kids who need a stable home while their parents worked toward a better life for their children. I saw that my role was to take care of the babies while the parents took care of themselves, and that one day when the parents were ready, I would faithfully give the children back to them. Over time I have come to understand that it is my job not only to foster the children, but to foster the family as a whole.
As a foster parent, you get attached. You love every child, and as your love grows, you wish they could stay forever. You begin to wish that maybe somehow you really could be their dad. But in time, you get a phone call saying that the parents are ready to talk with their child. The calls begin to come more frequently, and sometimes the parents begin to visit. You realize that the chances of adopting this child are close to zero. You’re reminded of your role, and you begin to refocus on the best way to foster this child happily back into their parents’ arms. I’ve learned that the only way to do this is to embrace the parents with the same open heart I offer their children.
When you foster, you love all of your kids as though they’re your own. You feed them, clothe them, teach them. You sit with them through restless sleep and nightmares. You love them through the darkness of trauma. You run to them on days when they’ve been at school and are waiting just to hug you. You see that they find joy in your attachment, while knowing in the back of your mind that you will only be able to love them for a short time.
How do I manage these conflicting emotions? I love my kids in the moment. I accept their trauma and their history and their families. I care for them when they’re in pain and when they’re in laughter. I hold them when their parents don’t show up for a visit. When they wait all night for a phone call from their mom or dad and it doesn’t happen, I tell them it’s going to be OK. I love them so dearly because holding back would be so much less than they deserve. It becomes my daily battle knowing that I will soon have to let a child, and my attachment to them, go.
For the past ten months I have fostered a seven-year-old (he just turned eight). He’s one of a sibling trio. I couldn’t take all three siblings at once, so my best friend, who is also a foster parent, took the girls and I took the boy. Our close proximity means that I’ve been able to provide respite care for the girls and they’ve seen their brother often.
Over the past few months, my foster son visited his parents every weekend in preparation for his return home. Every Friday night I’d say goodbye knowing I would have him back on Sunday. It was always a joy to see him excited to come back to me. He’d tell me what he missed and everything he did with his parents. I loved seeing him happy, but in the back of my mind I thought about how one of those weekends, he wouldn’t be coming back.
As a foster parent you learn about the children’s parents and how their kids ended up in foster care. I don’t ever judge. I understand that anything can happen to anyone. We never know what causes people to make certain decisions. We can’t understand their experiences. My job is not to judge parents, but to help them by caring for their babies. I do everything possible to foster their relationship with their kids while they’re in my care. No matter what the history, it’s always a good thing when parents want to be in their children’s lives.
Last week it was time to take the three children home to their parents for good. It was a difficult week for me, and bittersweet. It’s been such a joy having them in my home, and it was equally heartbreaking to let them go.
When the day arrived, I gathered all of the positivity I could. I went into my room to cry privately at intervals throughout the morning. Eventually I gathered myself, loaded the kids and their belongings into the car, and we began the three-hour drive. As with any family road trip, there were many stops and a few backseat arguments. The kids told me what they were going to do with their parents, and that they were going to miss me. They asked me if I was going to visit them one day. I promised them I would.
When we finally arrived at their house, seeing their parents so happy and excited to see them brought me joy, but also imparted the reality that this was the end of my being a dad to these little ones. They would no longer shout out to me when they were hungry. They would no longer run to me for hugs. As they carried their belongings from the car into their bedrooms, I was happy to see a different life for them, but beneath my smiles, my heart ached.
The kids I have considered my own for the better part of a year will now live differently, eat differently, sleep differently, and live in a different community, but they have a mom and dad who love them. I teared up hearing them asking their parents to fulfill requests that I normally would. But in hearing this I also understood that it was time for me to go. As I drove away the tears came. I felt peace knowing that I had done some good for this family. I hope that our relationship will continue. It is comforting to know that I can call or visit, and that they may even come to my home for a sleepover.
Something about this goodbye has cemented for me that as a foster dad, I am in service to the whole family. I didn’t foster just one child, and his sisters in respite care. By caring for the children while their parents settled, I fostered the future of a family.
Seeing them together again gives me more drive to foster more children, and to continue to build bridges between myself and their parents. Part of loving my foster kids is believing that their parents can recover from difficulty. When I return children that I have loved and nurtured as my own, I have to trust that their parents will be the best they can be. If not, I will always be here, with open arms and heart.