Rumor warned against becoming foster parents of older children while having younger children. That’s the advice I’d heard for years. Younger children can’t always express their feelings or what’s going on, and sometimes it’s just easier on everyone if the ages of the children in the home either match or you become a foster parent after they have all gotten older.
Sadly, that was my mindset for quite awhile. And with a toddler and two elementary school kids, I stuck pretty firmly with that. But then everything changed with just one phone call.
One Phone Call, One Emergency
My best friend, Cassie, works at DSS, monitoring foster care cases. At times, Lake and I had thought about becoming foster parents. After all, we have this big old house and lots of love. But we had decided to wait until after Celeste, our youngest, was at least a teenager. We had been through the training and certification already, following the just in case protocol we are so fond of, but after we spoke to the other foster parents, we decided to wait. For a time, we believed that families should not take in foster children until after the little ones were old enough to understand. But Cassie called and told us about an emergency situation.
Maxie, a thirteen year old girl, needed a place to stay quickly. Though I can’t go into details about what all had happened to her, suffice it to say that she was in bad condition and needed a home right away. Preferably someone in the same county. “I didn’t want to call you,” Cassie said apologetically. “But you’ve got to understand that if we don’t find a place for Maxie tonight, she’s going to have toâ€¦you know.”
Yeah, I knew where she was going to have to go. And after all that poor girl had been through… As I held the phone to my ear, a thousand thoughts buzzed in my mind. Celeste was still just a baby. She needed full time care. And Devon and Miriam were both old enough to take care of themselves, but how would they feel about having a new sister? And what if something went wrong? Most of the thoughts buzzing in my head werenâ€™t good, and the fact was that I was afraid.
The Final Decision
Even though it was an emergency, I asked Cassie to let me talk to Lake. Together we had to come to a conclusion about this. And after discussing it for over an hour, we decided that Maxie could come stay with us. Despite the challenges, we knew one thing, Maxie needed us now.
Because it was an emergency, most of the formalities passed quickly. When Maxie arrived, she came with her arm in a sling and her gaze on the ground. A thick tension hung in the air. Maxie wore a dirty T-shirt with some faded music group and dingy lounge pants. She kept her lips firmly in a line as if moving her lips might let some of the tears fall out.
After her case worker left, we took Maxie to her room. For a moment, her eyes brightened. The caseworker told us that Maxie hadn’t ever had her own room. She’d always shared it without about four other kids and adults at any given time. Sometimes she hadn’t even had a bed. But that brief look of joy soon faded, and she returned to her stoic expression.
A Silent Hurting Child
Since Maxie was our first foster child, Lake and I weren’t sure what to expect. We knew from the training that it would be difficult. What we hadn’t expected was how awkward it felt. The kids felt the same way. Though they tried to talk to Maxie, Maxie did not want to talk. For the most part, she just wanted to be alone. She seemed convinced that she would only be staying for the weekend, and she wanted as little to with us as possible.
But then, Monday morning came, and surprise to all, Maxie was not able to go home. “The situation hasn’t been resolved yet,” Cassie explained. “Can you keep her for awhile longer?”
“Sureâ€¦” I said, glancing into the kitchen. Maxie sat at the table, slumped over her faded pink backpack. My heart broke for the child. The situation just wasn’t getting any better, and even though Maxie refused to talk, I knew she would be heartbroken. That evening I talked to Lake, and we agreed that something needed to be done. Maxie not only needed to know that she was welcome. She needed to know that she was loved and that we were excited to have her here with us. We needed to make this place feel like home.
Lake and I talked about the matter at length. Even though Cassie and the case worker all said that Maxie was probably only going to stay for another week or two, we both knew otherwise. Something in our guts told us that she would be with us for a long time. And from the little bit that we had gathered, this dear child needed to know that she was loved and wanted. But how could we show her?
“I know what to do!” I said, jumping up. Surprised, Lake looked at me.
“What are you doing to do?” he asked as he leaned back in his chair.
“Let’s redesign the room. It’s still got that guest room feel to it. We’ll make it feel like her room!” As Lake and I pondered this option, we both decided it was the best one.
At that point, I knew only what the caseworker had told me about Maxie. So far, the girl had not shared a single bit of information about herself. So I went into reconnaissance mode. Maxie had arrived with only one backpack and a duffel bag of clothing and belongings to her name. She took the backpack with her to school, and we had already gotten her some of the supplies she needed. But she had not even so much as told us what colors she liked. I was going to have to guess.
Once inside the plain little bedroom we had set aside for her, I started looking around. It looked far too much like a sterile guest room, lacking any personality or identity. A quick look through her few possessions, however, revealed a consistent love of purple unicorns.
The hunt then launched to finding the perfect bedding set. With Maxie’s artistic abilities, I knew that this had to be as close to what she liked as possible or else it would fall short of the mark. I had recently discovered a site called Vision Bedding. It offered custom bedding for all kinds of bedroom linens and accessories. A quick search for unicorns revealed a wide selection that matched Maxie’s preferences. Within a few moments, I found the perfect lavender unicorn with purple background and ordered an entire set. Curtains, bed sheets, comforter, and banner all were different kinds of unicorns in girlish gem tones.
“Please come quickly,” I whispered. And then I pressed “order.”
As if they heard my prayers, Vision Bedding sent the order straight through. It arrived ahead of schedule but fortunately on a day when Maxie was meeting with her counselor. With some help of a few friends at church, we put her new room. We hung curtains, changed the sheets, put out the comforter, and rearranged a few extra knickknacks that I had picked up from a friend who carves fantasy creatures.
When Maxie returned from school, I felt like a child at Christmas. “Maxie,” I said, standing in the hall. “Come see our surprise for you.” Lake had returned by this time, and he hurried up beside me, his neck straining to catch a glimpse. When he looked at me, I smiled and nodded.
Maxie looked at us as if we were creatures from the planet Mars, her eyebrows raised and her posture slumped. But she shuffled toward the bedroom, curiosity pushing her forward. But her face changed the moment she saw the room.
For a moment, she paused, just staring. Then she wandered into the room. Her face puckered up with tears and her voice trembled. “This is for me?” she asked. “You did this?”
The room looked stunning with the silver unicorn dancing across the purple comforter. It was her favorite shade of purple. Leaning over the bed, she touched the printed unicorn muzzle, smiling. “Itâ€™s beautiful.”
“Everything in this room is yours,” I said. “We just want you to know how happy we are to have you here, and that we hope you feel welcome.”
Maxie nodded. For a moment, her lips trembled, but at last, she got out the words, “thank you.”
A Challenging but Good Decision
We’ve had our ups and downs with Maxie. It certainly hasn’t been easy, and the fact of the matter is that the stipend the government gives to help take care of the kids does not cover all of the needs. Celeste, in particular, has taken her time about adjusting, but now, even she latches onto Maxie and enjoys playing with her. It has all been worth it though.
The new space that we created for Maxie was the beginning of a new relationship. While one cannot buy a child’s love and I would never recommend trying, we were able to show her that we cared for her by creating a space that was uniquely hers. It turned out later that one of Maxie’s strongest love languages was gifts. The fact that she was unable to return home grieved her deeply, but that little safe haven and space we made for her in our home was an immense comfort to her.
Lake and I are now taking steps to adopt Maxie formally. That is sure to be another adventure, but most importantly, I am grateful that we did not let our fear rule us. It is not easy being a foster parent while having young children, but it is still possible. And if you can do it, there are many children out there who need you.
Written By: Jade Glass