One of the best life decisions I’ve ever made was to marry a man who’s a far better human being than I. So it should have come as no surprise that when my husband and I became instant foster parents three years ago to our then-1-year-old niece, he took to parenting like a champ as I struggled, stumbled, and fumbled in the beginning.
While I’d always known my husband was a patient, loving, generous man who’d overcome an alcoholic and abusive father who died in front of him at the age of 12 and was then shuttled to live with his emotionally-absent mom and her new family until he escaped to college at 18, watching him instantly adapt to parenting took my breath away. After all, here’s a man who on our second date practically high fived me when I told him No babies. And yet, the moment we got the phone call from his mother on one of our Sexy Sundays - a day devoted to sleeping, snuggling, and other adult-friendly activities - hysterically telling us that his sister and her baby daddy had been arrested, our niece thrust into the foster care system, my husband instantly stepped up.
While we both immediately agreed that we’d step in as foster parents, it didn’t occur to me until later how bringing a child into our home would profoundly change our DINK (Dual Income No Kids) By Design lives.
Parents of the world, feel free to laugh at my naïveté. I do now.
Most parents-to-be have nine months to prepare for a baby. My husband and I had just nine days. The moments between a family court judge making us temporary full time guardians to getting the call from our case worker to pick up our niece from foster care were a complete blur. In between, we moved my husband out of his home office and into the living room, filling his former office with all the baby necessities - a crib, changing table, toys, clothes. We reached out to our friends with kids in our neighborhood to explore child care options. We communicated with our clients that our business schedules might be in flux before settling back into a rhythm of normalcy (ha!).
And while we baby proofed our homes, cars, and lives, the one thing we overlooked - and ultimately discovered needed the most baby proofing - was ME.
From the moment my niece arrived in our home, my husband cooked, cleaned, changed diapers, bathed, dressed, and doted on her like it was the most natural thing in the world. He actually seemed to relish his new role as a doting dad.
And from Day 1, my niece loved him for it. Kids are remarkable that way. They see and mirror back to you exactly who you are and how you show up for them. So it goes without saying that what my then-13-month-old niece mirrored back to me was resistance and frustration because I was, well, resentful and frustrated.
At 40, my reasons for not wanting children were many. There were the financial burdens. The lack of sleep. The loss of your sex life. The messy house. The potential disagreements between parents about how to raise and nurture a child. The desire to have my husband’s undivided attention.
Were these reasons selfish? Sure. But they were mine. And like any good DINK, I was dedicated to them. And while I understood that this child’s needs trumped mine, that didn’t mean I wasn’t resentful that without warning, my life had completely changed. The personal and creative freedom I once coveted? Gone. Sleeping in on weekends? Gone. My sex life? Freakin’ checked into the witness protection program. As for the financial abundance of being child-free? I suddenly found myself financially responsible for diapers and day care, a nanny and nursery toys.
Couple these personal freedom losses with my own feelings of inferiority about how well I was handling my instant immersion into the deep end of the parenting pool, and I woke up every morning and went to bed every evening feeling more like an Imposter Mom than a Foster Mom.
Not only did I struggle with my own role as Foster Mom to a child. I struggled in my relationship with my sister-in-law. Given her own rocky relationship with my mother-in-law, I never expected that my sister-in-law would outright tell us that she wished her own mother was raising her child instead of us. That broke my heart. And out of respect to her, I spent those first few months feeling the need to firmly and vocally establish on a daily basis that THIS. WAS. NOT. MY. BABY.
In putting up these emotional barriers and boundaries, my relationship with my niece sputtered and stalled. Whereas she always reached out for my husband, running after him whenever he left the room, and calling his name whenever he left the house, in those first few months with us, she never said my name.
And then one Sunday afternoon – five months into our New Normal as Foster Parents – my husband and I went to pick up our niece from a supervised visit with her mother who was living with my mother-in-law while on house arrest.
I clearly remember walking through the front door, my husband and I. I remember my niece looking up, her face lighting up. I remember her running to my husband, jumping into his arms, and staring at him lovingly while she placed her little hands on each side of his face and tilted her own face back and forth as she sweetly whispered his name over and over again. I remember the look of pure unconditional love that ran between them.
And I remember thinking, “I’m not having that same experience. And that’s MY fault.”
There’s nothing more humbling than taking a long, hard look in the mirror and owning up to the simple truth that YOU are the problem in any given situation. As painful as it can be to see yourself in the way, it’s also freeing because it means you now have the opportunity to step aside and allow a healing to take place.
That night, after my niece was sleeping peacefully, I went to my husband.
“I’m not having the same experience you’re having. And if I don’t change, I’ll miss out. Show me how to do what you do.”
In that quiet moment, my amazing husband kissed me, and said, “Babe, I’ve loved a lot of troubled women in my life. And I’ve learned how to love them even when they can’t love themselves.”
It was a simple statement, but I got it. In the past, whenever my niece tantrumed, I walked away. Whenever she fussed, I put up a wall. Whenever she pulled anything remotely resembling a DIVA act (my perception, not reality), I did my best to out-diva her. After all, DIDN’T. SHE. KNOW. WHO. I. WAS?
The answer was no. As long as I behaved this way, she didn’t know who I was. Because I wasn’t allowing her to see or experience me as a loving Foster Mom.
The next day, I shifted my behavior. When she cried, I held the space for her to move through her emotions. When she threw a tantrum, I patiently waited for her to be done. And when she resisted me, I didn’t push back with resistance.
Within 48 hours, she began running around the house, lovingly calling MY name. In that instant, our relationship forever changed. And I am forever a better woman for having done the work to receive the beautiful reward that is her unconditional love.
After ten months in our care, my husband and I got the call we’d been expecting. It was our case worker telling us our niece was now free to go live with her mom. And while we both breathed a sigh of relief, excited about the many DINK lifestyle benefits we’d once again enjoy, there was an ache in our heart, too. Sure, we were getting our old lives back. But we were not those same DINKs. A child had entered our lives and hearts. And we were forever changed because of it.
Today, my husband and I are lucky enough to spend Saturdays with our now-4-year-old niece. This isn’t something we asked for. Nor is it something my sister-in-law was particularly thrilled with in the beginning. But my sweet, smart, fun, funny, beautiful niece asks for it. And her mother honors the request. And because of it, our relationship with my sister-in-law is healing.
And while my niece and my husband still have their unbreakable bond, she and I now have a bond of our own. She may look to my husband for snuggles, shoulder rides, cooking lessons, and to clean her ears and clip her nails, she looks to me to play Barbies, dance like nobody’s watching, express ourselves fully and loudly, and to brush her hair after bath time. Loving and coparenting this child is an extraordinary experience that humbles me to my core. I am beyond blessed to have the opportunity, and a better woman for it.
In hindsight, I recognize how lucky I am to have a husband who’s able to roll with whatever punches life throws at him, and re-balance himself with ease. I also see that had my husband taken MY approach to instant foster parenting, not only would my niece have missed out on experiencing the unconditional love of a good man (and eventually a good Imposter Mom), but our marriage may have crumbled under the weight of two Imposter Parents.