May is National Foster Care Month! Greg and Kimberly Henkel will be giving a talk about their experience fostering to adopt during the Springs in the Desert virtual retreat on May 8-10, 2020. Please tune in for their talk and continue to check back here for more resources that will be coming soon!
Posted on by Kimberly Henkel, PhD
We are raised with the tacit assumption that motherhood naturally and easily follows marriage (Recall the childhood adage, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby…”). And for many it does. But for those of us who struggle with infertility, the delay or complete absence of children can bring about a crisis of faith: “Why is God withholding this most beautiful gift from us—the very ability to co-create new life with Him?” When it became apparent that I was unlikely to become a mother the old-fashioned way, I began to pray that God would enlarge my heart to embrace the plan for motherhood that He had for me. My husband was reticent to go the adoption route at first, but we finally agreed to go ahead and get our home study done through the county foster care system. And in the midst of that training we learned of the crisis of children in foster care.
Saint James (1:27) says religion “that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The children in foster care are truly our country’s modern day orphans. While I had always thought I would be open to adopting children, I had never considered fostering. It seemed too messy, too unpredictable, too possibly devastating if the children a.) returned to their birthmother and/or birthfather after my husband and I had bonded with them and b.) were to go back into a dangerous situation. I am a serious control freak. How could I possibly sign up for something so incomprehensibly beyond my control? I knew that it was going to take some serious grace to walk this path.
My husband and I waited two years for our first phone call to foster. At this point, we still had no children. Because the agency knew of our desire to adopt, they only called us for children who would likely end up adoptable. But there was certainly no guarantee for us. My biggest fear was, “How could I become a first time mother with the possibility of my child leaving me? Could I handle going from being a mother to no longer being a mother?” However, when we got that call for our sweet Anthony, suddenly it was no longer about me being a mother or not. It was about this child who needed a mother now. No longer was this a theoretical question. Suddenly I was face to face with the reality of this particular child who needed me and my husband. And we unhesitatingly said, “YES!”
We celebrated the birth and coming home of Anthony with all the usual fanfare of a new baby coming home. My mother immediately drove up and stayed with us to help that first week. My sister flew in with all of the requisite baby items that I was without. My husband’s brothers, our sisters-in-law and all of their children descended upon our home to celebrate this sweet baby boy—all as it should be. It was remarkable timing. Because we had been childless for so long and desiring new life, we had bred our beloved goldendoodle who had given birth to nine puppies. And when we got the call for Anthony, those puppies were six weeks old. So our home was brimming with new life at last! It was a blessed time and God’s grace and goodness was strongly felt in our home.
When our sweet Anthony was only four days old, I had to pack him up in the car in subzero weather to have his first visit with his birthmother. I thought it would kill me to give him away so soon. I sat in a coffee shop during the two hour visit and pondered how I could continue to give this child to God. He wasn’t mine. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that none of our children are really ours. They all belong to God. And I began to get a glimpse of the painful process of letting go that all mothers must eventually endure. Whether it’s the mother who loses her child to miscarriage or the one whose child turns his back on her love or the one who eventually leaves to start his own life and seemingly has no use for his mother anymore, there is always bound to be suffering in letting our children go.
As I would rock our sweet Anthony to sleep at night, I would sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” But I cannot overemphasize the grace I experienced during this time of great uncertainty. God was with us. A profound sense of peace had settled into my heart, and I knew that God was protecting me and would heal me if Anthony left. All I knew was that this child needed me. I was his mother for now and for as long as God willed it.
Our story has a happy ending (for us). We were able to keep our sweet Anthony. But that also means that Anthony’s birthmother was unable to keep him. And it does not escape my heart that she herself suffered and likely continues to suffer greatly at the loss of her child. Fostering is hard because it brings us face to face with intense brokenness, loss and the dear children at the very center of it all who most need our love and protection. We currently have our second foster child and once again I feel a tremendous joy and grace in being his foster mother. The grace is almost palpable, and I am absolutely certain this baby is meant to be with us for now. I have no idea how long he will stay, but I will love him with my entire heart and mother him as he deserves. If he leaves, I trust our good and loving God to watch over and guide this sweet boy (and heal our aching hearts). And I know we will have forever impacted this sweet boy’s life by giving him everything he needed as a baby.
Fostering opens our hearts to help bring healing to a very broken situation. And it has given me and so many other women the opportunity to become a mother. There is such dire need for foster parents at this time in our country that I want to especially encourage those who long to be parents to consider it. I cannot overestimate the unanticipated grace that God provides to those who choose this path that is truly God’s work.
The Unexpected Gift of Brokenness
Posted on by Kimberly Henkel, PhD
As I was dropping off my 4-month-old foster son with his birthmother for his bi-weekly visit, I was taken aback by her hesitant and humble request: “Would you stay with me for the visit? He’s so much happier with you here.” While I had been eagerly anticipating spending that time in what had become my ritual during these visits at a local coffee shop enjoying my morning coffee with the rare indulgence of a chocolate chip cookie, I sensed the Holy Spirit prompting me to stay. Although I had really been looking forward to that time alone all week, I realized her request was ultimately an invitation from the Lord to “keep watch with Him” by being with and loving this woman in her suffering.
How difficult it must have been for her to ask me to stay. The precarious nature of the relationship between a birthmother and a foster mother is such that it would be easy to feel antagonistic towards one another—each wanting what the other has instead of desiring the best for one another. This is the constant temptation with foster care because it is easy to think that a child would be better if he stayed with the foster family instead of going back with his birth family. And for some children this is certainly the case. But many times, the birth families do not have good support networks or parenting skills, and they may be struggling with toxic relationships and addictions, and having their children in foster care can give them the time (and motivation) they need to turn things around. What a gift to a birth family to first love their child as your own and secondly to be a support to them! What an amazing opportunity to share God’s love and mercy by spiritually mothering a birth mother who has been deemed unfit to mother her own child.
Through tears our foster baby’s mother said she needed to ask me a hard question. If the state takes her baby away, would we please adopt him? I reassured her of our love for her son and that we would unhesitatingly adopt him, but I also told her that we loved her, too, and wanted the best for her. I told her that God not only put her child, but also her in our lives for a reason. Our family has been praying so much for her and we have been so blessed caring for her son, that it is easy to feel deeply connected to her. As she broke down and wept before me, she spoke of the regrets in her life. I spoke of my own regrets and weaknesses but told her of the mercy of God who generously forgives us and gives us hope for a new life.
Sitting there with her, I felt I was face to face with the brokenness of Christ on the Cross. While I empathized with her pain over not being able to care for her child, I told her how blessed she was to have been able to have children, a privilege I was unable to share. She expressed how sad it made her to think I could not carry a child, but then she reassured, “But God had a plan for you.” And it suddenly occurred to me that God had graciously brought us together through our brokenness to bring comfort to one another. Here I was, a physically “broken” woman suffering from an inability to conceive children with a spiritually “broken” woman suffering from the loss of her child to foster care. Out of the brokenness we suffered over our motherhood, we were able to speak words of hope and healing to each other.
If we are able to look with the eyes of faith, perhaps we can begin to see our brokenness as a gift that enables us to connect with each other. When we approach one another from a position of vulnerability rather than superiority, our brokenness opens a way for solidarity. As Christ says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It was Christ on the Cross who in His brokenness brought new life to a broken world. Particularly in this season of Lent, let us gain strength from meditating on His Passion, recognizing how the Lord uses our failures, hurts, disappointments, and struggles to lead us to Him, the true Source of hope and healing. In this way, we can ask the Lord to use our sufferings and brokenness to help bring that same hope and healing to so many others who suffer.