There was a two-week period some years ago when I was feeling this overwhelming need to fill a huge void in my life. I wasn’t quite sure what the void in fact was—I just knew that something—something—had to fill it.
I remember that morning as if it were yesterday. My husband Ken was reading the newspaper, drinking his hot and steamy cup of coffee; I was deciding on whether to wear the black short-sleeve tee shirt with slacks, or the white short-sleeve tee shirt with slacks. I chose the white.
I had woken up wanting to have a kid; I was hormonal and lonely and cranky and middle-aged.
I walked out onto our porch, where Ken seemed so calm and peaceful and stood there with my hands ever so firmly planted on my hips and said, or rather announced with great determination, “Yes. I’ve decided, I want to foster a child.” Ken nodded, continued reading the Sports page, and as he sipped his coffee, and then caught a glimpse of me over the rim of the cup.
“Seriously, Ken, I want to be a mother.”
This very conversation was a continuation of the one we had the night before.
Let me just backtrack for a moment.
When Ken and I met there were two things that he never wanted to do again: get married and have a child. He had done both, and that was quite enough for him. I too felt when I first met Ken that marriage was a very iffy commitment. I mean, why? So that when you divorce, all the shit that was yours to begin with now has to get tossed into a legal heap and maybe you won’t get the CDs and the few pieces of furniture you brought to the party to begin with?
But a few months after our first date and that “I’m never getting married again,” lecture, we found ourselves picking out wedding rings and meeting with Unitarian ministers. We chose both within a week.
An Ache That Couldn’t Be Filled
Okay, back to the foster children.
I had this urge, not necessarily to give birth, but to fill what felt like an unyielding emptiness: a need, an ache, this-flu like symptom that didn’t seem to go away. I thought that maybe instead of adopting a child, we could, for lack of better words, rent one. See if it works. I had heard both very good and very awful stories about foster care and fostering children.
I had already been told years earlier that the probability of my birthing a child would be quite difficult.
I knew a couple who had brought a foster child into their home and two weeks later felt like they were being tortured emotionally. I have friends who had huge success at fostering a child, ending up adopting the little girl and another one whose foster child turned out to be the devil doll. But I understood that these children needed to be loved. They needed to be cared for; their place in the world was so fragile, so tentative, so very scary.
I was thick in menopause, and I had already been told years earlier that the probability of my birthing a child would be quite difficult. I had suffered from both endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease—all pointing toward possible infertility.
I stood there and waited for Ken to give me his blessing. “Sure, fine, you wanna do this, go check it out.”
“Wanna come with me?”
“Nah. I’m gonna watch football.” Ken thought, right or wrong, that it was like going to the Bide-a-wee, or the Humane Society. This wasn’t something Ken cared to do, even though he is a very altruistic, kind, loving man. I went to go the Children’s Aid Center to discuss the possibility, “possibility” being the absolute key word, of our becoming foster parents. While highly unlikely, “highly unlikely” being two more key words, I could conceivably come home with a happy loving child who Ken could garden with. Or at the very least, watch football with. I was such an optimistic fool. And somewhere deep inside Ken, or maybe not even so deep, he knew I would not be coming home with a child, not after this round of interviews anyway.
Into the Binder
I went to the Children’s Aid office, where I was greeted with both a lack of enthusiasm and a lot of paperwork—reams and reams of paperwork. I filled out most, called Ken twice (for his Social Security number along with some financial information), and then was led into a small empty room with a scattering of very old People magazines. I, for one, believe any and all public spaces should keep up to date People magazines. This was a cause I will champion in the future; there is nothing worse than old, old news.
A young woman came into the office. She said nothing, but gestured for me to follow her. As I walked out of the room with her, I casually mentioned that they ought to get some up-to-date People magazines. I was then led to another room where the young woman had a desk.
She pulled a binder filled with 30 to 40 photos. Some of the kids took your breath away.
She pulled out a thick binder, slid it across the desk, and motioned for me to open it. There in vivid color were 30 to 40 photos— snapshots, photos, 8 x 10 glossies—of babies, young adults, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, mentally disabled, physically challenged, older, taller, toddlers, and teenagers. Some took your breath away. A sparkle in the eyes, a dimple in the cheek, a turned-up nose, freckles, thick curly hair, missing teeth, a lazy eye, gorgeous skin-tone.
The sadness was palpable.
The joy diminished.
The desperation was obvious.
Then the young woman told me it was a fairly long complicated process that could take weeks and weeks, maybe even a month or two, and, yes—bureaucratic bullshit paperwork—my words, not hers. She didn’t like that I used the word bullshit, I could tell. She continued. A lot of these kids are in homes and are soon to be removed, or have to leave. When I asked why the placements didn’t work out, she responded that there had been a clash, or the kids, you know, had issues. Major, major issues. Or the foster parents had issues. Major, major issues. Sometimes there was no patience or tolerance. Sometimes there were altercations. But they were getting full up, and pretty soon these kids were going to be back to square one. Her words.
I stared out the window, and thought of Ken.
He was probably soaking in a tub, bubble bath and all, watching his beloved Giants, screaming at the TV set, drinking a beer, or glass of Pinot Noir, and enjoying his life completely. Not a care the world. He likes it that way.
Exploring Foster Care: A Shopping Trip?
I had woken up wanting to have a kid; I was hormonal and lonely. Hormonal and lonely and cranky and middle-aged. Not a great combo. I wanted a kid! Stamping my feet, I’m sure, or the equivalent. Instead of going to the Woodbury Common Outlet stores, I went to Child Services. Instead of trying on a pair of shoes, I looked through a binder of children who needed love, a home, and a place that was safe and kind, children who, more than likely, never owned a pair of new shoes, because chances are they were all hand-me-downs.
And that’s when it all came together. The words: hand-me-downs. I wasn’t making a commitment to giving them a life or a future; I was teetering on making a decision to give them a place to live for a month or two, or maybe even less. In other words, they were returnable. I felt so profoundly sad—my heart broke. I didn’t want a child for the rest of their life: I wanted a child to take away my loneliness, my crankiness, and my hormonal imbalance for a month or two. And it dawned on me that I was being completely and utterly selfish.
I told the young woman that I needed some time to think about all of this. I couldn’t be completely truthful with her, honest enough to tell her that I had in fact wasted her time, because that would seem even more selfish. She asked me if I wanted to take the binder home for my husband to look at the photos. I told her no, and she asked, “Does he like catalogs? Because this is just like flipping through a catalog.”
Facing the Void
And that’s when it all came together. The words: hand-me-downs.
I stopped feeling selfish in that moment. I was overcome with emotions by the comparison to a catalog. I know she meant no harm by that remark and I didn’t need to point out what she knew too well. But I think I was speaking more to myself than to her when I said: “These kids … in this catalog, they need love, they need care. They need shoes. They’re not pieces of clothing you pick out, thinking, well if they don’t fit, I can return them.”
When I left, I hugged her goodbye, a good strong hug. Then, as I drove home, I had a moment of clarity—absolute perfect clarity. I didn’t go there to foster a child, I went there to foster my very own spirit. To awaken to my very own life, to live more fully, to love myself better, to love better period. To stop being so selfish, and to stop thinking I have to—in this moment, right now, this very second—fill a void.
Amy Ferris is an author, editor, screenwriter and playwright. She is the editor of the anthology, Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small. Her memoir, Marrying George Clooney, Confessions From A Midlife Crisis was adapted into an Off-Broadway play. She has written for TV, film and magazines.