Motherhood

My Foster Daughter’s First Birthday

foster child and mother

Eric stopped the car at the end of the street, two houses away from the address I’d plugged into the GPS. It was our foster daughter’s first birthday…

“I’m sorry I can’t go in with you,” he said. I understood. Our grief looked different.

He had photographs of Coco taped to his closet wall. He stored the last outfit she’d worn at our house inside a plastic bag. He kept in a bowl on his dresser the pit from the avocado he’d fed her on her last day with us. But he didn’t want to see Coco again until a social worker called to tell us we could bring her home. He couldn’t. Too much. Too painful.

All I wanted was to see her.

We had picked Coco up from the hospital when she was three days old. She lived with us for ten months. Then social workers determined that she could reunify with her birth mother, Evelyn. Now Evelyn and Coco lived in Twin Falls, Idaho, a city 70 miles south of our small mountain town.

I’d only seen Coco once since the day we gave her back. Evelyn asked if I could pick Coco up from daycare, drive her to Evelyn’s house, and wait with her until Evelyn got home from work late that night.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Eric said.

“I’m doing it,” I said.

I drove to the daycare center. The woman at the front desk called Evelyn to confirm I was who I said I was, to make sure I had permission to take Coco home. Another woman led me to a small room. Coco was asleep in a crib. I hadn’t seen her for four weeks. Her hair was longer, curly. Her body was longer, too, more toddler than baby. Beautiful. I picked her up, held her sleepy weight against my chest, carried her to the car. When I was buckling her into the car seat, she woke up. We looked at each other. I don’t think she recognized me. But she wasn’t afraid.

In my grief, I’d read theories about early attachment. I’d learned that even if Coco didn’t recognize my face, she still knew me. My smell. My voice. “Her cells know you,” a friend, who is a pediatrician, told me. “They’ll know you forever.”

Coco weighed less than five pounds when we brought her home from the hospital. Eric and I took turns holding her for hours, skin to skin. Her heart learned to beat from our hearts. She learned to breathe from our breath. For weeks, we fed her every two hours, all night long. Please please please, I’d said, holding her tiny body in that darkness.

Now she was turning one at someone else’s house. I carried her present, wrapped in glittery unicorn paper, down the block. Eric and I had picked out her gift together at the toy store — a wagon to help her learn how to walk. “Your daughter’s birthday?” the woman working behind the counter had asked. “Yes,” we’d said. It was too hard to explain.

The party was at June’s house, Evelyn’s best friend. A sign on her front door said to go around back. In the backyard, a few men stood around a hot tub, one of them filling it with a hose. I recognized one of the men as Evelyn’s brother. I knew, like Evelyn, he struggled with addiction.

“I know who you are,” he said to me.

“I know who you are,” I said to him. “Where are you living now?” I asked.

“Around,” he said.

The backdoor opened into the kitchen. “You made it,” Evelyn said. Coco was in her arms. Evelyn handed her to me.

I sat on the floor with Coco in the middle of the kitchen. People walked around us. I held Coco’s hands. She stood, facing me, bent her knees, bounced up and down, smiled. She was wearing a blue jumper and tiny pink sneakers, her hair in pigtails on top of her head. I kissed her cheeks. I smelled her neck.

An older girl at the party, maybe seven or eight, asked, “Can we bring Coco down to the basement to play?”

“No, sweetie,” Evelyn said. “We get to see her all the time. Sarah doesn’t. It’s her turn now.”

A few months before the party, when Coco was still in our care, Evelyn gave me my first Mother’s Day present, a miniature yellow rose planted in a teacup. We were in a bank’s parking lot, our regular meeting spot for Evelyn’s weekly visits with her daughter. On that day, Coco had her first overnight visit with Evelyn.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” Evelyn said and gave me the rose.

It was her daughter who made me a mother.

At the birthday party, Evelyn let me hold Coco the whole time I was there. I held Coco’s hands as she walked around the house. I carried her on my hip. Cuddled her on my lap.

Though our grief looked different, Eric and I did share part of it — an emptiness in our chests where we used to hold her, as if our insides had been hollowed out. I held one-year-old Coco against that excavated part of me.

June grilled hamburgers. She sent Evelyn from person to person to take orders for who wanted cheese. Corn on the cob boiled in a pot on the stove. On the counter, two cakes for Coco — a big one and a small one, both pink.

I’d brought June a succulent in a green pot to thank her for including me. I knew she would be my lifeline to Coco if something went wrong. She gave me a tour of her house, showed me her daughters’ rooms. She’d adopted one daughter and was the guardian for the other, who was, technically, her niece.

“You know I’m always here,” I said.

“I know you love her,” June said.

I didn’t know then that the birthday party would be the last time I would see Coco. I didn’t know Evelyn would relapse, lose her job, get evicted from her home, go to a different state to hide from child protection services. I didn’t know she’d stop talking to June. I didn’t know we wouldn’t be able to find Evelyn and Coco for months.

On that day, sweetness. On that day, two pink cakes. On that day, candles and wishes. On that day, pigtails and pink sneakers. On that day, gifts.

After a couple hours my body ran out of whatever it had been using to keep me upright. This was Coco’s life now. These were her people. She wasn’t ours anymore. She was never ours. I texted Eric. Now. I left before cake.

Two days after the party, I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything hurt. “DOMS,” my therapist said. “Delayed onset muscle soreness. What happens after a hard workout can happen after trauma, too.” My grief for Coco was physical. Tooth aches. Migraines. Bruises on my shins and forearms. Swollen eyes. Knots in my back. My neck stiff.

She loves this thing, Evelyn texted and sent me a picture of Coco sitting in the wagon, smiling, swinging her legs.

I often felt alone with my grief, as if no one understood what I was going through, what I was feeling. For some people, the fact that we always knew she might leave meant our grief should be less somehow, as if our knowing should have softened the blow.

But one person understood exactly what I was feeling. Evelyn. She lost her daughter to me. Then I lost my daughter to her. In that loss, in that heartbreak, we were one.

stranger care book

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours.

P.S. 14 reader comments on parenting.

(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)

  1. I fostered a newborn while her mother was in prison, with the expectation that the baby would return to her mother upon the mother’s release. I took the baby regularly for visits with her mother in prison, hoping they would bond. I loved that baby with all my heart. Knowing our situation was temporary offered no protection from the waves of intense grief I experienced after giving back the baby when she was four months old. Love is love is love. Hugs and heartfelt high-fives to Sarah for having the courage to give her heart fully to a child who needed that love but who could not stay.

  2. Emily Zumwalt says...

    So moving. I loved this.

  3. Lindsey says...

    Thanks for sharing, Sarah. My husband and I have cared for 3 foster children. Foster care is one of the most beautiful, rewarding, heart-wrenching, terrible and humbling things we’ve ever done. We have our own biological child (who is now 5) and we hope to adopt through the foster system one day. As many of you probably know, there is a HUGE need for loving homes to place foster kids in. Is there space in your home and heart for a child in need of safety and love? Please consider it!

    • Xenia says...

      When I read the struggles and hurdles Sarah had to endure during her time in the foster system, I was like no way.

  4. Marti says...

    I had the privilege of taking a class from Sarah when I was in art school in Portland, Oregon in 2013. I learned so much from her then and I am eager to learn more from her now, in such a radically different and beautiful way. Thank you, Sarah!

  5. sherri says...

    This is so beautiful. I shared this piece with my Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve community as it speaks so well to the unique grief we as mothers can experience, though in a variety of ways depending each of our experiences (@momsdonthavetimetogrieve on Instagram)

  6. Hayley says...

    Sarah, I devoured your book, crying through the last quarter. I have a 13 month old and can’t imagine your pain and grace. Thank you for sharing your story. Your love is imprinted into Coco and I wish to everything that is good and right that you are reuinted.

  7. Kate says...

    Almost immediately after I had my first child I started imagining nightmare scenarios in which I was forever separated from them. It’s my worst irrational fear. Sarah…I don’t know what to say, but to wish you everything kind and decent in the world and to send love, even if from a stranger on the internet.

  8. This hit hard, I can’t imagine what you have been through and the strength it took.

  9. Nairika Murphy says...

    Feel 100% the same.

  10. Sarah Oppenheimer says...

    This is beautiful and heartbreaking and I just really appreciate your piece Sarah. And CoJ, thank you for highlighting foster parenthood (as well as so many other important topics).

  11. Stacy S. says...

    As a woman who always wanted to be a mother, this story is beautiful, heartbreaking, and poignant at once. Thank you for sharing Coco with us. Maybe someday she will be back to you. Evelyn can’t run forever. Sending all of you love.

  12. Chelsea says...

    This is so beautiful and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing your story.

  13. Here to say that, in addition to treasuring this essay, I absolutely *adored* Sarah Sentilles’ earlier book, Draw your Weapons, and highly recommend it to anyone who thinks about proximity to harm/violence, memory, storytelling, and care. I cannot wait to read this book too.

  14. SarahN says...

    As a sorta not really but definitely a step parents, this tears at me too – in similar but also different ways.

  15. Kelly says...

    I’m crying sitting here, reading this and holding my sleeping son on his first birthday. I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been for you. My heart is breaking for you, Coco, and Evelyn, and I’m astounded at your bravery.

  16. Heather says...

    This is the second excerpt I’ve read this week from this author’s book…we apparently have a FB friend in common who shared! Both excerpts led me to sharp intakes of breath, both hit me emotionally in the gut. This writing is so raw, authentic and beautiful!

  17. AMK says...

    😭😭😭😭😭

  18. Toni says...

    I don’t have words. You are a beautiful soul. My heart is broken for you.

  19. Cheryl says...

    My first thoughts were that I could never do this. That I could never be this brave to even foster. That nothing, no one is ours. We come into this world alone, we die alone.
    And love will always be the most heart wrenchingly insane act we make because we can’t hold onto it forever.
    But it’s also messy and achingly wonderful and the best part of life. I wish Coco could have been loved by you forever.

    • Charlie says...

      Wow. This is so true. I love this comment. Beautifully said.

  20. Paige says...

    So heart-achingly beautifully written. I cried for you and for Evelyn and especially Coco. Thank you for sharing this with us!!

  21. Christa says...

    ❤️❤️❤️I work with foster youth and good foster parents are the most amazing people on earth—the system is so broken and the work they do so under appreciated. Thank you for sharing this story, I can’t wait to read the book.

  22. T says...

    I have a one year old girl…this just killed me. You are so SO brave!

  23. Ahh, it touches my heart.
    Thanks for sharing. 🤍

  24. Hannah says...

    This broke my heart. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. This goes right on my reading list, even though I’m already crying.

  25. K says...

    Thank you for sharing this 💜

  26. Lauren Carter says...

    Thank you for sharing this. We recently said goodbye to a sibling set, our three year old boy and six year old girl we had for a year. They were placed with us a week before everything shut down due to covid and our family simultaneously shrunk to the immediate and grew by two. Our hearts grew by a million. And now, after goodbye, I have had no words for the heartbreak, for processing, for explaining to even myself how I know we will foster again in time. So, Sarah, thank you for sharing yours. I needed this.

    • Cheryl says...

      Sending you all the love and healing energy.

  27. Monica says...

    My cousin and his family did emergency foster care which ended up bringing two more sweet kiddos into their forever family.

    I was friends for awhile with a few families who did emergency foster care too. Phone calls at 10pm to come pick up a newborn at the hospital in the morning, babies abandoned at the hospital, babies dropped off in just a onesie and a note. They picked up a baby at CPS on the way home from the airport and a family vacation once. The openness of these families is incredible.

  28. Cathy says...

    What a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing your story, Sarah. May you and Coco be reunited someday. XO

  29. Shannon says...

    I am so happy to see content about fostering! This piece is beautifully written and you can really feel the love that Sarah and Eric feel for Coco. Thank you for sharing. Fostering is such a complicated subject and the narrative we often hear is very unbalanced in favour of hearing from white foster parents (which I am myself). I hope there are essays to come from individuals who can share other perspectives in the foster/adoption world (birth moms, former foster children, etc).

    • Erzsi says...

      Thank you for voicing this, Shannon. I echo your hope to hear other perspectives on this topic

  30. Rachel says...

    You are an amazing person

  31. Lisa says...

    The flower you picked
    Wilted on the table
    Until it became dust
    And then a mere memory
    Of a spring long ago
    When your smile was the sun
    That lit up my sky

    • Michelle says...

      Omg. This is so beautiful lisa.

  32. Lia says...

    Sitting in my kitchen just silently sobbing and hoping my kids don’t come in….this was so hard and so beautiful. Thank you.

  33. Louise says...

    I was adopted as an infant and now have three biological children, and this made me cry. It’s so beautifully written and brave. Thank you for linking the book, which I just pre-ordered.

  34. sadie says...

    i’m gutted for you.
    as you know, those first months of babyhood bonding and learning to trust are vital. i hope you take comfort that you were able to provide this. it will stay with her and buoy her through life. blessings

  35. Brandy T says...

    Thank you for sharing this incredibly moving story.

  36. Lara says...

    I am just finishing up training to be a court-appointed special advocate for kids in the DC foster system, and I hope to be a foster parent one day. This essay is very special, and I look forward to Sarah’s book. Thank you for sharing and highlighting this path. Makes me feel like part of a community that I admire and look up to. :)

    • KA says...

      Congratulations. CASA volunteers are so important.

    • Maddy says...

      YES! Love seeing a shoutout to CASA here. Good luck with your first case.

    • Fiona says...

      Oh! I’m in DC and this is my goal for next year. I’m excited to hear such good things about CASA, and cant wait to read this book.

  37. Vix says...

    I was not prepared for all of the feelings.

    Thank you for sharing this necessary and beautiful soul portrait.

    • Silver says...

      Exactly, gosh so many tears. I was taken by surprise.

  38. Clair says...

    This was beautiful. We just started our foster care and adoption journey and I know this will be a piece I come back to. Thank you for sharing your grief.

  39. Sarah L says...

    Incredible feat.
    Your heart open for Coco.
    Mother, lifeline, still.

    • Jen says...

      What a wonderful moment for a haiku.

  40. Pie says...

    Thank you for your story Sarah, but as I read this essay (and the adapted essay in the NYtimes), I just want to remind readers that depending on the system and the administration, foster care is actually highly biased against women of color, and paternalistically driven based on white values. Please look at the work at Brooklyn Defenders and other organizations that advocate for the reunification of families. I haven’t read Sarah’s book (obviously just read these two essays) but I sincerely hope that she further explores the birth mother’s situation and empathize with her situation. I think that there has to be a way we support more women in motherhood that is not just foster care but a combination of services (transportation, advocacy, dealing with the administria of insurance companies, school enrollment).

    • shannon says...

      “She lost her daughter to me. Then I lost my daughter to her. In that loss, in that heartbreak, we were one.”

      Not sure what other/greater empathy you are seeking. This is a personal essay about foster parenting…not every piece on a topic can encompass the full scope of it.

      Also, there was an article on COJ in the Race Matters column a few months ago that covers some of the concerns you mention.

    • E says...

      Agree! I kept being rubbed the wrong way a bit by the descriptions of the social context of the party – which felt a little like veiled contempt for the people there and their circumstances, or at least as though Coco would clearly be better off in her care. Maybe that ultimately was true in this case (or maybe not), but as a foster parent, you understand that if things go “well”, your job is temporary. Foster parents should hope for their foster children to eventually be returned to their parents’ care (safely, of course), particularly given the ways this system has been weaponized against poor women of colour. That understanding, of course, not an easy thing to manage and why I personally don’t think I could handle being a foster parent, but ultimately the goal should be reunion for the child, not just you getting to keep them. That + sharing Evelyn/Coco’s story presumably without permission just feels a little bit in poor taste to me.

    • NM says...

      I felt that this piece had so much empathy for the birth mother. There is tragedy in her drug relapse… and of course the fear of what that may mean for the child… there is so much pain here, but not judgement.
      No doubt there are numerous problems with the foster system and like every institution in the US it is tinged by our systemic racism. But there is no need to assume that this accounts for all cases… and we also can extend empathy to the people who knowingly enter this brutal system in the name of bringing love and safe harbor to its smallest and most vulnerable citizens.

    • Anita says...

      YES. 100% agree. I would hope the book critically reflects on the way socially and economically disadvantaged women are constructed as “unfit” mothers and explores what kinds of social services could actually support Evelyn and Coco. But from the excerpt (this one and the one in the NYTimes) it seems like the author and her husband had their hearts set on adopting Coco and that the book is more about their emotional attachment and “empathy,” and from my impression, self-pity. Pretty turned off.

    • Shannon says...

      Since Cup of Jo is such a big platform, it would be amazing if some of these voices could be given space here.

    • N says...

      Your support of family reunification and alternatives to foster care is beautiful (and I write that as someone who had CPS visit her parents’ home), but I’m not sure if I understand how you arrived at this interpretation of Sarah’s motives.

      I found both this essay and the NYT one startlingly empathetic. Placed in an imperfect situation, she did everything in her power to ensure that Coco could bond with her birth mother, e.g., bringing her to visits, sharing photos, and to reorient her own heart so that she could cultivate compassion toward someone she was tempted to view (by her own admission) as the Other. The nuances of the mother’s humanity are always honored, as are the nuances of her own heart. 

    • JJ says...

      Agree agree agree

    • Jennifer says...

      Yep. I think Sarah and her husband are incredible. And I want to read her book now. But I mostly felt for Cocos birth Mom. I had an early baby who had to spend a couple of months in hospital after birth. They were the worst months of my life. Despite being eternally grateful for her care I also felt like the hospital staff were keeping my baby from me. When we got her home I swore I’d never let anyone take her away again. And we’re lucky that despite complications we have kept her well enough to stay out of hospital. So I completely understand what Evelyn did. And I’m white and comfortably off. I can’t even imagine what is allowed to happen to any mother with less franchise. In the end I think Coco is lucky to have two Moms who love her so much. I hope she does ok and that her birth Mom is supported to take care of her.

    • Ali says...

      She literally ended the piece with an acknowledgement of the birth mother’s pain. I understand the point you’re trying to make but don’t diminish the important work of foster carers in the other important points you bring up.

    • RM says...

      PIE, I’m struck by the tone-deafness of your comment, and seeing your replies to other comments makes this feel kind of like trolling. Of course the system is broken and there are a million things that need to change. However, as it stands, there are absolutely situations where children need to be placed in a safe environment while their parents get their lives together. I’d say an infant in the care of a drug addict is one of them. I think all this essay does is share one perspective of the emotional journey one undertakes when stepping up to care for a child when knowing she may be (hopefully) reunited with her birth parents. There isn’t a need to project your frustration with the system as a whole onto this woman. Every government service that’s existed until very recently is driven by white male values. Obviously, we’re working to change that, but it won’t be overnight and it takes people like Sarah being willing to step up in the interim- to work within whatever system currently exists as best they can.

      And as a teacher, I can assure you there are lots of wrap around services like what you describe. Granted, there can always be more. But the problem is that when parents aren’t prioritizing their children, they often don’t utilize those services in the first place.

    • someone's sister says...

      Ooof. Give this woman a break. Let people feel their feelings. She can feel sad even if she knew she’d likely lose Coco if all went well, she can worry about Coco’s wellbeing with her birth family while respecting their right to raise her. She wrote a memoir, not a policy piece to rework the foster care system. She is clearly empathetic to the birth mother. None of us have read the whole thing yet but the reviewers who have say it grapples with the injustices of foster care. (And if it matters, it’s entirely possible that all parties here were white. She lives in Idaho, 93% white.) The foster care system is imperfect, families are complicated and imperfect, racism is pervasive, but right now there are still children in danger who need emergency care. People need to do the work to change the system, but people also need to do the work to care for the kids who need it right now. Sometimes those are the same people, sometimes they are not. I respect them all.

    • J says...

      It is certainly true that our foster care system reflects systemic racism in many ways, and yes, we need much, much more infrastructure to support mothers and families. But as a social worker my belief is that we need BOTH macro- and micro-level work in all areas of our society. So as we strive to improve our child welfare system, we still need to care for the children it is meant to serve. I am always the first to point out to individuals considering foster care that it should never be used as a path to adoption. The goal is, and should be, reunification. But that doesn’t mean that foster parents don’t grow to love the children they bring into their homes — we WANT them to do so, because all children need and deserve nurturing. This excerpt didn’t read to me like an argument in favor of a biased system but an illustration of how much love and pain exists within that system on both caregivers’ sides.

    • Britt says...

      Pie – thank you for speaking up about this. I feel similarly and feel it’s really important to acknowledge this in such a large venue as Cup of Jo. This writer and foster mother has shared the child’s story with out her consent – sharing that her mother was an addict, etc. A child is foster care has so little power of their own – they should own their own story and the story of their mother. I hope this can be considered constructively and while I have not read the full book, I hope Cup of Jo can offer constructive feedback on this. There are many former foster youth out there who have shared the importance of preserving their story, not sharing it widely, without their consent, etc. and I would hope Cup of Jo would consider this.

    • Pie says...

      RM, I am truly disheartened that you see this comment as a form of trolling and some of the other comments that see this statement from a place of judgement. Like police departments, *sometimes *some foster care systems are seen by *some communities with distrust and fear (whether that is warranted completely depends on the local administration and leadership and the relationships that the system have built with the community).

      None of us have read the book (it’s not out yet), but I have read the two pieces, and all I am saying is that I hope that when reading it, this history has to be kept in mind. No, she has not set out to write a policy paper, but in this environment, we all have to be responsible for the stories we tell, especially if that story involves others and a system.

      For reference, here are some great organizations doing work in family advocacy, including how Brooklyn Defender talks about their work:

      Brooklyn Defenders: https://bds.org/
      Neighborhood Defender: https://neighborhooddefender.org/

      “Each year, BDS’ FDP represents several thousand parents and caregivers in Article 10 cases and related custody, visitation, and termination of parental rights cases. We prevent children from entering foster care by advocating for families at Child Safety Conferences and litigating emergency hearings. Our interdisciplinary practice focuses on empowering our clients to help them to achieve their goals for their family….Recognizing that the child welfare system is plagued by the effects of structural racism, sexism, and classism, FDP works for systemic change through legislative reform efforts, appellate advocacy, media, and informal advocacy with the Administration for Children’s Services.”

    • Maddy says...

      One thing to consider is that birth mom allowed continued contact with the foster parents even after reunification- when it was entirely up to her. To me, that indicates that she felt like the foster parents were safe, empathetic figures.

    • Ally says...

      Hmm but how do you know that the birth mother is a women of color? It seems that perhaps you have made a race-based assumption yourself…

  41. Kate says...

    I love how this story has just as much empathy for Evelyn as we feel for Sarah. There is love and loss on both sides.

  42. Agnès says...

    What a beautiful piece of writing and such an intense experience. It takes so much Strenght and courage. I am in awe.

  43. This was so incredibly moving–tears in my eyes at my desk. Immediately putting her book on my to-read list <3

  44. Caitlin Laidlaw says...

    “her cells know you:” so true- so beautiful. what a moving story. what a graciously loving sarah and eric. at the best version of herself an open, understanding, and warm evelyn. a humbling, heartbreaking and beautiful excerpt. thank you.

  45. Erica says...

    I commented on your instagram that, as the mom of a preemie, I prob shouldnt have read this.

    I read it. I prob shouldnt have. Being a foster parent is a level of selflessness I could never achieve. Thanks for my monday ugly cry. <3

  46. Megan says...

    Thank you so much, Sarah, for your story (I can’t wait to read your book). As a fost-adopt mom myself, I relate so deeply to all the emotions you expressed. Thank you, CoJ, for featuring a foster parent’s perspective of motherhood.

  47. meredith says...

    This ripped me in two. There is far too little awareness of the gut wrenching grief that connects birth mama, baby, and foster or adoptive mamas. “It was her daughter who made me a mother.” There are few words to describe how this feels, but you’ve done so beautifully. Thank you for sharing!

  48. Catherine says...

    I was so happy to see this post (I had requested some foster care stories from the, “What would you like to discuss this year?” post at the beginning of the year) and this was so, so beautiful. I would love as many additional foster stories as you’re able to find/share. Additional stories could be *really* helpful for those of us who have always had vaguely considered fostering, but haven’t seen many examples or role models in our own lives. You have such a wonderful community that I can certainly imagine a few COJ readers going forward with fostering after exposure to different foster families and experiences (and what an amazing thing that would be!).

    • Anne S says...

      Fostering was never something presented as an option to me growing up, but now it feels like I’m being led to it. My brother and his wife started fostering over a year ago and just had one of their babies reunified with his family. My brother requested that I design a tattoo for him of a dandelion pod, with each flyaway seed representing a child leaving their home. I couldn’t stop crying when I got his text. I’m attached to the babies as their foster-aunt, I can’t imagine holding a baby since birth only to say goodbye forever months, years later.

  49. Karen says...

    This required a disclaimer, something like:
    “If you are currently feeling overwhelmed with grief, upon reading this essay, you will learn you are not alone and that grief comes in many shapes and for many reasons, so continue reading at your own risk and/or relief.”

    • Nikka says...

      ” at your own risk and/or relief” <— I love this phrase. Spot on.

  50. Ali says...

    This brought me to tears. So powerful and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing.

  51. Emily says...

    I found this piece beautiful and tender, and Sarah’s love for Coco comes through so intensely. I have no doubt that she took incredible care of Coco when Coco was with her and her husband, and that that care will shape Coco forever. I’m glad that there are people like Sarah and Eric who can provide this loving care for a child when that child’s parent(s) are unable to.

    At the same time, I’m left feeling very uncomfortable that Coco (which I hope, but am not sure, is a pseudonym) has had her story – a complicated, painful story – turned into a book whose publication she has not consented to. Think of our modern-day discussions about how much it’s appropriate to share about children on social media – this goes so much farther.

    I’m sorry that Sarah has suffered this loss – but it doesn’t seem right to turn this child’s life into a work for public consumption, at least not until Coco herself has had the chance to make meaning out of her own experiences.

    • Brita says...

      I would respectfully ask you, or any reader, to consider withholding judgement against Sarah until they’ve read her entire book (which, as I understand, isn’t available yet). Nothing about this essay was exploitive; and this story isn’t just Coco’s. To say that we are not allowed to share our experiences because they involve other people is to say we’re never allowed to tell stories in general.

    • Emily says...

      Thanks Brita – absolutely, this story isn’t just Coco’s, and, in general, we should be allowed to tell stories that involve others (assuming they are shared respectfully, and, ideally, with permission). My specific concern, which perhaps wasn’t clear enough in my comments, is about telling this child’s story (and she is still a child) without her consent.

      There are difficult things from my own childhood that I can and have shared on my own terms – but if my parent (or any other adult) had decided to air them widely without even asking me how I felt about it, I would have felt betrayed.

    • pie says...

      Brita, I respectfully disagree with you, and agree with Emily on this front. We should read the book, but based on this and her other article in the Nytimes, I felt wanting more on the foster mother and feeling a slight lack of empathy.

    • Adoptive mom who has suffered her own losses says...

      While I understand your concern to protect a child, and their story, you can’t simply cancel out other involved parties. So far, nothing seems amiss, nothing but love and tenderness comes through this essay. If this is a hint to how the book is written, I don’t think you can say the author is appropriating the child’s story -this is her story as much as it is the child, and the birth mom. Think about all the foster and adoptive parents out there who feel alone in their journey, who are aching from their loss, who needs to hear similar stories and be celebrated in joy and supported in sadness the same way (birth) parents are. How many people will this bring comfort, understanding, or support to?

    • Shannon says...

      Thank you for saying this Emily. I would hope enough facts are changed in the book that she would not be able to recognize herself. I think, especially with babies, we lose sight of what is our story and what is theirs. I’m a foster parent myself and imagined at first that I would share some parts with my close friends but then my first foster child was 12 years old and suddenly it didn’t feel appropriate to share any details about the her and her families situation with anyone. Of course we shared up and downs of parenting with our own circle but the why’s of her placement and any details of her case or family are and always will be for her to share with who she chooses. Now even if we have a younger child, I will still be just as tight lipped even if they seem to be oblivious to their situation because of their age.

    • Anna says...

      Hi Emily! As a foster parent, I totally understand your concern but wanted to let you know that we sign lengthy ethical agreements that prevent us from sharing too many details. I ordered the book so I haven’t exactly read it yet. However, I’m guessing that many of the details were changed to capture the essence and emotion of the story rather than the facts. The author isn’t legally able to share too much and I don’t feel that this excerpt did. Hope that helps put your mind at ease.

  52. Stephanie says...

    Wow. did not expect to spend my Monday morning weeping over my laptop. I’m not a parent or foster parent, but this absolutely gut-punched me. Beautiful writing.

  53. Jessie says...

    Former foster mom who adopted her youngest placement here. I want to cry and hug each and every current and former foster mom in these comments. I feel like we are sisters in this rarely seen and so frequently misunderstood realm of mothering. In my mind’s eye it’s this other dimension or spiritual plane that we know so well, even when so many don’t even know it’s there. And it’s all of the beauty and pain of all the loving relationships we have with children and partners and families, but all turned up to 11. We never forget that at the center of this realm are children who have survived trauma that is always a little beyond comprehension. We love them and want to heal their hearts but know that our roles usually can’t involve “fixing” so we learn to hold space for them and hope it’s enough to bring them a little more joy and a little less fear. Anyways, we may be strangers in a comment section but I just want to throw out there that I see you and I hope you’ll feel the love I’m sending your way.

    • Maeve says...

      Thank you for such a beautiful comment Jessie. I’m a foster carer in Australia and this is how I feel about it too.

  54. MKW says...

    Oh my… so many feels here. Our foster son was with us as an infant from a failure-to-thrive environment. We too fed him every few hours throughout the night. We bonded with him and watched him thrive. He was placed with grandparents. That was 21 years ago and no contact since. My heart. We also are a family of foster-adoption. So many emotions, love, and heartache for so many involved in that previous statement.

  55. Annie K. says...

    Tears. So beautiful and sad. I just can’t take this shit since having my kids. The parent-child attachment broken in any form is just too much for my heart. Thank you for sharing all the same.

    • Olivia says...

      I feel the same.

    • JE says...

      Agreed, Annie. I’m emotionally drowning in my own puddle of tears and I am only a tangential observer. This is absolutely crushing, I think especially because I have a 4 year old and 4 month old.

  56. Rachel says...

    Oh my god, this just destroyed me.

  57. Katy says...

    Thank you for sharing this. In sharing your vulnerability so beautifully I could feel the physical desire to cradle your baby in my own chest.

    Thank you to the parents who care so deeply for the children in the foster system.

    I hope that Coco and her mother are healthy and happy.

  58. E says...

    Oh what an emotional way to start the week. All the feelings, and so beautifully written.

    “Her cells know you. They’ll know you forever”

    That really resonated with me, though in a completely different circumstance.

    I was a full time nanny several years ago and then I moved across the country. The baby I had been caring for full time had just turned 2 when I left, and I started caring for her when she was just a couple months old. I was there for so many firsts- from sitting up to learning to talk to first steps. Arriving there before she woke up in the morning. Endless laps around the house while she fell asleep in the my arms and then army crawling out of the room after putting her down for a nap. Every day things like trips to the grocery store and the park.

    Two years later I was able to visit and she didn’t remember me, but instantly connected with me, hugging me, sitting next to me, chatting endlessly. Her mom said, “Wow, even though she doesn’t remember you, it’s like a part of her knows you from when she was a baby.” My heart!

    When people found out I was a nanny, I often had parents say to me, “I love my own kids, but I could never do that job”. But what people don’t realize, and what never ceases to amaze me, is the capacity that we have to love. It doesn’t always look the same but love is there, in many different forms.

    • Megan says...

      Love this comment so much, E!

    • Rose says...

      Yes! I still think about the little baby I cared for 8 years ago. Every once in a while I’ll hear about how she’s doing and feel a kind of pride that I can’t explain.

      Similarly, my own nanny from when I was a baby has sent me holiday cards every year of my life. It was so nice to know she still thought of and cared about me even when she had her own kids.

    • Katie says...

      E, absolutely! I nannied for two children, one from 4mo-3yrs, so I saw him learn to walk and talk and develop the most tender personality. Their mother refers to me as their ‘foster mom,’ which feels so generous. It’s such a gift to bear witness to those milestones and share that joy with their biological parents, isn’t it?

    • b says...

      I felt this. I’m not a parent/foster parent, but I was a teacher/caregiver/summer camp counselor for a number of years, and those kids had my whole heart. My little babies are big middle and high schoolers now and I doubt they remember me, as many of the families have moved and I’ve moved several times in the years since I left that part of my career, but I think of them often and hope they are well.

    • Dawn says...

      E,

      What a lovely story. I constantly worry that the boy I’ve nannied for eight years won’t really remember me when he’s older. It’s so comforting to think that even if he doesn’t remember everything we did together, he will remember me deep down.

    • D says...

      I have this bond with my childhood summer babysitter. Only 6.5 years older than me, she could easily have drifted back to her own life when I stopped needing supervision in middle school, but instead she turned into a best friend and a sister. We were in each other’s weddings. Held each other’s children. Even now as we (collectively) straddle 40, we remain close.

  59. Tara says...

    Wow. I’m starting foster parent training tonight. This gives me all the feels. Y’ALL really be reading my MIND. Bought this book, cannot wait to read. Beautifully written and WOW grief comes in so many forms <3

    • B says...

      I have my first orientation later this week and this makes me afraid I can’t do it.

    • Same, B. My heart is so tender. I just keep thinking do I know how to love? Who has shown me? How do I show love? Have I felt pain? Who loves me? Then I step forward.

      We got this feel free to email me xoxo.

  60. Peggy says...

    Oh 💔

  61. Mary says...

    I have a grandchild who was placed with an adoptive family a year ago. The mother had left and the father did not feel he could parent alone. While this is hard, is it better for the child. My stabilizing thought is that: what is best for the child.

    • Michelle says...

      This must be hard for you. I like your stabilizing thought. It could be said that the role of adults is to bear the hard things. Doesn’t make it easy but steadiness is its own kind of love.

    • Ali says...

      love to you and your Grandma heart xx

  62. Sue Harris says...

    When I was a child, my mother’s best friend fostered babies who could not go home with their parents for various reasons. She loved babies, and had five kids of her own–each matching the ages of me and my siblings. Each time she fostered a baby it broke her heart to have to give that baby back to their parents. And back then there was no allowing her to see those babies once they were reclaimed by their birth parents or adopted into a new family. Each time she would call my mom or come over and cry her heart out, but she kept doing it, over and over, breaking her heart each time. I like to think that all those babies went out into the world somehow knowing they were well loved–by a woman who would never see them again, but had given her heart to them and cared for them as if they were her own.

    • Lily says...

      This comment gutted me. What a courageous heart.

    • Lucy says...

      Wow, this moved me. What a wonderful woman. I am in awe that there are people out there whose kindness and selflessness so far outshines their own personal self interest. I’m not sure that I would have that strength! Thanks for sharing.

    • Tara says...

      Crying after the excerpt, straight up sobbing after your comment. How absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. What wonderful people there are in this world.

    • Rachel says...

      oh this ruined me

  63. Elizabeth says...

    For anyone who is a foster parent: what would you tell my family, with elementary age kids, who are considering becoming foster parents?

    • CL says...

      Hi Elizabeth– foster care kid here and healing adult still trying to piece together the confusion and difficulty of having been apart from parents that couldn’t care for you. I enjoyed reading the perspective of this piece– especially its bittersweet-ness.

      I would encourage prospective foster parents to understand deeply that many children in foster care desperately miss their parents; it feels often like a real physical hunger. The sense of being misplaced (especially in a home with many other children) is acute. I’m not sure there is a way out of that knot, but I’m called to share.

      Blessings to all on this journey.

    • SB says...

      My family has fostered through DCF (the state agency in MA) for several years. Our bio kids are now 19, 16 and 13, but subtract 5 and that’s when we started). What works best for us was to be short-term, respite and emergency (hotline) care. We get a call (often) in the middle of the night, determine if we can take the placement, wait an hour or 2 to see if it’s really happening, kick my son out of his room (he’ll sleep on the couch), set up the room and wait in the dark for the social worker’s car to arrive. I take a sleeping baby in my arms or walk a child to their room and settle them in. If it’s a weekend, we play, read and go to the park with the child and try to offer them stability and childhood. If it’s a weekday, they are often picked up in the morning by a social worker to go to school, daycare or to hang out at the DCF office. Sometimes we’re called to have the child another night because they’re working out a kin placement or have to placement yet. We don’t have time to bond with the children over a few short days or a week at most, but we never forget a child. We’ve had the same child or siblings sometimes years apart, and I’m shocked that they remember our home, too.

      I heard this often before we started and it’s been 100% true for us: fostering is great for any bio kids. This might sound trite, but our kids love having babies, toddlers or even older kids to play with. Sometimes it’s hard and we have things to do (homework, work-work, activities, etc.) and adding a 2-year-old who is a stranger to us and vice versa can be tricky (i.e., we’re still going to the middle school music concert, haha). Plus, I’m dealing with being up for a couple hours the night before. Just explaining the logistics of it.

      My point is that there are a lot of ways to be a foster family. Also: if you’re dealing with a hard time (like you feel like your bio child might need extra attention), you can always say “no” to a placement or take a short break (we are taking a break until we’re fully vaccinated). It’s always your choice.
      You will likely have a social worker who is YOUR advocate, and they will be checking in on you regularly to see how things are going.

    • Jessie says...

      Hi Elizabeth! I was a foster mom for a while. It’s tough to give concise thoughts because being a foster family is nothing if not complex, but I think my ultimate (if over simplified) takeaways were that it will teach you a lot about learning to live alongside uncertainty about things that you care about.

      I know for sure it made me a better and more empathetic person, and not just towards the kids but the parents too. These days I make far fewer assumptions about people, and when I do those assumptions are far more generous.

      If you’re like me you’ll start to notice foster dynamics all around you and you’ll realize that the fostering system touches way more lives than you ever noticed before.

      I think there’s a misconception that you have to be a saint and a glutton for punishment to be a foster parent (or a horrible abusive monster) and that’s just not reality. It’s generally more accessible than most folks assume and (maybe the biggest surprise) you’re really in control of what you want your fostering experience to be like. It’s your home and your family that you’re welcoming traumatized children and families into, so it is more than okay for you to have boundaries about what works well for you. Happy foster families mean happier kids, and everyone wants that.

      If you’d like to have a conversation I am absolutely always happy to talk to people who are considering fostering about my experiences! I’m happy to share the good and the bad and the just complicated. You (or anyone else who sees this) are welcome to email me at jessielhunter@gmail.com. :)

    • Elizabeth says...

      Thanks, CL; I so appreciate that you left this note. I don’t know what that feels like and can only imagine it’s extremely complex.

      I’ve been active in the immigration space for years and we’re thinking about fostering unaccompanied refugee minors, so in some ways less complex – they know who/where home is and we can help them keep that alive and facilitate regular contact – but no less gut-wrenching for a child.

      Blessings to you.

    • Maryann says...

      Hi Elizabeth –
      My family recently took in an unaccompanied minor. This young man was 15 when he moved in with us. Our bio kids were 13 and 10 at the time. He was supposed to stay for a couple months but then COVID hit and he stayed for 9 months during which we really bonded with him. It was hard at times – my husband and I were not used to parenting a teenager, especially one who had been on his own for the better part of a year by then so was very self-sufficient. But it was so rewarding and changed all of our lives. He lives with another family now but we are still super close to him and he still lives close by. We visited him this past weekend and facetimed with him last night after dinner. I whole-heartedly recommend doing this if you are able.

    • Katie says...

      I think fostering is important work and it’s certainly a complex (and honestly heartbreaking) system kids and families are entering into. As a therapist, I have seen so many well intentioned people sign up to be foster parents, but so naive about the kids coming into their homes.

      I don’t know what the answer is, but if you are a family taking in a child that has been in the system before or unable to stay with birth parents because of their home life expect that many of these children have been exposed to abuse, abused themselves and unfortunately more likely to repeat what has been done to them. Plenty of people have love to give and lord knows these children deserve it and none of the circumstances are their fault, but it doesn’t change the fact that their coping skills and potential trauma history make it safe for them to be around other kids. I just think people, esp ones that already have kids at home should make sure they fully understand what these foster kids have possibly been through and how trauma works. Sadly a loving hug, a warm meal, and a safe home for a few months can not undo overnight the mark from their past. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, I just think everyone should go in eyes wide open.

    • Elizabeth says...

      SB, Jessie, Maryann – thank you so much for your generosity and for sharing some of your insights and family situations.

  64. Anna says...

    As a fellow foster parent, I totally get it. May is National Foster Care Awareness Month – thanks Jo and team for sharing.

  65. Carly Young says...

    Just rocked my 1 year old to sleep for his first nap of the day, then sat down and read this. My heart is aching. Beautiful and powerful and painful.

  66. Kim says...

    Being a foster parent is such an incredible job. Thank you for giving Coco the stability and love she needed. May you find peace in your love for her.

  67. Elisabeth says...

    This was so raw and beautiful. I can relate on so many levels as a foster carer myself. It’s simultaneously one of the hardest and most beautiful roles to love and let go and have everything so far out of our control …

    I penned this after attending our (previous) foster daughter’s birthday last month:

    “I saw her on her birthday. There were balloons and cakes and spring flowers. She looked surprised to see me and I choked back tears of joy and gratitude that I really got to hold her again. She is light and sunshine and everything beautiful. I chased her around the garden and scooped her up and whispered in her ear: “I love you. And I always will.” She giggled and wriggled back down to the ground to play. She is not mine but I loved her like she was. Most parents don’t have to release a child out of their home until their are 18 years old, but I released her at 12 months. It seemed an impossible ask but God’s grace was there to catch me – to catch us. And here she is now a year later – happy and healthy and growing. When I am old and look back on my life, I will know every hour of lost sleep, every tear cried for her story, every ounce of love I have here were high on the list of the most valuable things I ever did on this earth.”

    • Kim says...

      You are a beautiful person xoxo

    • Annie K. says...

      I am sobbing. UGH. Beautiful.

    • MB says...

      Yes. Thank you.
      I feel this way about the teenager who has come in our life- but I’m mourning the childhood years that we missed before he came (but most of all, I mourn everything he has lost.) Very few people understand just how painful it has been to grieve all the things that have happened to him, and the ways his heart has been shattered. I have cried more for this person than for anyone, and truly love him like a son, even though he isn’t mine. But like you, I have zero regrets in loving him if it’s allowed him to heal even a little. I consider it one of the great privileges of my life.

    • Nikka says...

      Your heart is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it so openly. xo

    • Sarah says...

      Wow, you are brave and wonderful.

  68. Megan says...

    I too am familiar with this pain. I don’t know how to handle my protective instinct, love and hope for our girl and my empathy for her mom. Either way I miss her ❤️ Love to you and thanks for sharing.

  69. Kiki says...

    Her cells will know you forever – my, what a beautiful concept. I read this with glassy eyes. We brought our foster child home from the hospital when she was born and is now 7 months old. I can’t wait to read more from Sarah’s perspective.

  70. L says...

    This is hitting me hard. I have a student in an incredible foster care placement who is being reunited with her biological father soon. I am so nervous for this child but at the same time my heart is so happy that she will be able to live with him now. Thank you so much to those of you who do this work, both as foster parents and as case workers who work to stabilize bio parents. <3

  71. Susan says...

    Beautiful and heartbreaking. Just requested from the library.

  72. Rusty says...

    Powerful. Vulnerable. Heart-wrenching.

  73. Christina says...

    Wow. This was powerful. I don’t find accurate words, but feel like I still want to write something. Thank you so much for sharing something so vulnerable.
    It hurts loving a child that isn’t really yours. I had a host child for five summers. We couldn’t adopt her. We keep in touch. She forever has a piece of my heart.

  74. b says...

    Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your’s and Coco’s story with us. Off to order your book now.