My Back Pages: Foster Care and John Calvin

(This piece originally appeared in The Daily on May 8, 2011. It is no longer extant, so I’m re-posting it here.)

The optometrist was very generous in praising our motives, but came back to the question so many people end up asking. “It must be so hard to get attached.”

I had decided to start being more upfront about being a foster parent. The system is in need of volunteers and perhaps, I imagined, someone might discover an interest in helping out if I shed light on the experience. Even putting a human face on foster care, a system that is universally known to exist and almost as universally not understood in any detail, could perhaps have some value. And while it is tempting to just avoid the inevitable questions — no, we’re not adopting, at least not yet; we don’t know how long she’ll be with us; yes, it will be hard to let her go — people only seem to ask them with good will.

I had already explained the cause for my visit: Our 18-month-old foster daughter had broken my glasses. I didn’t add that a morning with the kids had made the prospect of an eye exam in their absence sound positively delightful. It would have been counterproductive, not to mention selfish, to have grumbled that the hardest part about foster parenting is actually doing all the parenting stuff.

“Well, that’s life,” I said to the optometrist with a shrug, as I typically do in response to the attachment questions. When I’m feeling philosophical, I add that we humans are always having to say goodbye to people before we’re ready.

In early 2010, when my wife and I were working to become licensed as foster parents, the state of Illinois ran a series of ads with the theme “Foster Kids Are Our Kids.” The campaign promoted images of children who would benefit from stability and nurturing, and parents whose ordinary abilities would be greeted with love and appreciation. When I talked to Kendall Marlowe, the spokesman for the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, he said that the ads were prompted by market research showing stigmas attached to foster care. “There is the stigma that families who get pulled into the system are bad families that don’t deserve our support, that foster families are only in it for the money, and that foster kids themselves are doomed to negative outcomes.”

To chip away at these prejudices, the state presents foster care in the terms of what a sociologist might call “fictive kinship.” It’s a concept that refers to all kinds of relationships that have some aspects of family but without biological kinship. It’s an especially prominent feature in religion. My own Christian tradition is deeply marked in its founding texts and communal expressions by the idea that human beings who otherwise share no bond of blood or duty share the image of God, granted in creation and restored in the life of Jesus Christ. This bond, latent in human nature and grasped explicitly through faith, can make strangers become as deeply attached and indebted to one another as any family. “Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake,” the theologian John Calvin wrote of a hypothetical stranger, “but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.”

Our biological son, almost 3, and our foster daughter, different as they are in everything from temperament to stature, do not need a deep theological background to understand the significance of the tagline “Foster Kids Are Our Kids.” Though the destruction of my glasses was a solo effort, they later that day liberated the sandbox for spring, playing together as easily and naturally as any two siblings. She even listens to him when my own pleas fall on deaf ears. One day in a doctor’s office, after she had been howling for 15 unbroken minutes, he hugged her close and kept saying, “I love you, I love you.” To my astonishment, she quieted down. Attachment, whatever its emotional cost, is a blessing. Without it, this work is not possible.

We know we are likely to send our little girl on her way some day. Fictive kinship, however powerfully we experience it, still yields to biological kinship sometimes. The law’s presumption in favor of family preservation often gives rise to mixed emotions in foster parents. But in a sense, nothing could be more faithful to the idea of family ties than a willingness to loosen them for the sake of a child. The foster care system has taught me that we understand love most fully when we try to share it with someone who may not be entitled to it and may not be able to return it over time. That, and to keep my glasses out of reach.

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