To teach a child to love

Photo: Lopolo/Shutterstock

It had been a bacon-and-egg, aster-and-bluebells, children-hanging-on-every-limb kind of Sunday, five stars all around. By 3 p.m., I was comfortably buzzed on sunlight and motherhood, the grass looking a little greener than usual, my mood a little headier, my kids a little more perfect.

Joy outlined every part of our little family, including the impromptu family member with whom we hadn’t anticipated spending the weekend.

My husband Sean and I had received an email late in the afternoon the Thursday before: The child welfare agency through which we are licensed foster parents wanted to know if we could provide a few nights of respite care to a child whose foster parents needed unanticipated help.

My first inclination was to say no. I worried about logistics and how we’d balance the needs of two small kids with those of a third, older kid. After several dizzyingly busy weekends in a row and another one on the horizon the following weekend, we’d purposely cleared our schedule that weekend so that we could spend some intentional down time and enjoy one another’s company.

Despite these impulses, the more I considered our agency’s request, the more I saw the clear schedule as an opportunity: There was no outright barrier keeping us from helping as there would have been if we’d been asked to help the previous weekend or as there would be the following weekend. If we needed to go somewhere, I’d squeeze into the middle of the front seat of our old Buick. We had an extra, unused bedroom; I only needed to change the sheets and clean the bathroom.

Sean and I had been foster parents for a year before we’d had birth children and it had taught us so much about love. It’s why we became biological parents. I missed it and the kids. So I asked Sean if we could say “yes” to provide respite care to the adolescent in need that weekend. He agreed, which is so much of why I love him.

That night the child arrived. Our 4-year-old biological son, Henry, led him on a tour of our house. He went to school the following day. That night he shoveled down spoonful after spoonful of shrimp fried rice and orange chicken. The next morning I came downstairs and saw all the goodness in our decision when Henry and the older boy sat beside each other on our couch, the older boy reading to the younger, the younger leaning in to see every picture and hear every word.

That afternoon we pulled weeds, raked vines, and walked to the park, where the smaller kids raced with me around the track and climbed the bleachers while Sean and the older child had batting practice on the turf. That evening we went to a friend’s house for a cookout, and I was grateful for friends who not only didn’t bat an eye about us bringing an extra and unexpected guest but who also couldn’t have treated him any more like a normal part of the family.

On Sunday, after eggs and bacon and flowers in a vase, we went to a park together and returned home for lunch and more time outside. As Sean chased Henry and our 2-year-old daughter Magnolia back and forth down our sidewalk, I stood in the sunlight beside our guest.

“Thank you for staying with us this weekend,” I said, knowing that his foster parent would be picking him up soon.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice corrugated with adolescence. “I had fun.”

“You did?” I said. “I’m glad. I was worried you’d be bored! We had a lot of fun too.”

He, Sean, Henry and I took a few turns whacking a Whiffle ball while Magnolia sat in the middle of the sidewalk whispering to herself and putting a toy Spiderman on and off of his Spider-cycle.

“He’s nice,” she looked up at me, smiling, while I shagged balls. “He’s a good guy.”

I smiled at her. A few minutes later the foster parent arrived to pick up his son. We said goodbye, told the foster dad how great his son had been and how much fun we’d had, and then they were gone. Henry sat down on the shaded front step of our porch and started crying.

“How do you feel?” I asked my whimpering son, running my fingers through his sweaty hair. “Are you sad, mad, glad?”

“I’m mad,” he said. “I wanted him to stay here and live with us.”

“I understand, honey,” I said.

That’s all it takes to love a child, and that’s all it takes to teach a child to love.

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