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Tribute to a Foster Mum

My husband and I were scared witless the first time we met Max’s foster mum. Rosa didn’t make eye contact with either of us and her body language was closed – hostile, even. Both arms wrapped tightly across her soft bosom.

When she eventually did look at us she memorably said: ‘I am not going to hand over Max to some cold, heartless middle-class couple.’ Well, that put us in our place.

Her apparent hostility came from a place of love. She, more than any one in the room, had Max’s interests at heart. We saw that. And we knew how important getting her approval would be.

My husband broke the ice several times with bad jokes that could release some nervous laughter. Eventually she let go and approved us with the words: ‘I have a good feeling about this. It will be ok.’

When we met the next time – to set out the introduction itinerary – we were happy to see her again. Eager to hear more news and details of the little man, who was to become our son. And she readily shared all sorts of Max vignettes with us.

Introductions began smoothly – despite the fact that we were very nervous, having worked ourselves up over the entire morning. We parked the car outside her house, got out and heard a familiar voice above us. ‘Halloooouuu. Max, that’s your mummy and daddy. Say Haaallloooouuu…’ We looked up and there he was. Our gorgeous son. On Rosa’s hip. Looking puzzled. But curious. 

We entered her small, immaculate flat under a stream of meaningless, welcoming words, and she then handed Max straight to me. 

I think my heart stopped for a little while… He rested his head on my chest. Softly. Gingerly. Rosa was surprised.

‘He never does that. Really. He has never done that before with someone he doesn’t know.’

My husband and I were reassured. So Max wasn’t overfamiliar with everyone. It must have been the fine work she had done, reading the Tomy book every day, umpteen times a day, since it was given to her ten days earlier, after Matching Panel. 

She had also put up A4 print outs of the two of us all over the flat. By Max’s cot, in the living room and in the kitchen. Very thoughtfully she had even put many on the kitchen cabinets. Max crawling height.

We stayed a little longer than the allocated hour. Then drove home in a daze of new emotions. We hardly slept that night.

Introductions went in a flurry of activity. For me, the keyword for the whole exhausting, bewildering week was trust. We all felt it, and it helped transition enormously. Not least for Max. 

Rosa’s love for Max was plain to see. And it warmed us to her even more. She knew him. She was so warm, gave him great cuddles, made him giggle, knew all his likes and dislikes, and could comfort him effortlessly. I loved what I saw, but admittedly, I also felt very insecure in her presence. I was only a mother on paper. Not yet in my heart. 

Rosa gave me lots of good advice and showed me the ropes. She taught me a few things that I still do, and that remind me of that special week. The most impressive lesson she gave me – almost in passing – was to let this little 10-month-old creature ask for help himself. It happened, one time when he was trying to raise himself up, but was struggling and audibly frustrated. I would have rushed to help him. But she just held out her hand, close to him, but not in the way:

“Oh boy, Max, you are fighting to get up, aren’t you. Oh deary me, that does look frustrating. If you need a hand, just say so. See, my hand is right here. To help you if you like. Just take it if you need it.’

He tried a bit more on his own, and then took her hand. His little legs just weren’t quite strong enough yet. But it taught me a big lesson. Wait.

During that whole week of introductions, Max wasn’t really all that interested in me, but he looooooooooved his new dad. 

The rapport between Max and Pierre, my husband, was instant and heartfelt. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Perhaps it happened so fast because Rosa was single. Put simply there was room for a man, a daddy figure. But not for a mummy. Max already had a mum. I felt a strong urge to hold him and get on with my new role, but was also relieved to be able to step back a bit. I could observe him from a safe distance. In effect hide behind my husband. I reckoned there would be plenty of time for me to be mummy (indeed only a couple of weeks later, I was definitely the main person, and daddy was left out in the cold for a while). Also, I really didn’t want to tread on Rosa’s toes.

Rosa was great, and – looking back – unbelievably supportive of us both. If Max fell, she would encourage him to go to us for comfort, but never ever refuse him consolation. He did get confused about who to go to. But then she would elegantly scoop him up, kiss and cuddle him, and then hand him to either of us. Reassuring him as she did so. ‘It’s ok. I’m right here.’ Big smiles and maybe a pat on his back, while on our arms.

Gradually, during the week, we had been bringing Max’s stuff home to our house. I felt like I was stealing it all away from her. I felt guilty and weird about it. Rosa was professional and very helpful, although it cannot have been easy for her. One day when she brought him to stay with us for the day, he had thankfully fallen asleep on the way, and so she was visibly relieved to be able to hand him over, and drive off. The stresses of the week were beginning to show on her too.

Then the final day came. Max was coming home with us. For good. The atmosphere in Rosa’s flat was so thick that you could cut the air with a knife. Rosa asked for a final hug with Max, in the privacy of her living room. The rest of us gathered in the hallway.

I will never forget the sound of the cry she let out, when she held him in her arms for the last time as her foster son. The boy she had loved as her own, since he was only a couple of days old. It was quiet but piercing.

The social worker present and I both cried. But Pierre stood firm. This was all in Max’s best interest, he said. So it was Pierre, daddy, who carried Max out of the flat. A puzzled and visibly sad Max. 

Then our new life began. 

We didn’t see Rosa for a few weeks. When we did, she cried. She didn’t want to. But it felt real and appropriate. Max was happy to see her, but confused about the new baby. This was the first of many visits. And of many more to come. The foster mum and her family is part of our future.

I feel very privileged to have met her. And very lucky that we all get on so that we have been able to continue to see her. And that we live close enough to do so. We meet around Max’s birthday, Christmas and in between. 

The opportunity to integrate the early part of Max’s life into his life with us is a gift. And one I think that will help Max’s sense of self. A little part of me wishes we could do the same with his birth mother, but I know why that is impossible. Still, that doesn’t stop me thinking of what might have been in a better world.

Max is relaxed with Rosa in a way I have not seen him with any one else. She knows him. I wonder whether it is that he reacts to her, or whether he still recognises her as a safe haven. I think the latter. But does it matter?

Rosa is an extraordinary person. Savvy, generous and empathetic. She has that extra room in her heart. That extra capacity for putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is a special gift to be able to foster. One I am not sure I’ve got. But she has it in buckets. There is no doubt that she taught Max was love is. And we benefit from it every day. My respect and admiration for her knows no boundaries.

Photo by Gyorgy Bakos on Unsplash

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