Polka-dot gift bags with crinkly tissue paper lined the table as a giant balloon in the shape of the numeral “9” swayed under the air-conditioned breeze just enough to elicit excited barks from our Golden Retriever puppy, Autumn.
Atop the “Happy Birthday” paper plates enveloped in pastel hues and dotted with confetti was a slice of chocolate cake enrobed with thick white icing – my daughter’s favorite. The message on top: “Happy 9th Birthday! Mommy loves you!”
But although the party was indeed for my daughter’s 9th birthday, the cake was not from me. It was from her birth mom.
You see, my family is a foster and adoptive family, which means that who we are – and who we consider family — may look a bit different than what most people are used to. We have a far-reaching web of family members, both biological and not technically related, who make up the fabric of what the word “family” means to me.
In the case of my now-9-year-old daughter, she and her younger sister lived with us for about 18 months as infants. She spoke her first words to us, learned to roll over with us, and took those tentative-first-steps-turned-full-on run straight into my arms. Then, as though it had all been just a dream, a judge decided it was time for them to go back to their birth mom and, a couple days later, they were gone.
Amid my tears and utter devastation as I packed up their things, I had an idea to create an album of photos that included everything from the little moments to the major milestones that had occurred over the past 18 months in our home to send as a gift for their mom. I wasn’t sure if she would appreciate it or even look at it, but it seemed that so many rich and wonderful memories should be shared.
The day they left was one of the most heartbreaking days of my life. But that evening, the phone rang – it was their birth mom on the other end, sobbing.
She always felt that so many of her daughters’ young moments had been stolen from her due to the circumstances. The photo album, she said, gave those moments back.
Suddenly, something new was born between us. A partnership. A kinship. A family bond. Of course, when it comes to foster care and adoption, it’s not always easy to forge these types of bonds. Too frequently, classroom assignments leave kids like mine with family trees that stand stark, country of origin stories that are perplexing, and baby pictures that are blank.
How do you explain the importance of a child’s origin to them when no one knows what it is? For me, the best thing we can do is to embrace family, in all its forms.
When my son, who came to us at age 3, wanted to know his first word, we called his birth mom to find out. (It was “ball” – we promptly scheduled an outing to a Houston Astros game with her, too, so we could experience that together.)
For another of my daughters, who is not in touch with her birth mom, defining family has meant forging special relationships with her loving aunties, who provide details, perspective, and, most importantly, love, when she needs it most.
There’s a quote that’s common in foster care circles that says: “Not flesh of my flesh, nor bone of my bone. But still miraculously my own. Never forget for a single minute, you didn’t grow under my heart but in it.”
I think it’s a nice quote. But I’ve also come to learn that, when it comes to children, the more hearts that are invested, the better.
For my newly minted 9-year-old, celebrating an October birthday with a family pool party meant having both of her moms in attendance and her wishing on her candle – atop her chocolate cake — when she blew it out to one day visit Belize, where most of her biological family is from. Naturally, the day’s events were documented in photographs that will populate our latest family album.
It’s not always easy and it’s definitely not simple, but for us, our wide web of support is what community looks like. It’s what love looks like. It’s what family looks like.
How do you capture traditions and preserve stories for your family? And how do you answer the question when someone asks: What does family mean to you?
Kristin Finan is a foster and adoptive mom of six and a Sacred Stories Advisory Group Member. She is also the co-founder and executive director of Carrying Hope, a 501c3 nonprofit with a mission to improve the lives of youth and families who have been impacted by the foster care system through resources, support services, housing, and enrichment opportunities.
World Adoption Day is November 9
November is National Adoption Awareness Month