Sarah Sentilles, author of ‘Stranger Care’, talks about foster care, fleeting custody and lasting love

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Author Sarah SentillesGia Goodrich

Why did you write this?

I wrote “Stranger Care” as a love letter to our adopted daughter, whom I call Coco in the book. If I no longer had the right to mother her, I wanted to write a book that would show her that she belongs to the Earth and that she belongs to herself and that, wherever she is, she does not is not far from her home. It really is a book that asks: how would we live if we believed we were all connected? What if kinship and mothering were a verb?

I thought about how people would talk to me and say, “When you have a baby, you feel a kind of love that you’ve never experienced before. And when I wasn’t a parent, I found it off-putting: don’t tell me what my heart is capable of. When I became a foster parent, I realized that was true. I loved him like I had never loved anything else. It wasn’t because I had some of my DNA out there in the world. It was because she had been entrusted to me. I felt the universe say, ‘Here, take care of this.’ And I felt my heart expand. And I feel like it showed me that my heart can then expand for a mountain, for a river, for a refugee. It shows us what we are all capable of, and I think that’s a very beautiful thing.

What happened between Coco’s return to her biological mother and your new adoption?

People always ask when they interview me, “If you could change one thing about the foster care system, what would you change?” I used to say that I would end poverty. If we had a social safety net, if people had access to gainful employment, affordable housing and rehabilitation, there would be very few children in the foster care system.

The most technical thing I would change is that Idaho, anyway, is a reunification state. Idaho reunites children with their biological parents more than 70% of the time. I think the national average is more around 50 percent. But, once the child is reunited, that is to say, he returns to his biological family, all support is cut off.

Coco’s mother, Evelyn, when her daughter was in care, had access to drug treatment, she had mental health counselling, she had a social worker, she had help finding affordable housing. She had free daycare in the form of Eric and me. Once Coco was returned to her, all of those supports were cut off, which meant she was alone again, which meant Coco was alone. A lot of things have happened where the house is no longer safe for her. … After a series of very violent events, Coco returned to care and is now in another state with a new foster family where her half-brother lives.

… We got Zoom visits during the pandemic. So we’ve been zooming in with her every Thursday morning for over a year. Two weeks ago we got to see her in person, which was really beautiful.

Candid conversations for parents.GLOBE STAFF

Many of my readers have young children and may be considering having a second child. What brought you on your chosen motherhood journey?

I always wanted to be a mother. It was something that was important to me. I come from a large family. I have three siblings. But then I kind of swallowed our cultural narrative that being a mother would ruin my life, that it would ruin my writing.

It stayed with me: I wanted to be a mother; I wanted to have a baby. At the time I said that out loud in my marriage, I was married to an environmentalist who didn’t want to bring another human into the world. We had to navigate and understand: “OK, I finally said what I wanted.” I’ve struggled a lot in my life to admit my desires, especially if someone else wants the opposite. And now we were on the other side of this question where there is not much compromise. Either you have a child or you don’t.

I realized that was a different question, actually, which is: Do I want to be a parent? And so suddenly adoption struck me as a viable option, and I hadn’t really considered it before. Eric and I decided we wanted to be a home for a child in need because there are 500,000 foster children. It was like, well, why have another child when there are already all these needy children?

[But] I had also misunderstood how drastic and immediate attachment to a baby would be and what it would be like to not only return him to his biological mother, but to bring him back to a situation that I knew deep down was not. wasn’t sure.

I can imagine it must be very difficult to form an attachment that seems temporary. How do you prepare to let go?

That’s an excellent question. I think parenthood itself is active preparation for letting go. So is love, right? We love mortal beings and we don’t know how long we will spend with them. … When I was telling people we were going to be foster parents, they were like, ‘I’ve always thought about doing this, but I really want a kid of my own. This is one of the concepts that foster care really complicates, which is that no child is ours, is it? Every child we welcome into our lives is a stranger no matter how we find them, and our job as parents or caregivers is to help them become who they need to be on this planet.

I think if you go into foster care wanting to adopt, as we did – we were very clear with our social worker that we wanted to adopt – the trauma of loss is very intense. If you go into foster care wanting to be a home for as long as a child needs a home, I think the focus might be different. The loss may not be less, but you might be better prepared for it.

I think your experience probably resonates with a lot of people: suddenly you and your partner or spouse realize you have different ideas! You thought you were on the same page, but someone changed your mind. People grow and evolve. Was it a moment of crisis in your relationship? How did you go through this?

Certainly a moment of crisis in our marriage. The real crisis was that I hadn’t said what I wanted…I always struggled with that, from little things like, “Do I want a pizza or a burrito, or what hike should we do?” I consider myself a feminist, a strong feminist, and I differed a lot. These little reports accumulate.

I had to learn to say what I wanted and risk the conflict that might come with it. And I think that ended up being a beautiful thing for our wedding. I think both of our hearts opened up when Coco came into our lives in different ways. We also mourned his loss in different ways and held on to that loss. We wanted this loss to strengthen our marriage, bring us closer. Many marriages end with the loss of a child. So that was something we really had to work towards. Now we have this little boy who is just light and joy incarnate.

What would you say to someone at the start of this journey?

I would tell them it’s never wrong to choose love. No love is wasted. I was carrying Coco in one of those baby carriers at the grocery store, and the grocery store clerk said, “Oh, your baby is so beautiful.” I said, ‘Oh, she’s actually my adopted daughter.’ And she just stopped. She looked at me and said, ‘I was raised in the foster care system. A good home makes all the difference. And so, I think, trust that no matter how long or how long a child is with you, your love matters.

The interview has been edited and condensed.


Kara Baskin can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.

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