From what we’ve made made aware of and in our experience so far in the foster-adoption process, there seems to be roughly two stages: the whirlwind of being matched with a child and the drama of everything after, or, the stage that typically comes before that which is simply one of waiting. Sure, there are so many more real things that happen during both of these periods, but once you’ve gone through the piles of paperwork, trainings, certifications, interviews, and a house inspection, everything else in between is just that, a time in between.
Unsurprisingly, this tends to mirror a lot of what goes on in life itself. We have periods of lots of activity, and then we also have periods of the “activity” of waiting. It’s as if we’re all hurrying to get to the airport to be there just in time to wait for the 2 hours before we board. There’s a lot of stuff—if not the majority of the stuff of life itself—that goes on in between, comprising all sorts of decisions we must make about things of great importance.
The in-between time of waiting for foster-adoptive parents raises all sorts of issues. We hope and pray that we will be good parents, so we make all sorts of plans, many of which are good. But it is easy to go overboard, for we simply do not know who that child will be until it happens. There is a tension between our hopes and the actually-existing-but-as-of-yet-unknown-to-us child.
A theologian named Romano Guardini talks about this nature in us that exists in tension in relation to the Church:
The Church continually arouses in him that tension which constitutes the very foundation of his nature: the tension between being and the desire to be, between actuality and a task to be accomplished. And she [the Church] resolves it for him by the mystery of his likeness to God and of God’s love, which bestows of its fullness that which totally surpasses the nature (Romano Guardini, The Church and the Catholic and the Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane [London: Sheed & Ward, 1935], 62).
It is so easy to lose sight of what is important during this time of tension. We desire so much to be a certain kind of parent that, while learning about attachment parenting is all well and (very) good, one can quickly find themselves debating with others about parenting styles when neither of you have any experience actually being a parent. Or, maybe your friend is a parent, but their own parenting style isn’t one you would necessarily choose for yourself even though you don’t have a problem with how they raise their child. As much as I seriously commend the study of books as a serious aid, no serious existing person would suggest that they would substitute for the thing itself, no matter how indispensable such books may be.
By somewhat of an accident, I read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters this past week. For those unfamiliar with this work, Lewis has composed a series of fictional letters from a demon named Screwtape to his understudy named Wormwood in an effort to teach Wormwood the best way to tempt humans away from the Triune God, who Screwtape calls “the Enemy”. A couple of sections stood out to me as constant issues for us during the waiting period of being foster-adoptive parents.
I have explained that you can weaken his prayers by diverting his attention from the Enemy Himself to his own states of mind about the Enemy. On the other hand fear becomes easier to master when the patient’s mind is diverted from the feared to the fear itself, considered as a present and undesirable state of his own mind; and when he regards the fear as his appointed cross he will inevitably think of it as a state of mind. One can therefore formulate the general rule; in all activities of mind which favour our cause, encourage the patient to be unself-conscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favourable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters [London: Harper Collons, 1942], 26).
Later on in another letter, Screwtape makes the following suggestion to Wormwood after chiding him for letting another human repent of their sins and enter a “second conversion”:
The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it [or blog post! – ed.]; that is often an excellent way of sterilising the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel… Your affectionate uncle, SCREWTAPE (Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 66-67).
I don’t mean to be overly dramatic or heavy-handed by quoting these letters of Screwtape. Rather than being spiritually alarmist, I want to point out various tendencies (for good or as illustrated here, for ill) that can often hinder our meditations and ability to act rightly, or even at all, during the time of tension that is the waiting period of a foster-adoptive parent.
I would say it should be obvious that adoption is something that is “favourable to [God]”. With that in mind, it can be all-too-easy to fall prey to having one’s mind bent “back on itself” during this period of waiting where we end up simply thinking and pondering too much about the thinking itself. These cycles really aren’t helpful for anybody, yet when describing this particular Screwtape letter to a group of friends last night, everybody in the room seemed to resonate with this tendency (as do I).
What these creative fictional letters seem to point to is that it is far too easy for us to remove this tension by doing things that take our focus away from what matters. We read books on attachment—good; but how are we fostering the adult friendships and attachments with our younger relatives (i.e., nieces, nephews, et al.) in the meantime? We have every good intention of providing a home for our future kiddo—great; but are we being hospitable people and friends to others during this time? In other words, there are all sorts of “what if?” questions that we can to some extent adequately think about and research, but how are we actually confronting our reality now?
A couple of nights ago at the local foster-adoption support group, there were a number of people there from all different stages of the process. Some had barely started, some had already adopted teenagers and those children are now grown up, and there were people from all stages in between. A man who kept talking about the various stages of his own progress continued to make reference to thinking that he was “almost done” and yet, there was always more steps to go in the process.
A woman who was much further along in the process—and indeed was about to meet a potential match the next week—spoke up and suggested something very wise. She said that she has found it more fruitful to stop thinking that she is “almost done”. She said that on the one hand, that line of agonized thinking really hasn’t gotten her anywhere; and on the other hand, it has helped her to focus on what she needs to work on now, on her present duties, etc.
It didn’t occur to me until the following evening how incredibly helpful this suggestion was. My wife and I are a part of a lay Catholic movement called Communion & Liberation, and there is a great deal of emphasis placed on avoiding the reduction of things to various ideologies so that one can actually wrestle with what is at issue—what they often describe as “staying in front of the problem.” The woman’s suggestion to forego the thought that “the process is almost done” seems in keeping with this similar spirit of staying in front of reality.
Otherwise, I found that if I do not stay in front of the reality given to me, the mental rabbit hole down which we (and I) too easily can go down is an anxious one. Fr Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion & Liberation, says that without the following context, peace will be fragile and brittle and crumble into anxiety:
the tension to affirm reality, as did Christ’s gaze, is the foundation of peace. This peace cannot last if it does not rest on the ultimate substance of reality, on the Mystery, which makes all things, on God, the Father (Luigi Giussani, Why the Church? [Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004], 162).