Stephanie and Jake Purcell are foster parents to twin toddler boys whose mother recently gave birth to another son. This is their story, told by Stephanie, about working with and supporting the birth parents with reunification as the goal.
Last night a beautiful baby boy entered the world. My heart swelled as I scrolled through Facebook looking at all the pictures showing a happy mom and dad with their precious pride and joy. I showed my husband and we discussed how cute and perfect he was. I sent out a congratulatory text to the happy momma with promises of a homemade dinner once her and baby are home. I sent out a picture to my family. My dad commented how he looks like his brothers and I proudly agreed. I thanked my friends who have been praying for a safe delivery; we texted about how perfect he is and they sent continued prayers for him and his momma and daddy. I texted our caseworker, Kelsey, a picture and an update on how baby and momma are doing. “Are you guys going to see her?” she asked. I explained my plan to text in the morning and see how things were and my plan for making them dinner once they are settled in at home. She replied with “That will be nice. You guys are awesome!” And I responded “Thank you. We are kind of a weird family now. LOL!” Kelsey was quick to point out that we aren’t weird, just “unique.” Unique – that’s a great word for our situation.
This morning as I drink my coffee and start a load of laundry, I can hear baby laughter from down the hallway of our sleepy house. I quickly prepare two sippy cups of milk and go open the door, greeting the twins with a “good morning, babies!” I turn on the light to see two sweet smiling faces reaching out for me to pick them up from their cribs and give them kisses. A quick glance at their cute little selves and I realize that they’ve been awake a little while and have been a little ornery. They have both removed their diapers and now I have two wet beds and two toddlers to clean up. A quick cleanup is done, and off to the back porch we go to eat breakfast and enjoy the cool morning before we start our busy Saturday. As two toddlers are fussing over my lap and snuggling into my chest, I send out a text to see how mom and baby are doing. I’m relieved to hear that both are doing great and momma is going to take a nap while baby sleeps. My husband and I plan out our schedule for the day: let the babies play before a mid-morning nap, go to the hospital to see the new bundle of joy before we head off to our son’s double header baseball game. Squeeze in time for homework and laundry that needs to be done and we’ve got a packed day ahead of us. I kiss the twins’ heads and tell them, “We’re going to meet your baby brother today.” And it hits me.
These precious 18 month old boys are the babies of our family, but they are also now big brothers in their own family. Although I’ve known this for months and have been busy buying baby clothes and diapers for their new brother, today I feel the wonderful awkwardness of our situation. It’s heavy in the air. What are we to this new baby boy? Are we his aunt and uncle? Are we simply “Jake and Steph” like we are to his older siblings? To the twins though we are one set of parents; they currently have two mommies and three daddies. I KNOW how that sounds…it sounds so WEIRD but in the twins’ world it’s normal. It’s what works for them. This is all they’ve known and that is what makes shared parenting beautiful.
Our experience with foster care has been nothing that we had ever expected and yet everything that we had ever dreamed. To love and care for children that are not biologically yours is a task that should never be taken lightly and always cherished with a full heart. Our story started 16 years ago when two fresh faced kids decided to conquer the world together and get married. Neither of us had completed college or had any idea of what we wanted to be when we grew up other than great parents like our own. Our family started quickly and within the first five years we grew from two young adults to a family of five. We spent our 20s raising our rambunctious brood of three boys and very much growing up with our children. Life took many turns and by our 30s we had started to figure out our own path. Over the course of our relationship, dating and marriage, we had always talked about becoming foster parents but we were not ready to take on extra responsibilities.
November 15, 2015, was a game changer for our family. We had recently started attending Grace Nazarene church. The sermon series that Pastor Trent was preaching about was labeled “It’s Not All About You.” That November morning was all about foster care, and two church families shared their foster stories and how fostering had impacted their lives. I sat soaking up these families’ testimonies. These were everyday people just like us who had opened their lives and hearts to children who needed them. We listened as their children spoke words of love and compassion about their foster siblings – who to them were just their siblings. I remember crying through the entire service. That single service opened up our eyes and hearts to the overwhelming need for foster families. It was our time to act.
After many family discussions with our children and much encouragement and guidance from our friend who happened to be a foster care caseworker, we decided to take the plunge. Jake and I started our Pride classes in the Spring of 2016 and by July we were licensed. Our first placement came in August. A beautiful baby boy was placed in my arms straight from the hospital. For nine days, sweet baby “N” was a part of our family. He had grandparents, aunts and uncles who loved him from the start. He was loved and doted on 24/7. He was our baby. On his 10th day of life he was moved to live with a family member. Although we knew he was where he needed to be, we had experienced a loss that no class can prepare you for. Our hearts were happy for him and his biological family, yet tender with sadness. Our entire family grieved him for months. My children would openly talk about how they missed him. My parents, his foster grandparents, felt the pains of losing a grandchild. None of us expected how a small little soul would impact our lives in such a short period of time and we sure didn’t expect to feel the sucker punch of him leaving.
On November 14, 2016, 364 days after God opened our hearts to foster care, we answered the call to care for premature newborn twin boys. Twins. Two?! How can we manage twins? We both work full time, Jake was taking night classes for a doctoral program, our children are extremely active in multiple sports, our life is full of activities. How can we coordinate and care for two newborns? And premature ones at that? With hesitation, we accepted the placement fully knowing that life was going to become interesting. At three days old, two tiny babies entered our lives.
The fun began and just like that our family of five grew to a family of seven. Overwhelmed, Jake and I continued to work and juggle sporting events; Jake was taking night classes and sharing twin duties throughout the night averaging four hours of nonconsecutive sleep. We were adjusting to our new life of having to plan our every move. Caring for twins is not for the faint of heart. It takes extra time and a whole lot of coordinating just to leave the house. Add in our busy work and sports schedules and our life had taken a complete overhaul.
The concept of shared parenting in foster care is to cultivate a supportive relationship between foster and biological families for the best interest of the children. Shared parenting doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes a lot of hard work, patience, willingness and time from both sides. Our shared parenting journey has been growing and strengthening for 18 months. From the very first call for placement, our caseworker was very upfront in wanting to create a relationship between the foster family and biological family because the birth mom could use an extra support system. We were encouraged to exchange phone numbers and to communicate independently.
Of course this relationship started off awkward and slow. We were complete strangers to one another. One momma was grieving the loss of her babies: the babies that she carried for 36 weeks; the ones that she had planned for and had prepared her life for. She was angry and hurt. She had no idea where her children were or who they were with. The other momma had not planned for twins – let alone premature twin babies. In the beginning, communication was primarily texting about visit schedules and notes via a diaper bag journal. There was very little face to face interaction and both sides had their guard up. It was hard. We knew nothing about one another.
Our common interest was two sweet babies that we all loved. Our relationship started growing and communication amongst families became more frequent, but we all were somewhat unsure of one another. There were times of hard feelings that resulted in a month of silence among the adults. Time softened all of our hearts and communication resumed.
By the end of spring, Jake and I had taken over transporting the boys to and from visits. This allowed us all time to familiarize ourselves with one another. During the short window of drop offs and pickups, stories would be shared of milestones that were being achieved and both families could see the love one another shared for the babies. By the end of summer, our relationship had grown leaps and bounds and we were actually talking and starting to piece together a support system for each other and, most importantly, the children. We shared parenting tips, solved problems, and traveled to important doctor appointments together. Jake and I provided respite for the twins’ older siblings for a five-day span which allowed for them to become familiar with our family and spend time with their baby brothers.
Both families began to trust, support and grow a genuine appreciation for each other. Jake and I have attended court dates and team and family meetings in support of birth mom and again, most importantly, the children. The twins’ birth mom has been included in special events such as Halloween trunk or treat, and we even held a joint first birthday party with both birth and foster families present. Slowly but surely, two families have started to become one very unique extended family unit. This has been the best situation for the children. They receive love from both families and this is their normal, which is what we all want: normalcy for the children.
Our support does not stop with the twins’ birth mom; we also created a relationship with the twins’ biological father and have monthly visits where we get to share our love for the twins with him and share all their achievements while learning about him as well. We are now to the point of discussing openly about transitioning the twins home and how hard this will be on everyone. For my family, we will grieve our babies and our day to day life with them. We will miss tucking them into bed at night, waking them in the mornings, and all the times in between. For their birth mom it will be an exciting but stressful time adjusting to adding the twins into the mix.
One thing we all agree on is that our story does not stop at reunification. Jake and I will still be a part of the twins’ lives and that of their entire family. We envision watching the boys grow up, play sports, and being able to support them however they need us to.
My advice to other foster families is simple. Step out of your comfort zone and extend your hand to birth parents beyond caring for their children. Our jobs as foster parents do not stop with the children in our care. We should be caring for the whole family. These relationships take time and hard work but are so rewarding for all involved. There will be rough patches full of anger and tears, but there will also be love and understanding. So let your guard down, become involved, go to every court date, engage with birth parents and truly get to know them. Their lives are just as important as the children you care for. Be transparent and let birth families get to know you. Let them see your emotions and share the love you have for the children you share. Give unrelentingly. The children deserve it. And remember: it’s NOT all about you.