Every child should be born into this country with free therapy, a right as basic as clean water or safe shelter or, like, a decently priced vegetable. It was one of the benefits of fostering — and later adoption — that my three school-aged girls came with the built-in support of Medicaid and, even more fortunately (and miraculously), a handful of high-quality therapists who took subsidized insurance. Honestly, for this reason alone, fostering and adoption is the only way I can imagine surviving parenting in modern America. Because, over the years, it’s been my kids’ therapists who have unequivocally re-parented me.
Our first therapist's name was Anna. About my age with bright skin and a toothy grin, Anna had been assigned to work with our family through the fostering transition. Just moving into a foster home was a kind of trauma, we’d learned in our foster parent training, and so my husband and I been tasked with becoming “loss and attachment experts.” The loss part I understood from my own shaky childhood. (A child of divorce with an anxious brain, I had been in and out of private therapy my whole life.) But the attachment part felt more foreign. I wasn’t easily given to touch or tears or, well, effusive displays of affection. My go-to gesture was a friendly wave.
“What if this makes me a disastrous fit for mothering?” I asked Anna, who split her weekly sessions between meeting with one of our girls and meeting with us. She replied brightly, as she always did: “And what if you’re exactly what these girls need? Someone who is with them and for them but needs little from them.” Not until Anna had I considered the story I’d been telling about myself as “not the mothering type” had grown limiting. What if she was right? What if my seemingly “detached” affect could sometimes be an asset in parenting? What if it could give my girls the space they needed to shape their own stories?
Detachment might have been a fine skill to have as a foster parent, but after our girls’ case made a quick turn toward adoption, I scrambled to grow my capacity for intimate relationships. Enter Audre. Part of the same agency as Anna, Audre worked with one of our daughters on expressing her anger and later with another on expressing her sadness. (Those emoji feelings charts were a real win for child and adult alike.) So, when the agency sponsored a virtual group therapy class led by Audre, I quickly signed us up. Bonus: it even came with free GrubHub vouchers each week.
“Think of attachment like building a muscle,” Audre told us. “Some days your window of tolerance for stress and repair is wide. Other days it’s narrow. That’s okay. Your job is just to keep opening the window.” So we did. We talked about all the tricky bits of becoming a family that none of us really unexpected. I mean, what family — biological, adopted, blended, or chosen — couldn’t benefit from airing the surprising heartaches of belonging? The fresh air was certainly good for me. I breathed easier knowing kinship rarely happens overnight; instead it’s flexed in the micro-moves. A kind word. A slow tone. A soft apology. And, then, another.
Now, almost six years after the adoption became final, I’m still learning what it looks like to raise children while I raise myself. Eleanor, one of our family’s new therapists, is showing me. In fact, I love Eleanor so much that I’ve tried to steal her for myself. (Conflict of interest, she tells me annoyingly but professionally.) To be honest, though, our girls are in and out of therapy so frequently, and their sessions require parental presence so often, that I can hardly imagine putting another appointment of my own on the weekly calendar. So, for now at least, I’m okay with getting my therapy vicariously.
Currently, Eleanor is teaching me how to say “ouch.” When I say I sometimes regret becoming a parent, she responds ouch. When I say I wish my girls would share with me more of their tender, surly truths. Ouch. When I say that no, really, I’m fine, it’s fine, this is what I signed up for. Still, ouch. I’m still learning how to admit my own needs, while also being regulated and resilient and adult enough to meet someone else’s. It’s vexing. But I love how Eleanor keeps inviting me to be a person who is also a parent, not just a role but an actual human soul with vulnerabilities and insecurities and a suitcase full of anxieties yet to “unpack” in talk therapy.
No one sets out to be a foster parent for the therapy. But it’s undeservedly wonderful — so wonderful I wish every kid and parent in this country, but especially birth parents, could address their mental-health needs worry-free. Because it’s this built-in social support that’s remade me, from a woman who didn’t think herself capable of the work of love to one that knows any work worth doing can’t be done alone. And I hope my girls know this, too. Because of Anna. Because of Audre. And because of Eleanor who recently said, “Hey, when your eldest goes off Medicaid, I will see her free of charge for as long as she needs.”
Then and there, over Zoom in my cheap office chair, I happily wept.
Erin S. Lane is the author of three books, most recently Someone Other Than a Mother: Flipping the Scripts on a Woman's Purpose and Making Meaning beyond Motherhood. After a decade of being purposefully, prayerfully childfree, she and her husband unexpectedly adopted three school-aged girls (who, much to her delight, do not call her "Mom.") Educated as a theologian and trained as a vocational facilitator, her happy place is helping people discern their shyest and wildest questions of purpose. She lives in Raleigh, NC, with all manner of kin, human and not.