May is National Foster Care Month. This can be a great time for many to take a look at how online education can benefit degree seekers who are also working on becoming foster or adoptive parents. Here’s my story.
When I became a foster dad I was still working on my bachelor’s and finding life to be quite busy. When fatherhood found me, I was holding down a full-time job, training with the Texas State Guard, and pursuing my educational goals. Adding on to all of this, my wife Mary and I were also in training to become foster parents. In the state of Texas, as in many other states, there are quite a few hoops one has to jump through in order to get a foster care license.
The state mandates a certain number of training hours per year, which must be maintained on a rolling basis. Some courses must individually be current, such as first aid/CPR, psychotropic drug awareness, and sexual behavior awareness. Mary and I spent a lot of time in these classes. Then there was the fire inspection, and health inspection- both of which held our home to the standard of a daycare. We had to have a fire plan. There was childproofing on every power outlet, drawer and cabinet. A locked safebox for the fridge in case any foster children needed refrigerated medications. The list went on and on.
During this time, I knew it was going to be important for me to keep moving my education forward, so that I could better provide for the children with which we would be entrusted. I cannot articulate enough how important the resources of my own time management skills plus American Military University’s online course programs were. An online student has a certain amount of responsibility that must be maintained- but at the same time, not once since I became a father has an AMU professor failed to work with me if I had issues related to children, illness in the family, State Guard annual training or personal issues. If I had been taking brick and mortar classes, I would probably have even less hair than the meager stubble that stands between me and being Captain Picard for Halloween. And that reminds me- the adventure was quite interesting, and it taxed my wife, me and our sanity to the edge. All through it my school was flexible and understanding. Allow me to illustrate those times.
Several years ago, my wife was told she needed an immediate hysterectomy to treat a severe case of endometriosis. The pain from the disease was terrible, but the emotional impact of being told we’d never had children is something I can only estimate. I was disappointed, my wife was devastated. After the initial shock began to wear off, we looked into adoption and foster care. Adoption proved to be extremely expensive in the cases available to us, so we chose to become foster parents. After months of hearing nothing, then our adoption/foster care agency, Arrow, came through for us.
On 21 October 2011, I was at work at the community college where I am currently a senior computer technician. At that time I was highly focused on getting my master’s so I could teach. My desk phone rang- it was a call that changed my life. I got the call at 1100, and by 1430 I was a father. I raced home to meet the CPS and Arrow agents. Waiting for me were Zane, a handsome two-and-a-half year old boy who was quiet and quite wary of me and any male he was around. With Zane was his five month old sister Kaylee, who had a case of scabies and the worst diaper rash I’ve seen since. My life turned upside down immediately. With my wife working in manufacturing and having roughly bupkis in the way of leave for such things, it was up to me to be stay-at-home Daddy for the first month.
Luckily, my day job offered paternity leave for foster placements. Little Kaylee would not sleep more than two hours at a stretch. I had never before changed a diaper. I had never made formula. I learned how to do both on zero sleep and by the light of a cell phone. I became inundated with childcare. Kaylee’s health issues made her need my attention constantly. All of this was occurring while I was taking a full course load on my bachelor’s. If it hadn’t been for the ability to do my class work pretty much at the drop of a hat (or the nap of two children) I’d have had to drop out of college right then.
Life slowly started to settle down. Throughout the whole ordeal, I was able to keep up with my courses and graduate, then move on to my master’s. Oh, and by the by, on 30 April 2013 we had the honor of becoming Zane and Kaylee’s adoptive parents! I just celebrated my second anniversary as a legally recognized Daddy, and this month Kaylee turned four and Zane will be six in June. So far it’s been a great ride.
Crash Course in Foster Parenting
How did we deal with Kaylee’s further health issues that resulted in her needing to get ear tubes, and the frustrating legal reality that as foster parents, we couldn’t authorize the procedure? How heart-wrenching was it to sit in court date after court date and be no different than the other people in the peanut gallery because as foster parents with less than twelve months’ of custody, we were not legally party to our children’s case? How did we deal with regular visits with the birth parents; at which the parents often failed to show up- we continue to deal with this issue with Zane, who remembers his birth parents and struggles with why they are no longer in his life.
It wasn’t easy. At all. But I would go right back to the sleeplessness, the formula in the dead of night, the clutching a baby in one hand and writing my weekly discussion board posts with the other, the playing and coaxing it took for Zane to trust me… I’d do it all over again if I had to. The reward has been the grandest adventure of my life.
My Education and My New Family
My epic journey with AMU is drawing to a close. In two weeks I’ll be done with this final course, then I’ll enroll in my “Write your Thesis in 16 weeks” class, and I’ll be finished with my current education with AMU. My adventure as a dad will continue.
There’s a lot to fear about foster care. Will you be able to handle the separation if your placement is disrupted? In the State of Texas, the priority of CPS is reunification with birth family or legal kin. The likelihood of adopting “legal risk” children is low. What if your foster kids have any of the nightmare behaviors they will warn you about in classes — food hoarding, self-harm, sexual behaviors as young as toddler age, running away? n some cases behaviors manifest later- my son started his time with us with a terrible meltdown cycle, which he grew out of as time went on and he realized he was not going to be moving to yet another family. This is when I stopped being “Jeffrey” and started being “Daddy.”
Foster Care isn’t an easy road- and there is the potential for heartbreak.
What I want all of you reading this to carry away from our tale is twofold. First, don’t let the horror stories scare you. The bottom line is there are children like ours, who come from a background of drugs, crime and sexual abuse. They need loving homes. They will be of all ethnicities. They will be all ages, and come in sibling groups as well as individually. Becoming a foster parent is perhaps one of the noblest callings there is- for each child in a loving foster home there’s one less child living in a group home or facility growing up believing that they are not worthy of love. These kids need a fighting chance emotionally above all. And that’s where people like us come in. My wife and I started this journey for ourselves — to become parents. We fought the courts and stayed the course for the kids.
If you’re not already a parent, believe you me- Locutus of Borg was right. Your life, as it has been, is now over. But that’s not a bad thing. My life now is amazing. Hectic, but if I could actually communicate the elation of being called “Daddy” for the first time… or when the little boy that was afraid of me for weeks crawls into my lap while I’m working on yet another term paper and tells me I’m his best friend. Or watching my little girl go from a neglected child unable to raise her own head to a crawler, then a walker, then a beautiful toddler who loves Star Wars as much as she loves Frozen- this is what it’s all about. It’s all worth it. Every minute.
The second point is that online education is the absolute right choice for someone in a situation as busy as or busier than my own. The flexibility of being able to do the reading and writing when you can fit it into your schedule, and then have large windows in which to interact with your class- these things are life savers to a new parent foster or biological. The professors here are used situations in which military personnel may be dealing with TDY or overseas deployment or the general fun and profit that comes with a military career. They took that expectation of flexibility and not only worked around my State Guard commitments but also my parenthood, flooded house, going slightly mental commitments and made me feel like I was still on the right track. I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement and good feedback from these same professors. This is the way to go for those of us who just can’t sit down in a brick-and-mortar environment and carve that time out of our schedules.
Thanks for reading. If you’re considering fostering- find an agency near you and get some information. These kids need you. They need loving parents willing to take them in and make them part of a family. My last piece of advice goes for all college students, parents, and just plain people. You can do what you put your mind to, and you can keep a surprising number of plates spinning at need.
Do what you need to do — you can be a parent and a student and hold down employment. But make sure in the middle of all the feedings, diapers, studying and working you make time for yourself a little each week. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your family. Remember that, and you’ll succeed. I feel like I did. I got my BA, almost have my MA, and have two kids who randomly quote Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones movies, sing along to The Monkees and Eddie Money, and ask Daddy if they can watch Star Trek with him. I think that’s evidence of good scholarship, and good parenting.
About the Author
At the time of this writing, Jeffrey is finishing his last course before taking his capstone for an M.A. in Military History from AMU.