The Day I Stopped Judging My Son’s Birth Mom

By Renee Bernhard ​

The first time I met my son’s birth mother she scowled at me. And she was good at it. I was intimidated. This was my first foster placement, and our “ice breaker” meeting was an accidental face-to-face during a visit when the visit supervisor had momentarily stepped out of the room. She was used to dealing with child services, having grown up in care herself. She considered the county, and therefore me as well, to be the enemy. I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t care. My focus was on her son, as it should have been, but I failed to see her and how difficult this situation was for her. Instead, I was busy judging her.

My husband and I didn’t plan to adopt any children. We were fostering because we were willing and able to help. We were new and not yet familiar with the emotional rollercoaster that comes with foster parenting. The certification process took longer than anticipated for us, 11 months. The day we were certified we told our worker that we wanted to start with a placement of one child, up to age 6. We were going to set ourselves up for success! She counseled us that a placement of a single child may take months, as most often kids come in sibling groups. We were fine with that. We could wait. That was at noon. By 3 p.m. that same day a one month old was at our door. Within 24 hours our plan to “foster only” was out the door and our lives were changed forever.

Our case trudged along with the usual events: court dates, psychological evaluations, visits with parents, visits when no parents showed, etc. I didn’t see the birth mom often, but when I did I tried to be friendly and helpful. My job was to care for her son and support her efforts to reunite with her son. Mostly I was concerned about the possibility of losing him. “She didn’t deserve him anyway,” I told myself. “She should have known better.” My side job, judging her, filled every spare minute I had.

A turn of events came about eight months into the case when she was taken in by a residential program that helped her get sober and supported her in the areas of her safety plan that had previously been ignored. Despite her efforts and considerable progress, my judge-o-meter still was running strong.

By now visits were routine. I would text the visit supervisor from the parking lot when we arrived. She would pick up the baby and take him in. After the visit, the visit supervisor would bring him back to my car. Sometimes I would glance up and see the birth mom scowling at me through the window. Until one day.

The night before there had been flowers on the dinner tables at her residential home. My son’s birth mom asked if she could keep them. After her visit with our son the following day, I was shocked – and nervous – to see her carrying the baby out to my car. I was startled and started walking toward her. We both walked awkwardly toward each other and then stopped in front of the building. She handed me the baby, held out a little bouquet of flowers tied together by a string and said, “I want to honor you and thank you. Happy Mother’s Day.”

That moment shook me to my core. We were both flooded with emotion. We hugged and cried. We wept together. For the first time since the case began, I finally saw her. I saw her vulnerability, her fear, her grief. I was so touched by her actions that I immediately launched into the role I should have been filling for her from the beginning: cheerleader, helper, non-judger. From then on the case was different. I looked forward to seeing her and sharing new milestones the baby had reached. I made her a photo album of his first year. She felt like a niece to me, and I was torn between not wanting to lose our son and wanting her to succeed.

As tender as that moment was, and as fondly as I look back on it, I’m also riddled with guilt and shame. I’m ashamed that I couldn’t be the first one to reach out. I marvel at the strength she had to be able to reach out to me like she did. She has overcome so much in her life, and though she still struggles, she is strong. Resilient. These are the characteristics of hers that I’m starting to see in my son. And I’m proud. I’m happy for him to have these traits from her to carry with him for a lifetime. That day is the day I stopped judging her and every other birth mom we worked with during our three years as foster parents. Seeing her soul showed me how similar we are. How lucky some of us are to grow up with the stability we did. And how similar my fate could have been had I not grown up like I did.

Foster parenting is hard. The ups and downs are enough to make even the most stable among us dizzy. Our contact with our son’s birth mom is sporadic, but our love for her will never waiver. We think of her every day and look forward to seeing where life takes her. My husband and I came out the other side of our foster care journey with an adopted son, nine other children who will always remain in our hearts, so much love, and thanks to our son’s birth mom, a lot less judgement.

Renee Bernhard is a former foster parent, a Foster Parent of the Year award recipient and an adoptive mom. She and her husband founded and now direct the non-profit Foster Source, providing support groups, trainings, education and outreach for Colorado foster children and foster families. Learn more and contact Renee at FosterSource.org.

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