Doctor FeelGood: The Unexpected Foster Mother

[NOTE: We’ll get back to troubles & woe presently. Meantime, something upbeat.]

I’m a pediatrician. I unexpectedly became a foster mom to a patient.

I asked my husband if we should put off retirement to become foster parents. He was on board right away.

Washington Post — By Carolyn Roy-Bornstein
 —June 11, 2022

At a recent family wedding, I was asked to give the happy couple some marital advice. I had jotted down a speech on a piece of paper that was now folded up in my pocket. As I listened to the other guests’ toasts, my 2-year-old granddaughter pulled at my legs, begging to be picked up.
“Nana, Nana,” Joli called.

Her mother, Janine, my foster daughter, tried to peel the child’s limbs from mine, her two legs tighter than a stink bug on a stick.
Finally, it was my turn.

Joli nestled her head into my neck, thumb in mouth. I pulled Janine closer with my other hand, kissing her mop of curls.

In that moment, I traded in my carefully written tribute for the succinct maxim that had just popped into my head — and had brought endless joy and meaning into my life.
“Make room for the unexpected,” I said.

I had made room for the unexpected seven years prior, when we became foster parents to Janine, then 14. I had known Janine since she was 7 when she became a patient of mine in my pediatric practice. She was bright and beautiful, a world of possibilities before her. Then the unthinkable happened. Her father, who had told me proudly on the first day we met how he’d beaten cancer, was diagnosed with a recurrence; this time it had spread to his lungs. He died when Janine was 10. Her mother, already suffering from mental illness and alcoholism, became unable to care for her daughter alone.

So began a dizzying succession of various foster homes and programs over the next several years.

In a desperate attempt to control the chaos her world had become, Janine developed severe anorexia. She spent 19 months in residential treatment. But when the Department of Children and Families could not find a foster home skilled enough to care for her after discharge, she gave up hope and had no motivation to get better.

“I might as well be a piece of trash in a dumpster,” her social worker told me she’d said.

I knew I had to do something.

I explained the situation to my husband over dinner — about this amazing young girl in my practice who didn’t deserve what was being thrown at her, who needed our help. The week before, we had been strategizing about our retirement. Now I was coming to him asking him to be a foster dad.

Saul didn’t miss a beat. He was on board.

We started meeting weekly with Janine in family therapy sessions at the treatment program. After a few weeks, Janine started coming home with us on passes.

We became proficient at coaching her through meals and snacks. We recognized the signs of her anxiety around food — a shaking leg under the table, a crust of bread shredded to nothingness. We learned the skills we needed to ease her angst in those moments. Distracting games at the dinner table. No mention of calories or weight while eating. Finally, after 10 months, she was discharged from the treatment facility and came to live with us.

But caring for someone with a severe eating disorder wasn’t easy. The disease had a stranglehold on its young victim. She acted out in ways that were completely disconnected from her innately sweet nature. We were called names and sworn at for calling Janine to the table to eat; we had forks and food thrown at us for offering her food. Janine was hospitalized and went through intensive outpatient treatment programs three more times before finally beginning to get her eating disorder under control years later.

“It’s still there,” she told us recently. “It’s just quieter.”

Through it all, we stayed by her side because we love her.

The author and Janine on Mother’s Day 2022. (Carolyn Roy-Bornstein)

Janine still has her struggles with food, but she can now go to restaurants with friends and she can snack without obsessing about portions and calories. She read this piece and gave me her blessing to publish it.

Nowadays, Janine makes dinner for the family on Thursday nights. She peruses recipes on cooking sites, shops for the ingredients and surprises us with chicken fajitas, Mexican rice, broccoli Alfredo.

Janine and Joli making pizza in the kitchen last year. (Carolyn Roy-Bornstein)

Five years ago, she would have fled the kitchen in tears if I had asked her to measure out six tablespoons of olive oil. Now we work together at the counter, chopping vegetables side by side. Joli helps too, sprinkling the cheese on our rolled-out pizza dough, fresh flour smudged on her nose.

Janine can finally feed herself.

She can also feed her little girl.

We stayed by her side through her pregnancy, too. I coached her through her breathing exercises in the labor suite. I walked the halls with her, stopping for each contraction, rubbing her back. I held her hand in the delivery room as Joli emerged, her bright blue eyes searching for her mother’s.

While we made room for the unexpected by putting off retirement to love a teenager and watch her grow into a mature, confident young woman, Janine made room for Joli. Both unexpected. Both welcome joys.

In the end, sometimes our futures choose us. The unexpected can bring meaning to our lives beyond anything we could have planned — if we make room for it.

Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a mother, writer and practicing pediatrician living on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

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