‘How’s Our Girl?’: On Loving a Foster Child and Letting Go

I called my therapist. I was crying so hard I could barely talk. “I want to keep her,” I said.

“I need you to listen to me, but you’re not going to like what I’m about to say,” she said. “The best and most enlightened thing to do, energetically and emotionally, is to be hoping and wishing and praying” that the baby’s biological mother would get her life together and be able to take the baby back.

I had been hoping and wishing and praying she would disappear.

“She is exhibiting the desire to raise this child, to change her life,” my therapist said. “We have to root for that. If we don’t root for that, we’ll be doing harm to another person. And we can’t do harm to another person to get what we want. That’s not who we are.”

“But what if it is who I am?” I asked.

“You have to take the high road, or you will perish,” my therapist said. “You need to shift your thinking. You need to start cheering for her, for this human who has suffered so much. Then, if she makes it, if she gets her child back, you will walk away clean. Will you be sad? Yes. But you won’t be sad and mean.”

I couldn’t speak.

“Think about it this way,” she added. “This child might save this mother’s life, and you don’t need your life saved.”

Months before we brought the baby home, when I was still on book tour for “Draw Your Weapons,” a book about art and war that asks how we ought to respond to images of people in pain, I talked with audience after audience about the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. His family was killed in the Holocaust, and Levinas dedicated his life to developing an ethical system that would make another genocide impossible.

This was his proposal: When you are in the presence of the Other, a stranger, someone you don’t understand, someone who scares you, someone you think might kill you, when you feel the Other is so different from you that their life might not even count as a life, then that is the sign you are in the presence of God. The life of the Other must be protected at all costs, even at the cost of your own life.

When I became a foster parent, I’d thought the stranger — the Other — I had been asked to care for was the baby. But the stranger wasn’t the baby. The stranger was her mother.