When Foster Care Milestones are Bittersweet

Katie Dunlavy of The Pearl Pages sitting n concrete steps with her children and foster son, wearing leopard print Lularoe Jax joggers.

My foster son is turning ONE! So of course, we’re planning the perfect first party for this perfect boy. I love a good birthday party: this time I’ve decided to go with an astronaut theme. My dad doesn’t have any grandsons, and he’s about anything and everything that has to do with rockets. It also seems appropriate due to all of the COVID restrictions because we can get together while we ‘space out.’ (Get it?)

I’m so excited to celebrate this child. I’m so excited for our families to come together and love this precious boy. My girls are beyond thrilled to be throwing a party. They’re already hard at work making signs and all of the homemade touches that make birthdays special. But as I’m sitting here with my Amazon cart filled with planet-shaped balloons, inflatable rockets, giant astronauts, and one damn cute flight suit, I can’t help but cry.

With every added detail (and hello, it’s me so there are A LOT of details) I feel like more of a jerk. With every item I put in my cart I feel like I’m stealing this moment from his bio mom. As I sit here sobbing with my online shopping cart I’m asking myself, “Is this normal? Should being his mom feel like I’m hurting someone else?”

As foster parents, we treat this little boy as if he is our own. That includes an over-the-top first birthday party. I know it’s a good thing. I know it’s a way we’re showing love. I know there’s nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate this child. Why can’t I shake this feeling then?

The whole fostering experience has been bittersweet. Since he’s my first foster child, I don’t know if it’s more bitter because he’s a baby. He’s had so many “first’s,” hit so many milestones and he’s doing all of them with us. Every single time I clap for him, every single time I squeeze him tight and tell him, “Good boy! I’m so proud of you!” a little part of me aches.

And it doesn’t necessarily ache because I’m here and his mother isn’t. I ache because he’s here in the first place. I hate that this child is in foster care. I love that he’s with us and I love loving him. He’s grown and blossomed and I feel so blessed to be a part of every moment. I just hate that these are his circumstances. I hate that these are the circumstances so many children are in.

I spent a long time wishing that little part of me would learn to go away, that I could just celebrate the sweet without the bitter. Until I decided that feeling the aches, the sadness, the bitterness isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. You see, that’s just a sign of empathy, a sign of our ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is our great strength as parents, in our relationships, and as citizens of this country. Because really, everything worth experiencing in life is a little bittersweet, don’t you think?

I know I’ll shed some tears at his out-of-this-world first birthday party. And whether they’re happy tears or sad tears, I won’t be ashamed for him or my girls to see. To teach our children empathy, to teach them to embrace the bittersweet moments in life, that’s our greatest job as parents and foster parents.



P.S. My last post has a lot of resources for teaching your kids empathy towards others. It’s worth a read if you haven’t already!

6 thoughts on “When Foster Care Milestones are Bittersweet

  1. You make such a brilliant point here, Katie! If we only do what feels good or right, we won’t do the hard things. I always thought it was ironic that the things we really exceed at and are passionate about are the things that also break our hearts. Doing the right thing often requires courage and sacrifice, and we may never even know for sure if we did it right. Foster parenting has to be the epitome of that, and I’m so thankful for those who are willing to stand in the gap for the defenseless. Your girls will remember the party even if he doesn’t, and that will impact them forever.


  2. Katie, as someone who knows the birth mom and the choices she is making, I am so grateful for your family. This sweet boy will be better because of you. He will thrive because of you. He has a chance at life because of you. He will know love because of you. As you feel those sad feelings of empathy, I hope you can also feel those feeling of joy knowing the difference you have made in this precious little ones life.


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