A Tale of Two Stories


I’ve been trying to write the story of our adopted kids and how that came about, but I’ve found it to be an impossible task to separate their story from the parallel story of our former foster sons.  In my heart, their stories are not only parallel, but strongly interwoven and nearly inseparable.  It is a two-sided coin: love and joy on one side and sorrow and longing on the other.   But it is a beautiful story that I want to tell you, so I will try my best.

During the height of the Covid lockdown, a few months after the three boys were reunified, I went on a walk with a friend.  At the end of the walk, she asked me what it felt like when the boys left. 

“It feels like the same grief as when someone dies—perhaps a little like a miscarriage.  Everything that you’d imagined and hoped for them is erased and there is a yawning absence.”  But it’s also different.  With a miscarriage, you don’t know the child’s personality.  You haven’t had to look into their eyes and share with them devastating truths that you know most adults couldn’t handle and then hold them as they sob for an hour processing it.  There is no intimate history between you.  You are not sending them back into a potential lion’s den.  The miscarried babe will be perfectly safe in the arms of their loving Creator.  And this, to me, was the worst part.  Against my will, and with my knowledge, they were going back because they’d become too much of a long-term financial burden to the county. It was that simple.  

That day we drove them home, they read farewell notes from their friends at school, cried, and silently stared out the window, their eyes unfocused.  When we arrived, there were balloons and Welcome Home banners and cake.  I had a knot in my throat as we unloaded their things and walked them inside.  They looked like zombies.  They gave us the secret “I love you” signal—three squeezes of the hand—and didn’t watch us leave.  

Earlier this summer, as I sat across from Valerie, our adopted children’s first Mom, she asked me, “I know it was really hard for you when the boys left, so how did you know when you were ready to foster again?”  This is a typical kind of question from her.  She’s an empathetic person who doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions and I appreciate that, as I also have a penchant for asking hard questions.  So when she asked this, knowing even more than I do the pain of giving up children you love to someone else (in her case, that someone being me), I rambled, not really knowing my answer.  After thinking it over later, the most honest answer would be that I didn’t feel ready.

But then, I never feel ready.  I just take a breath and leap. “You never look nervous,” people have told me so many times, when I’m doing something they find terrifying: rock climbing, repelling, or singing in front of people.  They assume I’m not afraid, but that’s never true.  I simply know myself well enough to know that I can’t give myself time to overthink it.  I just have to do it.  It’s going to be imperfect, messy, but it is going to happen.  So it was the same with this decision.  I wasn’t ready, but I don’t know that I would ever would be ready for what might be ahead: more potential heartbreak, sleepless nights, chaos and rages for 6 months, complete mental and physical exhaustion, and calming kids whose nervous systems are constantly telling them they’re in danger and that I am the enemy while also their safe place.  It’s one of the hardest things you could choose to do.  That stepping into the unknown with just enough historical knowledge to know how hard it could be.  

In September of 2020, we reopened our home for potential placements.  This time around though, a few things were different.  

No Girls Allowed

When we first discussed fostering, I’d said no girls ever.  Girls are too much drama, too much unbridled emotion, just too much complication (I wasn’t wrong).   And, although I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time, part of my desire for boys-only was so that I wouldn’t have to confront some of my oldest trauma that our girls might one day potentially face.  Besides, I’d raised mostly boys and was basically a professional boy-mom at this point.  But midway through 2020, as we prepared for our next kiddos to darken our doorstep, I began to think how much my selfish preference for boys was depriving Ethan of a potential father-daughter relationship.  And that can be very special and different than a father-son relationship.  So, I reached out to our family caseworker Sharon, and said, “Here are our parameters: IF there is a girl in the sibling group, the girl must either be a parentified oldest or the youngest.”  We were approved for up to three children ages 2-10 (ish) and that now included girls.

The Premonition

On September 30th, 2020, I awoke, knowing that later that afternoon, our family worker who happened to be stopping by to do our annual home safety inspection, would also be bringing files with her for new kids…THE kids…whoever they were.  Of course, no one had said anything like this, and the likelihood of a caseworker having files in hand for kids we had never discussed, were zero.  But when I know, I know.  Sometimes it sucks, but this wasn’t one of those times.

So I set out on a run with the dog, refreshing my e-mail every few minutes because in every fiber of my being, I knew that today would be the day to take a breath and leap.  Sure enough, midway through my run, I received an e-mail from Sharon.  

“Ethan and Anna,” it read.  “I know this is a sib group of four………however, I wanted to send them your way and see if you might be interested in exploring the possibility of these children.  I did mention briefly your family to this worker as I was describing the families that I have who are potentially open to sibling groups this size and she expressed interest in hearing more about your family. I know I will see you guys this afternoon, but let me know if a sib group of 4 is something you are open to………..”

I opened the flyer attachment and read:

“These FAB FOUR are one of a kind! George and Faye (6) are adorable twins!

Faye lets you know she is the older of the two! Ben (5) and Renee (3) will also

keep you on your toes! This sibling group loves being outside, riding bikes,

climbing on monkey bars and running through the sprinkler. George loves Paw

Patrol, Tweety Bird cartoons and the Superhero Squad. He is a kind and sensitive

boy. Faye loves the Superhero Squad like her twin brother. She enjoys coloring,

doing puzzles and working with Playdough. She is always smiling and is super-sweet.

Ben loves to build things and is very imaginative. He is a cutie and has a charming

smile! Renee loves spending time with her older siblings and likes to be in charge!

She is adorable, loving and has a mind of her own! All of these kids are good

eaters and good sleepers. They are all very verbal, friendly and enjoy the attention

of others. George and Faye are going into Kindergarten this Fall. Ben is in the

Headstart program and is doing very well. He receives speech services but has

made major progress! Fun Fact about these 4…they are learning sign language!

They love learning new things and are adventurous. We are looking for a family

open to birth family contact post adoption, as this sibling group has positive

connections with their birthmother, older half-siblings and extended family. The

County will pursue termination of parental rights once these beautiful children find their forever family.”

The names were changed, and because this was not my first rodeo, I knew to look for the coded red flags.  There were no big ones, just potential smaller ones and it sounded like a great fit for us.  I texted Ethan to check his e-mail and I finished up my run and headed home.  When I got home, he was outside his newly renovated workshop with a grin on his face.  

“Did you see the email?” I asked. “What did you think?”  I could hardly contain myself.

“We should ask for more info,” he said with a smile.

“Am I crazy for thinking this might work?”  I asked.

“Then we’re both crazy because I was thinking the same thing.”  We both laughed and looked at each other like, yeah, we’re 100% cray-cray.

I e-mailed Sharon back and she said she’d try to get their files sent over, but that usually took weeks or months.  When Sharon came for her scheduled visit late that afternoon, she was astounded that they’d gotten her all of the files that same day and in time for scheduled visit.  

“That never happens,” she said.  “It must be God.”  

I just smiled and told her about my premonition upon awakening and she laughed delightedly, perhaps because this wasn’t the first premonition/dream that had happened since I’d known her.  She reminded me of another one I’d told her about the year before when we had the last set of boys.

As we read through the files, I felt strongly that these were THE kids.  Fiona, with her sweet bespectacled face, Giovani and his deep dark eyes, Bo and his mischievous smile, and Revi with her cute chubby cheeks and fiercely stubborn expression.  

Ethan and I didn’t need to look at one another.  After 45 minutes of reading about each child, we simply said, “We’re in” and Sharon set to work.

That night, I dreamed of myself arguing with a 14 year-old Fiona about what she was going to play on piano for a recital.  And because of how that dream felt compared to normal dreams, I knew it was a true one—we would adopt these kids.  Also, now that I know Fiona, that dream might also be super accurate, hahaha.

The Interview

The next step to the process was an interview with the children’s caseworker, the caseworker’s boss, and the state adoption specialist who had written the flyer and all the files for the kids.  This team of people selected several families to interview and needed to decide which family they thought would be the best fit for the kids and their situation. It took several weeks for them to locate all of the candidates and schedule interviews.  

I want to take a moment and remark upon how strange it is—this concept of matching kids with families, reading their files, and interviews to see if you are right for the children.  It feels like a business deal and it’s strange.  

Foster Care Lesson #1: Waiting. I’m going to diverge for a moment longer here and tell you that the most difficult part of foster care is the waiting.  The year before, we waited in dread for the final verdict on the three boys.  Oddly enough, my most free days to pray the rosary back then were Tuesdays and Fridays—the days of the Sorrowful Mysteries.  I seemed to be stuck in the Mystery of the Garden of Gethsemane, praying alongside Jesus, “May this cup be taken from me if it is Thy will.”  And yet this time around, as God would have it, I was stuck now in the Joyful Mysteries (Mondays and Saturdays).  I tried not to think too much on it, but the natural rhythms of life that seemed to be tied to the Rosary were hard to miss.

But I didn’t want to get my hopes up.  Hope mostly leads to pain.  Each time we’d gotten our hopes up before that someone, anyone, would do the right thing for the boys, they chose not to.  They all chose short-term convenience and to uphold the bureaucratic financial status-quo.  So it was better not to hope.

Finally, our interview day arrived.   I was so nervous.  Ethan always interviews well.  Heck, he’s been in podcasts, TV, radio, newspapers.  But me?  What if I come off as the weird, awkward person that I am?

It didn’t take long in the interview before we got into a groove.  We shared our previous experience with our last foster sons, their special needs and how we cared for them, our experiences with Nicolas, and our love for the outdoors and physical activity and our philosophy of the importance of outdoor play for foster kids.  We also talked about how we worked hard at being able to keep them connected to their extended family throughout.  As long as the children are safe, we both strongly believe that keeping kids connected with their biological family (first family) is very important.  We later learned that this was one of the deciding factors that made us standout from the other families interviewed.  We had a track-record of a good relationships with biological family members.  

It became abundantly clear that had we not experienced the things that we did (the good and the bad), it would be unlikely we’d be considered this time around as candidates. God’s plan isn’t always clear, but when we see small glimpses, it’s astounding.

At the end of the interview, one the caseworkers asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”

I don’t remember if Ethan had any questions, but if he did, I’m sure they were astute.  But for once, I had one.  

“Do the kids have a say of whether or not someone is right for them?”  They all looked at one another for a moment.

“No one’s ever asked that before,” one of them said. “Yes, I guess they do.  I mean, if they really didn’t like you, we’d take it under consideration, but it would just depend.”

“Okay, thank you.” I said. “I was just curious.”

The interview ended and more waiting ensued.  But this time, we only had to wait a few days.  We got the call that we were chosen as the best fit for these children.  Afterwards, one of the caseworker’s said that they were impressed with how relaxed and genuine we were.  I wasn’t relaxed, but I have a good poker face when it comes to hiding my anxiety apparently…and both of us are too lazy to put in the work to be disingenuous, so you get what you get.  If you like us, great.  If not, join the club.

Our First Meeting

As we prepared to meet the kids for the first time, I was so nervous.  We drove the hour and forty minutes to the group home that they’d lived in since May, 2019, me feeling the excited jitters the entire time.  We first saw them out on their scooters and bikes.  They were all very tiny and the cutest kids we’d ever seen.  And even though I love kids, I’ve never been one to think that kids are cute.  I know, super weird, right?  But these kids were adorable—even to me.  

We went inside where they were playing in what was called the “Sensory Room.”  It had monkey bars, padded floors, a swing, a small rock wall, large building blocks, and coloring books: a kid paradise.  I don’t remember too many details except that we all had to wear masks and the kids had tons of energy.  I also remember they were puzzled and believed us to be slightly magical by the fact we knew their names already.  I also remember Bo doing dangerous leaps off of high places and miraculously not breaking his neck.  I would soon learn, from tales of his group home dad, that this was typical Bo.  And lastly, I remember Revi trying to con me right away into taking her to get water from the water fountain down the hall.  I checked with her group home dad, Tom, and he confirmed that nope, she wasn’t going anywhere.  Haha, nice try mini-me!  She didn’t care for being told no, so she ignored me after that and batted her cute little eyes at Ethan.  It didn’t work then either.  She was going to have a frustrating existence with adults that communicate.

After the two hours were done, their Adoption Specialist and caseworker Caroline spoke with us in the parking lot.  “What do you think?  Are you interested in pursuing this?  You can go home and think it over and let us know.”

Ethan and I smiled at each other.  “We’re all in.  It’s a yes.”

Caroline raised her eyebrows like we were so weird and gave a kind but befuddled smile. “Well okay then.  Onto the next step.” 

Meeting Their Mom

“You’re gonna love this woman,” the Adoption specialist Megan informed me.  “She talks fast when she’s nervous, so just try to keep up.”  I have some auditory processing issues, so I have a hard time keeping up with fast talkers and especially if they have any type of accent.  There were many times that I didn’t understand what she said and felt stupid having to ask her to say it time and again, but she was very gracious.  What astounded me was the fact that we had so much in common.  She grew up in a dysfunctional family of 11, knows from experience what a personality disorder is, knows herself well, has a quirky sense of humor, and is an empathetic realist.  As I later told her, she is a chimera parent in the foster care world.  Many parents whose kids are in foster care are unrealistic with themselves and are grappling with denial about their own problems.  But Valerie was not like that. She knows herself and makes no bones about how she had arrived at this point. I really do feel for the parents and find that I have a great deal of compassion toward them all.  Yes, their own actions brought them to this point, but they usually have no support system for one reason or another. I really wish that our social support system was more proactive to help families before they get to the point of desperation.

“You know, Anna,” Valerie said in her thick Philly accent, “Megan told me all about you and Ethan and now that I’ve met you, well, I just have a good feeling about youse guys.”  

Not long after that, she did something unimaginably difficult: she signed away her rights as their mom.  I try daily to honor her sacrifice by loving her kids and being the most present mom as I can be for them.  It’s humbling.


On January 29, 2021 the kids came to live with us.  They had visited us each weekend since November, and we had been waiting to get the stamp of approval from the judge for them to move in more permanently.  In typical foster care fashion, we drove out to have what we thought would be a two hour visit, and 2 minutes before we arrived, we received the call telling us they’d be moving in today.  Their group home parents threw things together and we stuffed every possible thing into the car, knowing we’d have to drive back to pick up the rest another time.  And that’s Foster Care Lesson #2—Nothing ever goes according to plan.  Prepare to have your life constantly upended.

This time around, things were different.  Different kids, different life, different needs.  I don’t love the relearning period because it’s hard.  Although I tried very hard not to compare these four sweet kids to our three former foster sons, there were some things that took me a long time to get used to.  First, my parenting style has to be much more direct and firm for these kids to feel safe and loved.  If I use my normal gentle voice, it doesn’t seem to register for them that I’m serious.  They have to have even more structure and routine than our previous foster sons.  But the most stark difference was that these children were naive and innocent.  They were the closest to being typical children that we’d ever had in our home.  Their Mom had loved them and had done what she could for them.  Then, they lived in a group home with group home parents that loved them dearly.  They were not severely neglected nor were they abused.  They were inexperienced and sheltered in many ways.  It was endearing, but I found myself unable to connect deeply and quickly as I had before.  

I struggled within myself because I missed the depth that trauma had hollowed out in the hearts and minds of our former foster sons.  We had experienced similar enough trauma that we intuitively knew each other’s hearts, many times speaking volumes with our eyes.  When some of my brothers met our former foster sons, they all commented that the boys seemed just like more of our siblings.  It was true.  Throughout the day and night, we would have conversations about loss, grief, forgiving the unforgivable, God, miracles, prayers that weren’t answered, and things that no kid should have to dwell upon…and that was our normal.  

Ethan, however, was able to relate much more to these kids and was immediately comfortable and fully in love.  For the most part, they were happy kids.  I found myself so happy for these children, that they did not have to carry around these heavy burdens of trauma, but it was so difficult for me not to be able to relate.  I knew it was my problem and I had to work it out.  I was still deeply grieving the fate of our former foster sons and I returned to therapy as soon as things began to open up.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully give my heart to these kids while needing to finish grieving.  And they deserved a whole-hearted parent.

And no matter how healthy children are, if you are separated from your first family, that is trauma enough.  And the one that bears the brunt of those feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, and separation, is the mother figure.  It’s always difficult, especially with young children to whom you cannot yet share with them the truth.   Much of their fury and fear and feelings of betrayal are heaped upon the new mom and it’s so difficult at times; especially those first 6 months, where there is no trust built up, and no subconscious expectation of your consistency.  Did they have a bad day at school?  Your fault.  They couldn’t find that thing they misplaced?  You stole it and threw it in the trash because you’re evil.  You get the idea.  You, as the mom, are both the enemy and—thanks to evolutionary biology—the safe one.  

Now, thanks to time and consistency, we’re no longer there as often.  But life is cyclical and those furies spiral back, but thankfully, with less power and frequency each successive reiteration.  

Another difference was time.  We didn’t have to try and squeeze everything into this small amount of time, knowing that at any moment, they might be returning.  This time, we could take our time and if these kids needed extra therapies, we didn’t have to do it immediately, knowing that it would be discontinued the moment they returned home. 

Lesson #3 of Foster Care: you have to play by their (Child Services) rules. And if you do, you probably will only get a fraction of services your kids need.  Your job is to both fight for your foster children and be willing to play the game.  And if the kids get too financially unwieldy because they need too many services, the kids could be removed at any moment.

After the year mark, the kids started to really settle in.  I began to see glimpses of our new norm and it was lovely.  There was now a deep love between us and it was showing in all of us.   We felt happy.  And as we drew closer to our adoption date and everything looked like it might really happen, my jaded self just waited for the other shoe to drop.  

And that’s when we got a phone call about the plight of our last foster sons.  Things had gone very badly for them and a family member stepped in and took them.  And would we be willing to take on the legal fight to become permanent guardians in the future should anything happen to their current caregiver?  This, this was the worst-case-scenario that had been lurking in the back of my mind since they left our home.  Every part of me, says that this is the definition of an IMPOSSIBLE ask.  I can’t do this.  Physically, I can’t.  Mentally and emotionally, I can’t even imagine it.

And yet.  And yet, we can’t say no.  We love them and they love us and tell us so every time we see them.  They say things like, “You’re the most like a mom and a dad that we ever had.  And is it okay if we think of you like that?”  They tell us about how they wept every night for months and still dream about living at our house with us.  And they have no one else.  So we pray for the continued health of their current caregiver and see them whenever we can.  We agreed to take them on if anything ever happened to their caregiver. On a side note, they get along pretty well with our kids too, so that’s good.

Lesson #4 of Foster Care: An exercise in futility. Sometimes foster care is about being stabbed in the heart repeatedly with sewing needles: not enough to kill you, just enough to drain you of the will to keep fighting while being asked to document everything…and that careful documentation will likely remain in an unopened folder on someone’s dust-laden desk.

But enough of that.  This is a happy story with the parallel story that’s getting me off-track.

The moments leading up to the adoption, Ethan and I remained skeptical that it would really happen.  And then it did happen and it was most ethereal set of moments.  But this joy also had pain attached to it.  I couldn’t help but think of Valerie and her sacrifice.  I couldn’t help but think of the last court date with our former foster sons, and how it had gone so badly.

So here we are right now, the kids are adopted, and we are falling more and more deeply in love with the kids.  I can be whole with them, no longer having to withhold parts of myself.  They give me so much joy.  They like my weirdness and think I’m funny. I love calling them my kids. They are starting to call me “Mom”–something I’ve never asked of them but presented as an option if they chose. They want hugs and kisses and snuggles now.  They know how to play and are able to use their imaginations.  I look back at how far they’ve come and I know the purposeful cultivation it took to get where we are. 

I do not regret for a moment that I said yes to girls because they are delightful and two bright treasures for sure.  They are also dramatic and complicated and really, too much like me (aka extremely stubborn), but truly wonderful. And yes, they’ve made me a better person.  And good grief are they fierce!

The boys are sensitive and full of life.  They are the first to express their feelings and keep us on our toes.  Giovani is very much like me in that he’s cautious, sensitive, a slow and steady person, and loves the idea of routine.  Bo is very much like Ethan: sensitive, adventurous, and passion incarnate.

They have three older half siblings who love them and are very kind. Their mom is a friend to me. I know this is not always possible for some adoptive families, but we are so grateful for the kindness of their first family and the trust that they have placed in us to care for their siblings/children.

Last night, we went to church and the kids sang up in the choir loft, while I prayed the rosary down below.  Their sweet little voices filled the church and brought tears to my eyes because they seem truly happy and content.  And I love to watch them out the window while I cook dinner and see them building forts, running around in their little super hero capes and masks, while someone else pretends to be a horse pulling a sled and another is creating new dances and composing songs with the neighbor.  And I feel, for the first time in a very long time, that all feels right with the world.  I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

And I try to keep my mind and heart on the here and now.


  1. Anna, this is gut wrenching and beautiful! Thank you for being open with your story. Keep that poker mom! Girls especially your minis are a wild ride!

  2. Anna,
    Laura read your memoir and said,”Read this from Anna’s website. It will bless you.” Of course she was right. Your reflections have an emotional depth that is set apart and special. My thought, writer to writer, is that you have a tone and voice of your own. And, it is a voice that your reader likes and cares about. I write a lot these days, and am trying to publish a little book of stories for kids called “Owl Wit and Humor: Modern Fables”. Its to be a read aloud book written at an older kid’s reading level. Hopefully my illustrations will suit even the little ones. Anyway, “voice” is a tough acquisition for most writers, some never acquire a manner of expression that anyone wants to read. Keep being who you are, people who don’t even know you (your uncle for instance) will enjoy reading your stuff.

    • Wow, thank you, Uncle Bill. That really means a lot. I would love to buy of copy of your book when it’s published. Your art has always inspired me. Also, when I mentioned my maiden name to a local artist here in Lancaster, he asked me if you were any relation of mine. He said that one of your early books had a great impact on him. It’s a small world 🙂 And on a side note, our former foster sons were obsessed with the beautiful art in a book that you gave me as a child. I also love the art in it. It’s the story of Rumpelstilskin.

  3. Dana Pulliam says

    What an amazing story. You feel so much from it…love, pain, passion, etc. It definitely feels you’re where you need to be. I too especially love the connection with their biological mom. That I can’t help but feel is key for all of you. Even when reading this I feel she believes she is doing the best thing for these kids, thus an incredible love and heart! I’ll enjoy watching them grow up with you and Ethan.

    As for the other three boys, I know you always felt a bad decision was made there, but your hands were tied. I don’t doubt forva moment you’ll worry but be there for them. I pray the best scenario works there.

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