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Catholic Adoptive Parenting Columnist Heidi Hess Saxton

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Pathway to Detachment

In Best Interest of the Children, Sarah Jessica Parker plays Callie Cain, a mentally disturbed woman whose five children are taken into the foster care system. In this story, Callie’s own brother and sister-in-law report the unstable mother to the Iowa DFS. Callie retaliates by agreeing to go into treatment only if the children are not placed with this same couple.

Unbelievably, the social worker agrees to this arrangement. The five children are placed with strangers with big hearts and no children of their own – and stay with them for nearly three years. Patty and Harlan Pepper (played by Sally Struthers and John Dennis Johnston) want to adopt the children. They fight to keep the children from returning to their chaotic home situation. And they lose.

In their efforts to love and nurture the children, the Peppers unwittingly “violate the foster care agreement” by doing the very thing the children needed most: forming an emotional attachment, letting the children call them “Mom” and “Dad,” and letting the children think that theirs was a “forever” kind of love.

In the end, the brother and sister-in-law work it out with Callie, who in real life allowed her relatives to adopt her children in 1989. The movie ends with the children singing, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

As the scene faded to black, we learn that the movie was based on a true story, and that it had generated new legislation in Iowa that better protects the rights of children under the care of the state. (Too bad it wasn’t passed in time for these children, who undoubtedly suffered real damage by being torn from the embrace of the only loving family they had ever known.)

Close to Home

I confess watching the movie dredged up a lot of memories and feelings I would just as soon have forgotten. In particular, the gut-wrenching helplessness we often felt after encounters with the “system” in our capacity as foster parents. So often it seemed the system was stacked against us – and that it protected the same people who had inflicted the most damage on the children we had come to love.

Watching the movie, I suddenly realized why “experienced” foster parents we met seemed a bit aloof, which neither the Peppers nor we had been able to do with our foster kids. For example, the first foster mother they stayed with was a very nice lady … and yet, I never saw her get down on the floor to play with the kids, and the baby spent most of her time in the infant swing. There were no tears when we left (at least, not from the kids).

Our experience was a bit different. That first week, when the kids came for a short time to see if it could work into a long-term arrangement, we got through by the skin of our teeth. We got about six hours of sleep – the entire week – and dealt with everything from hunger strikes to “fingerpainting” to … well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

Six days later, we took them back. Six-month-old Sarah screamed and held her arms out to Craig. Christopher wrapped his arms around my thighs and dared me to walk away. To them, we were “Mom and Dad.”

We weren’t quite ready to sign on yet, though. We needed to think about it some more … after we went home and slept for three days straight. On the third day, we got the pictures back. I looked pale, Craig look exhausted … and we all looked very, very happy. Then we knew what the kids had sensed all along: They were coming home to stay.

We were not “expert” foster parents. We got attached. We got angry … especially when those who were calling the shots seemed more concerned about shuffling paperwork and following “the plan” than getting the kids what they needed … a permanent, stable home situation.

I’ve talked to adoptive parents who experience some of the same frustrations. Birth mothers who change their minds. Agencies who change the rules, leaving 5000 Guatemalan orphans stranded in adoption limbo. Most recently I read of a foster father who was forced to undergo gastric bypass surgery in order to adopt an extended family member. A Missouri family court judge ruled that his obesity made him an unfit adoptive parent (he and his wife had adopted another child a few years previously, and were licensed foster parents).

When the arbitrary forces of the cosmos conspire against you, what can you do?

You cry a bit. You pray a lot. You try to keep the home fires burning with a slow and steady burn, with everyone as calm as possible.

Did I mention you pray a lot?

The Detached Parent

St. Teresa of Avila taught her sisters that the two virtues that are most essential to the Christian life, besides love, are humility and detachment. Humility is what keeps us from deluding ourselves into thinking we have more than a modicum of control over our lives. Detachment is what makes us a source of security and happiness for others, rather than the other way around.

The authentically detached soul has a secure inner core; it loves freely because its security is Love Himself. Of course, most of us spend a lifetime attaining this kind of detachment. Little by little, the circumstances of life and the people who surround us force us to let go, or be crushed under the weight of the unknowable.

Couples who remain open to life learn to detach from selfish desires and aspirations, that Love might take their place.

Infertile couples learn by having to offer up their sweetest dreams … life with a tangible reminder of their love. We unite our grief and longing with that of Christ on the cross and His Blessed Mother, and wait in the shadows for the light to come again.

For adoptive and foster parents, our detachment marathon is a series of short sprints. In the beginning, we relinquish our privacy to invasive prying and questioning. As foster parents, we hold loosely the rights other parents take for granted: the ability to have a child baptized, or her hair cut, or go on a family vacation out of state. As adoptive parents, we let go of cherished hopes that the child will be anything like the child we once were. And as we reach the stormy seas of adolescence, we brace ourselves for the moment we are cut loose in favor of their “real” parents.

This pathway to detachment isn’t a pleasant one. There are times when taking even a single step seems unbearable. So we breathe a prayer, close our eyes … and let go a little more. It’s the only thing to do, really … for the sake of our family, and for the sake of ourselves. We open our clenched fists, and offer up the words of St. Teresa:

Nothing shall trouble me,

Nothing shall frighten me.

All things pass away,

But God never changes.

Patience obtains all things,

But the God who possesses me is all I need.

God alone suffices.

Copyright 2007 Heidi Hess Saxton

Heidi Hess Saxton and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two former foster children. Heidi is editor of "Canticle" magazine (, a publication of Women of Grace ( A convert to the Catholic faith since 1994, Heidi is a graduate student of theology and a voracious blogger for writers (the "Silent Canticle": http:\\ and adoptive parents (http:\\ She also likes to write about small miracles (http:\\ and what she's learned from other people, traversing the miles around the world and across her bookshelves. Her website is

Heidi's latest book, Raising Up Mommy: Virtures for Difficult Mothering Moments, will be available in November through Simon Peter Press (

Would you like to receive Heidi's column by email?  Send a message to Heidi.


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