Amy Felker always imagined a perfect family that included a husband and children.
But when that husband didn't come into her life, Felker, 34, decided to become a mother anyway — a foster mother.
Her interest started when she was a kid. She remembers being heartbroken learning that some kids didn't have families and not being able to sleep at night thinking about it, she says.
"I knew when I grew up I wanted to adopt kids. That would be a part of what my family would look like," she says.
A social worker by profession at the state Health and Human Services, she became interested specifically in foster care in graduate school. "When I get married and have a family, I want to have a fluid family," she remembers thinking, meaning that there would be foster children, maybe some adopted children, maybe even some biological children.
She didn't think she could do it without a husband until a co-worker told her she could foster as a single person. "I felt very called," she says. "I decided to go for it."
Hallie Graves, 33, a lawyer, says she's been involved in foster care in some capacity since high school. She went to Bowie High School, and as part of National Honor Society she helped put together birthday celebrations at what was then the Austin Children's Shelter.
It was then that she first met kids in foster care. "Because I met them as peers, I (wasn't) thinking, 'These are going to be crazy kids,'" she says. They were just kids.
In college at Rhodes College in Memphis, she volunteered in the neonatal intensive care unit and saw babies who were born drug-addicted. In law school at SMU, she volunteered at a children's rights clinic. And then she became a CASA — court-appointed special advocate — for a child. She moved back to Austin five years ago.
"I always thought I would be a foster parent," Graves says. Three years ago she took the training and became licensed. She's now taken care of three different children, all of them infants.
Christy Rome, 42, works for a nonprofit advocacy group. She became a foster mom 11 years ago when she was working for the Texas Senate. It was at a time when people were hearing about kids sleeping on couches in state offices. She's now had six foster children at different times and provided respite care for others. She prefers late elementary school kids, but she's found "a lot of joy in the teenagers I have worked with," she says.
"It's a real way to see how you are making a difference in someone's life," Rome says. "The kids are not always appreciative, but something changes in them."
"You see them blossom," Rome says.
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Fostering starts with finding an agency to work through and then completing trainings and becoming licensed. In addition to regulations and rules for the safety of the child, the training is about trust-based relational intervention, which works particularly well with kids who have experienced trauma. "It can feel counterintuitive," Graves says, "because it's addressing the need their behavior is revealing instead of the immediate behavior."
They also had to get their lives set up to be able to accommodate a child. Could they make it work with their jobs?
Graves now works contract by contract on the legal work she does. "It's very flexible," she says. She takes smaller jobs when she has a new baby. She's able to choose what type of work she does and the jobs she takes.
One thing that is good about fostering, she says, is that she can take breaks between kids or get respite care if she needs to go out of town.
Rome only fosters when the Legislature is not in session. The long hours associated with the session would make it difficult.
Felker says she's found fostering to be very flexible and limited only by her availability and her ability.
Because she's the only source of income and she doesn't have a very flexible job, she knew she needed a child who could go to day care.
Fostering does come with more things to do than if that child came to you by birth. Graves' foster children have had between three and 10 appointments a week between doctors, therapies, caseworkers and visits with the birth family.
"All of my kids have had higher needs than a healthy, typical baby," she says.
"I try to advocate as best as I can," she says. "I'm vocal when I need to be. Everyone in this space is so busy." That means she also sends a lot of emails and coordinates care.
Rome says it requires organization. She's developed a filing system that works for her to keep track of all the people each kid needs to see. Sometimes she makes flashcards for herself and the kids to keep it all straight, she says.
These foster parents also had to reach out to their friends and family to set up a support system. Graves says that, yes, she can do it as a single woman, but it's required a lot of help from her community.
Her friends threw her a shower before she became a foster mom so she would have some supplies. She knew she wanted to concentrate on the newborn to 2-year-old group.
Her parents have been on board and loved all of her kids, she says. They haven't treated her foster children any different than their other grandchildren, Graves says. For her 3-year-old niece, "every time she came to visit, there's another baby." It's part of her family's normal.
Rome says her church family has been very helpful, especially in those first few days after she gets a new child. They help her get the supplies she needs, and they send her meals.
Sometimes kids have stuff they come with; sometimes they are coming with almost nothing at all, Rome says. "When people have babies, family and friends throw you showers," she says. "When you foster, you have an equal need for stuff," she says, and you don't know the age range or gender of what you'll need or when you need it.
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Friends also help out by getting background checked so they can babysit for her if she needs to work late. "I've been so grateful for the people in my village," Rome says.
Those people become especially important because fostering can be unpredictable.
Felker became a parent after she got a phone call that her daughter would be arriving in a couple of hours.
"One day, you're hanging out at happy hour with co-workers and not considering someone else," she says. "That night, more than half of my brain was filled with what's best for someone else. It's a very bizarre experience, and there's no way to prepare for what kids need."
She remembers Googling that first night when her daughter, who was 4 months old, arrived. "I didn't know if I would have a newborn or a 5-year-old," she says. "That part is bizarre."
She also had a time when she thought she was getting a sibling set and then a relative was found. "Sometimes it doesn't actually pan out," she says.
When her daughter did arrive, she had a friend come over and help her set up stuff and go get stuff she would need. The caseworker arrived with the baby that she would eventually adopt and is now 5. "Now it's such a beautiful memory," she says, but "it's an out of body experience. It was just a baby in a car seat."
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The caseworker went through what she knew in about 15 minutes, and then she left and Felker became a mom.
"Within a couple of days of her being with me, I felt so emotionally attached to her," Felker says. "I felt like a mom. I felt so protective of her. I felt selfless in a way I've never felt before."
Aside from the car seat, her daughter came with a can of formula and some bottles the birth parents had provided. "This is where having a good community of people around you is important," she says.
A friend from high school picked up diapers, more formula and a pair of pajamas. "We were thinking she's just going to be with me a couple of weeks," Felker says. "We didn't buy a bunch of stuff at first because you never know how long you'll be with her."
She did have a room set up with a daybed and a crib and some other stuff people had given her.
When Rome does have foster children living with her, "they become mine. They are my full focus and priority," she says.
"I have certainly never made money fostering," Rome says. "I have gone into debt doing so. When kids are mine, I want to make sure they have anything and everything they need. ... I don't know how many make money fostering."
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Graves says, "I don't think of them as kids I'm babysitting," she says. "They call me Mama." Mostly they do that because they hear other people such as doctors and therapists call her that. She also refers to their birth mother as Mom or Mommy.
A lot of people think they could never do this, that they would get too attached. "It's really important that I get attached and they get attached to me," Graves says.
This is how children develop healthy attachments and relationships with people, she says.
It is hard to say goodbye. Graves has had three different babies, one of whom stayed almost a year.
"It was very hard," she says of saying goodbye. "You are their person 24/7."
Yet it's not a surprise when they transition to their family — whether it's their birth family, a relative or an adoptive family — because they have been building up to it "forever, honestly." There are a lot of visits before the transition happens, she says.
Still, it's hard.
"I think I have a naive resilience that makes me do hard things and says, 'Let's do it again,'" Graves says.
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When it's time for children to go to their forever home or back to their birth family, "there are tears," Rome says. Some of the kids she still sees, and she says she "knows I'm going to be in their lives."
Still, she says, it's an adjustment to go back to her single life before kids. Just like "any time a child comes into your home, it is a big adjustment," she says. "The way you do things is different from where they were."
Felker knows the opposite. The almost two years that her daughter was a foster child, she really thought that at any point she might be saying goodbye.
"I can say I was emotionally prepared, but I knew I would be devastated," she says. She had the mindset that she would one day say goodbye. "You become a mother to a child, even if in my head I knew it wouldn't be permanent," she says. "The idea of not knowing how she's doing or not having a connection feels very unnatural. I think I pre-grieved that and was anxious about it and scared. I wondered how I would emotionally handle it."
Instead, her daughter became available for adoption. One thing Felker would do differently is take more photos of all the milestones. She didn't take a lot of photos early on because she was convinced her daughter would not be with her long. Even if that was the case, it would have been good to share those photos with whoever became her daughter's parent or guardian.
Graves says one of the things she's learned is to have empathy for the birth family. "I try really hard to see them as people, as people who have had really hard lives that I haven't lived," she says. She is a big believer in faith, and she asks one of her friends to pray for the birth family.
Developing those relationships with the birth family is the reason why Graves still receives updates on her former foster babies.
"I've been in this space long enough," she says, that she's realized the importance of "building whatever relationships I can." It might be with a birth parent or a relative. She starts sending pictures of the baby so they have a connection.
She had to tell herself that in their eyes, the birth family might see her as the bad guy, but also she's found the opposite. "They've been thankful for what I'm doing. They've given me their baby's diapers they got at their baby shower," she says. That can be heartbreaking to think about.
Rome still is connected to some of her former foster children. She would adopt "if that is where I felt called," Rome says, but so far, her role has been more matchmaker. She's had two sibling groups where their future adoptive family was people she knew.
One challenge of foster parenting as a single person is the same as being a single parent, Felker says. It's trying to do all the appointments and care by yourself. "Just the math of that," she says, but it's also the "emotional part of not having someone in it with you. It's probably true for single parenthood, period."
Graves, Felker and Rome all say that dating as a foster mom is difficult.
To go out on a date or do any socializing, "it has to be worth my time," Graves says. She has to get a babysitter who has been background checked and approved.
Rome says she doesn't date when she has foster children. "It is hard to make plans for something," she says. Her friends now understand that she might have to cancel if she gets a call and has kids coming suddenly.
Felker isn't shy about mentioning that she's a foster parent to a date. "It's obviously a huge part of my life," Felker says.
All three women encourage other single women, and men, too, to consider fostering. Felker just got relicensed to open her and her daughter's home to a new child.
Felker tells "anyone who is emotionally stable and has a good community around them" to "go for it."
"I would tell them to go for it and stop worrying about the hard things about it," she says.
Graves wants to continue fostering for 10 more years. "We'll see," she says. She's also open to adopting if the opportunity with one of her foster children comes up.
For Rome, she believes she'll know when it's time to stop. "If there are no more kids for me to help, then I will stop getting called," she says.
But she'll continue to do it when the right situation presents itself. "I think people sometimes think, 'There's no way I could do that,'" Rome says. "It's manageable and so rewarding.
"I've had such relationships that I truly cherish."