In honor of Mother’s Day, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers, urges us to remember foster mothers. Her captivating novel about a foster teen who learns to communicate through flowers was inspired by her own experiences as a foster mother. —BBL Editor
In the Victorian-era language of flowers, moss symbolizes maternal love. Of the hundreds and hundreds of flowers with corresponding definitions, this one is my favorite. It grows in winter, when all other greenery has deserted us, it softens the ground where we rest; birds use it to line nests in anticipation of their young.
But here is what I love most about moss: It grows everywhere. It doesn’t distinguish between a fence post and a tree trunk, a brick walkway or a forest floor. To me, this is maternal love at its best: soft, understated, moving toward all that comes close, regardless of its origins.
Admittedly, my path to motherhood has been a bit out of the ordinary. My husband and I had four kids in 16 months, two babies and two teenagers. My daughter Graciela was born first; then, when she was six months old, we went to court and received custody of Tre’von. That same week we learned I was pregnant with Miles—and the week he was born, Sharon moved in.
It was a wild few years, to say the least, having babies and fostering teenagers at the same time. Friends often asked me what it felt like, and here is the truth: the process of bonding, of learning to know and love a child, was, for me, universal. It didn’t matter whether the child came from my body and arrived on their birthday or whether they were of a different ethnic background and had lived more than a dozen years before we met—what mattered was consistency, and patience and unconditional love.
But what was different—and noticeably so—was the community’s reaction to both sets of children. Now, I must first say that we are lucky that our extended family is abundantly warm and loving, and I believe (hope!) that Tre’von and Sharon both felt welcome in our home. But here’s the difference: When my first daughter was born, my family hosted a baby shower. A few weeks later, my friends did the same. Then my neighbors circulated a sign-up sheet so that weeks passed before I ever had to turn on my stove. Friends and family stopped by for months to meet the new addition to our family—and always there was food and gifts and flowers.
And then Tre’von moved in. Here was a teenage boy with literally nothing but the clothes on his back, and there were no showers, no meals and no gifts. I believe whole-heartedly that the same community that celebrated the arrival of my daughter took equal joy in the addition of Tre’von to our family, but the customs that exist in our culture to support new mothers simply don’t exist in foster care, and because of this, foster mothers often feel alone and overwhelmed.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Imagine, instead, if every time a child was placed in a new home, the neighborhood threw a welcome party, where guests brought dishes to share and a $20 gift card to Target? Or if teachers connected foster parents to carpools and playdates? Or if friends circulated a sign-up sheet for free babysitting so foster parents could go out on a date?
As a friend told me recently, if we can’t be foster parents ourselves, can’t we all find some small way to support them? This friend was Jeanne Pritzker, and she has found a big way to support foster parents. This Mother’s Day, she and her husband will host the fourth-annual Foster Mother’s Day Celebration, inviting 2,000 parents and children to spend the afternoon in their Beverly Hills home. The day will include spa treatments, henna tattoos, a lunch catered by Wolfgang Puck and a full carnival for the kids.
Jeanne looks forward to the event all year, describing in detail the families she has met throughout the years, including single women raising dozens of children completely on their own. “They just stand in the backyard and share a little bit of their magic with me,” she said.
It takes a bit of magic to do this work—it also takes a lot of support. This Mother’s Day, let’s all give flowers to a foster mother: lisianthus for appreciation, bellflower for gratitude, pink roses for grace. And don’t forget to tuck moss between the stems.
Learn more about Vanessa Diffenbaugh.