To read Ellie Coburn’s story is to witness limitless kindness and love (and to want to foster all the babies!). She is mama to three beautiful foster children ages 15 weeks, 16 months and nine, with an adoption underway and a revolving door for any new placements and circumstances. Reading about her foster care experience- what she calls her “heart calling”- is perfect evidence of the joy motherhood brings in any and every form.
How did your work in orphan care prepare your heart for becoming a foster mama?
“I’ve been all over the world photographing the orphan crisis and working with orphanages and organizations that serve at-risk populations. I got the opportunity to experience short-term foster care working as an orphan care worker and temporary house mother at a rural orphanage in Zimbabwe. I loved those children, specifically two young boys who I bonded with and attached to, without any reservation and fell hard when the orphanage dissolved and the two boys were trafficked into slavery. I quickly retreated to the western world carrying with me a new perspective on life, love and loss that I carry with me still. Today as a foster mom stateside, I use so many of the life skills and lessons that I learned abroad to navigate our day-to-day. Perhaps the lesson I hold closest to my heart is loving every child that comes into my home without reservation regardless of their unknown future that rests so completely outside of my control.”
Did you feel instantly connected with your babies or did it take time for your relationship to grow?
“Bonding with my babies has easily been the most sacred piece of my motherhood experience. Foster care is a gap between biological motherhood and adoptive motherhood where you must hold space for a child’s biological family by loving that child with an unreserved, intentional love that plants a firm foundation of attachment, security, and bond deep within that child’s innermost self. Once planted you must be willing to return the child to his or her family even if you are the person who fed, nurtured and loved that baby for days, weeks, months or, in some cases, years. Bonding with my babies has been a faith walk – constantly turning away from my thoughts and feelings and fears for the future and turning towards the present hour, day or week. Fear of loss immediately overtook my ability to bond with my babies, especially my son being that he was my first ever foster baby. I honestly quickly started to have second thoughts about why I would put myself in a situation where loss was imminent when I first brought my son home. Ultimately baby wearing played a huge, huge role in my initial bonding experience with both of my children. Solly has been the heart of our home since the day my son came home in October 2017. When my son was young the Solly was his safe space. I began to feel like he was an extension of my body which, I would imagine, is what biological mothers feel like and is exactly what I needed to feel really connected to him. The “fourth trimester” experience with both of my children has been the oxytocin rush that I needed to really connect with them.”
With one adoption underway you continue to foster. What does that look like— and how does your heart handle it?
“As a short-term foster parent, you have to be in a very different head space than you are with your adoptive or long-term placements. You need to serve a functional role as a child’s safe space while still setting boundaries about the child’s role in your home and your role in the child’s life. Really this just takes constant, intentional checking in with myself to make sure that I’m still in a safe place emotionally. I’ve also learned that as a foster parent I don’t get very much control in my children’s, especially my short-term placements, stories. I have to trust that God has them and that He is working their story for the greater good. Of course being an advocate for a child is a beautiful byproduct of being a child’s foster parent but I have drawn pretty clear lines in the sand about where I allow myself to go in my mind so that I am able to serve these children well while they’re in my care.”
What do you most hope to impart on the children who come to live with you?
“I hope that the babies that come through my home for a season have a firm understanding of love, connection and attachment so that they live with a sense of security that not even the most challenging of circumstances can take from them. I hope that the hours of love that I pour over them during their earliest days and weeks earthside will reemerge as self-love and self-preservation on days when they need it most for years and years to come. I hope that the young children that come through my home for a season have a firm understanding of their value in the world and that regardless of their circumstances, they never forget that they are valuable beyond measure. I believe that a person who understands their worth will always fight for themselves and that imparting a sense of value on a child who may otherwise feel valueless will prepare them to fight their own battles and stand their own ground even when I’m not there to do it for them.”
For anyone who might be considering or curious about fostering, what would you want them to know?
“Take the leap. It won’t be easy but nothing good or worthwhile in life ever is. The greatest joys in life so often come from the greatest risks we are willing to take and foster care is no exception. These children need people of all shapes and sizes and family styles to open their doors, convert their guest rooms and their offices into a safe place for them to land. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than it needs to be. The truth is that most Americans have the space in our homes, it really is just about the space in our hearts. If you yourself are not able to foster you can still run the race with other foster families in your community. A hot meal, a gift card, gas money, free babysitting or even just a friendly hello can make all the difference to those of us in the thick of foster care.”