We knew baby Riley would probably be reunited with his birth family, but that did not stop us from falling in love with him. We loved that little boy with our hearts, souls, and minds. He became a part of our family. He came to us under-fed and with physical wounds–a hurting baby. Several months later, he was a healthy, happy, chubby little guy, ready to start crawling. His birth mom had also had a chance to heal and pick up the pieces of her life and was ready to resume mothering.

I was very proud of his birth mom, Michelle. She had been in a difficult situation, unable to function on her own. But when liberated from her abusive partner, she took charge of her life. She worked hard and made a home for Riley and his sisters. It was time for them to become a family again. While I knew it was time for Riley to go, I knew it was still going to hurt.

Our last few days with Riley were filled with snuggles, photos, packing, and lots of giggles mixed with a few tears. My husband gave Riley his last bath and tucked him in one last time the night before his homecoming. The next day, he kissed him and left for work with tears streaming down his cheeks. A friend offered to watch my other children while I took Riley to his birth mom. The kids also hugged and kissed Riley goodbye. They were very somber and Riley seemed to pick up on this.

It was finally time. I met Michelle in a parking lot and loaded all of his belongings in the car before taking him out of his car seat. Hugging him one last time, I placed him in Michelle’s arms. I was able to smile as I took a picture of the reunited family but then quickly waved goodbye and drove off with tears overflowing. I made it one block before I had to pull over because the sobs were making it impossible to drive.

I texted my friend, Nancy: “Why are we doing this again? It hurts so bad.”

Nancy: “Because if we aren’t there to be Jesus with skin on, his mom may have never felt Jesus’ hands and feet restoring her family and those kids may have never felt safe and clean and loved and valued. It does hurt. Praise God that your heart is still tender for these kids and not calloused!”

The most common misconception about foster parents is that they have hearts made of steel. I can assure you that this heart is not made of steel. It’s tender and bruised. But I have a God bigger than the hurt. A God who comforts me, heals me, and prepares me to love another child in need. A God who uses my hands and feet to point to Jesus.

P.S. Riley went back to his family three months ago. Last week our family met Riley and his family for the first time since his homecoming. He watched me from his mama’s arms for a minute then reached for me with a shy smile. After an hour of passing him around our family, watching him toddle around furniture and snuggling, Riley gave me a big sloppy baby kiss. I gave him a photo album of his time with our family. The last page features the photo I took of him reunited with his family and the caption, “Happily Ever After’ begins now … with your family.”

*All names were changed to protect privacy.