A parent’s love for a child is expansive, unbending, all-encompassing. But what happens when that child is yours for only a little while? Sarah Sentilles wrote “Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours” about her experience fostering a daughter, Coco, with her husband, Eric. They became deeply attached to Coco and hoped to adopt her — but, ultimately, Coco was reunited with her birth mother, with all the pitfalls that entailed. The couple adopted a baby boy a year ago, but Coco is also never far from their minds: They Zoom every week.
The book got raves when it came out in hardcover last year, and the paperback version is out on May 3. I caught up with Sentilles, a longtime writer and Harvard Divinity School graduate, from her home in Idaho to talk about parenting, compromising, and what makes a family.
Why did you write this?
I wrote “Stranger Care” as a love letter to our foster daughter, whom I call Coco in the book. If I wasn’t allowed to mother her anymore, I wanted to write a book that would show her that she belongs to the Earth and she belongs to herself and that, wherever she finds herself, she’s not far from home. It’s really a book that asks: How would we live if we believed we were all related? What if kinship and mothering is a verb?
I was thinking about the way people would talk to me and say, ‘When you have a baby, you experience a kind of love that you’ve never experienced before.’ And when I wasn’t a parent, I kind of found that off-putting: Don’t tell me what my heart’s capable of. When I became a foster parent, I realized that it was true. I loved her in a way I’d never loved anything else. It wasn’t because I had some part of my DNA out there in the world. It was because she’d been entrusted to me. I felt the universe say, ‘Here, tend this.’ And I did feel my heart expand. And I feel like it showed me that my heart can then expand for a mountain, for a river, for a refugee. It shows us what we’re all capable of, and I think that that’s a really beautiful thing.
What happened in between Coco returning to her biological mother and your new adoption?
People always ask when they interview me: ‘If you could change one thing about the foster care system, what would you change?’ I usually say I’d end poverty. If we had a social safety net, if people had access to jobs with living wages and affordable housing and access to rehabilitation, there would be very few children in the foster care system.
The more technical thing I would change is that Idaho, anyway, is a reunification state. Idaho reunifies children with their birth parents over 70 percent of the time. I think the national average is more around 50 percent. But, once the child is reunified, which means they return to their birth family, all supports are cut off.
Coco’s mother, Evelyn, when her daughter was in care, had access to rehab, she had mental health counseling, she had a social worker, she had help finding affordable housing. She had free childcare in the form of Eric and me. Once Coco was returned to her, all of those supports were cut off, which meant that she was on her own again, which meant that Coco was on her own. A bunch of things happened where the home became no longer safe for her. … After a series of very violent events, Coco came back into care and is now in another state with a new foster family where her half-brother lives.
… We were granted Zoom visits during the pandemic. So we’ve been zooming with her every Thursday morning for more than a year. Two weeks ago, we got to see her in person, which was really beautiful.
A lot of my readers have young children and might be contemplating having a second child. What led you on the motherhood journey that you chose?
I’d always wanted to be a mother. It was something that was important to me. I come from a big family. I have three siblings. But then I just kind of swallowed our cultural narrative that being a mother would ruin my life, that it would ruin my writing.
It just stayed with me: I wanted to be a mother; I wanted to have a baby. By the time I said that out loud in my marriage, I was married to an environmentalist who didn’t want to bring another human into the world. We had to navigate that and figure out: ‘OK, I’ve finally said what I wanted.’ I’ve struggled a lot in my life to admit my wants, especially if somebody else wants different. And now we were on other side of this issue where there’s not a lot of compromise. You either have a kid or you don’t.
I realized it was a different question, actually, which is: Do I want to be a parent? And so suddenly adoption felt like a viable option to me, and I hadn’t really considered it before. Eric and I decided that we wanted to be a home for a child who needed one, because there’s 500,000 children in foster care. It felt like, well, why make a new child when there’s already all these children in need?
[But] I had also misunderstood how radical and immediate the attachment to a baby would be and what it would feel like not just to return her to her birth mother, but to return her to a situation that deep down I knew wasn’t safe.
I can imagine it must be very hard to form an attachment that feels temporary. How do you prepare for letting go?
That’s a great question. I think parenting itself is an active preparing for letting go. So is love, right? We love mortal beings, and we don’t know how long we get to be with them. … When I would tell people we were going to be foster parents, they would say: ‘I always thought about doing that, but I really want a child of my own.’ That’s one of the concepts that foster care really complicates, which is that no child is ours, right? Every child we welcome into our lives is a stranger, no matter how we find them, and our job as parents, or as caregivers, is to help them become who they need to be on this planet.
I think if you go into foster care wanting to adopt, like we did — we were very clear with our social worker that we wanted to adopt — the trauma of the loss is very intense. If you go into foster care wanting to be a home for however long a child needs a home, I think the orientation might be different. The loss might not be less, but you might be better prepared for it.
I think your experience probably resonates with a lot of people: Suddenly you and your partner or spouse realize that you have different ideas! You thought you were on the same page, but then someone changes their mind. People grow and evolve. Was that a crisis moment in your marriage? How did you muddle through that?
Definitely a crisis moment in our marriage. The real crisis was that I hadn’t been saying what I wanted ... I have always struggled with that, from small things like, ‘Do I want pizza or a burrito, or what hike should we go on?’ I think of myself as a feminist, as a strong feminist, and I’d been doing a lot of deferring. Those little deferrals accumulate.
I had to learn to say what I wanted and to risk the conflict that could come with that. And I think it ended up being a beautiful thing for our marriage. I think both of our hearts were blown open when Coco came into our lives in different ways. We also grieved the loss of her in different ways, and we remained committed to that loss. We wanted that loss to make our marriage stronger, to bring us closer. A lot of marriages end with the loss of a child. So that was something that we had to really work toward. Now we have this little boy who’s just light and joy incarnate.
What would you tell someone at the beginning of this journey?
I would tell them it’s never wrong to choose love. No love is wasted. I was carrying Coco in one of those front carriers in the grocery store, and the grocery store clerk said, ‘Oh, your baby’s so beautiful.’ I said, ‘Oh, she’s actually my foster daughter.’ And she just stopped. She looked at me and she said, ‘I was raised in the foster care system. A good home makes all the difference.’ And so, I think, just trust that no matter how short or how long a child is with you, that your love matters.
Interview has been edited and condensed.