He called her Mama.
He liked going to Target with her, where he would ask strangers in the checkout line: “What you got? What you got?”
This toddler, who Rachel Hillestad knew had lived a life that would leave “most of us angry and bitter,” screamed out at night, and she held his hand.
He was just a little guy, but the love she felt for her foster child was big. Maybe she didn’t realize how deep it ran until the day he left.
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He lived with Hillestad, 37, her husband and their three young children in their Overland Park home for just two and a half weeks — not very long in the world of foster care, she says.
On the way home from dropping him off with his new foster family, she felt one of those “moments of clarity” when it seemed like being a foster parent was “doing what God put you on this earth to do.”
Then she saw his Cookie Monster toothbrush, still in the car.
She started crying so hard she had to pull over.
“What’s wrong, mommy?” her 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, asked from the backseat.
“I’m sad,” Hillestad answered. “I’m sad he’s not in that seat anymore.”
“I’m sad, too,” Phoebe said.
Hillestad had to do something with all those jangled emotions. So as a writer, she did what writers do.
She wrote about that Cookie Monster toothbrush moment on her Facebook page, where thousands of people have been crying with her since Dec. 2.
Her post has been shared more than 40,000 times and has attracted more than 74,000 likes, hearts — and many crying-face emojis.
“It took his left-behind toothbrush to undo me. I’m sitting here in a parking lot sobbing my guts out,” she wrote.
“He was mine for two and a half weeks, but those days and nights saw him smile, sleep through the night instead of freezing awake in terror, swing for hours on the swings my kids take for granted.
“He called me Mama and I told him every time I left that if I said I would come back, I would. I prepared him for his new home as well as I could, but now it’s nap time and his new mom says he misses me.”
She’s written before about the foster parenting experience on her website, rachelhillestad.com, and on The Huffington Post. But none of those words created this tsunami of attention — from national media, from mom blogs.
“It’s shocking,” she says.
Fellow foster parents have applauded her on Facebook.
“This made me cry, hard,” wrote a fellow foster mom. “We had 2 for almost a year. The younger one only knew me as mom. Then they are gone, we’ve had no contact. It hurts, it’s raw. I still can’t go in to their rooms. But I’ve never once regretted it. I miss them every day.”
Social workers responded.
“If there were several hundred Rachel Hillestads for all our babies in foster care ... . You are a blessing to each child you encounter,” wrote one.
Former foster children thanked her, too: “As someone whom was in the system for nine years, this is wonderful. Thank you for being you and for caring about the kids that feel like they have no one left.”
And, she has inspired others to write that they are now considering foster parenting, too.
Hillestad and her husband, Scott, who works in IT, have been foster parents for six years. Working with KVC Kansas, they have cared for about 70 children.
She was particularly struck by the number former foster kids, now adults, who left Facebook comments or reached out to her with this same message.
“Gosh, if I had just one person who cried for me when I left.”
Read her entire essay here.