Premiere's 'Foster Mom' Reflects New Jersey
Imagine being torn between two desires: wanting romance or motherhood, the two things you have wanted your entire life. Foster Mom, a play by Chris Cragin-Day – winner of the 2017 Premiere Stages Play Festival – explores just that, and it compelled me to find out more about how art really imitates life. So I have decided to interview two women about their experiences as foster moms: playwright Chris Craigin-Day and Ellen Foos of the Princeton University Press who connect to this story on a very personal level.
The play follows Leslie, a single woman in her late thirties whose decision to adopt a child is complicated by two factors: a skeptical mother and an unexpected romance. As the relationship with the new man named Josh intensifies, so does her conviction about foster parenting. In the end, Leslie gets an opportunity to become a foster mom and she must choose between two things she wants desperately: the love of her life and the foster child she's never met.
Chris Craigin-Day, an alumna of Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, expressed that she and her husband, Steven, were always compelled to adopt and were inspired by the “idea of giving a home to a child even without the assurance of adoption”. In the play, Leslie begins dating Josh after her mother tries to set them up. Her mother is far more enthusiastic about her daughter finding a husband opposed to foster parenthood. However, Chris told me that she and Steven were already married when they chose to begin fostering and her parents were verbally supportive of her decision. Though there are differences between the playwright and the main character, Cragin-Day uses Leslie to reflect her own emotional journey while finding her identity as a foster mother. “All parents experience challenges. Period,” said Cragin-Day as she explained how her challenges as a foster mom were mostly related to the scheduling of the required evaluations, health checkups, visitations, speech therapy, and behavior therapy – which can be overwhelming.
In 2010, with a son away in college and a spare bedroom, Ellen Foos found herself pursuing the required training to become a foster parent. Ellen expressed that she really likes kids and enjoys being a parent, which was a driving force for her to become a foster parent. Kayjuan, her first “assignment,” came to her a few weeks before he turned ten years old, while she was dating her boyfriend (now husband), Mark. One immediate consideration was that Ellen and Mark are white and Kayjuan is black.
In the play, Leslie, a white woman, is asked whether she is opposed to fostering a child of a different ethnic background than her own. This can be a real-life concern for both foster parent and a resource worker, especially since in 2015 over 40% of the children who make up the NJ Foster Care system are African-American according to childtrends.org. Ellen shared that she did in fact have some concerns: “I knew the ideal situation for a child would be to have an ethnic match. But life is not ideal and the reality was that I was available right then and there.” Thankfully, Ellen had a strong support system made up of a multicultural extended family, understanding friends, and a helpful psychologist from Kayjuan’s school. Coincidentally, this is much like Leslie’s helpful, but straight-forward social worker, Sophie.
One of Ellen’s biggest supporters has been her husband, Mark. When Ellen took on Kayjuan as her first foster child, she and Mark were still dating, but not living together. Mark admitted to me that he had some hesitations because he had plans for his retirement, which did not include becoming a foster parent. However, within a year he jumped on board with Ellen and pursued the required fostering classes. A family bond grew between Ellen, Mark, and Kayjuan. Mark and Ellen married in May of 2011, and a week after the wedding, Ellen adopted Kayjuan. Mark officially adopted Kayjuan in September of the following year, which they still celebrate annually. Kayjuan shared with me that “My adoptive parents brought me in at a time when my biological parents were too vulnerable to raise any child. They gave me opportunities, love and care. Although I lost some contact with my biological relatives it turned out for the best”. Though Ellen was prepared by the system for the possibility that Kayjuan may have been returned to his biological parents during the fostering period, she says that having him has made her feel needed.
It is evident that fostering can truly impact one’s life. Chris shared that fostering has in fact humbled her and expanded her understanding of motherhood while opening her eyes to the complicated nature of social services. Mark told me that fostering had been a wonderful experience since he never had children, except two sets of kids from previous girlfriends. “It's a great feeling to pass along to Kayjuan little pieces of myself,” Mark said.
One interesting commonality that I found between Chris, Ellen, and Mark is that they maintain interactions with their foster sons’ biological parents. Chris says that she has a friendly relationship with her foster son’s biological parents. In 2013, when Mark and Kayjuan were returning home from a trip to California, they stopped in Atlanta to have dinner with Kayjuan’s biological father. Mark photographed the biggest smile he has even seen on Kayjuan during their goodbye hug.
According to NJ Child Placement Advisory Council, in 2015 there were over 8,000 foster children in the state of New Jersey. But I am so glad Chris and Ellen made the decision to be awesome foster moms. It is evident that they are committed to providing for others, and I believe that it is admirable to open your home to a child in need. For those who may be considering becoming a foster parent, Ellen would advise you to “be ready to learn the system, have the ability to keep on top of appointments and paperwork. Make sure you have the time and supports to take on such a big responsibility.” Chris would probably agree because she says that the system is not perfect. But from her experience she says that having faith is important because “there's so much that is out of your control. You have to stay focused on meeting the child's needs as well as you can. You won't be able to fix everything. Some things you can't fix. Some things you shouldn't fix.” To learn more about the foster care system or how you can become a foster parent, please visit www.state.nj.us/njfosteradopt/foster/ or download the resource handbook below.
Foster Mom, directed by Kel Haney, will run at Premiere Stages from September 7 – 24, 2017. For tickets and more information click here.