Judy Cockerton celebrated her 47th birthday with a solo trip to Italy. For the happily married mother of two and Boston-area toy store owner, the getaway was a welcome break from a fulfilling if busy life, a chance to reflect on her accomplishments and look toward the pleasant future now set to unfold.
"I honestly thought I'd still be working in my toy stores as a grandmother," she says, with a laugh. "That would be that."
And then a single moment changed everything.
Her photojournalist husband arrived home from work one evening and showed her a disturbing article about a five-month-old baby who'd been left alone and kidnapped while his overwhelmed foster mother went to pick up another child. Cockerton's reaction was swift and unequivocal:
All of us are responsible for foster kids. Let's see if we can be a foster family.
While many families would have been understandably hesitant, Cockerton says her spouse and kids, then 12 and 18, all eagerly jumped on board. She and her husband enrolled in the state-mandated training required of foster parents, and the day before her 48th birthday, two tiny sisters -- ages five months and 17 months -- arrived at her door.
"This was a very different birthday from the year before," she recalls. "Everyone wanted to meet the girls. We had a picnic in the park with my daughter and four of my best friends."
Thirteen years later, Cockerton is not only an adoptive mother but also the founder and CEO of Treehouse, an innovative intergenerational community in Easthampton, Mass., where families who are adopting children from foster care live side by side with elders in a close-knit neighborhood setting. As a full-time advocate for foster kids -- she sold her toy stores in 2001 -- she's also active in the nationwide effort to improve life for the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 U.S. children whose birth parents are unable to care for them in any given year.
For children who have already experienced more than their share of trauma, uncertainty and loss, the importance of stable, caring foster homes cannot be overstated. Foster parents provide a critical safe haven until children can return home, move in with relatives or be adopted.
Older children are especially in need of homes -- as of 2009, the median age of kids in foster care was just under 10 -- and they may be a good match for midlife parents who don't necessarily want to start over with an infant or a toddler.
Experts stress that serving as a foster parent is a serious commitment, and deciding whether the role is right for you merits serious thought. Laws and policies for approving family foster homes vary from state to state, and a good first step is to become familiar with your state's requirements and resources. Foster parents are reimbursed for child-related costs, but this varies by state and by the child's needs.
While becoming a midlife foster parent is certainly not for everyone, for many the experience has proved life-changing in the best possible way.
"I bless the day I got Abel," says California writer Carolyn Nash, who became a single foster mom at 38 when her "Prince Charming, three kids, suburban house" fantasy had failed to materialize. "Just saying that, I get choked up. It was the hardest thing I ever did and the best thing I ever did."
In her memoir Raising Abel, Nash -- she uses a pen name and pseudonyms to protect her children's privacy -- details the often-harrowing experience of raising the sexually abused 3-year-old whom she later adopted. At 48, she went on to foster and adopt a second son, who arrived as a three-week-old infant. Having escaped the horrors that marked Abel's early years, her second son, now seven, has enjoyed a relatively easy childhood.
If she were to offer one piece of advice to prospective foster parents, Nash says it would be to realistically assess both their strengths and their limitations.
"It's really important to know yourself -- to say 'This is what I can do. This is what I can't do,'" she says. "Don't go into it like I did, thinking you can save the world." At the same time, Nash acknowledges the paradox at the heart of this advice. "I wouldn't tell someone to do what I did, but it's the best thing I ever did."
It's also essential to keep in mind that when you become a foster parent, you're joining a child's team, which is likely to include social workers, birth family members and educators. On the upside, you won't be alone dealing with questions and challenges. On the downside, you'll have far less autonomy than you would with your own child. "You need to be able to adopt a graceful and flexible lifestyle," Cockerton says.
For Cockerton and her family, this approach continues to pay off. One of her original foster children is now her beloved daughter Brianna. (Brianna's sister was adopted by a nearby family, and the girls remain close.)
Of course, there are pros and cons to being a midlife parent, whether biological, adoptive or foster. On the one hand, you have perspective and stability. On the other, it may be difficult keeping up with an energetic child. But for all the undeniable challenges, there are also tremendous rewards. As Nash succinctly puts it, "It's really hard not to fall in love."
Books: For a personal perspective, memoirs by veteran foster mother Kathy Harrison (Another Place at the Table and One Small Boat) and former foster child and actress Victoria Rowell (The Women Who Raised Me) are compelling reads. Real-life foster mother Vanessa Diffenbaugh's acclaimed novel The Language of Flowers is a powerful fictional exploration of the world of one imagined foster child.
Blogs: The blogosphere also offers many perspectives on foster parenting.
Events: May is National Foster Care Month.
SecondAct contributor Amy Gutman writes the blog Plan B Nation: Living Creatively in Challenging Times. The author of two suspense novels, she's also written for the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and Huffington Post, among other publications, and lives in western Massachusetts.