I Became a Mom to a 4-Year-Old Overnight...and Then I Had to Let Her Go

This is my story of how I went from "auntie" to "mommy" overnight, and the five most important things I learned from the experience.

I became a parent overnight when my cousin Tina* was hospitalized for four months. Her daughter, Ella*, was four years old and had no one to care for her. Tina's parents had passed away and her ex-husband wasn't fit to be Ella's guardian. As Tina's next of kin and emergency contact, it was only natural that Ella should come live with me, even though I didn't know much about raising kids at the time.

Unlike state-appointed foster parents, my situation was based on kinship and family ties. Foster parenting expert Dr. Joseph Crumbley calls it "kinship care." Whatever the appropriate term was, I effectively became Ella's de facto "foster mom" as we waited to see if her mom would get better. Tina had been a great mother prior to her hospitalization, so I felt strongly that the only appropriate end goal would be to get Ella back to her. Until then, though, my life would be one big crash-course on parenting.

Little did I know that accepting Ella into my life as my temporary child was completely different from my previous role of "favorite auntie." It was an incredible experience I feel fortunate to have had -- and I learned a lot about myself and about parenting along the way, including how to say goodbye to a love I never knew I wanted.

  1. I Just Wanted Her to Feel Safe
    After Ella had to witness the hospitalization of her mother, my top priority became to create a sense of stability, safety and consistency for her. I wanted her to know that she could count on me. However, this wasn't as easy as it seemed. During her first night at home, she began to cry and I felt so helpless and guilty. I put "Sammie the Bear" on her lap and held her for almost an hour. When Ella calmed down a bit, she looked up at me and said, "I miss mommy." My heart melted. The next morning, she woke up confused and asked why she was with me and not with Tina. I explained that Mommy needed to get better first, so she could be with her forever. Throughout that first week, Ella asked the same question over and over, and I always answered the same way to reassure her.

    I worked hard to make sure that Ella knew I was a safe space for her, and things started to get easier. I let her snuggle with me in my queen-sized bed. I worked from home so I could be present and accessible to her, and she loved that. One minute she'd be playing in the living room, and the next minute she'd come sit on my lap whenever she wanted. We held hands whenever we went out together. I worked hard to gain Ella's trust, and eventually I won it.
  2. Parenting Is a Skill That You Can Sharpen Over Time
    During my time as Ella's guardian, I learned that "good" parenting requires three things: understanding where a child is in their development; having good communication techniques that correct behaviors rather than traumatize; and knowing when to let go of the little things that make kids "kids."

    I also learned that "good" parenting comes way easier when you can think like a kid. Before Ella, I had no idea how much adults overcomplicate and overanalyze situations that, in reality, are really straightforward. Once Ella came along, I quickly learned the value of what some call "child's logic," and what others simply call the "K.I.S.S." principle, or "Keep It Simple, Silly." My parenting style became focused on simplifying problems to find simple solutions.

    I realized I didn't have to be perfect for Ella on Day One, but that we could slowly grow together to find a groove that worked for us both.
  3. We All Still Have Our "Inner Child"
    Ella and I got along really well. We played princesses' tea party, danced like ballerinas in pink tutus and watched Nickelodeon together. Some days, we pretended to be cowboys and fairies. (Guess which character I had to play?!) I even taught her how to play "Charades," which always got her laughing. Every chance I got, I tried to make her laugh; that was my way of saying, "I love you, Ella, and your happiness is my happiness." But I realized that adults take life too seriously, and Ella taught me how to tap into my inner child again. And I'm so grateful.
  4. Children Love Unconditionally...and It's Contagious
    Having Ella as my "daughter" changed the way I felt about her, and even how I felt about children in general. In those four short months, we grew incredibly close. Some of my favorite memories of that time come from when we used to snuggle in bed together, laughing at cartoons while eating popcorn. She mentioned once that her mom didn't let her eat in bed. I said, "I'm your fun auntie, so let's do it while you're here," and I kissed her forehead. That became one of our go-to bonding activities.

    To this day, five years later, I still love her so deeply and unconditionally that I feel like she's still my daughter. When she was seven, she broke her arm and had to get bone reconstruction surgery. I slept in her hospital room with her, just like old times. And we ate popcorn together to ease her pain.
  5. Sometimes Letting Go Is for the Best
    Deep in my heart, I always knew Ella would go back to her mom. That was where she needed to be, but letting go was harder than I expected. After sending her off to her mom, I came home to an empty apartment. I was shocked at how losing her in my everyday life made me feel so hollow, yet so grateful. To this day, I keep a picture of us on my work desk; it's a picture of us hugging and smiling in Disneyland wearing mouse hats. And it always makes me smile.

Foster parenting changed my life. It allowed me to be a trustworthy and stable presence for an amazing child. It also gave me a deep-seeded respect and admiration for full-time foster parents, who provide a crucial safety net for children in need of a safe haven.

I haven't signed up to foster other children, perhaps because I want to preserve the memory of my special my bond with Ella. But, she made me think really hard about my options, options I'd never seriously entertained in the past: should I have biological children, adopt children needing a forever home or foster those who need a temporary home?

One day, I will choose one of those options. Because, thanks to Ella, I now know that I would make a great mom.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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