Parenthood is arguably the toughest job there is. Add the pressures of working as a teacher, living in the second most expensive city in the country, according to the Worldwide Cost of Living report, and dealing with the foster care system and parenting seems nearly impossible.
Enter Amy Woods, 38-year-old Los Angeles-area educator and foster mother to a spunky toddler – she’s also single. Of the 732 foster parents in Los Angeles County (not including foster family agency homes and relative caregivers), there are 393 single foster parents, according to the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services.
“I became a foster mom because I knew I wanted to be a mom,” Woods said. “I’d worked with foster children in my teaching career. And I saw the need for positive role models in their life, so I started by volunteering.”
Since becoming a certified foster parent three years ago, Woods has fostered five children and experienced the highs and lows of fostering.
After the orientation, training and paperwork, Woods’ journey as a parent began with a flash and a bang in the form of a phone call while she was at work. With only three hours to prepare, she ran home, cleaned the house, changed clothes and went to the hospital to pick up a five-day-old infant.
“At first it is very overwhelming because a social worker comes over to you, I’ve just met this child and he’s five days old and he’s fragile,” Amy recalled. “I was just taking it all in and then once everybody left […] I just held him and it was the most peaceful feeling of just holding that little baby and knowing we’re going to be O.K., you’re going to be O.K.”
Close friends and community members helped Woods ease into motherhood by running errands to grab diapers, formula and other newborn essentials. Once she got beyond the first few days and became accustomed to sleeplessness, she faced her first hurdle.
How does a single mother provide for the around-the-clock needs of a child and remain financially stable?
For Woods, that began by thinking ahead. She had banked her sick days for a couple of years and after several weeks off, finding childcare became the next objective. This can be the single most expensive part of raising a child.
According to Kids Data, the average cost of childcare for an infant in Los Angeles is over $14,000 a year or upwards of $1,100 monthly. For a single mother on a teacher’s salary, which Glassdoor reports is about $55,000 in Los Angeles, it’s clear that fostering is a huge financial sacrifice. A price Amy pays out-of-pocket.
And for those who think the monthly assistance provided to foster parents makes this sacrifice less burdensome, Woods says, “The monthly stipend doesn’t even come close to what you spend every month on a child.”
Caregivers of children ages 0 – 4 years old receive $688 each month in assistance.
A 2015 survey by the Association of Community Human Service Agencies reported that 100 percent of foster family agencies cited concerns about how childcare rates discourage foster parent recruitment.
The glaring discrepancy between the cost of childcare and the monthly stipends provided inspired a $31 million statewide budget proposal geared toward subsidizing childcare for foster parents, as reported in an April 2016 article in The Imprint.
The proposal ultimately was not included in Governor Brown’s final budget, released earlier this week.
Months after Woods finally found childcare and settled into her flow as a single, working foster mom, she was dealt a major blow – her foster child was reunified with his birth parents.
As a foster-to-adopt parent, Woods knew there was a chance her child could be reunified with his birth family. This is actually an ideal outcome because it means the child’s family has become stable and they are able to provide a safe home for their offspring. However, as a first-time foster parent facing the emotional reality of giving up a child you have reared since he was just days old, it can be devastating.
“When my first child was reunified to his birth family, it was heartbreaking,” Woods said. “It was really difficult and I thought, I’m never going to do this again, it was hard on my family, it was hard on my friends, it was hard on my community and it was very hard on me. And I just thought, I can’t do it. And I did it again, and the second time around was probably the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had, with another family and helping a family be reunited with their child.”
Years have passed and now with her fifth child, Woods calls herself a “veteran foster mom” and says she couldn’t imagine not being a mother.
“This has been by far the happiest year of my life. Since my son came home, the joy that I have felt in being his mom and just having him,” Woods said, “he is so exuberant and so joyful and he teaches me so much, he reminds me to slow down and appreciate everything around me. He’ll point out the roly-poly bug and the yellow flower and the moon and say, ‘What’s that? A star!’”
Justin Pye is an L.A.-based producer, former NBC News associate and graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.