Sarah Sentilles, STRANGER CARE

Sarah Sentilles, STRANGER CARE

When Sarah Sentilles realized she wanted to become a parent, she learned that her husband did not want to bring another child into an already overpopulated world. The two looked to foster care and were placed with a three-day-old girl they immediately fell in love with. In her new book, Stranger Care, Sarah recounts the journey through the system and what happened when their almost daughter was placed back with her birth mother. As Sarah tells Zibby, her goals in writing the memoir were to give herself the agency the system had deprived her of and to remind herself and other readers that love and care don’t have to be synonymous with parenthood.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sarah Sentilles: Thank you for having me, Zibby. I’m so looking forward to talking with you.

Zibby: I loved Stranger Care: A Memoir of Mothering What Isn’t Ours. I feel like now I know you so well. I know that in memoir, you only have a slice of yourself that you share. Just going through all of this with you from the Chevy dealer or whatever it was where you’re upstairs taking the classes and all these little bits and pieces — I don’t know why I picked that one random moment out of all the many. Just seeing your whole journey through this thing and then even — I’m rambling because I’m so excited. Tell listeners what Stranger Care is about and this whole journey which became the book.

Sarah: I wrote Stranger Care as a love letter to our foster daughter who we picked up from the hospital when she was three days old. I call her Coco in the book. I wanted to write a book that would mother her when I was no longer allowed to. I actually started writing it before Coco ever came into our lives. I’m a feminist, but when it came to becoming a mother, I wasn’t admitting to myself or to my partner that I really wanted to be a mother, that it was my deepest longing. By the time I did admit that to him, I discovered that I was married to an environmentalist who didn’t want to make another human being. He thought that, why would we make a new child when there are so many children in the world who need homes? He was open to fostering or adopting. He wants to live in a world where we tend the Earth. I really want to live in a world where we tend to each other. Foster care became our common ground. We thought, okay, there’s five hundred thousand children in foster care. Over a hundred thousand need permanent homes. We can be a safe place for one of those children. We started the process of becoming certified as foster parents. The book opens with my own indecision and our struggles in our marriage to figure out how we’re going to remake our partnership in order to grow our family and what that’s going to look like. Then it kind of takes a turn when we get the call for Coco and we bring her home.

Zibby: Wow. It’s not just that because you intersperse basically every short chapter with some sort of story from the environment or the Bible, even, or all these different sources that make your own experience much more global and rooted in the history of motherhood in general. There was one of those passages that I have not stopped thinking about, about the tree, how the mother tree tends to the tree beside it based on its seedlings versus the other trees in its orbit. When those trees that aren’t its seedlings are out of its orbit, it’ll just take care of whatever tree is close by. I’ve never thought of a tree that way, ever. I had no idea. Did you know? That blew my mind, I have to say.

Sarah: I had no idea. I read an article by Suzanne Simard, who has a new book out called Finding the Mother Tree, about this idea. In the beginning of the book, I’m really looking to nature to find examples of expanded sense of kinship. How does nature take care of the stranger? What does family look like in nature? I was trying to think differently about it. I knew that it was going to be a very intimate story, the most personal book I’ve ever written, but I also wanted it to open to the wider world. I interspersed it with examples from nature of care or family, which I think become kind of a breath of relief for the reader in some way, but also a reminder that my heartbreak is not the only heartbreak, that our world is big and wide. There’s beauty in it and terrible things at once. That Mother Tree book — I had first read The Hidden Life of Trees or The Secret Language of Trees. I always get the title mixed up with the one about bees.

Zibby: I think it’s The Secret Life of Bees.

Sarah: But it was the one about trees. It was The Hidden Language of Trees, I think.

Zibby: I don’t know the tree one. I only know the bee one.

Sarah: It’s about trees. It’s by Peter Wohlleben, is the author. He talks about how trees can communicate and remember and how trees grieve. They have friendships with other trees. I finished the book. I was just blown away, kind of like what you’re talking about. Oh, the world is different than I thought. Everything is different than I thought. I live in a small mountain town in Idaho. I had signed up to do trail maintenance on one of these trails that are used for hikers and mountain bikes. I arrived to do the trail maintenance. They gave me clippers to clip off tree branches along the trail. I was just weeping being like, these trees, they’re feeling it. They’re feeling pain. They’re talking to each other. It was a transformative moment for me to read that book and then to read these essays by Suzanne Simard about this idea that trees recognize their own kin through these root systems. Then they also take care of strangers, which I thought was really profound and beautiful.

Zibby: We just think we’re the center of the universe, us people. It’s so not true. I feel like I’ve been reading at lot about trees lately. I just read The Oak Papers by James Canton. I don’t know if you’ve read that.

Sarah: I haven’t, no. I would like to read that.

Zibby: It’s like a tree meditation, if you will. He’s a PhD. He lives outside of London. That was really interesting. My husband keeps being like, “What’s with all the trees?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Also, all the stories, they’re not really about trees. It’s about life. It’s about humanity and how we all interact and the beauty of seeing things outside of ourselves. It’s been a theme of the summer reading, I would say.

Sarah: It’s beautiful. I think it points to these ways of what you’re talking about, about how humans think of ourselves as the center. We have all these stories that we tell ourselves about how the world works. There’s these moments where you’re like, oh, it’s different than what I thought. It’s more beautiful and more profound and more connected. It’s like a bomb or medicine in some kind of way to remember that communication’s happening all around you. Family’s happening all around you.

Zibby: It’s so true. Speaking of family, yes, I would say — I listened to it. It didn’t read it, so I don’t know if it was exactly half of the book. It seemed like the first half, you had not met Coco yet. It was the leadup to that. As you said, there was a lot of this debate. What I found really interesting was how you described sort of muffling your own — you knew deep down what you wanted, but you couldn’t assert yourself. It would’ve rocked the boat too much. Maybe I didn’t say that in the right way. Your husband wanted something totally different, so what do you do in a relationship? You were like, I’d been so amenable up until that point. How could then, all of a sudden, I be like, “Absolutely not,” when you’d been like, “Sure, we’ll do this. Sure, we’ll do that”? It’s the precedents you set in the relationship. Then this big decision comes along. Why don’t you tell more about it? I just keep summarizing.

Sarah: That was the hardest part to write. I felt a lot of shame about looking back at the ways that I’d been in my own marriage and the ways I’d subverted my own desires, whether it was for small things like what I wanted to eat for dinner or things to do. I’m a people pleaser. I want to say I’m a former people pleaser, but I’m still a people pleaser, a good girl who likes to do what other people want her to do. It kind of runs counter to my understanding of myself as a strong, decisive person. I’m married to someone who wants to be married to a strong woman, so it was also a shock to him that I hadn’t been saying my own desires. It’s an interesting question. When you’ve been pretending to be one way but then you’re admitting to yourself that something else is going on, how do you remake your partnership to be more equal? I didn’t write that part at first, actually. I didn’t want to write about my marriage. I definitely didn’t want to write about the fact that I hadn’t been naming my own desires. It was more comfortable to blame other people for the situation that I found myself in than to look at the ways that my own behaviors have led to this moment that we found ourselves in.

That was hardest part for me to write. Other people think other parts are harder. There’s emotional parts. That part, admitting that I had been swallowing my desires was the hardest part. Interestingly, it’s the one that so many women readers have responded to. I think it’s a pretty common thing. A lot of women are trained not to say what they want. Then you find yourself in a situation that you really don’t want to be in and end up having to either explode your partnership or remake it or give ultimatums or do something. This one about being a mother, I had my own resistance because there’s cultural resistance around this thing. I think I write that motherhood is framed as both holy work and trap. I had absorbed that. I was afraid of what it would do to my writing and my life and my time. I had a partner who didn’t need to be a parent. He said, “I’m fine with it just being the two of us.” Then he became more adamant in his desire not to create a new human as I realized that my deepest longing was to become a mother. We had to then straddle this pretty big chasm.

Zibby: The thing is, you write about it as if you wanted to become an astronaut and go to the moon or something. It’s okay to want to be a mother. My heart is going out to you as I’m listening. I’m like, it’s okay to admit this. It’s not some shameful desire to want to be a mother. There was just so much built up. Of course, if the person in your life feels the opposite, it doesn’t really matter how common or not common it is. That’s your ecosystem in which you have to sort it out.

Sarah: You’re right. It’s like I’m like, I really want to drink poison. That’s what I want to do.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, she wants to be a mom. It’s okay. Be a mom.

Sarah: It is okay, but it didn’t feel okay.

Zibby: I know. You explained it so well. My heart was going out to you as you wrestled with it. Although, I’m sure that would’ve been the case had you been wrestling with anything. Then of course, as it all goes on, I felt similarly at every step of the way. By the way, I just read your Lit Hub article about going to Coco’s first birthday, oh, my gosh. I hate to fast-forward, but can we talk about that?

Sarah: Please, yes.

Zibby: The fact that you went and visited after you had to give Coco back to her biological mother and then literally felt like you were going to die — your whole body, you said you had migraines and bruises and swelling. You just literally couldn’t stand it. Maybe tell about the trajectory, what ends up happening, which isn’t a spoiler, I don’t think.

Sarah: No, it’s not. At this point, no, I don’t think so. We wanted to adopt through the foster care system. What happens when you are certified as a foster parent is you get these phone calls that there are children, sometimes siblings, that are available that need a safe place to go, sometimes single children. We would get call after call after call. You’re supposed to keep a list of questions by the phone to determine whether you’re the right fit for that particular child. Since we wanted to adopt, there were some questions that we had. We wanted to make sure that there wasn’t other family available. We wanted to know what the biological mother’s situation was. When we got the call for Coco, we were told that her biological mother was what they called a “poor prognosis.” This was her fourth child. She had a long history of not being able to have a safe life for children, and so it was pretty possible that we were going to adopt her. That was what we went in with. We picked up this three-day-old baby girl who weighed less than five pounds from the hospital. Our attachment to her was immediate and fierce. I had been asking myself, do I want to have a baby? Do I want to have a baby? Do I want to have a baby? Then it kind of switched. Do I want to be a parent? I knew that I didn’t need to give birth, but I still wasn’t sure I could love another person’s child immediately, but it was immediate and fierce and beautiful and profound for both me and Eric.

We brought this little girl home. With a baby, it’s not babysitting. You’re up every two hours feeding them. You fall madly in love with this little child. I really wanted to keep her. Part of the book is me wrestling with this longing, this full-bodied desire to have Coco be our child and to give her a forever home and also seeing that there was this other mother, her mother who also wanted her and who wanted to get her life together so she could get her daughter back. That was hard to learn how to love her mother as well. I remember the first time I met her, which kind of points to the violence of bureaucracy here. We had brought home this little girl from the hospital. We didn’t meet her mother, who I call Evelyn in the book, for two weeks. We met her at a courtroom after going through metal detectors. Here’s this woman who’s given birth two weeks before. Her body is still holding all the signs of pregnancy. I think her breasts are still making milk. We’re in this courthouse. She asks if she can hold her daughter. I hand her this tiny baby in this random courtroom hallway. She just holds her and whispers, “I love you. I love you. I love you,” like for hours. It’s almost like reading about trees. This doesn’t work the way I thought it worked. There’s another woman who loves this child. What are we going to do? I had to learn how to love Evelyn as much as I loved Coco. My therapist said to me, “This child might save her life. You don’t need your life saved. You need to stop rooting against her and start rooting for her.” I tried that. It became this practice, kind of love practice. Evelyn and I really grew to love each other as she got her life back together.

Eventually, the foster care system determined that it was safe for Coco to return to her. I had underestimated what my attachment to Coco would be. I’d also underestimated what it would feel like to hand a vulnerable baby back to someone who I didn’t think was safe for a baby. When we did that, she was ten months old. She can’t talk. She’s not going to school. She can easily disappear. The foster care system gives biological parents a lot of support while their children are in foster care. They have access to counseling and job training and drug counseling and financial support and social workers and free childcare and all these different things. The moment that reunification happens, all of those supports disappear. That meant that Evelyn was on her own, which meant that Coco was on her own. In the beginning, we stayed in touch. The article that you talked about — this is a long way around to get to that essay. She invited me to Coco’s first birthday party. She invited Eric and me. Eric, it was too hard for him to go, so he drove me there. We had this huge role reversal where I felt like nobody understood my grief over losing my foster daughter, but then I realized that Evelyn did. She lost her daughter to me. Then I lost my daughter to her. I showed up at this birthday party. Coco had these cute pink tennis shoes on and her hair in pigtails. I don’t think she recognized me. It had been a couple months. Evelyn let me hold her the whole time. I didn’t know then that that was the last time that I would see Coco in person.

Zibby: You still haven’t?

Sarah: Evelyn was doing really well until she wasn’t doing very well. I can’t talk a lot about what happened, but she ended up relapsing and going to a different state. Coco was taken into foster care in a different state. As soon as Eric and I heard that, we went to go get her, but that state won’t place her with us. They placed her with a different foster family. We’ve been fighting to get her placed back with us, but we are losing. What we have been allowed to do is Zoom with her every Thursday morning. Actually, right after we talk, we Zoom. It’s really the most beautiful thirty minutes. We giggle and play games. Then the screen goes dark, and it’s like losing her all over again.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, Sarah, how do you go through this? How do you manage the pain of this?

Sarah: It’s brutal. It’s one of those things where — I’m sure you’ve experienced where life asks you to do something that you don’t think you can do. You only have one choice, which is to do it. I feel like the only choice we have is to love her and to continue to try to champion her in whatever way we’ll be allowed to. I do a lot of therapy. I do EMDR, trauma therapy. I do something called havening, which is really beautiful. I have a lot of supportive family and friends. What I try to remember is that none of this is about me. It’s about her. It’s about these five hundred children that are in this system, the foster care system. It was difficult for me to navigate as an overeducated white woman with money. Then I think, what is it like to be poor? What is it like to be an addict? What is it like to be a person of color navigating that system? I try to decenter my own grief. It’s been the most beautiful experience of my life and the most terrible.

Zibby: Wow. Of course, you wrote about it. Did that help?

Sarah: It did help. For you as a writer also — people were like, how did you write about this? It seems so hard to write about. I wrote about it when it was happening. I found an agency on the page that I didn’t have in the foster care system. I felt so much helplessness and despair. Just being able to arrange words on the page felt like a kind of agency, like I could exercise some control even when those words were, “She is gone.” It gave me a sense of control that I didn’t have in any other aspect of that experience.

Zibby: How is this project different? I know with all the layers of emotions on top of it and writing through the situation. This is your fifth book or something. Or something, I say so glib.

Sarah: No, it’s good. I like that.

Zibby: I don’t know how many. Losing track. There’s always a personal element to it. Yet they’re all so different, Breaking up with God and the analysis of female religious leaders around the country. All the work that you continue to do is so interesting. There’s all this reported stuff and then all this emotional stuff, if you will. How do you synthesize all that information and make it into a cohesive narrative? Is it the combination of both, that you feel like you need the two sides, the analytical meeting with the emotional?

Sarah: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know how you write. I’d love to hear what your writing process is like. I write in fragments. I write little bits. The book is in fragments. I wanted there to be a lot of white space on the page, space for the reader to breathe and space for the reader to animate the text on her own. I also like to point to the limits of my own writing. What I write about Evelyn or what I write about Coco, there’s always more to them than what I can capture on the page. I like to point to that by having these short sections. I needed the analytical part. It was like medicine to me. I needed to fall in love with the world in my grief. I had gone in the beginning, like I said, to look for examples of kinship and family. A friend read my book. She said, “I love how in the beginning, you’re looking to the natural world for examples of kinship and family, and by the end, it’s the natural world that’s taking care of you. It’s your family.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, I didn’t realize I did that.” That is how it worked. I got to be held by the mountains and by the river and by the vultures and hawks and the robins in my yard. I needed that sense of expansiveness and that sense of eternal time, the sense of the stars and the moon. I wanted that also to be medicine for Coco. It’s my hope that someday she’ll read this and she’ll know how loved she is. She’ll know how many people wanted her. I had this sense that if we all come from stardust, if we’re all made from the same material, then wherever she finds herself, she’s home. I used to literally go out and hold her into the moonlight and say, “Wherever you are, there will be moonlight. Wherever you are, there will trees.” I wanted the book to do that for the reader, to kind of re-enchant the world in some way even though the material was so difficult.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. That’s so beautiful. I’m just making my own selfish wish on the stars with my kids.

Sarah: Good. Take it.

Zibby: Here I am like, can I have X, Y, or Z, star? Can you work for me, please?

Sarah: You do so much to support writers and authors and books and community. You’re a powerhouse.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s sweet. I know you got your start with your first book about Teach For America after graduating from Yale, which by the way, I went to also.

Sarah: Yay. When did you graduate?

Zibby: I think I’m much older than you.

Sarah: I don’t think so.

Zibby: I’m sure I am. I graduated in ’98.

Sarah: No, I’m older than you. I graduated in ’95.

Zibby: No way, wow. Well, you look much better.

Sarah: See, I had to plug in my ring light. I told you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I thought you were like ten years younger than me. That’s so funny. I was in Davenport.

Sarah: I was in Pierson. I was first in Trumbull and then in Pierson. I was right next to you. I ate a lot of meals in Davenport. I had a big gang of friends that was in Davenport.

Zibby: Awesome. We were there at the same time, then, right, ? Very cool. Just give me the two-minute version of your life story. So you went to Yale. Then you went to Teach For America. How did you end up here?

Sarah: I’m a weirdo. I’m a real weirdo. I don’t know how career services when you were at Yale. When I was there, you had two options, which was investment banking or the Peace Corps. Those were the two things. We had computers, but you would go in and there was all these binders. You could do this.

Zibby: Yeah, the binders.

Sarah: I ended up applying for Teach For America. I’m not a fan of that program at all. I think it’s not a good idea to send inexperienced undergrads, basically, to schools that need the best teachers, but I ended up doing Teach For America. I was sent to Compton, California. I taught bilingual elementary school, first grade and then second grade. That experience was like a conversion experience for me. Similarly to reading about trees, I was like, oh, the world works differently than I thought. It’s embarrassing, but here I am as this white woman where all the structures are designed to support me to feel smart and successful. I’m at a school that’s predominantly for black and brown children. We didn’t have any books. The windows didn’t open. There were mice crawling through my classroom. They were being set up to fail and then blamed for that failure. It was this really deep encounter with structural and systemic racism. I also started going to church at that time. I had been raised Catholic but kind of left the church when I went to college and then started going to this really beautiful episcopal church that was a social justice church in Pasadena called All Saints Pasadena. I thought that becoming a minister would be the way to combat oppression of all kinds, specifically racism.

I ended up going to Harvard Divinity School to become a minister, but I stopped going to church when I went to divinity school and then ended up getting a doctorate in theology and realizing that I couldn’t make my mind do what the church was asking it to do. I became, instead, a theologian where I studied the words people used to talk about God and the effects of those words, whether they make the world more life-giving or whether they cause harm. I went to divinity school. I fell in love with Eric in graduate school. We moved all around following academic jobs. We’ve lived in California. We’ve lived in Portland, Oregon. Then I eventually ended up teaching at an art school in Portland. I taught critical theory and ethics and aesthetics. I had written my dissertation at Harvard on the torture photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I became really interested in what we’re supposed to do when we encounter images of other human beings in pain. That’s what I wanted to write my dissertation about. I wrote about that. That led me to studying art and working with visual artists. Eventually, I realized my biggest dream was to be a writer. I ended up leaving my academic job to focus full-time on my creative writing. Eric and I ended up living in this small mountain town in Idaho. That’s the “how I ended up here” story.

Zibby: Yet you’re interviewed by Cheryl Strayed for your launch, and Anthony Doerr and all these amazing, amazing authors and have had such success yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are, especially now, I feel like.

Sarah: Yeah, Zoom is a helpful tool when you live in the mountains.

Zibby: How did you connect with them, by the way?

Sarah: I met Cheryl Strayed right before she became super famous for Wild. She’s good friends with my friend Emily Rapp Black who’s another author and writer who I love. I remember she introduced me to Cheryl right when I moved to Portland. I got this really sweet message back from Cheryl. “My life is about to change.” I think she knew she was an Oprah Book Club selection. “And I don’t have time to make friends.” We kind of kept in touch for about ten years. Hemmingway lived in the town where I live. He lived in Ketchum, Idaho, which is just north of me. He actually died here. The house where he lived, the community library in Ketchum turned it into a writing retreat. Cheryl came out as the Hemmingway Distinguished Lecturer. We got to know each other then.

Zibby: Awesome. She was on this podcast also about a year ago.

Sarah: Awesome. She’s so generous and kind.

Zibby: I used to take all these writing classes in New York by Sue Shapiro. She always had all this recommended reading. She would always have us read essays by Cheryl Strayed. Then the book came out. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s that essay writer. Okay, two questions. What is coming next for you on the writing front? What is coming next with the child fostering front? Then advice for aspiring authors.

Sarah: I love those questions. I’ll answer the second one first. Eric and I realized through our experience with Coco that we wanted to be forever parents. We worked with a nonprofit adoption agency. Actually, two weeks before my book came out, we adopted a baby boy who was born on April 19th whose name is Griffin. We’re over the moon. He’s just over two months old now. It’s an open adoption, so we know his birth mother and her mother and the birth mother’s daughter. It’s just more family, more family, more family. It’s just the most beautiful, profound, gorgeous experience. Open adoption is such a beautiful thing. We have that, which means that I haven’t been writing for the last two months. I might be writing a novel. I’ve never written a novel. I’m experimenting. I’m also doing some writing about creativity. I do one-on-one coaching with writers. I do virtual retreats and writing workshops that I love to do. I know that you mentor writers. If you ever need support for that, I’d be happy to work with you.

Zibby: Thank you.

Sarah: That’s next for me. My advice for writers, write first thing in the morning if you can. That would be my advice. I find if I write first thing, if I put that first, then I don’t resent the rest of my day, or write in whatever way works for you. Emily Rapp Black, she was taking one of my writing workshops. She went to some five-year-old birthday party for her daughter and brought her computer and turned her back to the birthday party and did her writing then. I thought, maybe you could do writing anywhere. Maybe it doesn’t have to be the perfect setup. You can do it wherever you need. I feel like our stories choose us. We can become the writers that our stories need us to be. They come to us from the stars or from deep within. It’s our job to honor that and not worry about if it’s a good-enough idea because they’ve visited us. They’re these holy things. It’s our job to tend them.

Zibby: Wow, that’s beautiful. I love that. I feel like we only scratched the surface. There was so much more in the book to discuss. I feel so privileged to have gone through this journey with you. Now I’m so happy to hear about Griffin and so happy for you. It’s such a happy, sad, happy, sad still with Coco. I’ll be rooting for you for that. Yes, that’s such a good idea with the fellows. I should really loop you into the program if you could give them some advice or something.

Sarah: I would be happy to. Whatever would be useful to you and them, I would be happy to do that. I’m so grateful for everything that you do to support writers. It’s really amazing. You’re such a generous, generous person. It’s a privilege to get to talk with you.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. I have so much fun, so it’s actually totally selfish.

Sarah: We all benefit from it, so it’s great.

Zibby: Great. How about that? Have a great day, Sarah. Thank you so much for chatting. Thanks for your beautiful book, Stranger Care.

Sarah: Thank you. Thank you so much for talking with me. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sarah: Bye.

Sarah Sentilles, STRANGER CARE

STRANGER CARE by Sarah Sentilles

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