Sarah Sentilles is a teacher, the founder of a nonprofit and an award-winning author who lives in Idaho. And she is also a foster mother. In her latest book titled “Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn't Ours,” Sentilles tells the story of caring for Coco, the foster daughter given to them at just three days old. She explores the concept of family, what it means to love a stranger and how the foster care system affects the families that it serves. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Henry Santoro: This book is getting rave reviews across all platforms. Let me start by saying this. I can relate. My mom was raised in and out of foster homes pretty much right up until the time she met the man that would become my father. And then my parents, my sister and I were foster parents all through my childhood but always losing kids that were brought to us. And sometimes we got really attached to these kids. “Stranger Care” tells us that we can, in fact, love something or someone that is not ours. And when you realized that you sat down, and you wrote a love letter to Coco. That letter is this book. Can you talk about that?
Sarah Sentilles: Yes. I wanted “Stranger Care” to be exactly what you say, a love letter to Coco. I wanted to write a book that might mother her when I was no longer allowed to. One of the things that kept returning to me as I worked on this book was this idea that we are all made of the same material. We all come from the stars. And so, if that’s true — if whale, rock, child, river are all made of the same material — then wherever we find ourselves, we are never far from home. I wanted to help make a world where strangers would be better tended so that, wherever Coco landed, she might be well cared for.
Santoro: Where did the title come from?
Sentilles: “Stranger Care” is the name that we were called as foster parents. My husband Eric and I were technically known “non-relative care providers,” or “stranger care.” And so, I wanted to think about that word, which is quite an alienating term for such an intimate task — to take care of someone else’s child that might become someday your child. And I never could quite escape the stranger-ness of my identity as a foster parent, even though the foster care system asks you to expand your sense of family to welcome children that you’re not biologically related to into your home. The system itself really champions biology, although we know that biology guarantees nothing, which is why the foster care system exists in part. But I also then started thinking about the word “stranger care” and looking to the natural world for evidence of strangers caring for one another. So I started thinking about the ways trees care for each other, whether they’re of the same species or not, or the way the moon relates to the ocean, or the way the robins outside my office window tended their young. So, I started looking to nature for examples of family in a more expansive and world-repairing way.
Santoro: But you also learned a tremendous amount about motherhood that a traditional mothering experience would not have taught you.
Sentilles: That’s true. For me, this experience helped me see that mothering is a verb. We are all mothers and we all mother, whether we end up having children or being a parent or adopting.
Santoro: Sarah Sentilles is the author of “Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn't Ours.” Sarah, this has been absolutely great. Your book is so beautifully written.
GBH News Intern Yiming Fu assisted with production of this segment.