Profile of a foster mother

Sharon Astyk lived in a large house in Knox with her husband and four children. 

In 2011, after her husband’s grandparents, who had lived with them, died, she told him they needed to fill the house. Their youngest child was 6.

That’s when they decided to become foster parents. Astyk and her husband, Eric Woods, now have 12 children: four biological children, six former foster children whom they have adopted, and two foster placements. They have moved to Schenectady.

Woods teaches physics at the University at Albany. Astyk, who used to teach college English, is a writer and a farmer. Their family had been part of the “Riot for Austerity” a movement that Astyk launched with another mother in Minnesota

Through their blogs, The Enterprise wrote 12 years ago, the “partners in ecology” inspired nearly a thousand people in 14 countries to join the riot, making cuts in electricity, gasoline, heating fuel, food energy, water, consumer purchases, and garbage production, to scale family energy use down to just 10 percent of the average American household.

Astyk, “until about a minute ago,” ran the Vale Urban Farm, which produces food for low-income households and is located in Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery, she said this week.

“There are no dead bodies under it,” Astyk assured of the farm.

Her own parents were foster parents “so I had foster siblings,” she said.

Her children — biological, adopted, and foster — have “bonded really well,” she said. “They are brothers and sisters. They are so welcoming and so enjoy being part of this.”

If any of her children ever objected to fostering, she wouldn’t do it, Astyk said. “Nobody ever has.”

When the family had 10 children, she recalled, “We got a 15-passenger van. My son said, ‘This means we’ll get two more kids!’” She told him that wasn’t how they did family planning, Astyk recalls with a chuckle.

Nine years ago, to qualify as a foster parent in Albany County, Astyk took the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting, known as MAPP, training, and now she helps teach the course.

“When I was a student,” she said, “I didn’t understand why it worked the way it did. Foster parents come from a perspective of what they want …

“The county is not in the business of finding children for families. Rather, it is finding families for children. That sounds like a small difference but it’s an important distinction. The county is child-centered. This is not about going and picking out a kid.”

Of taking the 10-week course, she said, “It’s about translating expectations into reality.”

Astyk and Woods, over the years, have fostered sets of brothers and sisters. Astyk said, “We’ve had sets of three, four, five, six … The county has a lot of large sibling sets. Kids often have to be separated,” Astyk said, since many foster homes won’t take that many.

Astyk and Woods adopted one set of five siblings: Those kids are now 6, 8, twins who are 9, and 17. They’ve also adopted a 7-year-old son.

Not having control, Astyk said, is the hardest part of being a foster parent. “Being a foster parent means letting go of control,” she said. “Your family could change at any minute. A child could be placed and, just as quickly, a judge could say, ‘Nope, they’re gone.’”

Also, she said, foster parents “may discover a lot of issues” that weren’t at first apparent, ranging from a child being behind on medical care to a child having suffered unknown traumas.

Sometimes it’s hard, too, she said, “not having very much say.” Astyk went on, “We’re here to help and support the family reuniting.” But, she said, “It can be very painful. There are kids we miss,” she said.

Astyk stressed, “The goal is always for kids to go home … You have to roll with different kinds of punches.”

Sometimes, though, even when a child leaves, the experience is “a delight.” She explained, “I had three extra kids in September.” The trio was to live with an extended family out-of-state, a transition that can be complex.

“Their family was so committed, it was a pleasure to work with them,” she said., adding, “Lots of times, my kids go to extended family members.”

Then, too, she said, it can be gratifying to work with parents “who make heroic gestures, like getting into treatment” to be reunited with their children.

One of the great benefits of fostering, Astyk said, is “developing some really nice relationships.

“Our adopted kids have visits with and continue relationships with grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles.” She concluded, “It’s like getting married. You get this whole other family … It’s complicated but cool.”

What’s kept her at it for the last eight years, Astyk said, is: “I like the excitement … I find the kids really fascinating.”

Astyk has this to say to people who are considering becoming foster parents: “If you ever want to run a marathon or climb Mount Everest, this is the home-life version of that.” She stressed, “You can do it as an ordinary person.”

Astyk continued, “Kids are so cool. My husband feels the same way.”

Recently, on his 49th birthday — she’s two years younger — the couple had a talk. “I thought he’d say, this is it, but, no, he wants to keep going …

“We took our first older teenager,” said Astyk, noting older kids are hard to place. “It’s been so much joy. He’s been such a wonderful kid.”

Currently, the couple’s youngest child is 11 months old and Astyk says it’s a joy, too, to have a baby in their home again.

“I wouldn’t trade this for a million dollars,” she said.

Astyk went on, “It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done.”

She reflected a moment — with her kids’ voices and her husband’s voice rising and falling in the background — and then concluded, “It may be the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.”

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