This is a continuation of my last post, In Defense of Bio Parents.
Confession: Everybody says that foster care is “all about the child,” but the truth is that in my county it is all about the bio family. That means every reasonable effort will be made to a) avoid removing the child from his home in the first place, and b) return him if it is humanly possible.
Fostering is not about rescuing children. Fostering is, by nature, about giving families a second chance.
Because of a shifting focus in that direction across the state system, bio parents and foster parents today work more closely together than they did thirty years ago, (ideally) equipping bio parents to return to the caregiver role as soon as possible with new tools and skills. This can be both intensely frustrating and intensely rewarding.
For me, the hardest aspect of fostering (I mean in a daily rub-you-the-wrong-way way, not in a big-picture saying-goodbye-to-my-kiddos way), is parenting alongside people I do not especially like or trust. It’s as though we are divorced from each other and trying to negotiate how to raise our kids – all of the angst with none of the history – a relationship full of landmines. Believe me that though I may sound calm and compassionate here, there are times I want to scream at them and punish them and make them pay. I want them to feel like snot for doing this to innocent children.
Yet at the same time, successful team-playing has become one of my greatest delights. I love the fostering process, and I’ve come to believe passionately in second chances for the whole bio family, not only for the children. But that means learning to step in the places that will not blow up in my face, to defuse the explosives and disarm the enemy.
Here are some practical ways I’ve found to get on the same team, and to offer goodwill and support.
- Acknowledge the elephant in the room.
I am not sure why it feels so awkward to talk about the fact that *I am caring for *their children, but there are enough layers of shame and insecurity here to wrap the world in. Particularly troublesome are the first times we meet. What can we say? How is this relationship going to look?
Sometimes there is enough friction or embarrassment that I can only bridge the gap by empathy – trying silently to put myself in their shoes. But as soon as I feel they can hear me, I’ve found it best to say the words I can. “I’m sure this is a very tough time for your family.”
This is the elephant: they are in the middle of the greatest loss of their lives. If we ignore this, we seem callous, wrapped in our own agendas. It’s best, if possible, to acknowledge their position, this great unnamable failure and loss. There are many kind things to say that do not overpromise, or wound. “We want you to know we are on your team.” “We will do everything we can to help.” We’ll do our best to take good care of your children until they can return to your home.”
- Ask their advice.
So, the state decided this set of parents was unable to parent their children at this time. I may be the parenting expert here, if I like to consider myself such (I don’t – I have enough faults of my own to keep me eating humble pie by the plateful)… I may be the parenting expert, but they are the expert on this child.
How does he like to go to sleep at night? What kind of oil do they use in her beautiful black hair? Is she comfortable climbing stairs? Do they prefer his hair cut short or left to grow? What are her favorite foods?
I do not pepper them, and I am careful not to ask anything potentially embarrassing – anything that might reflect negatively on their care. But as topics come up, I ask.
I learned this the hard way, when by great trial and error I found ways to work with our special needs son’s excessive body fluids – and later heard his mom tossing off ideas they’d used to deal with the problem. I thought “I worked for weeks and months to find those same methods of coping – and some I never did find. She already knew.”
When I ask bio parents for advice, all purposes are served: I am given the useful information I need, the child has more continuity and better quality of care, a sense of team is cultivated because we are working together, and the birth parents are given back some of the respect that has been stripped from them. I am working to earn their trust here. It always goes better when they know I honor their role.
- Give gifts.
Early in the relationship, I like to give something small – a picture our shared child colored for them, or some printed photos of the kiddos having fun.
Later, I try to remember special days, like Mother’s Day or dad’s birthday. I buy a small gift, and help the child prepare a card, even if they are too young to find it special themselves. Handprints are beautiful, or photographs again – anything that says “You are still my parent and I love you.” I don’t want to be the person shoving them out of this child’s life. I am here to build bridges, not burn them.
I know it’s working when they start reciprocating. I still get messages on Mother’s Day from some mothers of our former foster children, wishing me a happy day. And one of my most treasured possessions came from a bio mom: a handmade baby quilt she created while I was pregnant with Jenny, and gave to me.
(Not that Jenny would smile for me or anything. I’m still annoyed about that, two years later…)
- Make them laugh.
This is harder than it sounds. I mentioned layers in this relationship, and there are so many that humor is usually the last thing we are thinking of. But when they laugh, I know I’ve won. I have disarmed them enough to start forming a relationship.
So I admit that I googled hair care for their children – “There are websites for people like me,” I say. And dad starts laughing. “Chocolate hair, vanilla care. What kind of oil do you use in it?” Or I tell them that their kid is bossing mine to use their manners. “She’s like ‘Say please. Say I’m sorry.’” And Grandma starts cracking up because she’s the one who taught her, and I know it.
Everything I know about working with bio parents I learned from bio parents (with crucial redirection from my husband, the Holy Spirit, and key friends along the way), but the first set I worked with was something special. They were simple people, not deep thinkers, not defiant. They were honestly trying their best to work with their children, but they didn’t know how to do it, didn’t know what the children needed or were capable of. One day I dropped off their son for a visit, and was about to cruise away in my little van as usual when one of them said, “What is he doing these days?” and the other said, “Yeah, we hear some things from the caseworker but we’d really like to hear from you.”
“OH!” I said.
Honest to goodness, it had never occurred to me. This thing broke my heart: first that they had to ask, and second that they were willing to!
“Well…” I said. “He’s been doing really good with eating, and he learned to climb the stairs!”
After that we always took a few minutes to talk when I dropped him off, and it turned into one of my most rewarding birthparent relationships, a bond I still treasure several years after returning their son to them. We exchange gifts, and hugs, and phone calls. They taught me so much.
I’ve tried to become more open with bio parents about what their children are doing in my home – to always have something to share, a story or a quote or a small problem we worked on. But it goes beyond that.
If there are decisions to be made about the children or I have a problem with something the birthparents are initiating, if I have a way to communicate directly with them, I take it when possible. Obvious restrictions apply, and some decisions the state must make, but we can work out so much on our own. When we communicate directly, I can shape my concerns in the least hurtful way, and I can offer the dignity of authentic and truthful conversation.
We cannot be perfectly transparent; they will not see it all. But my goal is to become something between an open door and a brick wall – maybe you could call it a warm window.
- Speak life!
If there is anything I love about these children we share, any qualities that endear them to me, can I assume it is not solely the result of the past few weeks or months in my home? Someone other than I formed these children and made them what they are. Every time I can, I pour on delight – in who the kiddos are, in what they’ve been given.
“She is so pretty. I think she has your nose.”
“He is honestly such a relational little kid. He’s so good at noticing other people’s feelings and caring about them.”
“He has the best sense of humor ever!”
“I really appreciate you asking. Thank you so much.”
“I think they’re adapting well here, but I know they miss you. They talk about going shopping with you, and how much fun they had last summer.”
“I can tell they were taught how to clean up after themselves. It’s amazing.”
Do you know what I am as a foster parent? I am wine and oil and glue, a healer and smoother and nurturer. I am a facilitator of reentry. I am an advocate – not only for the child to the bio parents and to the court, but also, at times, for the bio parents to the caseworker and the caseworker to the bio parents. I am a nurse, bandaging the wounds. I am a wainwright, greasing the wheels. I am a sportsman, setting up the win for my teammate. I am a janitor, cleaning up the mess after the lights go out.
I do this so, so imperfectly. I make wounds and messes of my own, and sometimes my best efforts fall flat.
But my job is to love this child as my own while giving his parents every chance to reclaim him. I know it’s a stupid, heartbreaking job, but somebody has to do it. I’m not trying to keep him, not yet – I’m trying to give him back whole.
And I am trying to convince you that you could join me.
If you are a foster mom in the trenches and you know how hard this is and you are starting to get annoyed with me for being so high and holy and dispassionate, relax, my friend. I’m writing in your defense next time.