Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reflections on Instant Family

I finally got around to seeing Instant Family and I thought it was a good blend of accuracy and humor in portraying what foster-adoptive families experience.

Rather than give a complete plot summary, here are some scenes and themes I’d like to share which stood out to me in particular, as someone who has fostered and adopted children through the foster care system:

Fantasy Children vs. Reality Children- In a training class prior to becoming licensed foster care providers, members of the class were asked to do an exercise in which they drew their “fantasy” children on a chalkboard.  The social workers teaching the class instructed the foster parents in training to immediately erase their envisioned fantasy children and to prepare themselves for whatever comes next.

I think the theme of expectations versus reality is a universal one that almost anyone can relate to.  Sometimes the most difficult thing to do in life is to let go of our expectations, relinquish any perceived control of how we think things should turn out and accept- or make the best out of- what actually comes our way.

When applying the concept of control and predictability to fostering, I think many foster families or pre-adoptive couples may be set on only fostering or adopting children who are a certain age or gender (Or in the case of the movie’s character October, are looking specifically for a black, male, athletically inclined child who can get a full football scholarship, reminiscent of The Blindside).  It can be difficult to try to broaden preferences at the risk of getting out of one’s comfort zone and venturing into the unfamiliar.  However, Pete & Ellie did just that as they inquired about a teenager available for adoption- something Ellie initially openly verbalized against doing.

Foster Parents Supporting Each Other- The best source of support is someone who has been through the same thing or been in a similar situation; Therefore, I think that the best source of support and understanding for foster parents are other foster parents! 

Throughout the movie, Pete & Ellie meet in an adoption support group with other couples and individuals.  Although each couple’s reasons for wanting to pursue foster adoption was unique: some felt “called”, others were struggling with infertility, another couple was gay and thus couldn’t procreate, they all shared the desire to welcome children into their families.  It was humorous when the gay couple commented something to the effect of, “We’ve been trying to conceive for years with no success!”

I was particularly touched in one scene towards the end of the movie as the adoptive families had shared their personal struggles with each other and got to know each other better, when the gay couple announced to the group that their upcoming adoption would be official and the first people to go up and hug them was a conservative Christian couple, whom at the beginning of the training, showed through their body language, disapproval or discomfort about the gay couple adopting.

Once we take the time to get to know each other, it becomes evident that we all have more in common than we don’t have in common.

The Honeymoon Period- Speaking of holding on to a sense of “control” or predictability, I think some parents are under the false impression that if kids are well-behaved or turn out all right, then it is a direct reflection on their competency as a parent or caretaker.  Wrong! 

Pete & Ellie entered one of their support meetings with an attitude of “Hey- We have this under control- the kids aren’t acting out.  Things aren’t so bad!” and the other more experienced foster parents in the room were laughing or had smirks on their faces because likely, they had experienced the phenomenon referred to as “The honeymoon period” in which everything seems peachy-dandy with a placement.  The reality, however, is that a foster child’s behavior has less to do with structure and discipline of the home or parenting style, but everything to do with a mode of survival. 

Most people would think ‘It’s great that these kids aren’t acting out!” and admittedly, that is much easier than the alternative and it makes for a much more peaceful environment.  But it’s actually when the child starts acting out that they feel safe enough to do so.       
  
I recall the shock my husband and I went through when the honeymoon period ended with our first placement, who was typically a delightful preschooler.  When, after about three weeks of being in our home, he started being less delightful and talking back and complaining, we were worried.  I believe it was another more experienced foster parent that explained to us, even though it was hard, “That’s actually a good thing- he feels safe enough to be himself without the fear of any harsh consequences!”


Parentification- It was obvious that Lizzie, the oldest child of the sibling group Pete & Ellie were fostering, had taken upon herself the role of “parent” to her younger brother and sister, Juan and Lita.  It was interesting to observe the struggle it was for Lizzie to give up that parenting role and let her foster parents take over, especially when she knew her siblings better than Pete & Ellie did.  Equally of interest to observe was the conflict of loyalty Ellie felt with letting her foster mom be a “mother” to her without somehow betraying her own mother.


Ongoing Struggles with Adopted Children- I was very touched by the guest speaker the social workers invited to speak at one of the trainings the adoptive couples went through at the beginning of their training.  Brenda was an articulate and inspiring young woman who had a history of neglect and abuse, including being traded to her mom’s drug dealers for drugs, if I remember correctly. 

Brenda was accompanied to the meeting by her adoptive parents and spoke to the class about what it meant to her to be adopted as a teenager after spending years in foster care.  This young woman was so inspiring and I think that sometimes adoptive parents are under the impression that ‘There’s nothing LOVE can’t fix!” and that once a child is adopted it’s going to be the beginning of happily ever after.  The reality is that adoption does not erase the early experiences and traumas that a child had been through.  Neither will adoption erase a child’s genetics or predispositions. 

Later in the movie when Pete & Ellie are going through a rough patch with their teenage foster daughter, Lizzie, they seek out Brenda’s adoptive parents for some hopeful advice and direction. It was heartbreaking to hear Brenda’s adoptive mom share that her daughter was back in rehab when Ellie asks where she is. But I loved the mom’s retort to Ellie’s disappointment (the slap in the face was unexpected and humorous as well)!  Like a protective and loving Mama Bear, Brenda’s mom says something to the effect of “But look at where she came from and how far she’s come!”  A great reminder that unless we’ve been in someone else’s shoes we have no right to judge.  It’s also a good reminder that, as I mentioned earlier, no matter how stellar a parent is, adoption does not erase a child’s predispositions or former traumas.  This can be particularly frightening to accept when a baby or child is born addicted or exposed to drugs as addiction has such a strong genetic component, as well as when there is severe mental illness on one or both sides of a child’s family lines.

Conflicting Feelings About Birthparents- This is such a real struggle for foster parents!  Honestly, it’s one of the hardest things, other than the grief of reunifications, that I’ve had to deal with while fostering. 

At one point in the movie’s storyline, foster mother Ellie says to her husband, “She looks so normal.” regarding their foster children’s mother when they meet for a visit.  Ellie recognizes that their mom is just that- a mom who loves her children.  Yet it’s hard to think of someone who would endanger their children as “normal” or sometimes, even deem them worthy of having a relationship with their children.  After all, this woman set the children’s home on fire from a lit crack pipe!

But behind someone’s criminal history or case file is a person.  It’s harder to judge someone when you look them in the eyes and meet them in person.  I also think it was telling that the children’s biological mother was also a product of the foster care system as one of the caseworkers remarked, “She never learned how to appropriately care for her children.”

In another support group meeting Rose confesses to feeling guilty for wanting her kid’s biological mother to fail- especially after all of the work she and her husband have gone through to care for these children and open up their home to them.  I’ve been there and have felt guilty for thinking the exact same thing.  It’s such a difficult task as a foster parent to recognize that family preservation is the goal while also noting, “Look at what these kids have been through and look at the life we could give them!”

Overall, I would highly recommend the movie Instant Family to anyone over 13 (the PG-13 rating was appropriate) and I am grateful that the director chose to draw on his life’s experiences to highlight the crucial, yet often overlooked issues of fostering and foster care adoption.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

ReMoved#3- Love is Never Wasted

Nathanael Matanick has done it once again!  I watched ReMoved 3 yesterday and was particularly impressed with the grief portrayed by the little boy, his mother, and the foster mother.*

I also appreciated the portrayal of the complexities of differing opinions family members have when considering opening up your home to a foster placement as well as the positive and negative affects a child could have on other children in the home.

Other observations: 8:10 killed me!

I remember in one training, our trainer pointed out that even though a child may come to your home in clothes wreaking of smoke or other not-so-pleasant odors and substances, or they may have a tattered blanket or raggedy stuffed animal which they can't seem to part with, it is imperative that foster parents are mindful that these items may be the only "connection" to home that these children may have.  Scent, in particular, is very evocative of memories and people.  What could be an innocent and well-meaning attempt by a foster parent to simply sanitize an item or piece of clothing could, in reality, "erase" the comfortable and familiar scent a child has of his home and caregivers.



* Skip this next paragraph if you don't want a possible spoiler:

I was curious to know just how long this little boy stayed with his foster family.  I was totally surprised and touched at 15:40 because I figured the foster mom was a relative rather than a "stranger" who showed she cared.

The world needs more people who show they care!


Monday, November 19, 2018

Closing Our License/Advice to Those Considering Fostering

Back in this post, I forgot to mention one MAJOR factor to consider when deciding whether to foster or continuing to foster or adopt:  The feelings of your spouse on the matter!  Of course, if you’re single, no worries about having to come to a consensus!

Fostering, like any other significant commitment or change, will definitely add stress to your marriage and affect any children in your home.  If both spouses are not unanimously on board, I would recommend waiting until the decision is unanimous.  This, of course, can be extremely frustrating if one spouse feels Gung-ho about it and the other spouse or partner is anything less than lukewarm.

Over the past three or four years I’ve talked my husband into renewing our foster care license for “just one more year”.   When I recently realized that I need more required training hours to complete in order to renew our license for yet another year and I asked my husband to accompany me to an upcoming training it led to a big discussion about the pros and cons of keeping our license open for another year. 

Let me explain something about how my husband thinks and makes major decisions versus how I think, which might help you to understand or imagine how our discussion went:  My husband has always been very methodical and practical.  He carefully weighs the risks and benefits before becoming to a decision.  He also has an MBA, which translates into him viewing things from a cost/benefit analysis.  Even when trying to decide on a place to go on vacation, he carefully scouts out the best deals and frequently uses the term “ROI”- which, I have learned, stands for Return On Investment.   His thinking is basically motivated by “What are we going to get out of it?  Is it worth it in the end?” 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to have my head in the clouds, but I am a bit more guided by what I feel in my heart and sometimes decisions based on gut feelings can’t be explained logically- or they just don’t make much sense- at least initially.  I also admit that I have sometimes been guilty of making decisions based on the premise “What do I have to give?” rather than “What will I be getting in return?” To me it just comes down to the whole principle of “Ask not what your country or (fill-in-the blank) can do for you; Ask what YOU can do for your country (or whatever).”   Although such thinking may be considered by some to be noble and altruistic, it can also be foolish at times if one is constantly in a cycle of giving and giving without replenishing the source- and by source, I mean my own health and sanity and balance, as well as the time and energy I can devote to my own children. 
My advice to those considering fostering:
If you look at being a foster parent from a cost/benefit perspective, I can tell you with much certainty that you will give much more than you get.  If that bothers you, then you may want to look into another form of service to children and families.  However, if you are willing to sacrifice and put your own gratification on the back burner, and don’t mind giving more than getting, then go for it! Please know that you will have support from others who have walked the same road.  They can buoy you up on the hard days and listen to you vent with an empathetic ear because they “get it”- they’ve been there, too.
I also firmly believe that it is not just okay, but necessary, to take a break when needed.  Don’t be afraid to take a break through respite care or support from friends when dealing with particularly demanding or difficult placements.  And absolutely, take time to grieve and heal after heartbreaking cases of reunification.  Reach out to others who have been there, because it is a loss that not everyone can understand. 
Some cynics (or even yourself) might think, “Well, you signed up to foster- you knew there would be heartache, what did you expect?”  That may be true, but your bravery and willingness to open your heart has blessed a child or helped give a family a second chance.  That is not only commendable but courageous. 
To make a long story short, my husband and I have decided to close our license of fostering through our state after 12 years.  It was an easy conclusion for my husband to make, but not necessarily easy for me to accept.  Logically I know that I will have more time to devote to my children and to my schooling and other endeavors and I won’t have to go into a full-on adrenaline rush/panic every time I see “DCFS” on my caller ID, but I also feel like I’m giving up part of my identity and, of course, I think in the back of my mind and in my heart “But what about the children?”

In response to that question- which is not necessarily rhetorical, I have three children in my home who need me now more than any other children need me at this point in time.  And besides that, it’s not a contest to see how many children one can foster or adopt or how many years of experience one can accumulate- it’s about helping one child at a time.  Just think of it: If even half of the homes who are eligible in the United States would go through the training and foster just one child- what a difference it would make in the lives of those children!

Going back to the whole “Return on Investment” concept which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, even if our family hadn’t been able to adopt two of our children from foster care, the lessons we’ve learned, lives touched, and, I think, most importantly, the qualities and character we’ve developed, have been more than worthwhile.

Yes, I am a bit sad about not renewing our license for yet another year, but I am also starting to fill at peace about it and even some relief.  I don’t want to think of it as cutting all ties to fostering forever, but rather, taking a much-needed break and a bit of a different path.



Saturday, November 17, 2018

Adoption: Heartbreak and Hope

Over the past year or so I’ve considered myself lucky if I’m able to write even one post a month on this blog.  Since there’s a few weeks remaining of November, here is my somewhat obligatory post during National Adoption Month.

Adoption has undoubtedly been a huge blessing in my life, but it’s not always necessarily a sunny subject.  I think the complexity lies within the fact that I am the beneficiary of somebody else’s grief and loss. 

I came across this quote this year and I was impressed with how many big and complicated feelings of mine it so accurately and succinctly addressed in just one sentence:
                                                  


                Mother’s Day is a bittersweet day for me for that exact reason- I am vividly reminded that I am not the only mother my children have and I feel a bit of guilt as well as awe that I am the mother who gets to raise them.  Mother’s Day also brings up pangs of sorrow and memories of the years of alienation of being a childless woman.  Seven years actually goes by fairly quickly in retrospect, but when you’re in the middle of it, waiting seems like forever.

                When I take myself and my feelings out of the equation and consider my children and their feelings about being adopted and any issues they will deal with concerning their identity and history, I can’t help but acknowledge that as loving and stable as our home is, my children lost their first families and are the only ones in the adoption triad who had absolutely no choice in the matter of being placed with our family.   I can only wonder if this will bring up anger, sorrow, or resentment for them in the future.

My pre-school aged daughter (our youngest child) has been bringing up her birth mother quite a bit this year.  Incidentally, I remember the pre-school years as being a very pivotal time for our oldest daughter to bring up questions about babies in tummies in general and specifically about her adoption and her birth mother.  I know of an LCSW who has counseled a lot of children currently in foster care or adopted from foster care and she has observed that other common ages for children to bring up questions or have issues with their first families and their identities is 9 years old and 14 years old- I thought that was interesting.

My oldest daughter expressed sadness and disappointment to me when she was a preschooler, about not being able to come from my tummy.  Fast forward six years and I had a deja vu moment when my youngest daughter was playing with her dolls (or doing some activity that made her think of babies) and she commented to me something to the effect of, “Remember when I was in your tummy?”  I had to gently remind her that she never came from my tummy.  It was so interesting for me to see two totally different reactions to the same information.  Our youngest daughter immediately became angry rather than sorrowful, as our oldest daughter did.

This year my youngest daughter seems to be trying to reconstruct her story- and not always with accuracy. I listened to her one night recount a short narrative: “My ‘other’ mom was really nice and would always feed me bottles in this house when she used to live here.”  I had to bite my tongue and was thinking to myself, “The caseworker would have to prod your ‘other’ mother to pick up her newborn baby during her supervised visits!”  Of course, I didn't say that out loud, but kept my thoughts to myself.   Then I reminded my little girl that her “other” mother never lived in our house and that I picked her up from the hospital and brought her home a couple of days after she was born.   
It’s hard to give specific answers to the question of “why?” when my kids ask about why they don’t live with their first families.  Each situation has different backgrounds but we always make it a point to let our kids know that even though they are not with their birth mothers, they are loved by them very much.  I want them to know, more than anything, that their adoptions are in no way equated with abandonment or rejection, but rather, born of great love. 

It’s a little more awkward trying to explain things to my youngest two who are birth siblings.  I try to be as age-appropriate as possible and use the word “sick” (as in having an illness) to describe why their first mother wasn’t able to care for them rather than using the word “addiction”.  As they get older I can give more details as appropriate.

My little boy, now in kindergarten, hasn’t seemed to bring up adoption as much as his sisters do.  I don’t know whether that’s because he doesn’t think about it as much or just because he doesn’t verbalize it.  I did have an experience with him recently where I was cuddling with him- at his request- and I couldn’t help but think that we were making up for lost time bonding with each other since, unlike his sisters,  I missed out on the first year of his life.  I honestly don't know the extent to what he went through in his early life. "I wish I could have been there for him from the very beginning." I thought to myself.  Although it was a tender moment it also brought up some disappointment and a little bit of anger inside of me.  Such is adoption- beautiful and miraculous while heartbreaking at the same time.

Monday, September 24, 2018

How Do You Know When You're "Done" Fostering?


The last week of summer which morphed into the first week of school, we watched a six-month-old baby boy in our home for a foster family who went out of town.  I was actually surprised that our RFC called to ask us about watching a baby because we've gotten rid of most of our baby things and I had to borrow a Pack-N-Play so that the baby would have somewhere to sleep.
 It was a lot of fun for our kids to have a baby in the house to dote upon, but I'm starting to feel too old for middle of the night teething and feedings and lugging car seats around.  In fact, when I got information from the baby's foster mom, including visitation times and locations, I realized that I'm literally old enough to be this baby's grandma as his mother is certainly young enough to be my daughter.  It's not that I necessarily consider myself to be "old" in my 40's- I'm just not "young" anymore and I think since I have younger children people assume that I'm younger than I am.
 During a middle of the night feeding, I calculated (with the help of this blog) that this is the 20th foster child to come into our home and the 11th baby.   This caused me to do a lot of reflecting and I found myself asking, "Am I done yet?"  "Do we keep fostering?"  I wasn't sure if I was asking myself or asking God- or perhaps both, but those were the questions on my mind.
Some additional questions helped me to come up with some answers, or at least to fine-tune how I felt about things:

"What was your purpose or motivation for fostering in the first place?" 
"Do you still have room in your home?" 
"Do you still have the energy and health?"  
"Do you still have the same passion for fostering as when you first                              started?"  

As for motivation or purpose, some people foster to adopt and others foster simply to foster- because they know there is the need and they want to help children.  Both are worthy purposes.  In our case, we felt "the call" to open up our home to children not knowing what the end result would be but hoping it might end in adoption.  We ending up being able to adopt a sibling group placement after nine years of fostering.  And after that miraculous adoption was finalized it was a very tempting possibility for us to say, "Okay- we're done.  Someone else can take a turn now."  But something kept us from closing our license.  Maybe it's just because when you've done something for so long it becomes a part of you or maybe it's because we know all too well that there is a shortage of good foster homes.  

As for the answers to the other questions: "Do you still have the room?"  Some families may have the desire to foster or to keep fostering but they can't because there literally isn't room- they are filled to capacity for their license or they don't have the space for a child.  As for our home, it might be a little crowded but we can make room for one or maybe two more children.  "Do you still have the energy and health and motivation?"  Hmmm- that's debatable and not anything necessarily new to consider as both my physical health and motivation wax and wane.  I think at this point in time my biggest concern is "How will bringing more children into our home affect the children already in my home?"  

I think, for the most part, having other children come into our come has been an enriching experience for my children.  But I also know that I need to meet my own children's needs before I meet the needs of any other children- that's where my first responsibility lies.  And even though I have "just" three kids (because I'm aware there are much larger families out there!) giving each of them the individualized attention they need and chauffeuring them to lessons and practices and appointments keeps us busy enough.

Unfortunately, I still don't have a definite answer to the question of "Am I done yet?"  "Do we keep fostering?" but we did decide after our last respite placement that we will no longer be fostering babies.  If we do decide to keep our license open for another year we will be focusing on older children (at least school-aged) or respite placements.  In the meantime, I'll be focusing my efforts on our three children and graduate school and my internship and trying to find some occasional time to volunteer in my children's classrooms.  I think that's plenty to keep me busy for now.