Thursday, April 10, 2014

Foster Care Isn't For You

A couple of months ago I was asked to submit something to answering the question "What is the one, most important piece of advice that you would give someone who is considering becoming a foster parent?  This was my response:

Last year an article by the name of “Marriage Isn’t For You” swept across the internet.  I was curious why so many people were praising and recommending an article which, judging from the title, sounded so cynical and anti-marriage to me.  However, after finally reading it I was amused to discover that my initial assumptions about the article couldn’t be further from the truth.  By asserting that “Marriage Isn’t For You” the author wasn’t putting down the sacred institution of marriage or trying to discourage anyone from getting or staying married, but rather he learned through his personal experiences that the key to having a successful marriage is realizing that marriage isn’t for you – in other words, it isn’t about getting all of your needs and desires met, but it’s about focusing on what you can give and provide for your spouse.  

In the same light, when I reflect upon what one the most important pieces of advice I could give someone considering doing foster care is, I would sum my response up in one statement: Foster care isn’t for you. 

Wait a minute- What?  Are you trying to tell me not to foster?  No- absolutely not!  What I am saying is that the most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the past 8 years of fostering is that fostering isn’t about ME- it’s not about my fulfillment and needs or my wishes and desires- it’s about supporting the needs of the children placed in my care. 

Fostering a child presents somewhat of a dilemma because you welcome a child into your home and try to care for them as if they were your own child while at the same time being ever aware and respectful of the fact that they are not your child.  Fost-adopt families are also presented with an added dimension of uncertainty and speculation that comes with the possibility of adopting their foster children in the case that they can’t return to the care of their family.  In either case you’re most likely going to become attached to a child and the inevitable result will be heartbreak when they leave your home.  When I hear people say of fostering- “I just couldn’t do it- it would be too hard” I think to myself “Yes, it is hard, but it’s not about what’s easiest for me or about protecting my feelings- it’s about providing children with a safe and loving home even when it’s not necessarily convenient and even when it could potentially cause me to grieve.”  In other words, foster care isn’t for me- it’s for them.

When any foster parent starts to lose focus of the child’s needs or begins keeping a mental tally of what they’ve “gotten” out of fostering versus what they are able to give, then they are bound to face disappointment, frustration, and even resentment.  I’m speaking from experience.  Perhaps the biggest example of this self-centeredness and resentment is when I think to myself on my less-than-positive days, “We’ve fostered 11 children and we haven’t been able to adopt a single one!”  That’s when I have to remind myself- “Guess what?  Foster care isn’t for you- it’s for the children!”  The fact that I have or haven’t been able to adopt any of my foster children shouldn’t really matter, but what does matter is the fact that we’ve provided a good home for a child in need- regardless of whether that child stays in our home for days or months and regardless of how I feel about the judge’s final decision determining their future.
One of the most surprising discoveries I’ve made through fostering is that not only are you impacting the life of a child, but you are serving as a major resource and support to that child’s family as well.  In some cases your family may be the only reliable alternative that your foster child’s family may have to provide a safe and loving home for their children.  With this in mind, foster care isn’t just for the children, but for the families of these children as well.  You are giving a family a chance to come back together again.

This is another area where it can be extremely tempting and all too easy to focus on yourself as you make comparisons between your home and family life and your foster child’s family- especially when you realize that the quality of care and environment your foster child came from or may be returning to is not up to the same standards you can provide.  But that’s when you need to remember once again that foster care isn’t for you- it isn’t a “contest” of bio parents versus foster parents and who can provide the safer, more stable home environment- it’s about being a support to your foster child’s family the same way you support and advocate for your foster child.

It can be difficult to take yourself out of the picture and not compare yourself with your foster child’s parent (or parents) when you know that they have been evicted from their apartment or were living in a shelter just a short time ago and over the next couple of months they are expected to keep a steady job and provide stable housing for their family.  It can be especially concerning and worrisome when you know that your foster child’s parents are expected to refrain from domestic violence or from abusing drugs when that’s the exact environment they’ve grown up with and those are the addictions or cycles they must battle to break.

So how do you stop focusing on yourself in such cases and remember that fostering isn’t for or about you  but rather about supporting your foster child’s family- which, in turn, supports your foster child?  I think it helps to remember that nobody is perfect and that we all need help once in a while.  Focus on how far your foster child’s family has come and realize that, for example, although getting a job at McDonalds or 7-11 may not be much of an accomplishment or career move to you it is honest work and a huge step for someone else.  We all have our own strengths and weaknesses and if I were to run a 5K tomorrow it would be a major accomplishment for me, but to a triathlete it may feel like just a warm-up. Focus on the good about your foster child’s parents because we are all in much more need of encouragement than of criticism and judgment.  Tell your foster child’s parents what you like about their child and never forget to look for the good in your foster children and praise them for any progress they make as well- no matter how seemingly small.

All of the relationships we have in life will become much more meaningful and successful when we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and focus on what we can give rather than what’s in it for us.  These principles most certainly apply to the role of a foster parent.

If nothing else, please remember that foster care isn’t for you – it’s about focusing on what you can give and provide for a child and their family. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Importance of Physical Contact & Attachment

I started reading a book about attachment theories and came across this quote about child-rearing by behaviorist John B. Watson in a book he published in 1928:

“Treat them as though they were young adults.  Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection.  Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm.  Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap.  If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.  Shake hands with them in the morning.  Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task.”

A couple of thoughts:

1)      If I had my child taken away from me and sent to live with strangers (as in the case with foster care) OR if I were to voluntarily place my child with a family (adoption) I would sure as heck make sure that NURTURING were as important to that family as making sure my child was fed and clean and safe.

2)      In the past, child welfare professionals were afraid of children becoming too attached to their caregivers so they would purposely move the children from one foster home to another to prevent attachment. (I’m shaking my head at the thought that so much more disruption and change and trauma could possibly be in the best interest to a child).

3)     My cousin once visited an orphanage in a foreign country and she was warned beforehand “Don’t pick up the babies- they are not used to getting so much attention and it will just cause them to cry more after you put them down.”   Truly Heartbreaking.

4)      Trying to “toughen up” children reminded me of this quote by child development researcher L.R. Knost which I’ve came across recently:
5)      Jack is becoming more attached to me and at the end of the last couple of visits he's had with his parents as soon as he sees me he leaves his mom’s side and reaches out his little arms to me or toddles over to me in a hurry with a smile on his face.  This causes his mom to be jealous (she’ll either say something out loud or it is apparent in her body language) which makes for an awkward and tricky situation. Doubtless I’d probably feel the same way if I were in her shoes. 

I guess the best perspective for any member of the “foster-care triad” to have is “Too much love and too many secure attachments are better than a lack of love or attachment.”  Instead of looking at things as a competition where there’s only one victor, I think it’s much more beneficial to everyone involved- (foster child, bio parent, foster parent) to recognize that just because a child loves one “mother” or caregiver it doesn’t mean that he loves the other mother or caregiver any less.  I’m sure people with children in very open adoptions or blended families have reached the same conclusion through their experiences.