Friday, February 3, 2017

Six Things I Learned From Fostering

kissy cheeks
A few years ago I wrote about why I feel fostering is important here. I stand by every word.

We did respite care for a while, and then were placed with a baby boy whom we have since adopted. Our home is now closed to fostering as we focus fully on the children we have. I feel like this process has taken all of my personhood for a while. It's probably a good sign that I feel like I can talk about it now.

So in retrospect here are a few important things that I wasn't expecting about the foster journey.

Redemption is hard. I knew that beforehand in the way that I knew my bedroom might smell like a man when I got married and shared my room with a man. It seemed like “maybe” it would smell which through mental gymnastics really means “maybe not!” or that it might be romantic and musky, or that the pungent masculine aroma might have to do with sheets not being changed often enough. But no. It’s not a housekeeping issue, and it’s not romantic, and it is a certain part of living with a dude. 

Redemption is hard, and I don’t mean maybe. Redemption in this case is about choosing to take the consequences for possibly generations of bad circumstances and bad choices off of a child and taking it on yourself. Competence won’t hurt, but it doesn’t get you off scot-free. Like the terrain of a Bear Hunt, you can’t go over or under or around it. You have to go through it, and it’s messy. There's no "maybe not." It isn't romantic. No one is filming you stroking a cherub's hair in the sunset. It's just hard. To the degree it is hard it is also deeply good and right and necessary. It is enlightening, and I feel like I better understand the redemption that comes through Christ as a result of slogging through our own little mini story. 

Doing the “right thing” doesn’t always feel like the right thing. When our son first came to us he seemed pretty well cared for, and people who knew his mother had some positive things to say about her. As much as she had made some choices I questioned, she had also made some I could really get behind. I was filled with horror. What if I was playing for the wrong team, depriving a mother and child of one another? What if the grand act of selflessness people were lauding me for, to my confusion, was actually destructive? I finally concluded that I hadn’t been the one to make any of the decisions involved except to open my arms, and my job was to love this child as hard as I could while the decision makers weighed his next move. That wasn’t the end of feeling wrong though. Each time I had to weigh my bio children’s needs against that of a newcomer's, each time I had to evaluate how to interact with a birth mother, each time I was asked to take another child and had to say yes or no, there was no angels-trumpeting-Mayor-presents-you-with-the-key-to-the-city-parade-worthy kind of “Yes! This is right!” feeling for any of the choices. We have just had to use our heads, use our training, and try to give every person involved neither more nor less than what they truly need. 

People are much more supportive about fostering than about adoption, and the key is finality. People think that fostering is harder than adoption. The number one thing I hear is “I couldn’t open my heart to a child and have them taken away.” The uncertainty is what really tugs the heart strings. So many horror stories circulate about relatives coming to claim a beloved foster child at the 11th hour before adoption. Signing up for that sounds crazy to many people, like volunteering to get your heart broken. In contrast, the narrative with adoption is revealed by the phrase people use, “Forever Family.” It sounds just like hot chocolate and Christmas carols. People think when an adoption is- listen for that language -Finalized, it’s over and everyone is safe and everyone is happy, and we celebrate by going to Disney for a week, roll credits on the family photo of us in front of Cinderella’s castle. 
In reality the adoption journey is no more completed in a courtroom than a marriage is complete at the altar. 
At the end of the day, in the situation of a foster child being placed outside your home you can say after much struggle “I did my best and I hope they are okay, but it is out of my hands.” There is a lot of grief to that.

There is another kind of grief that people don’t rally around as enthusiastically when you realize that you must continue to do your best every single day into the future and redemption is hard and you don’t know where the energy will come from. You signed up for it. Suck it up! It sounds like whining to say “This is hard, this is harder than fostering” but for us at least it has been.  

There is always grief: My theory is that post part depression is about hormones but also about grief. I got PPD symptoms with foster children too. Grief when new children come and your schedule and family dynamics change. Grief about sharing stuff, grief in saying goodbye to free time. Grief when children leave. Grief over the too-quiet. Grief wondering where they are, and calculating how old they are this year. Grief is a part of life. Grief means you have loved. It makes the shadows no lighter to know this. 

There is joy. I wish you the mega-watt joy of introducing a foster child to something they have never experienced before, like a real theater movie, or putting together a Lego, or cooking as a family. Many foster children have never been sung to. They want to hold your hand crossing the street and read a million stories just to sit in your lap. Some will accept literally any affection and positive interaction they can get. Especially as a respite provider you can basically be a fairy godmother of positivity. There is no one else knocking down doors to spoil these children and it means a lot. 

The joy of social workers and judges really took me by surprise. They see the worst humanity has to offer every day. They see addiction and mental illness and blood curdling abuse, they deal with mystery fluids in their cars, and acting out in public. They are trying the nearly impossible task of finding adoptive families for teens with juvie records, and that’s all just part of the job! Then while they are trying to do their jobs racist people berate them for working with families of another color, and people wonder aloud why they do what they do, or whether they could make it in a “real job.” But seriously. The family court judges preside over the official affairs of generations of a family so they have been watching the equivalent of a ten car pileup of life choices for years. Everyone has tears of joy when something goes right for a little one. It is the most beautiful thing.   

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