Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
By Susan Solomon Yem
A few weeks ago my youngest son, Jake, and I went out to grab dinner. On the way, he asked me about our family life before he was born. Jake is quite a bit younger than his siblings and did not know that when there were only three children in our household, we provided foster care. Over the course of seven years we welcomed 18 children into our home. At one point, we had eight children ranging in age from a few months to 16 years under our roof. It was not a big house, but we occupied every square inch of it!
Jake’s questions about this phase of our family life reminded me of an article I wrote years ago, reprinted here.
Why is it when a Department of Children and Families homefinder calls requesting placement for a foster child, or two or three, I eagerly answer, “Yes, bring them right over”?
And why is it that after the first day, sometimes mere hours or minutes later, I start questioning, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
I begin my mental tally of the damage the house is suffering – the wallpaper torn off the newly redecorated living room wall, the broken goblet, an irreplaceable wedding gift my own children have never touched, the tiles pulled out of the bathroom, and the broken window in the bedroom.
I don’t like it when people say, “You’re such a saint for doing this.” I’m not a saint. They never hear me muttering under my breath, “Lord, I hate this!”
Never mind the disruption of daily schedules, the unacceptable dinner invitations or the missed vacations. What about the teenager who sleeps until 3:00 in the afternoon, and when he is awake runs the electric bill up an extra $45.00 a month? Then there are the hundreds of dollars worth of groceries expected to last a week, but gone in two days.
The first few weeks of a foster care placement can be difficult for both parent and child. You rarely have time to prepare to receive a child into your home. I was still assembling bedroom furniture, which had just arrived that morning, when our first set of four foster children entered our lives.
It was baptism by fire! Two days before Christmas, four siblings, aged 18 months to nine years, came to stay with us for two weeks while their mother recovered from the birth of her most recent child. They were four of the most undisciplined, unruly, dirty kids I had ever see. Their mismatched clothes were ragged and filthy. The six-year-old girl had on a pair of boys’ underwear that was at least three sizes too big.
They hit the floor running and never slower down: “Where’s my room, what do you have to eat, will you be giving us any presents?”
It was at that point that I made the decision to never do this again. Week One seemed to last forever. I thought, “Maybe if I just try to survive 10 minutes at a time we’ll make it through.”
What truly made the difference was the willingness of my own three boys, then aged four, six and nine, to accept these children encroaching on their space. They organized nightly games of Indian Chief and Simon Says to pass the time between dinner and bed. They teased each other, laughed together, danced and played like they had been best friends all their lives.
By the end of their stay, which stretched to six weeks, we all felt very close, and we knew that yes, we would do it all over again.
It is hard to bring a child out of home with little or no discipline – where it may be OK to go outside in the winter with no shoes on, or drip ice cream on the living room couch or sleep on the floor in front of the TV all night – into a structured environment.
Our second foster son, a single placement, cried the first day he was with us because I told him he had to put the bike back in the garage when he was finished riding it. An 8:30 p.m. bedtime sounded ridiculous to this streetwise kid of nine, who was rarely home before 11:00 most nights.
But once again, the love and acceptance of my own children brought him around. A week after he arrived, he asked if we could adopt him so he could change his name to ours. Once he realized someone cared about such things as what time he went to bed, he felt valued.
He went back home six months later, much to our protests that it was not time yet. He is back on the streets again, shuttling from mother to grandfather just like before. His mother has a new boyfriend and a new baby. She calls us often to ask us to take him back, even offering to pay for his care.
Sometimes foster care can be so exasperating. Just when you feel that you are making headway with a child in providing a little encouragement and helping to mold a better self image, he is plucked from your arms and returned to the same old situation.
Maybe we are being presumptuous in assuming a stay in our home will result in long-lasting changes in the lives of all the members of our foster family. Maybe foster care is just meant to be a time of respite for that child, a retreat from the harsh realities of his life.
That is what we are now providing for the teenage boy and baby girl who have lived with us for almost two years. We had never had a teenager in the house before. When he first arrived, I was not quite sure I could handle this sullen, withdrawn 16-year-old boy.
He was tough. He had been a member of a street gang. He smoked and carried a knife. He had trouble in school. You had to say something to him at least three times before he would answer. But deep down, he was just a little boy in need of love, attention and acceptance.
He is learning disabled, but in many ways he is life disabled, too. He has a problem with lying, and as I confronted him for the umpteenth time about it, I realized that no one ever told him it was wrong to lie.
We had to start with the basics – teaching him to use a toilet rather than urinate out the window, to shower daily and to wash his clothes. He is learning how to make and keep friends and the importance of commitment in relationships.
After lengthy academic and psychological evaluations that have helped to label some of his disabilities, he eagerly prepares for school each day. He willingly helps my oldest son straighten up the kitchen after dinner and takes care of his younger sibling. He is opening up and sharing some of the difficulties he has with his mother. He has found someone to listen and offer consolation, most often my own children. They provide so much of what he needs – the friends to play marathon Monopoly games with or listen to the latest rap song. Sometimes he talks to my 10 year old about his latest girlfriend or the abuses he suffered at home – things he would never tell me.
He and the baby will probably be with us for quite a while, but the goal is almost always family reunification. I often wonder how we will all feel when they do go home after such a long time together.
Not every child is this responsive, though. There is no magic formula for reaching those who consider themselves unreachable, like the teenage girl who came to us and wrote in her journal, “I know I will die in my teens. Please understand that I can’t redo what I’ve done in the past and present.”
She ran away twice. I felt so helpless when this happened and I wondered if a master’s degree in social work would have helped us to reach her. Our 10-week foster care training program did not prepare us to deal with her situation.
Some of our social workers have not been too helpful either. Visits may be irregular or infrequent. My questions about what will happen to the children often go unanswered and I wonder, is it because they don’t know or they don’t care or are they so overwhelmed they can’t even figure out which child I’m talking about?
Recently we went to visit our first four kids. They are just as wild as ever. I sat there watching them bounce off the walls and kick box each other and asked myself if we had done them any good. I felt defeated. I had hoped that what we had taught them had sunk in, but I was not sure we had made any significant impression on them.
The eldest sister, now 13, escorted us to our car when it was time to go. On the way out, she accidentally (on purpose) dropped a piece of paper on the ground in front of me. It was a postcard from the library informing the recipient that a book was overdue. It was addressed to me, but at her street address. She must have taken my name as her own, at least to get a library card. And this was her way of showing me that I did get to her.
Why is it that when the next call comes to take in another child, I will most likely say, “Bring them right over”?
It isn’t because I think the foster care system is particularly good. And it isn’t because I’ll be able to retire on the pittance foster families are paid monthly. It is because despite the damage our home may suffer and despite the sleepless nights we may endure comforting a troubled child, we know we are providing a sanctuary and a training ground for children who will too soon be challenged into rebuilding shattered lives.
We may not be changing them forever. We may only be giving them a taste of what family life should be. If I can help to provide a sense of security and belonging to strengthen and prepare them for what lies ahead, then I’ll continue to invite them in.
Postscript: The teenaged boy described in this story is now a grown man. He left our home when he turned 18. He’s a father now. One of my most treasured mementos is a clay jar he made for me when he still lived with us. In it is a note that asks my forgiveness for some misbehavior I no longer remember. It concludes, “Thank you for all the things you do for me, especially all the great food!!!! Your Son, . . . ”We adopted his baby sibling. She’s a college graduate now with a degree in psychology and the goal of providing animal-assisted therapy to children in trauma.
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