This has been one of those posts that I’ve been putting off for months, to be honest. Over the past 2 years of doing foster care, there are still so many parts of our story that are too muddled, too raw to talk about yet.
Some of these things I will never talk about in this forum. Generally, I have a rule of thumb when publishing anything foster care related– if I can do substantial good by writing it and putting it out there, then I will do it, however painful it might be to sort it all out. Come what may.
And so. So we press on.
One of the biggest concerns about ever embarking on the journey of foster care was about how it would affect our two biological children. Our first placement happened when AJ was just 5 months old, Gregory barely a 2 year old. Looking back, I’m still not even sure how we did it. Ever heard of postpartum hormones? The worst part about them is they are coming on the tail end of pregnancy hormones, so one sometimes forgets what “normal” ever used to feel like. Then you add a grueling/grisly house hunting experience, along with foster care. Sounds like a recipe for burnout and disaster, no?
It took months to even begin to realize how our family had been affected by our first placement. It’s also hard to determine what caused what, since our lives were in such turmoil with the house hunting/moving process. But both of our kids, despite their young ages at the time, definitely showed signs of being emotionally beat up. AJ, who was 11 months old when our first placement ended, finally slept through the night just days after. One day, he was waking 6 times a night, unwilling to eat or be soothed. A few days after the placement ended? He slept through the night peacefully and never looked back. It’s as though he’d been trying to, but couldn’t.
Gregory was 2.5 at this time and we actually didn’t notice the damage right away. But then things would happen, like a brief visit from our first placement, an argument between Jesse and I (there were quite a few during those recovery months), a lost toy. Like a thread unraveling, we started to see some of the ways in which it all had affected him. The hardest episode was over Christmas break, when our first placement came to visit. The moment the visit began, Gregory began to whine and cry, like the beginnings of a tantrum. Slowly, he retreated to his room, where he sobbed the rest of the hour. After the visit was over, I went in to scold him for being unfriendly, only to witness one of the most gut-wrenching sob sessions I had ever seen come from my small 3 year old’s body. He wasn’t kicking and screaming, he was just crying as though his heart was in pain. I felt panicked, because I had no idea what to do. Holding him didn’t work, offering him distractions didn’t work, and it didn’t seem like he was slowing down. Finally, by divine inspiration I figured out how to assure him in a way that made sense in his 3 year old mind, and it clicked. Within a few seconds, the sobs had died down, and he was willing to be comforted.
I remember one of the first days our 2 new placements, our 10 and 5 year old boys, came to live with us. All of them were jumping on the couch together, somersaulting and flopping on the cushions (actions we got to know all too well over the next few months). One of them got too rough, and all of a sudden I heard Gregory say in a stern voice, “NO. DON’T DO THAT. Get OUT of MY house!” He didn’t understand that his house was, without his consent, about to be shared for 8 months with 2 strangers. His playroom, about to be packed and put away. His Christmas with family, shared, his toys no longer just his, his mommy and daddy’s attentions, distracted and redirected.
And then I remember near the end of the placement, when the boys were leaving us every weekend to visit their family. It was during the 3rd weekend, when Gregory got in trouble right before bedtime. And then the sobbing began. The same sobbing that had occurred back at Christmas time. I recognized it right away, because it sent chills down my spine. Jesse was about to scold Gregory for his disobedience, but I said, “It’s something else Jesse, I just know it.”
After two minutes of sobs that threatened to tear him apart, where Jesse and I just stared helplessly, Gregory managed to say, “P-p-lease, p-p-lease, are you going to send me away?”
Jesse and I were stunned.
“Are you going to send me away like A and N?” he said, wiping his nose, still crying, looking anxiously at us for the answer.
I felt sick, like someone had punched me in the stomach. My heart was in pieces. We spent hours that night and every night after, assuring Gregory that he would never be sent away, no matter how much trouble he thought he was in. We explained that we were his parents, and I made a big deal about routinely mentioning how he was a baby that grew in mommy’s tummy. These were hard things to do in front of our foster boys, however, since things with their biological family fell through shortly thereafter and talking about Gregory’s security within our own family felt like rubbing it in their faces.
And, of course, all of this brought up questions from Gregory about why A and N weren’t with their mommy and daddy. We had to talk about how their mommy and daddy were “bad guys”, but that not all mommies and daddies are bad guys. To this day, I still hear him muttering under his breath about how “grownups are bad guys and might hurt us.” It breaks my heart, every time.
Every mom I’ve talked to who has young kids and is also doing foster care has this moment, where the horrifying thought creeps up and dawns on them– am I doing the wrong thing? Have I just traumatized MY kids by trying too hard to help someone else’s? It sneaks up before you know it. It’s also incredibly difficult to battle the fear that accompanies it.
When we first took in the boys, I feared the kind of influence they would be. I feared bad words. I feared sassy talk. I feared germs. I feared picky habits ruining my organic food/lifestyle dreams for my 2 babies. I feared that we wouldn’t have enough love to go around, that they would feel ignored or replaced.
And, at times, those fears would be validated. We did, in all honesty, have a few physical scuffles that made me worried to leave the boys alone together. We all got sick 8 times in the first two months. The boys were siblings, and some of their vicious bickering rubbed off on AJ and Gregory and has set some of their current behavior. I remember one time when Gregory was running towards Jesse’s outstretched arms for a hug, only for N to come up behind him, shove him out of the way, and get the hug instead.
But what I didn’t realize would be so hard would be them leaving us.
Turns out, all the “trauma” I worried about from the boys and their presence paled in comparison to how Gregory reacted when they were gone. To Gregory, one day he had two brothers, and the next day they were gone. Once, I went outside to find him holding one of their toys in the backyard, just sadly staring at a wall. “I’m never playing again.” he said. “Not until N comes back.”
I didn’t know how to tell Gregory that they would never live with us again.
Another time, when Gregory and AJ were fighting, I saw Gregory pull back, and, with a cold tone of voice, say, “It doesn’t matter. He’s not my brother any more. He’s just a friend to me.” Because that’s how it worked in his mind, based on the example set before him. Family isn’t something set in stone, it’s something that changes according to bad decisions people make.
Gregory has just recently begun watching more mature cartoons, the kind with real bad guys in them. As much as I try to limit TV in general and steer him towards bright and happy toddler shows when we do, he is drawn to the ones with good and evil displayed in all their monstrosity. When the dragon breathed fire at the command of the evil witch at Disneyland’s light show, he was enthralled, tense with anticipation, and delighted when Mickey saved the day. At the age of 3, he can explain in full detail why the Decepticons should be torn apart, limb by limb.
There are days when I grieve this fascination with bad guys, because I mourn those 2 years of innocence he missed out on.
Before he even knew my first name, he’d learned that mommies and daddies sometimes do bad things to their children, and that not all adults can be trusted.
Before he’d truly learned what a brother was, he learned that they could be taken away from him at a moment’s notice.
Before he’d learned the alphabet, he learned that his mommy and daddy were vulnerable and could, at times, appear so weak that they weren’t going to make it.
I know that those days of foster care are some of the reason that Gregory is so protective of me at this current juncture. Sometimes, in church, he tells me to sit down and take care of myself. He tells me I need help and that he’s the one to do the job. He tells me when I am looking tired and tells me to rest. During these moments, when he looks at me with such love and tenderness, I can’t believe that he is only 3, because it feels as though he is going on 33. I mourn that he is so wise beyond his years in some of these ways, because it makes me feel as though I did not protect him.
For me, this feeling of failing to protect my son’s babylike innocence has been the hardest thing to process about foster care.
But I recently ran across this quote from one of my husband’s favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton, where he defends the reading of fairytales amongst young children. He says,
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
G.K. Chesterton goes on to make the point that children know that there is evil in the world. They have their own fears, they don’t need someone to introduce fear for them. What a fairy tale provides, however, is an answer to that evil. An adult that denies their child a chance to see true evil also denies them the chance of seeing that same evil defeated. Without evil, you cannot have someone to save the day. Without the dragon, you cannot have a knight to slay that dragon.
Or loving parents to embrace the boys mistreated by their biological family.
Or security in a home despite all of his toddler tantrums.
Or a brother that will always be there beside him no matter how many arguments they get into.
And then I realized that Gregory would have had all of these same fears eventually, even if we’d never done foster care. And I become so grateful that not only have many of these fears been voiced and put on the table, but he’s seen their quick defeat.
And when he looks back on this someday? I hope he looks back and feels the pain of all the children who have no loving parent or home, knowing deep within his heart that evil will be conquered, good will win, and that he is loved unconditionally.
And, if not, he has a trust fund set up that he can choose to either use for college, or for therapy, depending on which he needs more.
My Two Favorite Posts of 2014
10 Things I Never Knew About Foster Care
What Foster Parents REALLY Need
Why I Blog About Foster Care