Foster Parenting: Gardeners for a Season

 NOTE: To share this story, I am pooling from four other foster moms: Brandy, Joyce, Sue, and Suzanne. Collectively we have had over 110 children in our homes. Some of these children were “our own” foster kids and others were children we babysat, sometimes for a day or for several weeks, for other foster moms. Eight of those children have been adopted into three of these homes.

Nurturing Children of Another Mother

When I was a kid, my sisters and I liked to play with dolls in our playhouse next to Mama’s garden. We shopped for groceries in the field beside our house: daisies for eggs, Queen Ann’s Lace for fried potatoes, milkweed for fish, and clover for strawberries. We took our food to the playhouse and cooked, cleaned, churned butter, and played hospital or doctor. We baked pies, cookies, and cakes in the sandbox next to that playhouse.

Our Saint Bernard puppies were our children when we played church on the front porch steps. Cats and kittens alike were obligated to wear the doll clothes we put on them and were forbidden to jump out of the baby buggies in which we pushed them as we walked in and out the dirt lane.

When young mothers brought their children to our place to be babysat for a day, we fought over who got to hold the baby first. In fact, our mother finally started setting the timer on the kitchen stove so each one of us got our “turn” and we’d quit fighting over who got to hold the baby longer. We even had something we called “first baby business” – which was merely the right to hold a baby when it first arrived at our house. Upon hearing that we’d be babysitting, the person who called, “First baby business!” got first dibs on the baby. Mama never had to worry about children being cared for; we’d much rather rock and play with babies than clean bathrooms.

And, when a child became fussy, there was always another sister who was willing to take a turn. Babysitting was more fun and games than work, and I never considered the 24/7 responsibility that came with having children. In my not-completely-perfect childhood, foster care was never contemplated. I knew other foster families but, while it was a great idea, I never considered joining those ranks.

All I knew was that, if I ever got married, I wanted a bunch of kids. We settled for six – actually we ran out of money and I ran out of eggs and veins (and not necessarily in that order).

I was like other moms. You know, the ones who were going to be the best mom: ones who never lost patience and spent endless time reading to and playing with her kids; ones who were creative and full of energy and ideas and imagination; ones who fixed nutritious snacks and meals. Every mom wants to protect her kids from injustice and bad influences and corruption. So it never occurred to me, as a child, young married bride, or even a mother of young children, that I should open my safe, protected home to children from another mother for extended periods.

Our 6: Jason, Ben, Tim on the bottom; Rebekah and Sarah Beth in the middle; Aaron on the top
Our 6: Jason, Ben, Tim on the bottom; Rebekah and Sarah Beth in the middle; Aaron on the top

It was safe here. We knew how to plan and what to expect in the little garden plot of our world. Dave and I had tilled the soil and knew its constituency. Even though we were different, we had experienced similar church and childhood backgrounds. So it wasn’t likely that an unknown weed would crop up. We recognized them all and worked at yanking them out: selfishness, dishonesty, disrespect, laziness, sibling rivalry, and defiance.

Dave and I knew our kids and knew their genetics, personalities, and temperaments because these kids were products of both of us. We shared those same traits, although in varying degrees. Neither of us had to worry about negative influences from other gene pools or life experiences. We didn’t fight bad language or bad habits born from another father and mother. Even though our kids were different, they still functioned in predictable ways.

And so, even though parenting was difficult and frustrating and exhausting at times, life was good because we had our own little world that we had created and built and prayed about. Our garden was pretty secure, nestled away from the cross-pollination of others. We had shade, shelter, and plenty of fertilizer and mulch to keep our garden thriving. We knew what had been planted, and although there were difficult surprises along the way, we kept tending our garden and looking forward to reaping the harvest someday.

Then I joined the ranks of other moms (and their spouses) who felt called to raising seed that had been germinated elsewhere. There were other plants out there that needed a place to flourish; we reckoned with the fact that serving Jesus was more than just caring about our kids, our family, and our little plot in the world. Loving Jesus and giving sacrificially compelled us to look at ways we could make a difference, bring healing to others instead of focusing only on keeping our own from hurting, and give to enrich others rather than claiming what is for “me, myself, and mine.”

We wanted to make a difference. We also wanted to give back to God. We decided to become foster parents, so that makes me a foster mom. I’ve been one since the day I got the first call.

foster Held kids
Foster moms refer to it as “getting the call.” These moms never know when the call will come. Sometimes it comes at an inconvenient time, and the answer has to be no. But always, when the call comes, there is that tug at the heart. A foster mom who has shared her home with 63 children says, “I am waiting for the next call so I can receive more children into my home.”

A case worker shared about the night she took an infant to a home that was receiving a child for the first time. The parents and all six kids were up, waiting for the arrival: “Every light in the house was on, and it was 11 o’clock at night,” she said.  Every time I picture that scene, I want to cry.

A foster mom knows that, if the answer to the call is yes, it will turn her world upside down. Really upside down. Again.

Just when things are settling down to normal, an addition to the family brings uprooting and moving. Plants that were finding root someplace else are yanked out and placed in another garden, with a soil and climate unlike that from which it came.

foster butch braylen

Sure, this soil might seem better, but there is still uprooting and adjusting to a new climate that takes place. Plus, the already established plants feel the squeeze from additions to the plot.

When the phone call comes and the answer is yes, it means “I accept you sight unseen.” Sometimes that includes lice and poor table manners and behavior that one’s own flesh-and-blood kids never exhibited. Almost always it includes reciprocated love.

So while playing with dolls, puppies, kittens, and real babies as a child is fun and creates interest in mothering, it’s no comparison to the undertaking of being a mom or adding more troops to your brood by taking in foster children. It’s not all fun and games; in fact, it’s a lot of extra work.

brothers of different mothersPreparing a heart and a home for another foster child also means preparing a heart for good-bye. The hardest part, foster moms agree, is knowing that the children will someday leave (possibly returning to their own home).

Other difficulties include dealing with discipline issues and all the appointments that need to be scheduled. Foster moms spend more time in doctors’ offices than they did with their own kids: medical, dental, counseling, therapy, speech, PT, and family visitation. Meetings with principals and teachers as well as IEP meetings also take extra time.

Sometimes a foster mom goes along to visits where children are checked for sexual abuse. Somebody needs to hold the child’s hand, and she’s going to be there.

In addition, there are adjustments in their own lives and schedules, especially if the child has severe problems. The loss of privacy and control of one’s schedule never ceases to blindside a foster mom when newcomers enter her home. Nevertheless, like a woman in labor who immediately forgets the pain once she holds her newborn, foster moms forget the difficulty of that adjustment period when there are new shoots in the garden patch. When the call comes, they’re ready to take in more kids who need shelter and a place to be nurtured and grow.

foster ben and brittOther adjustments are finding new and creative ways to deal out discipline to these children who are not theirs. In addition, each child responds differently to consequences and reprimands. Sometimes it takes trial and error to figure out what works best for this previously unknown child.

Another challenge is visits the children have with family members. Just when things are getting settled and children are beginning to feel a part of the family, planned visits occur in order to prepare the children for return to their homes or else to another family member.

Behavior that is not acceptable can be weeded out with persistence and planning. Yet just when it seems it’s been cleared completely out of the patch, something sparks a rebirth of that weed. Visits with parents or family members can cause those weeds to crop up again. Acting out, disrespect, defiance, loudness, and tantrums are par for the course after visits with family members.

foster s and k

foster rubyfoster wynn and bray

Seldom recognized for loving someone else’s children as their own, foster moms diaper and rock and cuddle and love the children of another mother, and sometimes of another color. Especially with older children, it’s a fine line to walk when a foster mom is not the real mom.

A fourteen-year-old boy sobs on his foster mom’s shoulder coming back from his first visit with his mom. Why the tears? No one knows. But he finds solace and comfort in the woman who’s been “mom” to him for a few short months. His younger sister finally cries herself to sleep after another visit, all the while being cuddled and rocked by her foster mom for over an hour.

foster bray           foster dave and k,s        foster hats s and k

A foster mom of a three-year-old stays up most of the night after he has visits with his mom. He bangs his head against the wall so hard that his nose bleeds.

“I couldn’t leave him alone; I was afraid he’d hurt himself,” she says. She has to go to work the next day, but it doesn’t matter, for this little guy has wound his way into her heart, and she’s there for him no matter what it takes.

Foster moms know to clear their calendar the day of a visit – they’ll be dealing with anxiety, behavior issues, tears, and tiredness. Just as in the aftermath of a storm, they have to be ready to pick up the pieces of debris left in its wake. Again.

One foster mother Suzanne told me, “Love isn’t enough. I assumed it would be, but I quickly learned that wasn’t true at all. Love is essential, but so is training, new ways of parenting, and a professional support system.”

And, just as in parenting one’s own, Suzanne says foster parenting requires “a willingness to let go of any expectations you may have of the system or a child.” Again. Letting go of garden dreams, designs and plans is difficult – but it must happen for a successful season.

If a foster mom has kids of her own still at home, they will be caught up in the drama and will be affected. They’ll need to sacrifice. Again.

foster swimming pool
Our youngest of four boys became the oldest of four when these three boys came to live in our home.

Sometimes she’ll be caught between her own plants and these new seedlings. Sometimes her own kids have to make sacrifices – like the 15-year-old son who had to forgo getting his driving permit the day he became old enough because his eight-month foster sister was awarded to a family member that same day. The call from the social worker changed plans for his mom to take him to DMV. Instead of gaining a permit, he, along with his five siblings, said tearful good-byes to the infant who had been in their home for five months.

Suzanne’s children: 2 adopted and 2 biological. Since this photo was taken, they have adopted another girl.

For a mom with children the same age as the ones in her home, there’s the “risk” of negative influence. Children come with patterns of behavior that have been ingrained for years. Those patterns cannot be broken overnight or even over a few months. The safety net of family is stretched and issues surface because there are new little people in the house with a completely different set of experiences and a different way of looking at things.

foster deck door
inquisitive little people

 

Another difficult aspect involves dealing with truth. We consider ourselves truthful people. I told our kids the truth and expected the same from them. Imagine my surprise to find that a foster child could look me straight in the eye and tell me a lie with such seriousness that I had no doubt he was telling me the truth. His parents had modeled it so well that he thought there was nothing wrong with being untruthful. Telling a lie was more common to him than being honest.

foster slagel halloween
2 + 2 = 4

 

Suzanne, a foster mom, says, “Doing foster care well requires you to truly enter into a child’s and family’s pain. Although it looks different with different children, the descent into sharing a child’s pain always feels the same. It is HARD. Sometimes it means sitting for hours on the floor beside a little girl’s bed at night because she is too lonely and scared of me to be comforted or desire to be touched. Sometimes it’s meant cleaning poop off carpet, windows, and walls because a little boy didn’t have the words to tell us about his fear and trauma.

“Other times it’s loving a baby day after day, while even in infancy he chose to not love me back because I was not his ‘real’ mama. And there are times it means holding a child while he rages and screams for literally hours, knowing that he didn’t know what being loved by a mama day in and out was like, but still feeling rejected in spite of that fact. In the last year it’s meant bearing through days and nights of a baby’s grief-stricken screams, just waiting until she felt loved enough to be calm.

“And sometimes, it means loving mamas who didn’t know how to love their own kids well – taking them groceries, giving them pictures . . . . And sometimes it’s sitting through days of court until finally hearing a verdict that takes away parental rights permanently, a verdict that makes a child a legal orphan – unimaginable brokenness. Listening to stories of drugs and abuse, blood and guns, poverty and lack of education, prostitution and drugs – those are the dark days. Those are days when you wonder what qualifies you to be in this place, to have this calling.”

"Yes, Jesus loves me"
“Yes, Jesus loves me”

Yet, while tending a garden is hard and tedious labor, there are blessings as well. Harvest reaps the benefits of one’s labor, sharing the bounty with family and enjoying the succulent delight of newly ripened produce.

The fragrance of love is exquisite, even though it may be prickly.  There is a kaleidoscope of expressions in experiencing new things: a visit to the mall, a ride on the escalator, going out for ice cream cones, family time where everyone is included, meal times around the kitchen table, participation in a Christmas program, learning about the real meaning of Christmas or of Easter, learning to reach out to others by helping a neighbor with yard work, rippling laughter of play, and being tucked in at night.

foster pjs slagels

A visitor in our home, after hearing part of the story of the children we were parenting, said, “We don’t know what we have.” No, we don’t.

No, we don’t.

Our children can learn from having foster siblings in the home. They see the pain, the anger, and the wounds.  It helps them realize how blessed they are to have parents who will fight for them, who never give up, and who expect and believe the best in them.

Sometimes our kids have celebrated awards without us being present because of the foster children in our home. Giving up beds or bedrooms and sharing their parents with other seedlings is not always easy, but it’s necessary. And it is worth the energy expended.

our son with boys from two other mothers
our son with boys from two other mothers – play dough pizza

“I’ve looked into the eyes of an abused or unwanted child, and I know it’s worth it,” says Brandy, a mom of four teens who has three foster children under the age of five in her home.

In our foster family journey, we wanted to give back to God for sparing the life of my husband in an accident ten years ago. During evenings when playing the same card game over and over brought complaints from our kids, I reminded them that this was our Thank You to God. During days when the dishwasher has to be emptied more than three times, I remember that this is a way to worship God.

During nights of being awake repeatedly, rocking a child who is afraid she’ll be left alone, I have been so weary. When I remember why I am doing this, I can truly say, “Jesus, this is my thank You to You.” When I whisper those words, the tiredness doesn’t matter, and I realize that saying thanks to Him isn’t really thanks if it doesn’t cost me at all. The words “offer the sacrifice of praise” take on new meaning when I am weary and spent. [Jeremiah 33:11 Hebrews 13:15]

Suzanne also shares, “The God who sits beside us in our tears is the God Who is faithful to sit beside me during those long nights when I’m holding and comforting a hurt and lonely child. I get to be the one who doesn’t just descend into their darkness, but with God’s help, gives them a hand and helps pull them back out. I get to be the one who teaches a child what safety truly feels like. I get to be the mama who teaches a child who may have never ever known the love of a mama what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. I get to be the one who introduces a young soul to Jesus for the first time, even when I have no assurance that they will ever hear of Him from another person in their life.”

another baby to love
another baby to love

It’s been quite a few years since I played with my sisters in that playhouse with our dolls. At my age, I’ve rocked more children than kittens.  I’ve spent more time in church with real children than I ever did with the puppies on the porch steps.

I’ve spent more hours in grocery stores than any I spent collecting “food” in the pastures next to our house. I’ve baked more cookies and bread than any we pretended to do in our sandbox. My sisters love our foster children just like they loved the babies who came to our house. And our foster kids love them right back.

 

my sister Barbara loving one of of "my" babies
my sister Barbara loving one of “my” babies

Playing church at my home place was a lot of fun, and the memories are part of my life. Being the church to lonely, hurting children is even more enjoyable and rewarding, for we’ve seen growth as children have thrived in our home. Surely they will remember that, even though our garden wasn’t perfect, they were loved. We ourselves have learned so much. We have experienced grace that is more than sufficient and strength that is made perfect in our weakness. [2 Corinthians 12:9]

As Suzanne says, “I get to help change a child’s life, but really, truly, the best thing about fostering is how those little children change me. I am transformed by their strength and resilience, and I am undone by their pain and grief. I am reminded of everything broken in this world, and I am thankful that I know (and can teach them to know) the Healer.”

foster slagel by barn
Suzanne’s kids

So this Mother’s Day, I applaud the many women in the world who are moms to children of another mother – who give and give, love and love, and claim these kids as their own. I applaud the hearts of each foster mom, for even though her “children” leave, there is forever and always a part of them left behind – in her heart.