I lost count of the number of foster children who called our home theirs throughout my childhood. Some stayed for months and now I struggle to remember their names. Some stayed for one weekend and I can remember their names, the colour of their eyes, the sound of their laughter. I can still feel their hands grabbing for me as they were strapped into the car moving them on come Monday morning.
When I was 8 years old and the second eldest of five daughters, our family became a foster family. My parents were good friends with a couple who had hundreds of foster children stay with them over decades. So many they were on TV a number of times. They were a great example of how diverse and functional families could be. So following their lead my folks became foster carers. We added extra beds where we could. Single beds became bunks. The cot was pulled out of storage. We collected extra toys and talked about all the great games we'd play.
During our regular Monday night family meetings, we talked about how we would behave with the new kids. We had pretty strict rules and they would need to learn to abide by them, we agreed. We'd help them learn them. We would share. We would speak kindly. They would be part of our family, not an extra or addition. Just the part that was not there before, but is now, for as long as they stayed. One thing that was never discussed, I realise now, was that we would love them. That was never up for debate.
Over the years that followed, children as old as eight and as young as a few months came and left our home. G had cigarette burns on his back. A was terrified of going to the toilet. Z was too familiar with her private parts for a baby. R was addicted to alcohol at birth. Two year old E was found walking the streets at 3am in nothing but a nappy. Some came for a night and stayed months. Some came for years and left far sooner.
As a child, I quickly learned how fortunate I was to live in a loving home with caring parents. So many children didn't have either of those, or even much less. Forget owning their own clothes or toys, some didn't even own their own bodies or minds. I learned that some children couldn't stay with us because their wounds were deeper than we could heal. I learned others couldn't stay because our heritage differed from theirs. I learned words like Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. And Post Traumatic Stress. I learned about cycles and how hard they are to break. I learned not everyone's future is truly their own to create, not when their canvas has fist sized holes in it.
I learned about resilience in the face of adversity. I learned that there is always hope. I learned about the importance of trust, how hard it is to build and maintain, and how easy it is to lose. I learned the value of space and time, of knowing how to be a safe space and how to give time.
Mostly, I learned that love doesn't follow DNA paths or blood lines. As much as I loved my parents and my sisters, I didn't truly understand how instant and deep love could be for children I hadn't known the day before. I loved my family, but often I loved these kids more. They needed it more. They needed conscious, active, forgiving love. They needed intense love that taught them that they were worth loving and should love themselves too.
As an adult, I'm constantly reminded of just how much those years impacted my view of the world, of people and now of my own children. I truly believe everyone has a story, we should all walk a mile in their shoes, we should assume nothing and we should always, always, lead with love.
We talk to our girls, even at their young age, about fortune and luck, about circumstance and choice. We help them to own their own bodies and their own actions. We try to help them understand what we do - that not every child has what they have. Not just the things they have, but the family they have and the love that surrounds them so snugly. Most of all, we are trying hard to teach them that they may not always know the path anyone has taken to be standing where they are now. Maybe it was as easy as it appears. Maybe it was tougher than they can ever imagine. The trick is to love them anyway, either way.
To learn more about Zann and her family find them at @gaybymama or @mybiggay.family on instagram or My Big Gay Family on the web. #Parenting4Change is a guest blog post series by folks changing the way we think about families.