There's always this third person involved in the parenting going on in our home. On a daily basis, I find myself thinking about our kiddos' birth Mom. Tiny's little facial features are a dead ringer for his Mom: his beautiful eyes, his perfectly shaped nose. And sometimes when he smiles or smirks, it's as if she is staring back at me- just with much shorter hair and tiny little fists. There are so many reasons I find myself thinking about our kids' birth parents, but given we chose to spend this month writing about race and class, I'm hanging out here for a little bit.
Fostering To Us Is About Family Preservation & Permanency
When we decided to foster, we made a conscious effort to really take on this new parenting role and keep the focus on helping kiddos without homes. We wanted to give them a home with everyday parents at a time when they needed it, and then work with their whole team to get them back into their own home, or help them transition to whatever the next step was. We are about family preservation and doing our part to help keep families together. States vary in their ability to do good work here, there are national rankings of state child welfare systems showing time spent in care, permanency planning timelines, resources devoted to finding children permanent homes- statistics and rankings for all the things the child welfare system should be dedicating resources to. The state I live in ranks pretty highly and I find myself still wondering about what else we should be doing better.
I've seen what removals look like, when a social worker and often the police, go into a home, inform parents they are leaving with their child, then walk out. On paper, this seems so understandable- someone was not doing right by a child so they left to go somewhere safer. In reality this was one of the most traumatic and impactful experiences I had early on professionally. I am a therapist not a social worker, yet I was involved. As I drove home from work those early days, I could not wrap my head around the simple facts at play here: under certain circumstances you can walk into someone's home, take their child, literally pick them up and walk out- legally. That's it. In another frame, this is kidnapping or abduction, which in essence, is every parent's nightmare. I've kept these memories close to my heart as we welcome kiddos into our home and as I grapple with what family preservation really is. You don't want to be here, you SO do not want to be here. You want what what felt familiar.
I travel sometimes for work and when I have been away for days, the feeling I look forward to most is the first night back home with The Artist. The smell of our home, the feel of our sheets, the comfort that comes with knowing where everything is almost unconsciously. This feeling, this "I am home" feeling, is what kids coming to our home have lost completely. I'm not comfort, maybe someday I will be but you want what was comfort even if it was infrequent or confusing. All this to say, we were about supporting kids. Holding respect and boundaries around birth parents' love and care for their kids.
As a ruminator by nature, I find it hard to say there are real clear truths in foster care- kids should always be removed, kids should always stay with relatives, parents always know better but are choosing to hurt kids. There are many reasons kids are put into foster care, some very clear, some messy, most in-between. If I try to really distill my thoughts around what family preservation is to me, here's where I'm at: Every child that comes into our home was born to parents who were once children themselves and in their life deserved kindness, guidance and safety. They deserved to know what a kind, compassionate parent was and very often in my experience they never did.
"The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma"
Without knowing a significant amount of details about each of our kiddos' parents, I do know some things. And most of what I know is that these kiddos' birth parents grew up in homes that looked a lot like the homes my kiddos were pulled from. What's my point? There's a fancy therapeutic construct for this, "the intergenerational transmission of trauma" (I would kill my students for citing Wikipedia, but come ON, user generated content is pretty amazing). What this means is that you will invariably pass along the tradition of the attachment patterning, parenting style and the impact your trauma had on your life. These are fundamental pieces to parenting- and they will be transmitted to your children. This is what I call a universal truth. Every one of us in this world does exactly what we were raised to do until we work our asses off to do different. If you were raised in a home where you were surrounded by love, connection, compliments, structure and opportunities to repair and make good, then you get an easy deal here. You will parent organically in ways that allow these best parts of yourself to emerge. If you were raised in a home with violence, unpredictability and drugs you will likely end up wading through those waters during your own parenting journey. We know this empirically. Many, many studies have shown that attachment patterns and parenting styles are heritable traits.
Tiny and Mr. Toddler's Mom is easy to hate on paper- most parents who abuse or neglect their kids are. We, the foster parents, are the supposed virtuous ones in this dynamic who often get the title of savior, hero or saint, giving up sleep, money, work opportunities and any and all personal time. But what really causes me to get all kinds of worked up is how easy it is to dismiss their Mom here, how easy it is to demonize her or say she was unfit or judge her rage and choices and partners and lifestyle. But here is what I know for certain. These kiddos in our home, the ones I love with my whole heart and spend countless hours everyday carrying, wiping, cooking for and cleaning up after on repeat, whom are given empathy and grace and a title they rightfully deserve of being brave-hearted -if these kiddos were ignored and left with their family, they would have grown up with all the stressors, challenges and trauma their Mom did. And. Would likely emerge into adults who make choices similar to her. And to be fair, maybe they would have enough resilience to change the trajectory of their life. Maybe their hearts would seize the small pieces of meaning that can still be found in a chaotic life and they would emerge as loving, kind adults determined to be the best version of themselves. But they would have been up against a lot. As I read Mr. Toddler to sleep tonight I found myself wondering if his Mom ever had someone who read books to her at night. Did she have someone she could kick and yell and holler at when she felt lost and then later go to bed with them and still do books and snuggles?
Low-Income, Single, Black Mothers
Our kids are not lucky to have us. I shrink when I hear that. I think life is really more about just, kind and fair ways of being in the world. Either way, it would have been fair if their Mom had not had to endure years of growing up in the way she did. It would have been kind for her to have parenting role models she could pair after or learn from, or adults who would teach her ways of being angry but not abusive. I can't rage against the pain she caused her kiddos without grieving the pain she grew up in. I just can't. Truthfully, it would be easier if I could. Judging and holding someone accountable for what they did without holding any context over it is simple- just don't look around. Be myopic.
When I zoom out here, this is SO BIG. It's about trauma and class and racism and the countless ways low income, black, single mothers have a harder and more obstacle laden path. Two examples. First, after learning that a child is low income, doctors are far more likely to suspect abuse when faced with injury symptomology. And two, eviction is to low income women, what incarceration is to black men. See what I mean here. Black, low-income women face exponentially higher eviction rates, setting off a chain of hardship. If parenting is hard on any given day, parenting homeless is crippling. Perhaps you already know that black kids make up about 34% of the total number of kids in foster care, which is over twice their proportion in the general population. Totally. Disproportionate. And to beat us to the easy takeaway, this is not because black parents are more abusive and neglectful than other parents.
There are many reasons why the two beautiful little people in my home are here, and it's not as simple as "their Mom didn't do a good job." It's also not as simple as "we are doing a good job and so they should stay." I was in a big conversation with The Artist the other night about whether foster care even really serves families- and how infant adoption in the child welfare system is so, so complicated. I found myself wondering about how family preservation fits in here and if babies will grow up wondering if their parents got a fair shake or if their narrative is created around only the abuse and neglect Maybe this feels unclear so here is the way I can best explain it- this is what I tell my kids about their birth Mom: "Your Mom loves you and will always love you, that's what Mom's do. Being able to use the helpers around her to learn how to take good care of you is not something she is good at yet and she needs to learn to be good at these things to love you in the way you deserve and need. Maybe she will start trusting her helpers, maybe she won't. But there are lots of things she is good at, like being funny, and smiling at you and she can make you belly laugh." It's both the good and bad that I'm always looking to weave a story out of, because only holding one side is dishonest and inaccurate.
There is a lot of discussion amongst the foster Mamas and Papas I know about how the court systems is tipped in favor of parents and I think that's not truthfully the whole picture. There is a higher threshold than I'm comfortable with to prove that parents are unfit. I also think that resources to provide real help; real parenting support; real resources for safe, supportive housing; affordable and quality addiction treatment. Access to these critical resources are not tipped in birth parents' favor. I think the help offered to birth parents to help them learn to parent in a safe and compassionate way is seriously lacking.
I say all this, knowing that I value Tiny's smile and his new crawling skills in the same way my friends are lauding their kids' college graduations. I say this, knowing that Mr. Toddler is loving reading this amazing book called "Flashlight," and when he finds the owl in the tree I almost have tears in my eyes I'm so proud of his hard won verbal and visual skills. I say hard won because his history is one where so little was done for him at a time when he needed it most. I have a lot of things to say about how to love in times of uncertainty- how to be in your life and give it over completely to two little people while living each day, knowing this whole family we are in might end. In some ways it's quite painful they're with us, because that's what foster care is, your kiddo's heart was broken and then they moved and now new helpers are here to work on a life that is new and amazing and uncomfortable in all kinds of different ways. Growth comes in the aftermath of loss, I believe that in my bones. It's why discomfort always comes right after change- there cannot be change without dissonance, one of my favorite therapists told me. Right now I'm just not sure where exactly we all are in the family story of ours in this world of love and loss. On some days, I'm not sure measuring the path even matters.
-Foster Mom (the therapist)