In our home there are three of us to celebrate on Mother's Day. Three women who comprise the mothers in our boys' life. Two women are raising them and around every day, and one who is around twice a year and present almost every day in some way. I've been thinking today about how becoming a Mom happened for us, for me. I became a Mama when my 2.5 year-old began calling me Mama. Before that I was the adult responsible for him, loved him something fierce, felt bewildered by him, protective of him, and was sure we were a temporary life for him. He called everyone "Ma" when he moved in. Cashiers, ladies on the street, other Moms at playgrounds. There was not an intimacy demarkation to the name, just what he called all friendly women. He called me Ma until he learned my name. Almost every kiddo we have had in our home takes far longer than I would have expected to hear our names.
I knew we were getting somewhere good when he began calling me my first name, and then Ma, as in Mama [Therapist] and Mama [Artist] to help him distinguish which Mom he wanted. He stuck to that for awhile and then eventually dropped the first names and we became Mama and Mom. He did go back and forth depending on how his day at daycare was, or how tired or how recently we had a family visit. Once a relative heard him calling me Mama and that went rather badly. I tried to help him out by not escalating the fight, but not backing off either and making it sound as if he was just out of line here. So hard. And during this time I had to travel. I have to travel for work every few months, and it is terribly hard on all of us. I red-eye there and back, I FaceTime, I leave surprises and letters and countdown visuals around but it is hard for little people when one of their parents leave, so I have cut back as much as I can and travel maybe three times a year now. Last summer I went away for the first overnight since Mr. T moved in and when I walked in the door he was excited to see me, confused and then immediately began calling me by my first name again. It was as if he could intentionally withdraw the intimacy we created, or withdrew to protect his heart. It was so fast and iron clad it felt intentional, but we know 2.5 year-olds have nowhere near that much self control. It was visceral and he pulled way back for weeks. He and I moved back into a routine, built up rhythm and over the months I became Mama again. We have had a few setbacks, and when we do I gently tell him the story of families again with dolls, and dollhouses and visuals. I have one house where kids and a Mom live, we talk about how he lived way back with his birthmom, we talk about what happened and why he left, then he moved to many homes, then a foster home and the story that happened there, then the story of how he moved in with Mama and Mom. And now he lives with Tiny and Mama and Mom in a house and we are a family. It feels important to me that I orient little kiddos to the who/what/where of their lives. It's so confusing, and they are so little, he needs a story about his life, he needs details that are age appropriate and clear and don't change over time. I wanted him to have a clear story about who we are, what a Mom or parent is, and what friendly strangers, social workers or other foster Moms were. In typical development, kids do not grow up open to the possibility that anyone can become their Mom. That role is filled and finite. My kids have had several Moms of varying intimacy and safety, and now us. They need a story and clarity, and I'm also a firm believer that kids need to have intimacy demarkations - Moms help you in the bathroom, feed you, take care of you when you're sick, kiss you and are your people in the world. Some kids get one Mom, some kids get a few Moms of different kinds. It's confusing and not necessarily the ideal developmental construct to have muddied when you're young. So I was a Mom, and was called Mom way before I felt like a Mom.
We were not looking to adopt when we became foster parents, we weren't even looking to have kids in a forever family way for a few more years. I was so happy and ready to love and care for little people and then help them on to their next step. And then I became a Mama and we became an adoptive family. It was probably last Fall that I began to really feel like a Mom to both my boys in a permanent and primal way. Commitment, care, becoming a parent in the kids-first-everything-else-waaaaay-second sorta way came easy for me, and maybe the word I'm wanting to find here is the terrifying love that Mamas have for their babies, that terrifying love came when I felt myself becoming their Mom. I look at Tiny sometimes and he feels like an extension of my heart, like a part of my body is just woven into him. It's so intense and so crazy. I was hugging Mr. T tonight after putting on his jammies and he hung around my neck being silly for a few minutes, and I just stood there with him for as long as I could until he let go. A part of my heart steadies almost every time I get to hold them close; it's not even conscious, it just happens. My whole body craves their little hugs and sticky fingers and beautiful smiles. I say this all to my Mom friends and they nod knowingly. This is just a part of the wild world of falling madly in love with the kids in your life. And I do believe it's falling in love, you all come together in this work of building a family with previous lives, beliefs and internal templates. There is no welcoming kids to your life in foster care or adoption- there is only the life you all create together, all together.
Life is merely the stitching together of many moments, and likely building a family is no different. To all the Mamas in my life, to all the Mamas in my boys' life: your love and life gave me permission to be right here. Thank you.
Foster Mom (The Therapist)
You can always move forward but you can never go back. And you have choices about how to move forward. For me, those choices require learning a thing I did not previously know how to do or that I believed I possessed the capacity to fulfill; being a parent.
Becoming a parent has unearthed a wealth of shit I didn’t realized I needed to work through. I always knew I’d be a mom, though I’m not sure if that’s because I wanted it or because I understood that this was what girls do. I suppose now I feel like a member of some elite club, but because there’s not much about me that’s traditional, I imagine it will take time to feel fully affirmed by this tribe and comfortable within it. Sometimes being a mom feels as natural as my skinny jeans and vans while I’m dancing. Other days, it feels a lot like I’m wearing a dress while shootin hoops - foreign, uncomfortable, ridiculous.
There has always been a yearning deep inside me to care for kids. I was a gentle child. I played with my Barbies and their babies. I played with my own baby dolls. I played with the baby brothers and sisters of my friends. And because I come from a home where there was minimal supervision, little structure and no parental oversight, my role as the oldest sibling in a group of three was such that my real life care-taking was never about pretending. It was about surviving. It was about fighting and scrapping and never giving up and wanting for my brothers the best that I could give them so that they would be ok people. It was about logistics and being practical. It was about finding resources where there was none. It was fully sacrifice. I was terrible at it of course, because kids make terrible parents. But it set me up for what was to come next in my life, which was taking care of a lot of other people's kids. First by babysitting, then through internships with young people who were incarcerated, and then in my first career as a supervisor in residential treatment facilities. For 12 years this was my gig. I thought I would crush the parenting thing - until we started fostering.
I thought I would be a shoe-in for foster parent of the year because of my background. I fell into working with kids in crisis because I was a kid in crisis myself. It seemed like a natural progression but was likely not the smartest life choice. I had to do a lot of work & growing up to reach a point where I could move through the vicarious trauma and do good work. I never really got there emotionally but I did get really fucking good at my job. I was a young supervisor and my first big job was overseeing a dorm of 10 girls, ages 5-10. 60 kids lived at this place and I was responsible for 10 of them. I worked 12 hour days and had a salary of $26,000. I did not have my degree and I was an external candidate. Many of the folks I was hired to supervise had applied for the job internally and did not get it. I was eaten alive by both the kids and the adults. I lasted 6 months at this facility and it impacted me deeply. I don’t think I fully understood the nature of the work, nor could I get on board with the magnitude of the damage a place like this does to children. This was the type of last resort place for kids with severe emotional disturbances, major mental health issues or behavioral challenges and whom also do not have parents or family to care for them. This was an institution. A step down from hospitalization & a step up from lock-up. And the problem with institutions is that they're great at manufacturing outcomes & not so great at raising kids. A lot of kids stuck in foster care end up in residential treatment facilities where they eat, play, live & grow. It's crisis-driven, fast-paced & the wrong model for nurturing childhood. Though I left this place shortly after arriving, I merely moved on to a larger, more dysfunctional agency because I believed I was meant to work with these kids and the adults charged with their responsibility. In doing so, I allowed myself to be shaped into the type of person that got results at the expense of nurturing.
In this type of environment, there is a lot of talk about de-escalation techniques. Positive reinforcement. Behavior management systems and sticker charts. Privileges and punishment. Time in and timeout. Kids have to demonstrate compliance, ask for permission to go up & down stairs, they're never out of a staff person's eyeshot & frequently physically contained. There's the hustle and bustle of the shift change from the folks who woke the kids up in the morning, got them off to school and cleaned up the house, to the folks to come in at noon for staff meetings, get the house ready for the kids to come home after school and prepare for the toughest part of the day; evening. There are transitions, transitions, transitions. Snack-time, free play, ADLs, dinner, movie time, bedtime. My philosophy in helping kids succeed was a combo of skills-building, confidence through competence, collaborative problem solving, experiential learning, art therapy, wilderness therapy & straight up humor. My skill-set was coveted & for kids who didn't have parents actively in their life - I was the next best thing. This is what I told myself. You could pair me up with the toughest kiddos & I would transform them. I believed this to be the good fight and birthed a parenting ethos out of this. But in a place like this, you’re not allowed to hug kids. I learned a way to be with kids in ways that were very effective in that environment and that environment only. I learned how to nurture a child's well-being and self-worth without touching, or having physical contact, because you're not allowed to. You don't you hugs, you do side hugs. You don't hold hands, you make up funny handshakes. You do high-fives. Kids don't sit on the laps of grown-ups. There is no carrying kids on your back or your shoulders, and any occasion which you would carry a child or otherwise touch a child is followed up with an incident report to justify the action. There is no love here.
Parentified at a young age, I moved into a career which felt like an obvious match. By the time we began the process of becoming foster parents, I anticipated another natural progression, which would transpire into full on parenting. I suppose I could not have known how terribly wrong I was or that so little of what I’d practiced most of my life would not translate into taking care of other peoples’ children and eventually raising my own. Though I was making guardian choices daily, I had no idea what it meant to be a parent. And I certainly didn’t know what being a mother would look like for me. This is our 2nd Mother’s Day with the boys and in many ways, it feels like the first. I have a lot to figure out. Then again, who doesn’t.
Foster Mom (the Artist)