This fall has been a busy, busy time around our house. New job, scratch that, new career that in no way resembles the non-profit world of The Artists past careers, new nanny, I have a significantly higher work load than last year, impending trial dates and extended visits with the boys Mom. I feel I'm perpetually a step behind in all my work responsibilities and last week while driving home I just finally gave up the pretense that I will ever be as on top of things as I was before kids. And somewhere in all that I realized I like it better this way. I like being home early and working half of the week far better when we have guys this little. In all my ruminating over what we are and what we aren't as a family these past few weeks I realized the one thing I wanted to really muddle around in was how we figured out how to really do this thing called foster care. It's been a terrifically short time that we've really been active foster parents- a year and some months, and we have parented five kiddos during that year. Some easy, breezy and some would have a single hard-earned good day every now and then. Here are some of the things we learned about how to love and do the right thing by kiddos even when it's very, very hard.
For all the current foster Mamas and Papas out there, you know this already- parenting kids who hurt is hard. I've worked with so many (hundreds?) of foster and pre-adoptive families in my therapy life and I'm usually called in when the placement is "disrupting" which is a kind word for kids getting kicked out. Preventative care here would have ultimately been what the family needed, but we're a reactionary system that tends to listen and respond best when things are really in crisis. I don't think there is a pre-adoptive home I have ever known of that has not had moments of "I don't think I can do this" or "these kids are ruining my life and relationships" or "this is just so much harder than I thought it would be". Totally normal feelings, I wish I could somehow get that into the foster parent training manual- you will have moments when you regret doing this, and (this is a super big AND here) you can do it. You totally can. It just takes some quality professional help and kindness with yourself and the mental frame of this being a moment in time, a really tough one, but a moment in time that will pass.
For what it is worth I will tell anyone who asks, that foster parenting is one of the hardest things I've done and now really it's one of the biggest pieces of my identity. Here is a little on how we muddled through all of this:
There is this terrific book, "Building The Bonds of Attachment" by Dan Hughes which is one of the few I've found that really paints an honest and accurate picture of what kiddos are trudging through when they are living the life of multiple placements, unprepared adults and complex trauma. Part of the genius here is that Dr. Hughes weaves this story in such a realistic way that both the kiddo, Katie, and her Foster Mom both get portrayed with humanity. Meaning that we see this kiddo who has had her heart broken and is just unbridled rage and angst, and we see her foster parents as human in all the self centered, kind and reactive ways we are as adults until we get support to do better.
I think parenting makes me kinder and more open. I think foster parenting makes me work harder to be a better person. Here's a small example. The scene: We are in a store I'm digging through sheet sets to find the one I want. Tiny's in the Ergo pack on my back. His thing is to now hold his arms out as wide as he can while dive-bombing racks to try to come out of the whole endeavor with hangers. His golden egg. He loves those plastic hangers, man. And Mr. Toddler is walking (and that's a generous word for it) next to me grabbing my leg, whimpering and spitting on me. He's tired. I'm tired. I want to get home, he wants to do something way more fun that trudge around with me shopping. I get it. So when he starts spitting on the sheet sets I set the limit. And he starts laughing manically and then on a dime starts screaming, what we refer to as his "torture wail" in the middle of the store multiple people start staring and wide eyed whispering to their friends. And the thing with Mr. Toddler's wail is that it doesn't stop- now it's all much shorter in duration than it used to be, but this goes on for minutes.
So my not wanting to be perceived as a bad parent kicks in, my not wanting to have my kids written off as uncontained black and brown kids kicks in, my not wanting to make a scene and just have everyone be comfortable and pleasant kicks in. All this kicks in but the thing I have to dig deep to get to first is what my kid needs from me. It's not harshness, and it's not reactivity. He needs me to be his grown up. What's easy here is to be just enraged- "everything is harder when he's like this", "seriously, how long are meltdowns going to look like this?", "we had such a good morning and now this", "TIME OUT". I dig deep to find solid footing and be calm and centered. I guess the benefit of foster care is that I've had so much practice at this by now? First tip for foster parenting? Dig deep. Often. All the things you often said you thought you should work on or manage better? You will get so up close and personal with them when caring for kids who have insecure attachment. Their stuff kicks up your stuff and then you have to wade through your stuff to help them with their flooded stuff. It's hard, and often this is what people are referring to when they talk about the Honeymoon ending and additionally I think why younger kiddos are often easier to place than older kids. Initially we said no babies, no babies and no way toddlers. We had all older kids until we didn't. Younger kids are easier to wrangle, older kiddos help with all that digging deep and "self growth". The tough days are when you both come face to face with each other and decide what you're going to do. To double back to my Dr. Hughes reference, his book also does a great job of walking alongside the Foster Mom during her parent sessions to really provide an example of what parenting kids with hurt and trauma requires. And it's a lot more than just love and new gear.
2. Sensory play.
It's a wonderful and soothing experience for him and independent play to help us get some quiet time. Cloud dough, slime, water beads, sensory bags we tape up to windows or on his highchair to push around and feel. We use shaving cream to cover walls during his bath and practice shapes or letters, he has weighted blankets and used them regularly back when he was up every hour or so with nightmares. We have tents and small den spaces loaded with pillows and blankets around the house so he can crawl in there when he wants to be upset or alone and isn't too far from us. He has bean bags and a massive swing in our living room (such a great idea in theory- such a room dominator in reality) that he uses all the time. Also I cannot say enough about these mats- they do triple duty around here; fort walls, wrestling mat, baby gate to protect Mr. Toddler's creations from Tiny Destructacon. They're amazing. For the past month I've also been scouring Craigslist for winter gross motor options and so far got a crazy cheap bouncy house (this one) and plastic climber sets that are small enough to fit inside and am now searching out a trampoline. Kids are made to move and kids in cold climates get stir crazy. And so do Mamas. So my hope is we have a new thing every few weeks to trot out and go crazy over and by then it will be Spring, right? RIGHT?!
The bigger concept for sensory play is the more experiences kids have feeling regulated and soothed, the better. Sensory play is allowing kids to engage with materials to help their body feel peaceful and relaxed, and the idea is that for kids who are especially triggered by adult relationships & who have a harder time doing this in connection with adults, we find ways for them to get the sensation, and get comfortable with the sensation without needing adult help, per se.
3. Quality childcare.
Mr. Toddler came with not great childcare and then went to a Head Start which was not a good fit and, in truth, it was poorly run which was a super bummer because I love Head Start. We then went on a four month nanny search which was really frustrating and hard and then hit the jackpot with Nanny Popkins. She is kind, and loving and boundaried. Mr. Toddler loves her and also is getting okay with her leaving, partially because he is getting that she comes back and partially because he stays home with all his toys and books when she leaves. I wish I knew month one what a difference quality childcare makes for kids with insecure attachment and I wish I trusted my gut earlier when I felt we weren't doing right by him keeping him in agency care. The difference in our home after spending the summer all together and then having a nanny a few days a week is just striking. It is crazy expensive and we get a very small childcare stipend which covers about one day a week out of the month, but the expense is entirely worth it to us. We are now beginning to hunt for pre-schools to enroll in next year that will be a good fit for Mr. T as we now really get the fit of childcare makes all the difference. We had to battle to get him out of the daycares he came to us in. So another word of advice for foster Mamas and Papas, if you're not sure it's a good fit or not sure it's helping - speak up. And then do it over and over until you're heard.
4. The adaptive nature of behavior.
This may seems so simple but for me it's so crucial so I'll add it in. One truth I feel I say over and over here is that we do what works for us in this life. We engage in behaviors that work for us until they stop working. And "work" is a loose term here, meaning we engage in behaviors that are a lesser evil- drink too much because it reduces your anxiety and helps you relax in a way nothing else can? Probably causing other stressors, but at least you can relax for a few hours. Blow up at your partner when you feel hurt by them? Better to feel angry which is powerful and protective than hurt and wounded. I think a lot about the ways in which Mr. Toddler is protecting his heart. I wonder a lot about how Tiny will protect his and how this all shakes out as siblings and as a family. I have to continue to remind myself that most of the bizarre and confusing behavior Mr. Toddler has thrown our way has helped him survive really tough stuff and it makes sense he manages the way he did and does. It's not about trying to push my buttons, it's not about punishing me for being at work all day. When he wails and cries he closes his eyes and becomes unreachable. A long time ago he was very, very angry and sad and was crying and jagged screaming and one of our dogs knocked a large metal bowl down onto the floor and it almost gave me a heart attack it was so loud. And Mr. Toddler did not even flinch. It was as if he was in another place all lost in his feeling and heart. The fancy term her is dissociative- he has fractured off his consciousness and is hiding away somewhere deep. I see it mainly now during and after visits. And the more I get to know his Mom and siblings the more it makes sense. I have to keep reminding myself that everything he does served him well, and we hold down the fort until such a time that he feels he doesn't need these defenses anymore. It's working and it's happening faster than I ever imagined. We still have setbacks, but they're just that. Setbacks. Last Spring we had endless months of really hard times, and I had to ask The Artist to remind me now and then that he's doing what he needs to, and someday he won't need to protect himself so much with us. Foster care is about the long game. Not about what you can do for me now (show me you love me! Hug me! Light up the way I see other kids lighting up for their parents!) it's about what we build together while we're walking. There's a quote my sister sent along to me awhile back when I was wadding through rough waters: "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." And the light? Well today that looked just like this beautiful, brave-hearted almost-three-year-old walking into our house, standing in front of his toys, grabbing my hand and saying "Mama I so very happy."
Keep walking Mamas and Papas.
Foster Mom (the therapist)