We are coming up on the year mark when we got our first call. The call. The one where you are doing something important and probably at work or multi-tasking at home, and the timing is super inconvenient, and you are asked to come to the office to pick up a kiddo who needs a safe place to sleep. I can remember with precise clarity where I was, what I was doing and what my heart felt when we got our first call for an 11yo boy, who had the sweetest disposition and sassiest attitude. It feels like a lifetime ago, now that we are fully a family of four and making our way towards the pre-adoptive life. There are many things the official foster parenting class covered for us in the beginning, and many, many, more that we learned along the way. So here is my list. Here are the things I wish I knew before we started this whole foster care life:
Letting go while holding on
1. In essence foster parenting is really about letting go while holding on. Something I perhaps wouldn't have been able to wrap my head around a year ago. Here's what I'm trying to say- there are dozens of moments in my day that are just magical, really lovely and beyond what I ever hoped parenting might be, and those moments are met with almost as many experiences of extreme frustration, and feelings of despondency over how to manage the rages our kiddo can throw our way, and feeling so, so overwhelmed with all we're trying to balance.
A run down of how this dynamic went today? This week has been a really hard one with our toddler guy, lots of big feelings from him. And I'm crazy sleep deprived from trying to wean Tiny from his five nightly bottles while still being available to soothe him back to sleep - which means I'm getting about 15 minutes of sleep at a time for large portions of the night. All decisions of our own making, totally get that, but damn man, sleep is like my new luxurious dreamy fantasy. I digress. So Mr. Toddler's crabby and I'm crabby. Check. But we have these beautiful moments admist all that, today we were reading a book on Feelings and at the end of the book we talked about what feelings I have, what feelings he had today, blah blah. And he sees a small picture of a heart drawn in a house and he said "My mama and my heart right dar in house." And at once I'm like teary-eyed and wistful and in crazy love with this kid and feeling like we are doing things right. That as Moms we are doing enough right that we are helping him have a sense of home and security and emotional awareness. Dreamy right? Fast forward three hours later and I'm trying to feed him dinner, Tiny is squawking because he ran out of blackberries (quel damage!), the dogs are barking because dinner is late. And to show me how much he really doesn't want to eat his Thai food today (despite loving it last night) Mr. Toddler gags himself with his fingers and throws up all over himself, his highchair, the floor and me. This is after a pre-dinner show of force over cleaning up toys on both our parts, really, that ended up with both of us frustrated and the toys still not cleaned up. So while cleaning vomit off my guy and everything else I'm now teary-eyed again because it feels like I'm not so much doing everything right, not so much the confidence of the "heart in house" moment of a few hours ago. And here's the holding on while letting go: I'm working on holding onto both parts here, the moment we had before and the frustration and disappointment I'm having now. Both things are true in my day of today, the day wasn't good or bad it was both. I'm doing some things right in this family life of ours and screwing up enough, for sure. Foster care is relishing in the good moments and not having the bad take them them away, or negate them. It's really employing dialectical thinking, I am all the good things and all the mistakes and all of that is okay. There is pain and loss in our house and there is growth and happiness. Both are true. I am loving our boys and hoping for a forever with them, and I put them to bed every night fully knowing I might lose them completely and wholly someday soon. If I get too swayed by one side of this I get lost in my head and heart and my parenting and whole approach is thrown off. I wish I knew day one how to be fully in it when things are beautiful. And I wish I knew how to hold in the fiercest tantrums or moments of confusing behavior that this is them processing growth too, and learn what you can and be gentle with them and you in the aftermath. I wish I had all that in my heart day one, for this life of foster care is about holding on tight to love and being open to loss coming right in your front door and wrecking you. It's a feeling unlike anything I've experienced before.
Be kind to all the people on your team
2. And take absolutely no shit that leaves your kids hard up. For the most part it's incredibly easy to work with the social workers we have on our team, they're smart, dedicated and responsive. But every now and then we run into snags and I've learned that being kind and firm is the only approach that works for me. Too intense? Written off as an emotional foster Mom. Too kind and amenable? Pushover who will not get taken seriously. Recently I had a stand off with a supervisor who made really, really shitty decisions that he claimed was coming from other bosses. Well it wasn't coming from other bosses. I pushed back on a bad decision he allowed his social worker to make and he got defensive and made up an answer. He lied about something big. And I'll just say here, I get it. I mean at times I get defensive about things in my job too, we all do. The difference here is that my job isn't about making choices that really affect kids' mental health in significant ways. So defensive isn't an okay answer to me. So, I calmly contacted other people I know, legal departments, and other bosses and clarified our concern. Things got sorted out and no one was heated or yelling. My mantra is kind compassion with an iron fist. Back when we did hotline foster care I learned really quickly to be very clear and put everything in writing via email. Who is picking the kiddo up from school, what school, who is allowed to call them, how long can they talk on the phone for, are they allowed to keep cellphones in their rooms overnight? Write. It. All. Down. Because we learned the hard way that miscommunication is like the air bureaucracies breathe. And kids deserve better than "Oh no one told you there's no place for him tonight and he's staying with you again?"
Uniting with other moms
3. Moms of the world uniting together is powerful and it's a beautiful thing. I didn't feel like a Mom until we were a good 4 or 5 months into this family life of ours. And once I started claiming that title it was powerful. And once I started linking with other Moms I realized that this community of Mom power might save the world. Here's what I wish I knew about getting gear for all the kiddos in our home:
- Facebook Mom's groups: Almost every community has one. It's a group where local moms share ideas, resources and can answer where the best splash pad is or which pediatrician is taking new clients. Not one for your town or community? Start one! This has easily been the best resource we have found for answering questions like which gymnastic program is best for toddlers, what beaches have the lowest waves, who is having sales on carseats currently and anything else that came our way. We are also crazy lucky to be in a community that has a closet sharing facebook group where Moms sell clothes, carseats, baby stuff, books, toys, shoes, strollers, winter gear and everything else really cheap instead of storing it away or just keeping clutter around. This is how we got a Fisher Price infant bunny swing for $30 and a brand new Chico infant carseat for $50 and a massive bag of baby clothes for a little guy we got on short notice from Moms who wanted to help when we had nothing in his size at home. It's been amazing to see people respond to a Mom with needs, you post what you want and if anyone has it they list it with the price. Again- don't have one in your community? Start one! Everyone will love you forever for it.
- Craigslist. I know it's a mixed bag here, but Kidkraft play kitchens, industrial lockers for aesthetic toy storage or lightly used strollers are our frequent searches here. A friend of mine said she likes to keep her kid stuff to a 60% used to 40% new ratio. I subscribe to that concept too. Take loving care and pass it on. It's good for the Earth and awesome for other Mamas.
- Bed Bath and Beyond coupons work at Buy Buy Baby, so those 20% off coupons that come in the mail all the time can be used for diapers, some wipes, bath stuff and toys. That helped our water table vision come to fruition and 20% adds up when you're now buying everything in multiple, multiples.
- iherb.com Once we started working on getting Mr. Toddler's nutrition back on track we realized how incredible expensive good supplements are. Enter iherb, cheaper than Whole Foods (which is the major natural foods chain near us) and a great variety. And really, anything that prevents us from taking two busy babies to the grocery store is a win.
Strong relationships build better families
4. This goes without saying, but I'll say it as it was a really good reminder for us to take our relationship seriously. Caring for kiddos is busy, and life gets busy, and it's easy to coast without really being in touch most days. We are our best family when The Artist and I have made active efforts to connect and listen. I could list all kinds of fancy ideas here about the ways in which trauma our kiddos have survived gets played out in our home, how kids who cannot hold two parents and feel safer more connected to one person at a time creates complex dynamics in the home, how the loss and betrayal they feel gets handed over to us and in turn leaves us sitting with those hard feelings and then not really knowing how to support each other in managing all this. How our own wounds and old stuff gets kicked up, but I know not everyone LOVES feelings talk as much as me so I'll just say that we have had to really work to figure out how to blend our parenting styles and ethos so that we are a secure base unit, as opposed to a secure parent and a parent who is in the wings in case things get rocky. And the secure and rocky parent are flipped on the regular. The work of rebuilding healthy and secure attachments is life work, but really is a make or break situation if parents aren't figuring their shit out and doing a good job modeling together and alone how to manage stress, conflict, love and rejection. Sometimes we do a good job alone, sometimes we have great people helping us. But we're working it out and that feels really wonderful to me.
Write down all the details.
5. If these beautiful boys end up in our family forever I want to have a record of the small things they said when they were working out language, or when they first began to stand up or roll over. We have missed a lot of Mr. Toddler's life and have no idea his first words, milestones or any details about his birth story. Those are gaping holes that I wish we knew so I could tell him, or better yet I could help him find people who could tell him because they knew him back then. I want a record in case you leave my home too, so that if someday you ever want it or anyone wants to help you put together this time in your life I have it here, all written down when you were amazingly and wildly loved (more on lifebooks later).
When we were emergency foster parents we took pictures when kids asked and got mementos from places we went (i.e. movie ticket stubs, wooden apples from apple picking, special clothes they picked out from the store when we needed to get clothes) so there was some record of their time. If they wanted to throw them out? Totally fine. But I found they all kept trinkets of the fun things we did, and I would make a point of saying things like "I think I will always remember the way you would get super excited to get into your stretch pants after you got your first pair. You were like the most excited to get outta that school uniform and into those pants! A guy who loves comfort that's what I'll remember about getting to live with you for a little bit." Or "do you remember the first time you ate Chipotle? Man, you were like in heaven, I bet you'll eat there a lot after all this. Pretty amazing I was there for the one and only first time- and when you just fell in love with tacos." I wanted to be explicit that this might be a sucky time to be in foster care and it might be miserable in most ways, but I got to know you a little, and shared things with you and I will remember you. Because I will. The artist and I are reminiscing all the time about the kiddos we've had in our home, we do remember them and think about them and wonder how they are.