“Foster kids are smelly. Foster kids pee in the closet. I don’t want to have any foster kids around here!” This from my 10-year-old son. My a-month-away-from-being-officially-adopted-but-still-technically-foster-kid-son. Apparently, in his last foster home, there was a foster child who urinated in the closet. Who knows? Maybe they were too scared in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Maybe they were mad. Maybe they hated closets. Maybe it was my son.
And it’s not just the odd pee location that bothers him. Their very existence is irksome. He will often take the time to note the many differences he can find between himself and the “fosters.” He has a burning need to show how he is different. How is not like them. How he is NOT a “foster.”
The urination reference is not the part that bothers me. What I find disturbing is his absolute vehemence about distancing himself from those “foster” kids. The ones that are just like he used to be. He says the word almost like he is naming a horrible disease. Why is it that he can find so much animosity within himself towards kids he doesn’t know? Towards kids that have so many similarities to him?
The other day I was listening to foster parents talking. It was in a “support” group setting. A few mothers had gathered in a small group, near the coffee pot, and were avidly discussing something. There was a lot of eye rolling and shaking their heads. Since they were all standing around the coffee machine I got a little nervous. they seemed exasperated about something and I was praying it wasn’t the coffee. I am, admittedly, a pretty intense coffee addict.
Luckily for me, the coffee was fine. Score. What was not so fine? These women were critiquing a member of our support group. A new foster mom who had asked several questions about supervised visits. This, after she had already asked about cutting the child’s hair on a separate occasion! As it turned out, there was another parent being discussed. I heard every mom say, “Well I would never” or “I, obviously, would have handled that differently.” The other parent in question? She was considering medication to help the child in her care. Imagine my surprise. Parents, in a support group, asking for support and information from parents who were in the same “foster” boat. Shocking!!!
I was utterly baffled by the animosity of these women towards other women. Other moms. Other foster moms, just like them. Why? I started noticing this more and more. I know there are the so-called “mommy wars” out there. The wars are about public school vs. homeschool, breast feeding vs. bottle feeding, working vs. stay-at-home. But foster mom wars? Why? There aren’t enough of us to begin with. Shouldn’t we be working together to grow our skill sets and make connections? Build support and community? Other mommy wars are all about doing it “right” or doing it “better.” I would think we would just be proud of each other for doing it at all.
This wasn’t the first coffee pot conversation, wither. isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed foster parents gathered together playing the “who is the most therapeutic” game. I started to wonder if there was something in the coffee! I hope not, because I CANNOT stop drinking the stuff, no matter what! The question remained, would I, too, succumb to the coffee pot effect? Would I start to judge other foster parents? Would I start competing to be the best, most qualified, foster parent?
The bigger question is why would foster parents participate in mom-shaming and in-fighting? Are they just mean? Are they mad? Are they actually super-human and annoyed with the rest of us? It can’t be the coffee. It just can’t be. Rather than being concerned about the foster moms who were “not getting it” or “not doing it the right way” I was concerned for the moms who were judging. The foster moms complaining seemed to be the the ones in need, not the moms reaching out for support and advice.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of these mommy wars, I had to put on my Heather T Forbes glasses and look again. This time I saw a different picture. These moms were angry, sure. But was it it really anger? No. It was fear. Fear of making parent mistakes. Fear of not knowing what they are doing all of the time. Fear that all of their efforts may not result in lasting changes for the child and/or birth family.
I also saw shame. Some of the very women (and maybe men, although I have only personally witnessed this in moms. It could be the exact same thing in dad groups) who railed against foster parents for disrupting placements, had disrupted themselves. Foster moms saying, “these people are not equipped to foster,” or “they expect perfect children, they don’t understand foster kids” may have felt this way about themselves at one time. They are the same moms who were utterly baffled when their first placement slept with a rotting banana hidden in their bed. That same parent now vehemently despises when parents “refuse to understand” food hoarding issues in traumatized children.
This brings me back to the pee in the closet. My son seeks to distance himself from “fosters” because he can see parts of himself reflected back. He is ashamed. Maybe he is ashamed of his own trauma reactions. Maybe he feels ashamed that it is somehow his fault that his bio-mom couldn’t take care of him. How should I treat him now? Should I affirm that “those fosters” are, indeed, smelly and bad? Should I list other bad things fosters have done because they “refuse to understand” their own trauma? No way! We all know this would be cruel. So why would we do it with each other?
With my Heather T. Forbes glasses on, I can acknowledge his feelings. I can look inside myself and see my own fears about being a good parent. I can acknowledge and accept my own weaknesses. I get to his level, look in his eyes, and try to understand and empathize. I continue building connection with him, I listen to him.
Now back to the coffee pot crew. These women have fear. They have shame. They also have a deep and abiding commitment to fostering and working with children. I take a deep breathe. I empathize with them and acknowledge their feelings of frustration. I acknowledge their fear. I will do the same for the foster mom who disrupted, or doesn’t understand why there is pee in the closet. We should ALL do the same. If we are so well trained to respond to kids’ emotional turmoil, let us try and do the same for each other. We already know how to respond therapeutically. Now let’s extend this grace to our peers. We need to support this tiny community. We need to grow this tiny community.
I believe that foster parents can learn how to deal with the pee in the closet. They can learn why the rotting banana is so important (and how to replace it with a non-perishable bed-buddy, like a granola bar.) What we need is for foster parents to vent to each other, not the children in their care. We need to offer empathy and suggestions. We can work together to grow this team. We don’t need to be better than one another. It is alright that you are scared. It is alright that you feel overwhelmed. Your feelings are OK. We need to be strong as a whole. This is important work, right?
Hey, if I’m wrong, if many people should just stop fostering, go ahead and tell me all about it. Troll me on Facebook support groups if you like. Just be sure and pass the coffee first!
**Names in the “Herding Chickens” blog have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
- Photographs courtesy of Huffingtonpost.com and clipart
*If you have ever considered fostering or adopting, I encourage you to get started on your own adventure.