As we celebrated World Foster Day on 31 May, Sarah Oosthuizen – a biological mom, adoptive mom and foster mom – shared some golden nuggets of insight highlighting a few potential blind spots we might have and to equip us to love and honour those involved in foster care better going forward.
World Foster Day is lovely. It really is. There isn’t a marginalized group in this world who doesn’t need advocacy and support. Especially children – who tend to bear the brunt of mankind’s fallenness.
However – as lovely as the images are shared around foster-awareness, the reality of fostering is nothing cute, and often it’s not “shareable” either. Court-hearings, disputes, deep-seated trauma, parents exhausted by the demands of legal care-requirements while juggling hearts and households, the wearing of “game faces” and the like and you get this picture: it’s not pretty.
Often beautiful; very rarely pretty.
“Foster care” is also as varied as there are children, inevitably because the situations leading to care are deeply complex. Fostering might include the goal of “family reunification” (which is both terrifying and promising), visitations to relatives that might, or might not, be supervised, a multitude of required “assessments” to satisfy courts (oh boy! These are as good-bad-ugly as you can imagine), a whole lot of “biting on your tongue” and “sucking it up”, and an underlying insecurity about “belonging”. Because that’s what it is, really: “where do I belong?”
So, as someone privileged to be a mother in a myriad of ways – adoption, fostering, sibling-care, live-ins and biology – here is a small “wishlist” sent from my frontline to yours:
- A foster child is never, ever, ever a charitable case. Not at year-end Christmas parties, not at “First Days”, not on corporate tax forms. This dehumanizes and devalues the worth of a child who has already lost their “place” in “normal society”. Although meant well (and I’ve done it too!), singling out a foster-child for hand-outs/hand-ups/hand-downs emphasizes difference. There is nothing wrong with gifts – but find ways to honour the dignity and self-respect of the child.
- Talk to your children openly about the many differences in families. Not as “the poor who go hungry” in bedtime prayers, and never as “difficult children”. Look for the opportunities to normalize difference. You’ll find that our Scriptures are full of adoptions and informal “fosterings”.
- The honesty of a child’s questions is lovely. Teach children to ask questions with respect (“Where is your mummy?” Is a typical frank childlike-query. It’s far better than sidelong glances or whispered secrets over the jungle-gym.). But be aware that a foster-child will smell out judgement or competition. And if they respond with grace, it has cost them emotionally. If they react negatively, know that they are not “problem children” – rather, they have been triggered. Respectful discussion about the equal right to belong is wonderful. Children are never a “problem”.
- Look out for opportunities to include. Foster families might not be your “equal” in terms of reciprocity of play-dates and party-hosting. In my case, I’m a generation older than the parents of my sister-child’s peers – and I don’t quite “fit in”, but it’s intimidating going to PTAs, school-picnics and parties when you’re “odd”. Sharing your picnic blanket and conversation with me goes a long way to welcoming difference.
- Ongoing relationships can lead to regular support. Foster-parents are often tired, have multiple tasks at state departments (clinics, hospitals, court-officers, therapies, meetings at school etc) that make for frustration and loss of productive-time. Very often foster-parents are just burdened juggling the differing needs within a home with more to include. I have a trusted adult who loves my sister-child and who helps her with her hair – at school and at a salon. In this she affirms the hair-type and fosters a positive body-image in a child who does not conform to the dominant household “look”.
- My child’s story is her own. As tempting as it is to have my ego stroked with the flattery of “selflessness”, this is neither my story, nor is it selfless. Despite being a deeply honest person, there are certain things that I will not discuss.
- On this note, please be very aware of conversations around my child. Mine have all heard different renditions of “You’re such a lucky child to live here”, or something equally patronizing about the “opportunities” this child now has. There is nothing lucky about having to re-negotiate a precarious feeling of belonging. Loss is loss. The loss of a biological parent (no matter what the circumstances) is still a trauma. Telling a child they are “lucky” tells them that they may not feel their loss, but rather be “grateful”. I don’t need to tell you how destructive this is.
Ugliness is a reality in the world. But so is “beauty for ashes”. The “beauty” may not always be visible in every moment, and it requires “blood, sweat and tears”, but it is the hope that there is a promise of belonging that drives us to love another’s child.
Fostering is nothing less than what a Christ-following broken-person has received themselves when they were enveloped in a Father’s love and brought Home.
Fostering is a literal reflection of the lengths our heavenly parent takes to keep us close. A foster-parent is an “apprentice” to the Father, in that they too expand their family with those who once lived on the “outside”.
“For I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.” – Isaiah 43:1