Lots of people have asked me what I spoke about at the Adoption Society’s Caregivers Conference, so I thought I’d share some of it here. If you’re a Foster Parent, you can most definitely relate to what I had to say and if you’re not, I hope you enjoy it just the same.
I truly am blessed and honoured to be a Mom to Many and am so thankful for this journey that our family is taking. Everyday we learn a little bit more, and everyday we get a little bit better at what we do. Hopefully, some of my words below will be a help or an encouragement to you as well.
By the time I left home at the age of 21, I had been blessed with more brothers and sisters than I can even remember. I learned many things about myself, and what I did and didn’t want for my future and most importantly, I swore that I was never going to have children. Ever. I was getting married, moving out, and enjoying the peace and quiet that would soon become my daily life. I wasn’t going to have to share anything, or have my stuff wrecked by short people. I was going to be alone with my new husband, and it was going to be glorious.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to miss all the chaos, and the peace and quiet of my new life was killing me. I kept a TV and radio on at all times, and I’m more than certain that I actually started talking to myself. I was bored out of my mind and just felt completely lost and alone. I literally had no idea how to be by myself. Or quiet for that matter. 3 years later, we had a baby and 3 years after that, our first foster child moved in. My life had literally taken a 360 degree turn and I had become my Mother.
That was 15 years ago, and since then, my little family has fostered 30 different children. We currently have 3 placements and 2 kids of our own and at this moment, our home is in a really good place. We’ve found a great rhythm and the kids are a good fit for us, but it’s not always been that way. We’ve gone through a lot of really tough times with a lot of children that had been severely let down by the adults in their world. Some we were able to reach and some, we just couldn’t. But through it all, our family unit has remained strong and our mental health has endured. And that is what I want to talk to you guys about.
How I stay afloat in a sea of whining and children. These are the things that I practice at home that help me stay sane and at least one step ahead of the crazy.
Number One. Get yourself a good support system. And I’m not talking about people that will help you babysit or come over and give you a break. I’m talking about people that you can whine and complain to. People that will just smile and nod and let you cry. People that won’t be judgemental but will be a listening ear. If you can find someone in the field, or another foster parent, that’s even better as those conversations are safer and they truly get it. In my case, I’m very vocal. I say exactly what’s on my mind and don’t hold it in. I complain about the dumb system and all the rules. I whine about travel letters and asking for permission for everything. I complain about bio-parents that say things they shouldn’t. I whine about FASD, and why in the world people would ever think it’s okay to drink while pregnant. I literally hold nothing in and I know that’s a huge part of why I’m able to stay pretty calm and level all the time. If I’m stressed, I talk about it. I actually yap so much that my support worker and social workers have told me to stop emailing them my rants because they have to print them off and save them. They’re always saying, April, you can’t say that to me, or I’m no longer listening to you, etc. Thankfully they know I’m just rambling, and that’s how I deal and cope and that I’m not actually losing my nut. But most importantly they respect that I’m saying it to them and not strangers, cause that’s bad. Don’t do that. Ever. I totally recognize that so much of what I complain and whine about can’t be changed as its rules and procedures, but by acknowledging it, I’ve taken away it’s sting of stupid and I feel so much better. If you don’t have that kind of support, email me, I’ll listen and we can complain about trampoline and ATV usage together.
Number Two. Be creative. Odds are really good that the majority of the children that are placed in your home, either via fostering or foster to adopt, will have some real issues. They will have had some kind of unhealthy influence in their lives and you’re going to have to figure out a way to help them through it. They are not quote-unquote normal kids, so don’t expect to parent them as such. Accept right now that you’re going to have to do things differently, so then it won’t be so surprising later on. You will find yourself coming up with the weirdest solutions to the smallest of problems and will, more than likely, shake your head at yourself for even trying them. BUT odds are good, they’ll work. If you need to let the kids eat on the floor so they stop throwing food off the table, do it. They’ll eventually join you at the table, but in the meantime, they’re eating. If you need to let them keep boxes of crackers under their pillows, so they stop stealing from your pantry, give them the crackers. If you have to hang a poster up on their wall showing them how to get dressed, make a poster. If you have to make up stupid little songs that teach how to brush your teeth, or tie your shoes, or how to set the table, so be it. Remember that the majority of these kids have been left to their own devices more often than not, and even the most basic and simple tasks have probably not even been taught. These little goofy systems that you put in place will stick in their brains, so be creative and use them. Odds are also really good that normal grounding or loss of privilege won’t work with many of your kids either, so alternative consequences are a great place for your creativity to shine.
Number Three. Live life in Black & White. At our house, we have no grey area. Our patterns, expectations, rules and rewards never change. Initially, it’s tough to get the kids used to, but in the long run, everything runs so much smoother. Kids thrive when there is order as they know exactly what is expected of them at all times. There’s no guessing or wondering about what comes next or what happens if I do or don’t do this. As adults, we hate been thrown into situations where we don’t know what to do, so why do we think kids are okay with it?? It’s not as harsh as it may sound, as it’s really just basic rules put into action, but it works really well. For example, bed time routine is the exact same every day. Everything happens in the exact same order, and you don’t move on to the next step until the previous one is complete. If you do this, you get this. Period. Of course, there’s always a little bit of wiggle room within those boundaries, like staying up later on weekends, but the boundaries themselves never change. If you have a rule of not swearing in your house, it is never okay, not even when you’re really mad or had a really bad day. Acknowledge it, correct it and move on, but don’t let it slide. Different kids with different needs will need different ways of getting things accomplished, but the end result can still be the same. Be very clear about your expectations, and makes things as simple as possible and I guarantee you, your kids will surprise with all they can accomplish.
I had a child that had to be told every single day where garbage went. Every day he would ask me where garbage goes and every single day, I had to tell him. For 3 years. He would get so lost in daily tasks and school work, that he had a hard time functioning and just keeping it together. But once he was home from class, he knew exactly what was expected of him and what he needed to do. It was one of the few places he would have any success. Yes, it was just knowing how to get bathed, ready for bed and into bed, but it was huge for him as he could do something on his own. Never discount how important those little seemingly meaningless accomplishments are, as those are the moments that will bring about the most change.
Number Four. Know your limits. This one refers to two completely different things, but they’re both super important. You are going to having some crazy, bad days. Crazy bad. You will come so close to the edge of losing your mind that you need to have a plan. Decide right now what you’re going to do when you need to walk away and escape a situation. What does that “break” look like? For me, I go in my bedroom and shut the door and breathe. Or more often than not, I phone my husband and complain. When I call, he knows to just shut-up and let me talk. He doesn’t try to help me or guide me, he just listens. Figure out your exit plan, right now so you don’t have to think about it when you’re about to snap. I promise you, that day is coming so please be ready for it. Secondly, what is your limit? What behaviours, situations, addictions or whatever are the deal breakers for you and your family? Are you willing to work through them with the children and counsellors or will you not be able to forgive and forget and move forward? Be very honest with yourself and your workers at all times. Do not push yourself farther than you can handle. Ever. You need to know when you’re at the end of yourself, and honour it. It’s okay to sometimes walk away.
We’ve had to do exactly that a few times now and walking away is an incredibly hard thing to do. We’ve always held on to the tiny little glimmers of hope that we’d see, instead of listening to what our hearts and mind already knew. We’ve held on too long a few times, and it’s caused damage within our family unit. It’s not an easy thing having to let someone go that you’ve poured so much of yourselves into. It’s heartbreaking and scary, but you need to remember that your other family members deserve the best of you too. Please make sure that you’re not always just treading water as that gets really tiring, and eventually you will drown.
Number Five. Don’t feel guilty. For the longest time, I felt guilty for not loving my foster children like I loved my own. I kept waiting to feel something deeper & more intense. On the really good days, I most definitely feel a connection but on the really bad days, I quite often feel used and hurt, and it’s really confusing and hard to deal with. But one day, not too long ago, I let all of those feelings and expectations go. These kids will never match what I have in my heart for the children that I birthed and that’s okay. Yes, I love them and care for them and want the best for them, but it’s different. We need to recognize that, and be okay with it. The relationship that I have with my foster children is very unique and very special. They know I’m not their Mother, and they don’t love me the same way they love her. Instead, I’m their safe place and their constant. I’m their voice of reason and the new hopeful words being spoken in their ears. I’m the one tucking them in at night, and kissing their boo-boos away. I am everything that she wasn’t. That IS LOVE, it may look and feel different, but nonetheless, it is love indeed.
We’ve never had children that don’t still have a connection or visits with at least one of their parents, so I know that our situation is a little bit different. I am always the “other Mom” in their life, and their need to be loyal to her is always stronger than their need to bond with me. But, I do get to be their favourite auntie and get to fill a different role in their lives. Is it perfect, no but it works. I think the trick is to remember that we’re not a replacement but a helper with a really important job to do.
Number Six. Plan Escape Time. This goes beyond date night with you and your hubby, this is more about honouring your core family unit. I know that fostering and adoption are a little bit different, especially if you get kids from birth. But for those of us that take older kids and/or have kids that are quite a bit older than your placements, this is very important. I was a real kid in a foster home, so I know how it felt to share my space and my family. My house, my stuff, my family and friends now also belonged to a stranger, and these things aren’t exactly easy to share. My parents did a great job reminding us of our value, and now I make sure that my kids know how important they are to me. Especially since, so much of my free-time and attention are given to my foster children because they need so much more care, assistance and guidance. Some days, it seems like my kids get pushed to the back because they don’t need all the hands on help that the others do and that’s not okay. Always check-in with your kids, discuss their concerns and what they’re feeling. They need help processing all of the things that they’re seeing as well, and will definitely need some reassurance along the way. My children truly are my children, and they have the same hearts as their father and I, so they get it. But it’s still nice to remind them of how much we appreciate them and the sacrifices that they are making. It also makes our choices and decisions to do what we do just that much easier knowing that my kids are okay.
Number Seven. Laugh a lot. For us, this is the one thing that keeps us going. We goof around and playfully tease each other all the time. We sing dumb songs and blast music in the car. When I sneeze, I always say, Phew, I’m allergic to kids, and my kids all laugh. Every single time. When someone gets hurt or teased, we quickly turn it around with funny commentary. We eat breakfast for dinner and have cookies for breakfast. We never laugh at, but we always laugh with and it’s a great way of connecting with kids. We don’t do a lot of bonding over hugs and kisses just because of the situation that we’re in, but we most definitely bond over a good joke or a fun evening of goofing around. Figure out what works best for your family, and then do it really well. For us, its humor and it has truly been our saving grace more times than I can count.
In closing, I want to encourage you and thank-you.
You are going to have some of the worst and best days of your lives all wrapped up in one. You will hear terrible stories and see evidence of unspeakable things and you’ll need to not react. You will have to answer questions that should never even be asked. You are going to be pushed and pulled and challenged like you’ve never been before. This journey we’ve all chosen to take is not an easy one at all.
But one day, you will wake up to a note on your birthday that will remind you of why you chose this journey in the first place. It will be from your 14 year old foster son, and it will say “Thank-you for giving me hope and a family”. You will cry and you will know that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
So thank-you. Thank-you for opening your hearts and your lives to children that have been let down or forgotten. Thank-you for choosing a life that will never fully be your own again. Thank-you for seeing what’s inside these children in spite of the behaviours they’re displaying and thank-you for taking a chance at being someone’s happy ending.
Be encouraged and know that you are making a difference.