Foster parents have a unique role in a foster child’s life. It is, by definition, a time limited relationship. Can love happen when the end is inevitable? Does the transient nature of a relationship imply anything about the quality of the commitment involved? I’d like to explore two concepts here: love and relationships.
The quality of any relationship is ultimately defined by the nature of the love exchanged in it. Every year, teachers in elementary and secondary schools and professors in universities encounter new groups of students. Ideally, the teacher’s love of the material to be imparted is received enthusiastically by the students. The contract is something like “I will share what I love to know about so you can learn to love it, too, or at least have a working knowledge of it”. How well that knowledge is shared may result in a teacher being well-liked and a student or two “falling in love” with the subject. The educator’s fund of information, and the student’s curiosity and attention and are the goods exchanged in this relationship. There is nothing intimate about this exchange. Nothing deeply personal about anyone’s life typically enters the exchange. The commitment is time limited, and the expectations are well-defined in the syllabus. But put a child with a trauma history in one of these classrooms and we sure hope the teacher is aware of what a sensitized stress response looks like and how to manage it.
On the other hand, foster parenting, though time limited, suffers from a lack of well-defined obligations. The licensing phase is quite clear about beds, fences, and fingerprints but once the child is placed things get a little vague. Is the commitment to the bureaucracy or the child? Is the contract: I will share my home with this child and attend all meetings to which I am invited even though my opinion, my information, my knowledge of this child is of no value to anyone else involved in the child’s life. Or is it: I will try to understand what happened to this child. I will learn what it takes to comfort and calm them letting them take the lead so I’m not too scary. I will love them in a way that restores their sense of safety and trust in another human. I do this with no expectation of credit, appreciation, respect, or recognition. I do it only because I hope to prepare this child to go out into the world more able to care about and cooperate with others. The real problem comes when considering the time limited nature of this relationship.
It must be said that a big risk is that an ill-prepared foster parent will defend against this inevitable loss and stay at arm’s length, never intending to be a source of comfort beyond a bed and clothing. This is a relationship akin to that between traveler and innkeeper. Even worse, is the foster parent who is not able to commit to becoming a source of comfort and trust, simply offering shelter and a set of inviolable rules. This “my way or the highway” arrangement places the burden of adaptation on the child, usually the traumatized child, who lacks the skills to conform to such expectations. In this situation, it is easy to see how kids could move through a dozen foster homes in their young lives and come out the other side feeling alone, bitter and “owed”.
How comfortable am I being honest about this time limitedness? Who will help the child navigate this? Not the placing caseworker, not the therapist, not the GAL, nor the licensing worker. It’s like Henny Penny: Who will help me make this bread? Everyone wants to celebrate permanency, but no one seems to know how to help the child move from a home where they’ve been treated well, maybe for the first time in their young lives, to live with someone they hardly know but who wants to become their “forever family”. Visits will help children get more comfortable in the new family’s care but what to do about saying goodbye to the foster family? Maybe something like a Permanency Pact transition planning conversation like the one promoted by the Foster Club could get this going. Another foster mom put it this way when talking to younger child: “I will keep your picture here forever. I hope we will call each other often and send each other letters to keep in touch. You will always be welcome to visit. I hope to be your friend for a long time. I will never stop caring about you.”
It seems we are talking about becoming a permanent fixture in what Bruce Perry calls, the Therapeutic Web. In this web of support, some people are simply pleasant casual acquaintances who have never acted threatening, but some are trusted, close friends to whom the child can turn for guidance, tangible support, celebration of accomplishments and encouragement during difficulty. Wouldn’t it be great for every foster child to know exactly who they can turn to for what and for those people to understand the importance of their role in the child’s life? Is this sort of commitment worthy of being called love?
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Our Friday night Happy Hour and Tuesday afternoon Coffee Chat continue. Some find us and a single other participant; others find a conversation among 4 to 6 people. The topics range from the silly to what hobbies have us in their grip to what life has thrown in our path. If you ever find yourself wanting a bit of grown-up conversation, consider joining us (check your email for the unchanging link).
- Registration is also open for our regional Circles of Supportive Families. Reach out to find another parent who understands. Registration Links are on the calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar
- I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://www.neurosequential.com/covid-19-resources
Thanks for listening. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.