Imagine

Imagine you took a phone call where you answered & asked a couple of questions and at the end of the conversation, you were going to be caring for a little baby. You had volunteered to step in when the family of this child could not.

Imagine that what was initially going to be a six month period turned into 3 years. The little baby turned into a little boy. While he was in your care, he learned to sit, crawl, walk, run & jump, to laugh, learn, share, explore, to give kisses, to trust, tell you his secrets, give & receive love.

Imagine that unexpectedly, you had to choose between helping your family or helping his.

Imagine being willing to continue to care for him and not to help your family.

Imagine that when his family do decide to care for him, that they slam their door. Shut you out. No kindness offered for the years of service you gave to their family. No interest in supporting his important relationships. His attachment to you is inconvenient to them.

Imagine the feeling of letting him go. Still loving him. Him loving you.

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Although many children have passed through my home and I have truly loved them (and still do) this experience has been the most brutal. I’ve cried a million tears, lost many, many hours of sleep, overwhelmed by sadness and the pain of feeling that these circumstances will have a lasting impact on a vulnerable little boy who deserves so much better.

I have to trust that he will be OK. It’s out of my hands now. My part in his story is over.

Foster care is not for the feint-hearted.

The Hard Bit

This is the hard bit.
This is the bit that stops most people from becoming foster carers.
Saying goodbye.

I’ve been parenting this little guy for almost three years. He has taught me a lot. Mostly about tractors, motorbikes and garbage trucks, but also a lot about me.

For the last few weeks he has been transitioning out of my care and into the care of his extended family. Transition is now officially over, but he is still coming over one night a week for the next few weeks.

So many things are the same and so many things are different. The dynamic at home is enormously different. When he is here he needs lots of physical closeness and attention. At any moment, he could veer off into emotional chaos. Angry, upset, sad, confused. It’s tough when you are only three and everything you know is changing.

At the same time we are having very special moments. Moments of love, of sharing, remembering. Sweet and precious exchanges.

He has always called me mum but a couple of weeks ago he called me by my first name – Rose. It was an early morning, still sleepy exchange. I smiled at him and asked him if that’s what he’d like to call me now. Not yet, he said.

Water Boy

Water Boy

Attachment – Yes, I’m Going There

The word ‘attachment’ is getting a pretty good run in the media these days with anxious and sometimes competitive first world parents trying to work out just how this whole child raising thing should go. Most of these kids are going to be fine simply because they are being raised by parents who love them, who nurture them, reassure them, comfort them and delight in their very being. Ultimately these kids know who they are, they know where they belong and they have an intrinsic understanding of what it is to be loved and to love.

They have that wonderful warm, reciprocal, consistant and responsive experience called secure attachment. Their parents most likely had it too. This is why even as greenskin newbies they leapt into action when their baby cried, did cartwheels when they got that first smile and seriously believed their kid may be a genius when those first imitative behaviours emerged – oh sorry, I meant smiles, waves, words.

For the kids who have ended up in foster care and for those who fell through the cracks in the system, life is not so simple. When you are born into a family where your birth is not the happy occasion it should be, where the parent/s lives are dominated by their addictions, their mental health issues, their own gaping unmet needs, where there is no home to go home to, where your cries are ignored or simply not understood, where you are left in your cot all day, where no one looks into your beautiful eyes with love and hope, where no one checks that you’ve got ten amazing little fingers and toes. Then to put it simply, the brain does not develop in the same way.

It’s stark isn’t it? So when you wonder how someone can abuse and/or neglect a child, remember this image. Because what has happened, is their brain never got the chance to develop in the same way as yours. Not only are they unable to have a deep understanding of giving and receiving love, they have not developed the executive functions of the brain where we make complex decisions and prioritise our actions, where we can delay our gratification and where we learn about trust and empathy and compassion.

But it’s not a done deal, especially for children. The plasticity of the brain means that we can develop new neural pathways, new understandings, new skills. This is what a foster carer helps to do.

It’s not easy to create attachment when a baby or a child has learnt that they will not have their needs met. They go into survival mode and try to meet their own needs as much as possible. They have good reason not to trust you or anyone for that matter. Love, a warm bed and good food is not always enough.

They will push you away, uncomfortable with cuddles and affection. Even tiny babies will push your arms away, wanting to drink their bottle facing away from you, avoiding your eye contact. They do not view you as being any more important to them than a passer by. They don’t really understand why you would want to do anything for them. They will argue about rules and oppose any form of authority. You could turn yourself inside out arranging something special for them and they will just shrug their shoulders and walk away.

It’s a long term proposition. Not helped when the system sends them back to an abusive/neglectful situation, or moves them from placement to placement, or splits sibling groups or they end up in residential care or they age out of the system without getting what they needed when they needed it.

Attachment is one of the keys to happiness. Knowing that someone is there to watch over you, allowing you to explore your world safely, helping you to develop your independence and seeing and believing in your potential, meeting your needs and celebrating your achievements. Someone who is there to pick you up when you fall, the emotional home base, your supply of resilience when it’s tough. We all deserve that.

image credit: peanuts

Kids can develop secure attachment in foster care. They may need some extra help to get there, but that’s what foster carers and the professionals that support them are there for.

Just so you know: I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, scientist, social worker or baby whisperer. Take whatever I say with a grain of salt and consult the professionals if you are at all concerned about your child or someone you know.

For clarity, I am talking about the theory behind attachment, not Attachment Parenting. I am not advocating for Attachment Parenting or any particular style of parenting.

And…I KNOW that the foster care system is not all it could be, no matter where you live. I just try to do my bit to improve it.

Something Every Child Should Know

Being a foster carer is like being in a secret cult. We have rules by which we must live our lives, we go through a rigorous initiation process, after which our lips are sealed. Then we go about our lives as if everything is perfectly normal, when it is anything but. In fact, in a world where everyone is trying to be ‘special’ and ‘unique’ we are doing our very best to keep everything as regular as possible – and that can be a big stretch some days.

Despite what many people think, foster carers are not angels, saints or anything like that. We are not better, more noble, more loving. We don’t have bigger hearts. We are everyday people. There is usually some trigger that gets us involved in foster care. We may meet a carer one day and see into their world for a moment. We may come from a family who has fostered. We may have been raised in foster care ourselves. Whatever it is, carers come from all walks of life and I’ve never met one who ‘does it for the money’.

Becoming a foster carer in Australia takes time and involves a number of stages. From registering your initial interest and attending a general information session through to training around ‘standards of care’ and topics like trauma and attachment. Before you are approved though, you will have someone trawl through your life looking at how you were raised, the kinds of discipline your parents used, your support network, your thoughts around the issues you may need to deal with as a carer. How will you feel if they reveal previous abuses to you? How will you react if they steal from you? lie to you? run away? scream abuse at you? flirt with your partner? play power games with your kids? are physically violent? kick holes in your walls? hoard food under their bedding?

Ultimately you will have police and criminal history checks, medical checks and home safety checks before you are approved. Invasive? Yes indeed! But that is just a taste of things to come.

One of the most effective training experiences I had was when our group watched a dvd about a boy. He was the only child of a single mother, about 5 or 6yo. The mother went off to work early in the morning, leaving him to get dressed, have breakfast, make his lunch and get himself to school. He did all that to the best of his ability, but wore a dirty school uniform, there was no cereal or milk left so had no breakfast and he made a sandwich from the one remaining crust of bread, accidentally dropping the jar of jam and cutting his finger. The kids at school were teasing him about being smelly and having no snacks, drink etc. The teacher finally noticed something, but wasn’t sure what she should do.

We were asked – should this child be put into foster care – yes or no? That divided the room. The yes’s were then asked to work together to say why he shouldn’t be placed in care and the no’s why he should.

It’s interesting for me just recounting this story and thinking about it now that I have a few years of caring under my belt. Back then I felt that he shouldn’t go into care, that the mother needed more support. Of course it’s not that simple…ever…but I haven’t changed my view.

The reason children come into care is because their family are unwilling or unable to provide them with a safe, loving, nurturing home. There are many reasons that lead to these situations, none of them are straightforward.

image credit: luke’s army

Life is complicated, good people make bad decisions for all kinds of reasons. Intergenerational neglect and abuse are not uncommon but the most common issues are those of mental health and addictions.  I’ve seen people with the best intentions fail and disappoint themselves and their kids time and time again. I’ve also seen people who you thought were highly unlikely to ever get their kids back – pull themselves out of the gutter, refocus their priorities and persist in changing their lives for the better and…getting their kids back.

As carers, we do not get to sit in judgement on these parents. Our job is to focus on the kids and to help them in whatever way is necessary to learn about what it is to be loved and cared for. Something every child should know.