Today is National Foster Care Day, the first Tuesday in National Foster Care Month. It also is always a week or two before Mother’s Day. This year, because of the way the days landed on the calendar, the two events are only a few days apart. For foster children and foster parents, the days may not be times to celebrate, but reminders that things are not the way they are supposed to be. We have to find ways to deal with the fact that, although we are not the people who are supposed to be there, we are in their lives.
One of the hardest parts of being a foster parent, or a stepparent for that matter, is our child’s bone-deep sense that we are not the people who are supposed to be in their lives. It’s not a logical belief, but an almost primal sense that is too deep to be reached by logic. And on some level, they are right – if the world worked the way it should, we would not be in their lives.
As we have discussed before, there are ways we can grapple with the fact that our children do not want us in their lives. But regardless of how they feel, we are the people who ARE there, and we should never apologize for that fact.
When we are our child’s second choice (or non-choice) as a parent, it is tempting to overcompensate. It is all too easy to let understanding their motivations turn into making excuses for them. We have to resist that temptation and recognize that we are an adult in the family with an adult’s responsibilities. As a stepson phrased it a few months before my marriage, I was the “soon-to-be female authority figure in the house.” Children need the structure of an authority figure. No matter how much I might regret the circumstances that brought my children into my life, my job is to provide the love and structure that they need.
Of course, providing structure automatically makes us the bad guy. If we enforce visitation times, we are trying to keep children away from their parents. If we insist that they complete chores, we are being unfair and trying to control everyone. If we hold the line on curfews, we are not letting them grow up. Being the bad guy is the inescapable price of being an adult.
It is particularly hard to provide structure when we believe that our children have already had an unfair deal in life. It is easier for us to let them slide and accept their trauma as an excuse. Sometimes ignoring a problem is a wise temporary solution, but it is very harmful over the long term. Most childhood trauma occurs alongside chaos and upheaval. If we do not provide consistent structure, then we are only mimicking that early instability.
In practice, this principle goes beyond simply enforcing rules. We have to remind children, even when we are letting them bounce off of us, that we are not going anywhere. For example, when one of my foster daughters yelled that she did not want me as her mother, my training class had taught me to say, “I understand that, and I’m very sorry that your mother is not here. But I am here, and I care about you, and these are the house rules.” A six-year-old girl I cared for cried every morning that she wanted to be back in her blue house. I learned to let her cry for a long while, and then say gently, “I’m sorry that you are not at the blue house. Now the bus is on the way and you have to go to school today.” We can understand their loss, but we have to help them face life as it is.
We also have to be secure in the benefits that we bring to the family. Whatever the circumstances that brought our children into our lives, we have virtues and skills to share with them. Our children may not recognize their value, and estranged biological parents certainly will not, but that reaction does not matter. As long as we and our spouses know our value, we have done our job.
We may not be the parents that our children want, but we are the ones that they have. We should never apologize for being that person or for our contribution to the family. We need to love our children, but gently encourage them to deal with, and eventually overcome, the reality that they have.
This blog post includes an excerpt from my new book, “Raising Other People’s Children: What Foster Parenting Taught Me About Bringing Together a Blended Family.” For more information, visit RaisingOtherPeoplesChildren.com.