Thursday, February 10, 2011

Loving Your Foster Child's First Family

I'm a little late on this, but I just read Thorn's post Thinking About Her First Family on her blog Mother Issues. It really moved me, in part because I've been doing a lot of feeling and thinking about my foster childrens' first family. Here is an edited version of what I posted in the comments to Thorn's post. I hope this doesn't sound preachy. I know not everyone will agree with me. I just found it useful to state my beliefs about birth families clearly. Please keep in mind I say "we" but my partner has not actually read this, so I really speak for myself and my perception of how she feels. Here goes:

I can say we truly do love our foster sons’ mom. She is sweet and loving, if sometimes a bit manipulative and often very indecisive. She loves her kids so much, even if she doesn't know how to parent them. She is slow cognitively, and paranoid because of her mental health issues, but my older foster son also has 9.5 years of memories of having fun times with her, including silly jokes and favorite foods. We love hearing these stories. She is childlike and sometimes it's annoying as heck but sometimes it makes us wish we could foster her, not just her kids. We tell our boys that we love their mom, and tell them she’s part of our family now.  We have a lot of contact with her, which can sometimes be challenging but I would not trade it for the world.

We have also met both dads, which is amazing given that our older boy’s dad has never been very involved in his life and now wants NOTHING to do with our son so he may not get to see his dad again until he’s an adult. It was a total fluke that we got to meet him. I do not feel any love for him, whatsoever, other than appreciation for his part in making our older boy.  But I’m glad we met so I can tell FS10 things about how he got his good looks or his height from his dad, so I can talk to him about his Puerto Rican history (which he never really knew anything about since he’s been raised without his dad or any other contact with the Latino community), etc. Anything else would be a lie. However, the baby’s dad (who our older boy thinks of as his stepdad) I have spent a good amount of time with. He has a lot of problems, and there are things he says that make me so mad. I do not think he can parent. But I do feel affection for him because of the quirky and funny and sweet things I’ve observed about him, and because he loves his son (even if he does the crappiest job of showing it, ever) and because he MADE this beautiful toddler we love so much. I am also so glad to have heard stories from him about his own family and his childhood so I can pass those on to the boys. Yes, these parents are all unquestionably inadequate in very overt ways, but they are also people who want their children to be happy and healthy even if I don't agree with them about how to raise happy and healthy children. They are also all traumatized people who've experienced abuse, mental illness, physical illness, poverty and other challenges and dysfunction in their families of origin.

It gives our boys a great gift to know that we both know and respect their parents. A gift that they deserve to have, and that I wish all fostered and adopted kids could have. It gives their mom comfort to know that if we end up adopting we feel morally obligated to allow her to have a relationship with them as long as it’s healthy for the kids and is something they want. It is important for both the kids and their mom to understand that we think success is her being able to safely and adequately parent the children again even though we don't actually think this will be possible. We enjoy modeling good parenting for her, even just by telling her how we deal with certain challenges when we speak on the phone. That is more help than she gets from anyone in her family. If the boys cannot go home, we will make sure they get to have contact with their mom. If they do go home, we will offer frequent respite. And even though in many ways it would make our lives so much easier if their dads were out of the picture, we are glad that the baby's dad is in their lives in at least a small way, and we will support these boys having contact with him (and eventually Big Guy's dad if he's willing) as long as that’s healthy.

I know a lot of people will take issue with this, but in my view keeping a child in contact with their family of origin and culture of origin is not something "nice" you do as a favor for the birth parent if they happen to behave the way you'd like them to. To us, it's just part of the OBLIGATION of being a foster/adoptive parent. Yes, I said obligation. Most foster/adoptive parents don’t see it that way, but I certainly do. We signed up to be part of a complex and messy family system for these children, not to steal them away from their “bad” family and pretend that their history didn’t exist by patting ourselves on the back about how much better we are than their birth families. I know there are kids for whom contact is not healthy – But for the majority of foster kids, I believe some level of contact with at least some part of their family of origin is not only healthy but necessary. I wish I could tell all adoptive parents: You CANNOT LOVE YOUR KIDS WITHOUT LOVING WHERE THEY COME FROM.

That doesn’t mean thinking everything that went on in their birth families was healthy or okay. It means learning, and loving, their culture of origin. It means finding good things to celebrate about their background and their early childhood experiences, even if it's hard because most of what you know is abuse or neglect. It means appreciating (openly) what is good about their birth families, and acknowledging what is “bad”. It means understanding WHY things happened the way they did (which means understanding how class and race and mental illness and addiction work). It means understanding your child was not "dropped in your lap by G-d". While G-d had a role in the creation of your child and in them finding a safe and healthy home, I can't imagine that G-d thinks that families being broken apart is a beautiful thing, and I think it's important to remember that your adopted children's birth mom was not merely an incubator G-d chose to grow YOUR child in. That's why I try to avoid the term "birth mom" to begin with.  Foster care and adoption are loss, period. No matter how abusive or neglectful the first family was and no matter how great the foster-adoptive families are. That doesn't mean it's bad or wasn't the best possible outcome for the children in question. However, our children were created in the context of another family and (in many cases) culture without which they would not be alive and would not be all of who they are. They must have connections to that family and culture to grow up with a sense of who they are and to understand their complex web of connections, even if it makes us uncomfortable or is messy or inconvenient.


  1. Hey Dear,

    I am so grateful that Rahula hooked us up. Looks like we have a lot in common! Can't wait to read your blog and check out all of your links. I have made two other good foster-parent friends through my blog. Of course, I have a very funny relationship to time right now :)

    I changed my comment settings, I am not sure if I will keep them that way because I have had a lot of problems with spam, but if it works, that is great. Thanks for your interest. Looking forward to more connection.

  2. HEY! im so happy to find your blog :)
    im a foster momma from fl

    I subscribed to you so Ill be back!!

  3. Hi Bryna,

    I was so happy to see your comment on my blog! I really know nobody within driving distance that *gets* it. I would to meet you IRL. Orlando was great, but it is only once a year.


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