Dancing with a Porcupine: Essential Reading for Foster and Adoptive Parents

dancing with a porcupineIf you are even thinking of becoming a foster parent, you need to read this book.

Like many people who decide to become foster parents, Jennie Owens and her husband, Lynn, were confident that love would conquer all. The trauma. The anger. The pain and loss experienced by every member of the family.

And like many such couples, they never knew what hit them. The isolation. The bone-chilling fatigue. The mental strain. Most of all, the unrelenting inner refraing that keeps on and on: Am-I-going-crazy?

I wish I had had this book fifteen years ago, when I needed to have someone explain to me why self-care is good for the whole family. Why “bonding” can be a subtle trap that prevents kids from becoming as strong and self-reliant as they need to be. Why getting a dog might be the one thing you really do need most. Most of all, why the hardest stuff really is the best.

But better late then never. Thank you, Jennie, for sharing your beautiful heart.

Why Foster Parent? Lots of Reasons… Here’s where it started for us!

seventh grade

See that geeky girl in the first row, second from left? Permed and bespeckled, wearing a too-short dress even though everyone else was wearing cool blue jeans?

You’re looking at the genesis of a foster mom.

Like most middle-school students, I led a fairly self-involved existence. It was years before I discovered that not everything is always as it seems. The pretty, popular girls — the ones who could wear mascara and had pool parties at their house that I was never invited to — had parents who were divorcing or drank too much. The unpopular kids … well, they had their own stories. It’s amazing how resilient kids can be.

Me, I was living out my own family drama. My sister’s cancer and the related financial devastation my parents faced had left its mark on my childhood. I was a good student primarily because books were my escape (we had no television, and secular music was forbidden). Money was so tight, there just wasn’t enough to buy the jeans the other girls were wearing. I didn’t even ask, because I knew the money wasn’t there. Instead I wore my best friend’s hand-me-down water print dress. It was too short, and my mother made me wear a longer skirt underneath. But to me, if was the epitome of haute couture.

There was a lot I didn’t tell my parents back then, not wanting to add to their load. (A neighbor lady who used to watch my sister and me while Chris was in the hospital planted this idea in my head, and it took root.) I spent a lot of time alone. One sweet boy (with the unfortunate last name of “Roach”) who talked to me and sometimes walked me home after school, disappeared after eighth grade, and I never knew what happened to him. I could only hope the rumors weren’t true.

How did all this add up to my becoming a foster parent? When Craig and I first started to talk about having a family, we knew we couldn’t conceive. Adoption was an option, but I kept thinking back to those months of being passed around as a kid, staying with one set of church friends or neighbors after another. I was always being reminded to be good, quiet, helpful. That, too, took its toll.  Looking back on my middle-school self, I can see now that I wasn’t ugly, or fat, or worthless, or unlovable. But back then I felt it to my bones.

I wanted to spare some other kid those same feelings. Each time I passed Catholic Charities in Detroit on my way to and from seminary, I thought about that twelve-year-old, until finally Craig and I pulled in and asked about becoming foster parents. We attended the classes … and next thing we knew, our children arrived on our doorstep.

To be perfectly honest, we were pretty naïve going into it. Like many foster parents, we discovered that sometimes love and compassion isn’t enough to heal the wounded heart of a child. Sometimes you just have to journey with them as patiently as you can — and remind them, over and over, that they are loved, and wanted, and safe. For me, it was the ultimate middle-school payback.

Have you ever thought about becoming a foster parent? I’d like to hear your story!

A Healing Moment at Mass

At St. Joseph’s in Downingtown PA, those who show up five minutes late (or even, some Sundays, right on time) may not get a seat. When I was teaching CCD, this wasn’t really a problem; there was always plenty of time between class and Mass to install ourselves in our favorite pew.

Then, a few weeks ago, a shadow fell over our house. We have been deliberately vague on the details with people; suffice it to say that when we adopted our children from foster care, we never imagined just how far-reaching the past might be. At the advice of our pastor and other experts, we made a plan that involved removing our son temporarily from our home, and placing him in the home of his godparents (who have no children), until we could get things sorted out. I also resigned as a catechist so that I’d be able to focus on the needs of my family, and travel back and forth as needed. It isn’t ideal . . . but little about our lives is ideal right now.

A Gift of Joy

In some ways, I feel like I am returning to those humiliating early days of foster parenting, when I went from being the leader of the worship ensemble to being the woman whose little boy punched a priest in the middle of Mass (Father had reached out to give my three-year-old foster son a blessing). Now as then, I have ample evidence that I am in way over my head in the parenting pool. Now as then, I try to keep paddling bravely. Now as then, I find myself wondering if I will make it.

Today we arrived at Mass just as the Gloria was being sung.  Sarah and I squeezed into a place between an elderly gentleman and his wheelchair-bound wife and a family with six teenagers (we later learned they were foster parents). In front of us was another family with two children who were about the same age as my kids. At first I was struck by how happy and affectionate the younger boy was, hugging his big brother and kissing his mother … and then he turned and I saw his face just as he erupted with a squeal of joy.

Sarah noticed, too. “Why does he look like that, Mommy? Why is he making those noises?”

“He has special challenges, honey. But he has special gifts, too. See how he loves his brother and father and mother?”

She nodded. “Yep. He’s full of love. That’s his gift, right?”

“Yes, honey. We all have special gifts and challenges. That little boy is a gift to his family … and today he is a gift to us. Just like you are a gift, with your bright eyes and sweet voice. You are a gift especially to me.”

And it was true. As I watched the family pass the little boy back and forth, encouraging him to be quiet and reverent, I was reminded that the best offerings are not always the most outwardly reverent ones. The most thankful hearts are not always the lightest ones. And the ones who most need to be there are not always the best dressed or best behaved.

I also realized that we were exactly where we needed to be just then. By bringing their son to Mass with them, even though he might make a “joyful noise” at some inopportune time, this family had ministered to me in a way that no one else could have. My heart felt lighter just from having witnessed the sight of that family loving each other and drawing close to face their challenges together.  This boy was a true gift … and a rare treasure. And yet, many such children die while still in the womb.

Thoughts on the March for Life

Tomorrow is the “March for Life” in Washington, D.C. Thousands of pro-life marchers will converge in our nation’s capitol to commemorate the tragic anniversary of the signing of Roe v. Wade. Hundreds of thousands more will, like me, be with them in spirit as we continue to live out the daily challenges of family life as another kind of testimony to the dignity and value of every single life.

The elderly gentleman will fix his wife’s breakfast and brush her hair.

The foster family beside us will wait for the case worker of the sibling group they recently welcomed into their home.

The family in front of us will pull carpool duty as they take their younger son to therapy and school, and cheer their older son at his basketball game.

And I … well, I will continue my own vigil, asking God to do something so that one day we will all be under one roof, facing our challenges together. Thank you for continuing to pray with us.

The Woman in the Mirror

Today I’d like to reprise a few thoughts from my early days of foster care, in gratitude for the new friends I made today who are interested in becoming foster parents — even after I hinted that it could be JUST a bit more challenging than they thought when  they first looked into it!

Foster parenting is tough. There’s really no getting around it. Unlike biological parenting, in which the mother gets to experience labor before delivery, with foster parenting (and adoption), the labor takes place AFTER the delivery. And it can be every bit as messy, painful, and embarrassing. But then — it can also be a good source of future writing material!

One morning when you least expect it, you’ll look in the mirror and find it looking back at you. The phantasm bears a slight resemblance to your familiar self, except… Is it possible that your husband installed a trick mirror while you were dozing, just for kicks? This gal has…

  • Eyes bloodshot from getting up every two hours with one toddler’s night terrors and the other’s asthma attacks.
  • Stomach is rumbling from not eating a decent meal since… What is this? May?
  • Throat is raw from screaming like a fishwife, just to hear herself above the din.
  • In the same set of sweats she’s worn all week, sans bra. Even to the doctor’s office.

And as the bathroom door reverberates with the pounding of three insistent sets of little fists, you pray the lock will hold long enough for you to sit down for five seconds and have one coherent thought.

Suddenly, it hits you:

This is not what I signed up for. I don’t recognize that ghoulish figure in the mirror. She’s grouchy. She’s wrinkled and rumpled, and so are her clothes. She smells like baby barf. Make her go away.

Easier said than done. But if you watch my back, and I watch yours, maybe we can figure this out together. We’ll get those Mommy Monsters.

Taming the Mommy Monster

In my book Raising Up Mommy, I write about the seven deadly sins of motherhood – and the “celestial virtues” we need to acquire as an antidote to those spiritually toxic habits.

The thing is, I never realized how desperately I needed them until I became a mother. Didn’t realize how angry, selfish, and niggardly I could be with those I professed to love most. In retrospect, I’ve come to believe that it was because God knew precisely these things about me, He sent these particular children my way.

I’d like to say that in a short time, I had eradicated all traces of self-centeredness and sloth from my soul.  That wouldn’t be true.  But in the words of the old hymn by Annie J. Flint,

“He giveth more grace as the burdens grow greater,
he sendeth more strength as the labors increase.
To added afflictions, he addeth more mercy,
To multiplied trials his multiplied peace.

His love hath no limit, his grace hath no measure
His love hath no boundaries known unto men.
But out of the infinite riches of Jesus,
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.”

Living with the Hard Choices

 One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was recognizing my own limits, and doing what was right rather than what was popular.

 When the children first came to us, there were three of them. Within a few weeks, it became clear that three was one too many; because of what they had endured prior to coming into care, they needed more attention than I could possibly give them on my own.

After about a year, we asked the social worker to find another placement for the oldest child – someplace where there were no other small children, and she could have the undivided attention she needed.  Our intention was to raise the children like cousins, seeing one another for birthdays and holidays and day trips.  We recognized this wasn’t ideal – but we also recognized that, in this situation, it was all we could do.

In retrospect, it was absolutely the right choice. Their sister flourished in her new home, and grew up to be a beautiful, thoughtful young woman.  Every time we see her, we thank God for bringing that couple into her life – and every time, we reassure ourselves that we did indeed make the right choice for all of us.

It wasn’t the popular choice. People who knew us only casually were horrified to learn that the girl was going to live somewhere else.  How could we abandon the child like this, making it impossible for her to trust anyone again?  How could we just give up on her?

It wasn’t easy.  In fact, it was humiliating. But it was the right thing to do.

That is the beauty of adoption.  For every “impossible” child, God has prepared his parents, giving them just the right graces in just the right amount (though sometimes those qualities are latent until they have a chance to be exercised a bit!) so that they can help one another to heaven.  It’s never easy – neither the letting go, or the welcoming. But the graces are there for the taking.  Jesus said it best: “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name, welcomes me.”

About Social Workers . . . :-@

I have a confession to make:  In the three years I spent dealing with “the system,” I developed an aversion to social workers. I don’t hate them — it’s never a good idea to write off whole classes of people. But during the time we fostered our kids, the vast majority of those we encountered were either burned out (and useless) or inexperienced and as clueless as we were, though they had a tendency to talk to me and Craig as though we were not-quite-bright children. 

Foster parenting is hard enough without feeling like part of the problem to be “managed.” I once walked out of an agency training because the social worker wrote our names on the board — like we were nine — for coming back from lunch five minutes late. After keeping us fifteen minutes into the lunch break while arguing with me that leaving a child’s bike out in the rain to rust over (or get run over) is a more “natural” and better consequence than having the “Bike Fairy” make it disappear for a week. (Ironically, she learned something about natural consequences when her agency lost two educated, eager potential foster parents.)

I later wrote the agency, explaining why we hadn’t chosen to get our license there. I didn’t care if it seemed petty. We were going to have to work with whatever agency we selected, and I wasn’t going to sign up with one that made me feel like an idiot during the training process. Happily, the trainer at the next agency — Barb — did a great job, and it was to that agency that our children were placed shortly after we got our training. 

A few weeks ago I “met” another good social worker through a mutual friend on Facebook. I confess that, upon hearing that she was a social worker, I rolled my eyes and puckered my puss. Thankfully, it didn’t last (my face might have stuck that way!) And she went on to give me this perspective on the men and women in her profession that gave me food for thought . . . and I’d like to share it with you here (with her permission, thanks, Nancy!) 

I know there can be a lot of tired and jaded social workers in the state system. Personally, when I was doing adoptions, I worked for a Christian-based agency. For the last 5 years I have been a state social worker in the area of disabilities. We are known as the “warm and fuzzy” corner of DSHS because by and large we don’t have to deal with the atrocities that the children’s workers see and deal with every day. We do deal with hard things, but not on the daily level that they do.

You have to be really wired the right way to be able to handle that job, and then it would take incredible self control and restraint not to get into the culture of the office. The humor tends to be coarse and the adrenaline [runs] high. It’s their way of dealing with the stress. But do I see a lot of people who want to help kids? Absoloutely. My office is right by Children’s Administration, connected by a door, so though I don’t work with them, I know them all and we fairly often share cases.

The workload is intense, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of paperwork we all have for the littlest things in the state. In my division, overall though there’s a sense of being supported as a person and a worker. My closest friend at my job used to work at CPS and she said over there it isn’t like that. There’s a sense that you better be documenting everything and “covering your b*tt” (sorry) because if a wrong decision is made or something happens to a child on your caselod, you will have to answer for it. That kind of pressure just wears out the best of people.

So I am sorry you have had some hard experiences. You might have been dealing with a “bad apple.” Or you might have been dealing with someone who is doing their best and is just very tired. Either way I am happy that you and your husband have taken these kids on and are loving and raising them. They are very blessed, and we do see those success stories. I loved that part as an adoption social worker, seeing the families come together.  

I appreciated Nancy taking the time to share this different perspective. So . . . if you’ve ever had a hard time connecting with your children’s case worker, try to take Nancy’s observations to heart. If as foster parents we sometimes feel powerless to “fight the system” in order to give our children what they need, how much more powerless must they feel at times, unable to pick and choose they children they will help — or through their actions prevent these children from experiencing the pain that is part-and-parcel of “the system” of which they are a part.

Miracle Mondays: Disdain or Mercy?

Normally for this feature I look for the story of an inspiring mother, who loved despite all the odds.

This week I think I found a keeper. Thanks, Sylvia. Disdain or Mercy?

I’d also like to thank Mighty Mom for passing on this story of a truly Extraordinary Dad, Ed Freeman, a military hero who recently passed away at the age of 80. At least thirty men survived the Vietnam War because of his courage under fire.  On behalf of both these men — Sylvia’s cousin and Mr. Freeman — I’d like to offer the following.

Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord,

And may your perpetual light shine upon them.

May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed,

by the mercy of God rest in peace.

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6 Things to Know Before Becoming a Foster Parent

carriecraftCarrie Craft at About Adoption.com has a lot of helpful, practical advice about all aspects of adoption and foster parenting. If you aren’t already familiar with her site, I suggest you check it out!

Today I came across this article, “Six Things to Know Before Becoming a Foster Parent”. Lots of good, basic information about the logistics of foster parenting. If you’re contemplating foster parenting and aren’t sure where to begin, this article may help!

Miracle Monday: 40 Reasons We’d Do It Again … Thoughts on Adoption

With Valentine’s Day freshly behind us — a time for married couples to renew their love for one another and Hallmark and Godiva to make their shareholders smile — I’d like to reprise a tribute of a different kind.

I wrote this a couple of years ago, but the feelings are the same. It is the dearest wish of my heart that more couples would consider adoption. With more than 500,000 children currently in the U.S. needing temporary or permanent homes, there are ample opportunities for generous souls to reach out.

Foster-Adoption is not without its challenges. You hear all kinds of horror stories about kids who have been abused and/or neglected who have difficulty bonding with their new families. Sadly, you don’t hear so much about the “happy endings” (and I count my family’s among them): Children who outgrow the worst of their behavioral issues, and grow up to be loving, affectionate kids. NORMAL kids. Happy kids.

Of course, it does no good to go in “blind.” Information is power, and letting couples know up front that some struggle with the transition … and then go on to form happy families … Well, that is information worth knowing. Forewarned is forearmed.

Having said that, I do believe that there are many good reasons for considering adoption. And here are my top forty reasons why Craig and I would adopt Christopher and Sarah all over again if we could. (And hopefully do it a little smarter the second time around.)  Continue reading