By Jo Ann Wentzel
Families are challenging today. When you have a traditional number of kids it is difficult, when you have additional kids, more than the average home, and challenging kids such as in foster care, the world you live in is different. It is a different place. Thinking about the fact that foster parents open up their homes to strangers and immediately make family members of them is something that the average family doesn’t do. Your world is very unlike that of your non-fostering neighbors.
Large families are familiar with some of the problems involved with caring for a whole mob of kids. Everything you do is on a large scale- cooking, shopping, laundry, school events, doctors, illnesses and meetings. I think they have some idea of what life as a foster parent is like. But, foster parents have all this and then add to it the stress of a variety of behavioral problems, learning disabilities and kids just trying to push the envelope - and lots of these types of kids. Family dinners look like Roman feasts with all the dishes. The mountain of never ending laundry makes you feel like your local laundromat. School conferences require planning and strategy much like a general planning a campaign during war time. You live in a place many cannot understand.
A parent in a melded family resulting from several marriages with each spouse bringing their own children to the family have some idea of what the family dynamics are for a foster family. But as foster parents you have a whole array of personalities that you are trying to make into a unit to function as a family. The numbers and look of the family change constantly as kids come and go. That is what makes your situation so unusual. You never know when you have kids with difficult behavioral problems, how long they will be with you. The character of your house changes constantly and disruption in the status quo is responsible.
Most families have problems and crisis occasionally; a foster family lives it 24/7. There is usually at least one child among your brood who thinks it is his job to keep you in a constant state of anxiety. You wonder if the oldest one is doing drugs. You may worry the middle one has a very strong crush on an older girl. The next two are both experiencing school problems and one has been thrown off the bus for ‘acting out’. The smallest one is not responding well to love and attention. You believe she isn’t bonding with you and your husband. And those are just the beginning issues since problems can change hourly and new kids can arrive with their own set of problems. Older kids can move out on their own, or get put into another facility. The face of the family constantly changes.
In many regular homes, where kids are doing fine, rules established, and life somewhat normal, parent’s day ends at a reasonable bedtime and begins at breakfast. Not so for the foster parent who needs to do a bed check, or wait up for kids with later curfews, or do all those things the too-short day didn’t include. Maybe a new crisis breaks out or you have a suicidal teen or one that is simply too upset to sleep, your day lengthens. Maybe someone just needs to bear their soul or have finally become ready to make an important revelation. Whatever the reason, your job is not a 9-5 one. For some reason most crisis starts late and extends into the wee hours.
Foster parents must know so many things to get through one day, that your world barely resembles that of most parents. You need to have more than a working knowledge of drugs. A foster parent needs to know the signs of abuse. There is a need to understand reverse psychology and the concepts of reinforcement and re-direction. You need to be great at logistics since you must be everywhere at once and also learning how to stretch a dollar or a day will add to your value.
As foster parents we must display more patience and control than other parents, because kids coming into our homes are not well-behaved usually, they are not in-control themselves, and sometimes they do not want to be in your home. Raising kids requires patience no matter what kind of parent you are, but a foster parent cannot lose it without fear of repercussions and possibly losing that child. They are and must always be the professionals.
The chaos and craziness that is the norm for a foster parent is hard to understand for most people. The question of why you do this along with the usual statement, “I could never do what you do” lets foster parents know they are not exactly like average people. The fact that you like it and won’t do anything else convinces the world you are different. This fact means that friends must come from the ranks of other ‘crazy’ people just like you- namely foster parents.
So when your world seems like it is from another planet and you feel like you live on the fringe of society, when your day resembles nothing like your parents and you look in the mirror and do not recognize that wild eyed parent, you know, it is true. You live in a different world.
Congratulations for being you and able to handle those outer limits.