Five Things I’ve Learned as a Foster Parent

Did you know that May is Foster Care Awareness month? As I am entering my 6th year of being a foster parent, I have been asked to speak standat the annual foster care awareness training/celebration here which also serves as the introduction of a new class of certified foster parents (meaning they have now graduated from their 10 week training, completed their background checks, home studies, etc and are now ready to open their homes to children in need.) I remember that week and eagerness very clearly AND then I remember the year of waiting I had until my first placement. Oh, the agony.

So I thought I would create a list of things I have learned as a foster parent over the years.  To make it easy, I’m calling them my STAND tips…because isn’t that what we are doing, STANDing in for someone to raise up and protect these children for as short respite or for a life time?

  1. Stand Right Behind Them – This comes from a saying in our home. Foster kids have lots of people in their lives: parents, siblings, social workers, judges, guardian at litems, CASA workers to name a few.  It can become overwhelming to an adult, let alone a child.  I’ve always told the kids, I will always be right behind you.  From behind them I can see everything that is going on without being in the way, but even more important I can catch them if they fall and carry them when needed.  Obviously, depending on the age of your child there will be a limit to their independence, but in general these children need to be empowered and safe.  The combination is key.  Let me start making age appropriate decisions for themselves quickly, you be the guidelines, not the ruler.
  2. You Can Never have Too Many – You can never have too many people who love you and care about you, and in our house, you can never have too many siblings.  We started fostering when Princess and Little Gymnast were young.  I waited until they were old enough to speak and tell me what was happening as I felt that was important before I brought an unknown in our home, but nonetheless, they were young.  So I had to explain them to what foster kids were and how they would fit into our lives.  We called them “pretend” brothers and sisters.  And that has stuck.  Every placement we have had has become a brother/sister to my children, albeit “pretend” sometimes.  They play with them like siblings, do chores with them, fight with them and celebrate with them.  When foster kids have then been taken away, that relationships stands, it’s not lost and it does not change.
  3. Put on Your Listening Ears – It’s only in the quiet that the truth can be heard.  No one knows our children’s stories better than them.  But they also only know it from a child’s perspective.  Foster kids are kind of like puzzles where some of the pieces are missing the image, like the paper is torn off.  We have a hard time seeing the big picture because while we see the results, we don’t always know the cause.  It is our job has parents not necessarily to jump in a starting “fixing” but rather to listen.  Children are resilient, I firmly believe that they will tell us what they need if we just pay attention.
  4. You Can Say No – But do it early!  If once the placement is described to you, if you are not comfortable, say No.  If there is an appointment or visit made that you can’t get to or you already have something else scheduled, say No.  This gives the workers times to find an alternate placement and/or time to reschedule things.  I made it very clear during training that I would old take older kids, our county has always supported that preference, but even if there is some other reason why you don’t feel you can take a placement, say it up front.  Also, visits get to be time consuming – you’ll have social workers coming to your house, guardian at litems making appointments with the kids, CASA workers, their parents and the list goes on and on based on the needs of your child.  You can say “no, that doesn’t work for me.”  You can say “no, I can’t get them to that appointment.”  The workers are there to support you, they will help.  Just breathe and take one step at a time.
  5. Don’t Rush! Be Patient and Flexible –  I have to be honest, I was sad I didn’t have a long term placement quickly or even with those first few respite placements, but in the end, it turned out to be  a blessing, it gave us a chance to really learn the process before we did have our first long term placement.  And then you have to start all over with being patient with your new child, letting them learn their path and let you in, working with the system of people in place to support you and the child.  Just breathe, you will get through it.

Bonus: Last night I sat down with my twins who were fostered with me at the age of 12, adopted right before their 15th birthday and now we are staring down the last two years of high school and beyond together.  I asked them to tell me what I could have done better or that I did well.  (Yes, I was totally fishing for a compliment.) And they surprised me with their suggestions.

Be the Parent and Be Consistent – Foster or not, a child needs a parent not another “friend.”  When the twins came to me, they had more “friends” than they have hairs on their heads.  Between Facebook “friend” and Instagram “friend” and Twitter “follower” and then those kids at school that they had seen once or twice who were their “best friends.”  As a parent it is our job to set boundaries, set consequences for breaching those boundaries, model good adult behavior and let it be forgotten reward for good behavior and celebrate achievements.  In Sea Cadet’s own words, “don’t tell me I did something wrong and then turn around and say ‘that’s okay, just don’t do it again.'”  Out of the mouth of my 16 year old, almost grown son, he in a back handed way said “thank you for the boundaries and consequences.”  Wow!

Make it Fun, or at least Less Stressful – Put yourself in their shoes…taken from the home, parents they know whether it be a good or bad place and then shoved into a stranger’s house with their stuff swiftly packed in something.  They have not a clue what they are going too.  My twins were an emergency removal from their 2nd foster care placement of the year…their stuff was shoved into garbage bags and most of it was wet.   They got here right at dinner time, but the workers had already fed them.  I was told at drop off they would stay home the next day (switching school districts) so what did I do, more on a whim than planned…we went to the movies.  It was awesome!  And by the time we left the movie after having popcorn and candy, we had something cool to talk about other than the weirdness that is a foster care placement.  It was History Buff who brought this one up.  He was so glad for that introduction to the family, and this is my son who would be happy talking to a wall.  He said he would have felt so weird if we hadn’t done that, just “sitting down and talking” was a scary thought.  So while the movies may not be everyone’s plan, it certainly worked for us.

TayTay Style Anti-Bully Message from a 10 Year Old

My daughter is so talented, and recently she has found a new outlet for her creativity…video!  So today I present one of her latest creations, completely of her own making….

How to Shake Off a Bully – Taylor Swift Style

    Tiny Spaces: Multi-Purpose Rooms

    The first week of August, we were told we had essentially six weeks to pack up and move out of our home.  (You can read about that ultimatum is a series that began here: The Best Laid Plans.  We didn’t waste time and knew immediately that we would have to go into a smaller space, thus needed to downsize.  Here are a couple of links to ways we went about downsizing:

    Our Trash May be Someone’s Treasure

    Minimizing Our Wardrobes

    Garage Sale Time

    Found a Cheat

    But even after all of this…well, we still had stuff in storage.  Stuff, I just didn’t know what to do with, and frankly it was stuff that we needed/wanted to keep.  So now we are in our new tiny space and I’ve told you a little bit about how to are really multi-purposing the rooms so let me expand on that first.  Here is how each of the 5 spaces in the apartment is being used (don’t let the number 5 throw you off, there is a total of 900 square feet here and 9 of us living in it:)

    Master Bedroom/Bath – This is the twins space.  The reason I chose to give them the master is because it has the smallest and by small, I mean tiny bathroom.  But they do have a GIANT walk in closet.  So this pace not only serves as their sleep space, bathroom space, and workspace (they have a desk,) but also as the cat’s living area, and storage for things we must keep but will not unpack here.

    Kitchen/Laundry – Our kitchen is tiny.  It is a squeeze for two people to be in it at the same time.  But not only does it serve as our kitchen and laundry space, but it’s also where all the dog food/water is housed and where a good deal of our craft and science equipment is kept.  Homeschooling at it’s best, we do LOTS of crafts and science experiments, and this is the safest and easiest to clean are to use.  I think a big kitchen is the space that I miss the most.

    Our tiny kitchen. You can tell from the clutter that not only have we been baking but we are getting ready to make soap.

    Our tiny kitchen. You can tell from the clutter that not only have we been baking but we are getting ready to make soap.

    Dining Room – I mentioned this one in my how we sleep post. We set up a card table by day and a bedroom by night.  So we sleep, eat, play games and do homework all in the same 5’x6′ space.  It’s tight but it does work.  This space also houses one of the pieces of furniture I keep primarily for sentimental value, my dad’s old desk from when he was a boy.  It’s a double desk so runs the length of the wall and for now…serves as great storage for school stuff, electronics, etc.

    Princess decided it's time to rearrange her space while taking a break from her schoolwork on the card table.

    Princess decided it’s time to rearrange her space while taking a break from her schoolwork on the card table.

    Living Room – This room has already been rearranged several times trying to maximize the space and how we use it.  It houses the most furniture and sees the most day to day use.  A computer workstation for school and fun, the tv and gaming systems, seating for 5 for our family time and Izzy’s dog crate so she doesn’t chew on everything in site when we are watching her.  I’m very grateful for the double opening french doors that open to a small patio, I keep the doors open whenever weather permits and it definitely helps hold off the onset of claustrophobia when I’m feeling trapped.

    This is our chill out spot, our family time space and the only space that one can really spread out when needed.

    This is our chill out spot, our family time space and the only space that one can really spread out when needed.

    Bedroom/Bath – Unlike the Master, there is a small hall with closet between this bedroom and bath so we again have great extra storage.  This room/bath serves myself and the younger two.  We share the closet and bath.  Little Gymnast and I share the bedroom while Princess sleeps in her “private room” in the Dining Room.  And my favorite, my office and a recliner for my “alone” time are in the bedroom.  There is very little walking space, but we’ve been willing to sacrifice that to get the purposes and privacy everyone needs.

    It’s definitely not been the “minimalist dream” I had when we started down this road.  We still have too much “stuff.”  We are getting closer though.  And I’ve never been so glad to here…”Mom, I don’t need this anymore.” As I happily grab whatever they offer to be swiftly donated or thrown away.    I long for the day when everything has a place and stays in its place when not in use.

    Tiny Spaces: Sleep Arrangements

    So it’s now been 6 weeks since we down sized from 1800 square feet to 900 square feet.  It’s been quite an adjustment for us all.  I knew it would take some adjustment especially in light of the fact that so much of the space is multi-use.  We’ve rearranged not just the furniture but entire rooms and their functionality three times already.  And I say, with my fingers crossed, that I think we’ve about got it.  This is the beginning of a series I’m going to write on how nine of us, 1 adult, 2 teenagers and 2 almost pre-teens along with 3 dogs and a cat, share our space…for work, for play, for sleep and for school.

    Today we are going to focus on sleep.  How in the world with 2 bedrooms does all nine of us sleep!  Back in the 1980’s the Family Bed (want more info: article from NY Times explaining the pros and cons of this) and over the years it’s kind of evolved into what I call the “granola family phenom.”  You know those families, they live close to the earth, eat natural, don’t subscribe to TV, have varying politics and faith practices and just generally put a lot of emphasis on the child’s needs.  Okay, so maybe I just described our family to a small degree.  But the point is that my younger two, my birth children have always been just as comfortable sleeping with me as they have on their own.  We never had what we called a “family bed” as they have always had their own rooms/beds, but we have always had regular “sleep overs” either for special occasional or just because they wanted to sleep with me.  It goes a bit harder as they got older and as recently as this move, my daughter no longer expresses a desire for “sleepovers.”

    So with that in mind, when we started planning for this move, I decided to bring my king size bed and one twin bed into our shared room.  That way my youngest would sleep with me and then my daughter would have her own bed but in the same room.  That was the plan at least.  I also brought an extra mattress that we could have stored under another bed or against a wall etc.  My thought was that perhaps my son would get to the place where he no longer wanted to sleep in the same bed or we might have guests.  Either way, that didn’t work out.  Not only has my daughter outgrown her desire to share a bed, she didn’t want to share the room either.  So what are you doing to do when you have a two bedroom apartment and one of those rooms is full of teenage boys?

    Well, you multi-purpose a room!  So now, our extra mattress is stored under one of the teen’s bed, and her “bedroom” is the dining room.  During the day, we have a card table and chairs set up for eating, schoolwork, crafts and games.  At night, the card table is moved over to the living space (because we are too lazy to fold it up) and her mattress is laid down from leaning against the wall.  And voila, she has her own bedroom…the only single in the house!

    The twins share a room and bathroom, which the others dare not enter because let’s face it teenage boys and their living habits are GROSS!

    And before I close out…I’m sure you are wondering where our beloved animals are living.  India the cat shares a room with the twins; everything she needs is there and she rarely leaves the space.  Mene the tiny dog LOVES the tiny space.  He is perfectly content to stay cuddled up on someones lap or in the bed under the covers except for a couple of daily excursions to the dog park to take care of business.  He’d probably be more content if we just let him go out the door potty and come back in, but we continue to force socialization on him.  Milo the giant lap dog and Izzy the snuggler love having free roam, especially since they are now allowed on the beds (see picture below, aren’t they cute?)  Milo always sleeps with Little Gymnast and I while Izzy is confined to a crate at night because she still hasn’t realized that chewing up everything in site is not the way to make mommy happy.

    Milo and Izzy enjoying laying on Mom's bed while they wait patiently to go outside!

    Milo and Izzy enjoying laying on Mom’s bed while they wait patiently to go outside!