The Surprises of Being a Foster Parent

When you become a foster parent, you are prepared for the big changes, but it’s the little things that can really surprise you.  Why weren’t these silly-but-true gems covered during foster care training?

1).   Wearing Different Pajamas.   If you have to get up in the middle of the night to soothe a scared child or if you need to use the bathroom down the hall in the “wee” hours of the morning (sorry I couldn’t resist), then you will need to wear full coverage pajamas.  Seeing a partially unclad stranger in the middle of the night can be scary for anyone, but it is doubly so for children who have suffered abuse and are sleeping in a new place.  Also, the skimpy PJs which seemed so cute when you knew you’d be snuggled under your down comforter, will reveal their true nature as pathetic scraps of  cloth that do nothing to keep you warm when you’re sitting on the cold, hard floor, holding a tiny hand as your foster child (agonizingly slowly) drifts off to sleep.

2)  Running to the Store to Buy Milk…AGAIN?  If your family of four normally consumes 1 gallon of milk per week (0.25 gallon per person), you would think adding two more kids would mean you need 1.5 gallons of milk per week (0.25 gallons times 6 people).  Seems simple, right?  But you would be wrong.  Way wrong.  We have gone from 1 gallon per week to 7 – yep 7! – gallons of milk per week.  Partly because the foster kids love milk, partly because we are eating at home more, and partly because we changed what kind of food we eat at home, like more cereal, which kids oddly seem to like better than the kale and spinach smoothies I like for breakfast.  And if we had foster kids who drank 0.25 gallons of milk per week just like us, I would probably still need to run to the store as the kids would only like 2%, not skim; or they would be lactose intolerant and need to drink almond milk, not cow’s milk; or they would think pouring the milk on the dog was a hilarious way to get my attention.

3.  Cold Showers.  We had never run out of hot water prior to foster kids.  But the additional demands on the hot water heater – like more loads of laundry, more running of the dishwasher, and more people bathing – mean that the last person to shower in the morning will have a bone-numbingly cold refreshing start to her day. Somehow, that last person to jump in the shower is always me, as I race to get everyone out of bed, clean, dressed, fed and ready for the school bus.  And if you think I could simply wake up earlier to shower first, just wait until you get to #5 on this list.  And if that doesn’t convince you, read #7!

4.  Hairy Legs.  I lied about my cold showers being refreshing.  I am pretty sure having to bathe in icy water is God’s way of punishing me for secretly nicknaming my third-grade teacher Sister Julianne “Meanie Pants.”  At the time, this seemed uproariously funny as we all know nuns don’t wear pants.  But I now realize that it isn’t funny, God, so please let there be enough hot water left tomorrow so I can shave my legs.  Also, I am super sorry for cursing when I found out the hard way not to shave when I have goosebumps.

5.  Late Night Blogging.  Can you blame me for needing a little extra energy boost now that I am doing more cooking, more laundry, and more runs to the grocery store (hey, I heard that giggle!! seriously how could I have predicted 7 gallons of milk?!?)?  Apparently, my body can and does hold a grudge about the extra jolts of caffeine, though.  Despite my well-made argument to myself that a few extra cups of tea would be absolutely justified (it seemed so reasonable at the time and I could have sworn every cell in my body had agreed), I seem to have miscalculated the effect.  Rather than being fast asleep, I am blogging at 2 a.m.  So that explains why I cannot possibly wake up one millisecond earlier to take a shower, even if it means I am doomed to live with hairy legs.  Don’t worry, though.  As I mentioned, I am the proud owner of head-to-toe pajamas now, so everyone is protected from seeing that nightmare.

6.  Just Plain Ol’ Loopiness.  Hey, wait! If my legs get really, truly hairy – like the thermally insulating hair of a Mongolian yak – maybe I could go back to wearing my cute-but-skimpy pajamas since none of my body heat would be able to escape through the thick fur.

7.  On the Topic of Hair.  My bio daughter Sassy’s hair is usually styled like Hermione’s from the Harry Potter movie.  No, not like Hermione’s sleek hair in the last movie in the series.  I mean the Hermione hair of the very first film – you know, the has-that-child’s-head-ever-been-touched-by-a-hair-brush kinda hairdo. Snarls the size of an ill-groomed guinea pig have been sighted on my child’s head.  So I pretty much fell over when she asked me to brush and braid her hair.  How does this relate to foster care?  Well, the latest foster child is really into sparkly barrettes and colorful hair ribbons, and peer pressure can be a beautiful thing.  However, taming locks that have rarely been combed takes oodles of time.  Probably even if I got up earlier to shower, I would be sucked into the hair-braiding, time vortex.  Somehow, Sassy’s hair is only willing to be fashioned into a respectable style after we have used up every last free minute of my morning.  In an act of sheer martyrdom, I am willing to give up my flipping’ freezing refreshingly brisk shower so my young daughter can be socially presentable.  I had to throw in this positive impact foster care has had on my daughter’s hair, because I am about to reveal a horrible thing that foster care causes and you needed something nice before I tell you the gory details of #8 on this list.

8.  Getting Plastic Surgery.  Every single foster parent who ever existed on the planet earth has gotten all sorts of body work done, like facelifts, nose jobs, and boob jobs.  Ok, so I don’t actually know anyone who got plastic surgery, because they became foster parents.  However, it is true that completely outlandish statements can somehow become so commonplace in your household, that you may find yourself telling some whoppers, too.  For example, today’s amazingly untrue statements included “when you asked me to put away my homework, I thought you wanted me to take everything out of my backpack and put my stuff on the floor, the sofa, the coffee table, and the dog.  Since it was already there, I didn’t have to do any thing.”  Just to be clear, that wasn’t my fib.  My only lies today were about the cold shower and the plastic surgery.  Oh, and the lie about me not knowing that all that caffeinated black tea goodness was insomnia in disguise.  (God, are my nowhere-remotely-plausible lies the problem, rather than my history of making smart-alecky nicknames about nuns’ lack of pants?  ‘Cuz if that’s the case, I promise to only tell lies that seem believable if that means hot water in the morning.)

9. Plastic Surgery Revisited.  In my attempt to win back a shower with at least three minutes of above freezing water, I shall now try employing the “re-do.”  Foster care requires different parenting techniques, such as telling kids what a better behavior choice would be and giving them a second chance to try out the better behavior rather than punish them when they act out (aka “the re-do.”).  I am “re-doing” #8 on my list to eliminate all shockingly unbelievable lies.  Here goes.  Since becoming a foster parent, I have begun to feel every single year of my age, plus maybe a few more.  I have a backache from tumbling to the ground when I couldn’t hold my pose in “statue tag.”  (note to self: leave dog at home if you will be playing “statue tag” as she will yank on her leash and unbalance you.)  My 40-something-year-old energy level is no match for three foster kids, my own two kiddos, plus their four friends that came over to play today.  In a desperate bid to recapture my younger days’  bottomless wells of energy, I drank from that false fountain of youth known as caffeine, which led to insomnia, which led to me blogging in the middle of the night.  Squinting at the computer screen at 2:30 in the morning is surely giving me crow’s feet; therefore I will definitely need plastic surgery to fix all the wrinkles on my face and it’s all the fault of foster care.

10.  Forgiveness.  Oops!!  Did a not-very-believable statement sneak into my #9 re-do of #8?  Well, I gave telling the truth a try and it’s a baby step in the right direction.  Can you see my progress, though?  In #8, I jumped immediately into the lie.  In #9, I waited until the very end to say something outrageous.  In foster care parenting, we call this “shaping behaviors.”   We break down a big task like “learn to always tell the truth,” into smaller, less daunting tasks, like “reduce the amount of lying in one day to just three daily lies.”  Once, we achieve that small goal, we might go for “reduce the amount of lying to just once per day.”  Then down to one lie every other day.  Then down to one lie per week.  And so on, until we have achieved the goal of “always telling the truth.”  What I love about shaping is once you start noticing the baby steps of progress, it’s super easy to stay upbeat and parent from a place of positivity.  So today when another foster parent felt dismal about their foster kid hitting four times in one hour, I was able to point out that this child hit seven times in an hour last time I saw him.  That’s nearly a 50% improvement!  Their re-parenting is working.  But wait – it gets even better!  That parent was able to forgive their foster child for not being perfect and be happy that positive change is happening.  That parent who had been feeling like a failure now felt re-invigorated rather than defeated, and rededicated themselves to being a quality foster parent. When I pointed out this reduction in violence to the other children who were used to bearing the brunt of being hit, they flipped from being angry to being happy that this particular foster child was working so hard to learn not to hit them.  And as I learn to focus more on the success of baby steps forward, I am learning to be more forgiving not only in things related to foster care, but also to appreciate and cheer on the baby steps taken by my family, my friends, and my co-workers.  Who knew that foster care would have a ripple effect of increased positive thinking throughout my whole life?  Now why don’t they teach that in foster care training?

Ok.  You’ve made it to the bottom of this super long post.  As your reward, I promise to approve all of your comments (even the snarky ones), ‘cuz I really hope you’ll share some of the little ways that foster care has changed your life.

New Placement of Siblings!! Meet Joyful and Watchful.

So, right after I posted that the three baby boys were not coming, we received another placement call!!  We said “yes” to two wonderful kiddos who arrived just one hour and 15 minutes after we agreed to be their foster family.  Here’s what the first night was like.

We received a call late in the day asking us if we were interested in becoming foster parents to Joyful*, a 10-year-old girl, and Watchful*, an 8-year-old boy.  The social worker mentioned that there was a 3-year-old sister, who was currently traveling with a relative.

The social worker was able to tell us that the children did not have special education plans, no known health problems, the reason why they were coming into care, their age, gender, and race.  This was an emergency removal, so that’s about all the info and it wasn’t entirely accurate.

It didn’t take us long to say yes.  Our main concern was the distance between their home/school and our home – a one hour drive!  We knew this would mean lots of time in the car for the kids and us as we would drive back and forth to school each day, to visits, etc.  We negotiated with the social worker that we’d say yes, but that the county would need to pay for transportation and after school care, if needed.  They readily agreed.

Then it was a race to beat the clock.  You’ll remember that we had planned on three babies, so we madly worked to remove the cribs, baby clothes, and other baby paraphernalia – rushing to get it all done before the kids showed up at our front door.  We had to reconfigure bedrooms, so we had to move the twin beds from upstairs to the room downstairs and bring the queen bed up.  What a work out!!  And an excellent way to work off nervous energy while we waited for their arrival.  Luckily we had just finished when the social worker pulled up into our driveway.

The Child Protective Services social worker stepped out and Joyful and Watchful bounded up our front steps.  The biggest surprise?  The kids were super smiley and super happy to become our foster children.  I was expecting sad, scared, angry and/or confused.  Happy was counterintuitive.  But it soon became apparent why they were laughing and bright-eyed.  Life at home was so difficult and the relationship with their mom was so contentious, that they were extremely relieved not to have to go home.

The kids arrived with the clothes on their backs and their homework.  That’s it.  Nothing else.

We welcomed Joyful and Watchful, introduced them to our family, and gave them a tour of the home.  We let them get to know our dog, who licked them and won the children over with her eager, wagging tail.  We let Watchful choose which twin bed would be his (he’s bunking with our son Silent One), and he chose the one closest to our pet gerbil.  🙂  Our two children Silent One and Sassy took them into the adjacent room and they all played video games together.  What a big hit!

While kids were busy racing cars on Mario Kart, we sat down with the social worker, who said the three-year-old sister was actually a five-year-old brother.  She let us know that if the younger brother is brought into care, they will ask us first if we would be willing to be his foster family, too. (The next day, we found out the five-year-old is actually just turned four.)  So our “yes” to two children may morph into “yes” to three.  *surprise*

Do you remember that during the placement call, the social worker said the kids were both healthy?  Well, the social worker who showed up at our house had new information that there was a health condition, but mom wasn’t telling anyone what it was.  *surprise again*

The social worker gave us paperwork naming us as the emergency foster parents, and another document authorizing us to obtain routine medical care for them.  The social worker gave more details about the reason for the emergency removal.  She authorized us to spend $100 per child for immediate clothing and toiletry needs, since they arrived with nothing.  After about half an hour, she left.

We had a quick dinner.  (Luckily, I had ordered pizza to be delivered and it arrived just before the kids did.)  Then we had to dash off to Target.  Let me just say that $100 does not go very far when you need socks, underwear, jackets, pants, shirts, pajamas, and hair brushes.  (I already had spare tooth brushes.)  We wrapped up shopping just before Target closed.

Then it was back home and bed for everyone.  Amazingly, there were no issues with getting on jammies, brushing teeth and getting into bed.  Even more amazingly, they slept well through the night.

Whew!  First few hours were successfully under our belts and our family of four had grown to include two more truly wonderful children.

*Not their real names.  Nicknames are used to protect their identity. 

Update #2: Said Yes to 3 Babies!!

Last Friday, we were asked to take three babies ages 2 years, 1 year, and 4 months if they came into foster care this week (see the call transcript and yesterday’s update), and we said yes!  The social worker called in the morning and said they’d let us know in the afternoon if the babies would be coming into care.

How nerve wracking!

So, knowing that if the babies came, we’d be have our hands full, I decided to do a bunch of chores to prep.  And I needed to take my mind off obsessing of “would they or wouldn’t they be coming.”

All dishes are clean, all laundry is washed, folded and put away (even washed the table cloth!),  all floors are vacuumed/mopped, toilets and tubs scrubbed.  Groceries are purchased and in the pantry, fridge or freezer.  All emails have been read, deleted, or responded to.

And the babies are not coming.  They. Are. NOT. Coming.

The social worker called.  The judge decided the babies could stay with mom.  And this family preservation is a good thing. I know it’s a good thing.  It IS a good thing.  But.  I am also a little sad not to be part of these babies’ lives.

So tomorrow I will decide what baby stuff to keep and which to return.  I mean, even though our preferred age range is 5-12 years, maybe we will be asked to take babies again.  But, space is at a premium and some of the baby gear was expensive!

Today, I will simply enjoy my very clean home.  And send well wishes to those babies and their mom, hoping that today is the day things start turning around in their lives.

Update: Said Yes to 3 Babies!!

Friday, the foster care agency asked us to take in three baby boys age 2 years, 1 year, and 4 months who might be entering into foster care this week (check out how that call went).

Yesterday, the social worker told us that we’d have to have 3 car seats, cribs, and some baby gates all in place when the babies were dropped off at our house – if the babies came into care.  (We need to prove we have safety items and she needs to see the bedrooms set up.)

Since our preference is 5-12 year olds, we don’t own baby gear.  We were going to wait to beg, borrow and steal buy baby paraphernalia until we heard whether the babies were coming into care.  But if the judge decides kiddos should be in foster care, we could be welcoming babies into our home one hour after we’re notified.

See the logistical issue here?  If I get stuff beforehand, the boys might not come and I’d end up with a bunch of bottles, diapers, etc. collecting dust.  If I don’t have stuff on hand, I might not have time to run out and get it between the agency’s call and children showing up on our door step.

So.  I made a list of the very bare minimum: carseats, cribs, bedding, baby gates, bottles, and formula.  I found friends to lend me some things (and they provided some extra items, too) and bought other stuff, but kept receipts.

In going through the attic, my husband found a box of baby stuff that somehow escaped our attention before.  So I sorted through it and pulled out blankets and clothes in appropriate sizes.  Of course, having been tucked into a corner and forgotten for years, everything needed to be washed, so several rounds of laundry ensued.

Then, we had to disassemble some furniture to make room for the mounds of baby stuff.  And assemble a toddler bed.


Now it’s more waiting.

Working with Teachers to Help Our Traumatized Kids

Hi, everyone.  I ran across this great tool for parents of kids who have experienced trauma such as older adoption, foster care, abuse or neglect.

Gobbel Counseling created a letter to give to teachers, explaining why traditional classroom methods for correcting children’s misbehaviors don’t work for traumatized children.  It explains the science in way that’s easy to understand and offers suggestions for what does work.  Check it out!

A Trauma Informed Approach to Behaviors in the Classroom- free download!.

Said Yes to 3 Babies!!

Ever wonder what it’s like when a social worker calls a foster family about a potential placement of children into their home?   Yesterday, the placement worker called us again, and this time we said yes!!  Here’s how the conversation went.

Me:  Hello?

Worker:  Hi.  This is [social worker] from foster agency.  We’re looking for a two-week respite placement for three children.  Would you be interested in hearing about them?

Me:  Sure!

Worker:  It’s three little babies – a two-year-old, a one-year-old, and a six-month-old.  They are all boys.

Me:  (laughing)  I can see why someone would need respite.  Three babies under the age of three!  [At this point, I am thinking another foster family needs to take a break from fostering these babies, as usually this is what respite means.]

Worker:  (laughing) Yes, that’s pretty much the response of everyone I’ve been calling today.

Me:  Tell me more.

Worker:  [She tells me boys’ birth dates and names.]  We are not sure if they will be coming into foster care.   A judge will decide in a few days.  If they do come into care, it will be on [certain day].   [She tells me why mom might not be able to take care of babies.]

[At this point, I figure out that this isn’t typical respite care, where you temporarily care for children while their regular foster family takes a break.  I switch gears mentally, thinking now more about situation leading to need for care.]

Me:  Do they have any health issues?

Worker:  They are healthy babies.  The middle baby has [one very minor health issue] and is treated by [treatment].

Me:  What is going on with dad?

Worker:  [Explains why dad is not available to take care of babies.]

Me:  Is there any history of abuse or neglect?

Worker:  No known abuse or neglect.

We talk a little bit more about why judge might decide that kids need to be in foster care.   Worker states that she has been working all day to find a home for these babies.

Me:  How will you make a decision about which family you place the babies with?

Worker:  We are hoping to find a foster family who can take all three babies.  We also are hoping the family will be able to keep the babies not just for the two weeks of respite, but for longer term, if needed.

[Did you see how she just slides in here that this placement could be longer than a two weeks respite?]

Me:  How long do you think this placement would be?

Worker:  We are looking for a two week emergency respite.  During this time, mom would still have legal custody and children would not be formally in foster care.  If mom isn’t ready to take the children back at the end of the two weeks, then the respite would convert into foster care.

[We talk about the technical differences between this emergency respite care and foster care.  For us as the foster family, it doesn’t sound like much of a difference.  It’s more about pots of money, administrative differences for social workers, and legal custody.]

Me:  Do you know their religion and race?

Worker:  I don’t know their religion.  They are biracial.

Me:  What else haven’t I asked about that I should know?  I mean, if you were me, what would you ask?

Worker:  I’d ask if they have any known behavior issues and about schooling.  But I don’t know of any behavior issues and I don’t think they have any schooling issues.

Me:  How far away does mom live from us?  What would visits look like?

Worker:  [Says where mom lives.]  We won’t know if visits with mom will be possible until after the judge makes the decision.   I see from your home study that you and husband both work full-time.  Will you need child care?

Me:  I am off work for the next three weeks, so I’ll be at home.  If the placement lasts longer than that, we’d need child care.  Are the babies in daycare currently?  Would we need to use their current daycare?

Worker:  The babies currently are not in daycare, but it wouldn’t be a problem to arrange for daycare.  Do you have a daycare near you that you’d prefer to use?

Me:  We normally foster kids age 5-12.  I’d need to look into local daycare.  Ok.  I can’t think of any more questions right now.  I think we’ll say yes, but let me talk to my husband and call you back.  When do you need our answer?

Worker:  I will be going home in two hours.  If you need more time, that’s ok.  You can call me Monday morning, if you need to.  Also, feel free to call me if you have any more questions.  I’m happy to try to find answers.

We hang up.  My husband, son Silent One, daughter Sassy, and I sit down together and talk about the placement.  We talk about how our preferences were for older children and whether we can take on three babies.  Since the babies are healthy and we are one of the few homes that have room for three siblings, we decide we are ok with going outside our normal age range.  It’s really important to us to keep brothers and sisters together.  We make a list of additional questions and then call back the social worker.

Me:  Hi.  Me again.  We have a few more questions.  Did mom use drugs while pregnant?

Worker:  We don’t think so.  There hasn’t been anything that would indicate drug use while she was pregnant.

Me:  Can you tell us more about dad?  Does he currently have visits with babies?  Is he being considered for custody of the children?

Worker:  I can call and ask and get back to you.

We hang up.  About 20 minutes later, she calls back.

Worker:  Dad currently has weekly visits.  [Gives details on visit schedule, location.]  Dad won’t be able to take children for quite some time.  [After some back and forth, we figure out that the earliest babies could be reunited with dad is a year from now.]

Me:  What would be the soonest mom could be reunited with babies?

Worker:  It’s really up to the judge.  Mom has had to go to court before, but this is the first time we think there is a decent chance that the judge will put babies into emergency respite care.  We just won’t know until the day the judge decides.

Me:  Would the babies come to our house immediately after the judge decides, if the judge decides that they need to be in care?

Worker:  Maybe.  Judge could decide that they will come into care immediately or the judge could decide to give mom 24 hours before babies come into care, if the decision is for children to go into emergency respite.

[I look at my husband, who has been listening in to the phone call.  I give him a thumbs up.  He nods.]

Husband:  Ok.  We are are onboard with taking these three boys.

Worker:  You’ve made my day!  We didn’t think we’d be able to find a family to take all three of them.

Me:  We are not set up to take care of babies.  We don’t have cribs, car seats, and other baby stuff.  What would be the process for getting these items?

Worker:  We have a lending “library” of items that foster families can borrow.  I’ll give you the phone number on Monday.

Us:  Great!  Talk to you Monday!

Now, we wait to hear about the judge’s decision.  Just imagine – in a handful of days we could have three babies.  Or maybe none at all.  The next few days will be strange and long.  We can hardly stand not knowing!!

I hope this helps you envision how a call about placing foster children into a home might go.

Turning Down 2 More Placements

Timing can be everything in life.  We’ve been waiting for a placement for a while now, and we just had to turn down two separate placements.

Did you notice the three week pause since my last posting?  Here’s the story of what’s been going on.

My husband got a call from a social worker about a placement, which is slightly odd as the foster agency knows to call me on three different numbers before calling his mobile phone.  The social worker apologized for calling him, but noted she couldn’t get hold of me on any of my phones.

“Uh, my wife is in the middle of getting an MRI, because she’s going to have surgery in a few hours,” he explained.

“Well, I was calling about the placement of a darling boy, but it sounds like the timing is off,” she said.

Yes.  So true.

Fast forward 10 days.  The social worker calls again with a placement of two sisters, an 8-year-old and 6-year-old from a wealthy family.  The older girl had health issues and her speech was difficult to understand.  Were we interested?

I had only been home two days after a stint in the intensive care unit and several days in a regular hospital room, post-surgery.  I was mobile, but definitely still in recovery mode.  Though it broke my heart to do it, we turned down this referral, too.

Sigh.  When will the stars align?