Thursday, May 7, 2009

Beginning at the beginning

I’m starting this blog as a chronicle of my foray into foster parenting in Los Angeles. It's a journal of sorts, and hopefully, a candid account that tells the truth about being a newbie foster parent.

Recently, I told my mother that we’re starting our foster parent orientation and training program. She told me that someone in her community became a foster parent and the girl had to eventually be removed from the foster parent’s home. She suffered a history of abuse and by the age of 12 she was sneaking out, having sex with much older men, and rejecting any attempts at discipline.

When we tell people we want to be foster parents, most often they respond with concern and consternation. I think they assume I can't get pregnant. Why else would someone want to foster or adopt an older kid? Stories of impending natural parenthood are usually greeted with congratulations and optimism, but it seems that helping to raise someone else’s child (the ones who are treated like nobody's child) attracts grave pessimism.

I can think of plenty of biological parenting parallels for the stories I’ve heard about foster care. My grandmother struggled to raise four boys whose young adult lives were marked by addiction. My colleague’s young daughter resents her father’s absence and takes it out on her mother in violent outbursts. I’ve had friends who grew up with pretty stable parents and yet came to tragic ends - their suicides were crushing.

Biological parenthood hardly seems to be a recipe for uncompromised success. I’m not a parent yet, but I can see that no matter how it comes about, parental "success" is always relative and fleeting. The straight-A student might develop anorexia. The high school athlete might marry young and wind up divorced and confused at 30. Human beings have messy lives. Event the most fortunate of us suffer, fail and inflict petty injustice on each other from time to time.

I haven't had much opportunity to explain why I'm doing this, but when I'm talking to myself about it, I say that I feel ready to start with someone who already has a history. I hate the thought that we fear and reject children whose lives have been hard, in favor of kids who are shiny and new. It feels consumerist, and more to the point, it feels like a lie. If a baby is a blank slate for projecting our aspirations to innocence and perfection, an older foster child seems to serve the opposite function; the pessimism I hear echoes our fear of human darkness, anger, weakness and pain.

I don’t know that what we are doing is “right”. I don't want to prove my moral mettle, or impress my friends or my god. But when I think about taking in and taking on a child who is already half grown-up and fully complicated, I feel a rush of maternal feelings that have always eluded me when I try to imagine having a baby. We haven’t struggled with infertility, and I’ve never been pregnant. My partner and I feel meant to do this, and it just descended on us over time with a heavy, stubborn certainty. Some days I feel excited about it, and some days I feel terrified. But like all such things, the decision seems not to rest on any momentary emotional state.

In some way, it doesn't seem like a decision at all. It just feels like it has to be done, by someone, and it might as well be us. There are more than 30,000 kids in temporary foster care in Los Angeles, most with little chance of being reunited with their birth parents. More than half drop out of high school, only 5% go to college, and 25% end up homeless. Thousands age out of foster care without anyone to help them make the transition - to loan them a deposit on a first apartment, or buy them their first car, or advise them about an important job interview.

I feel strangely touched when I think about the possibility that someone else’s child might someday sit with ease at our dinner table. I feel a fierce protective instinct when I think about advocating for a kid whose education has been interrupted by personal chaos beyond their control. I go to the institutional "foster care facility" where we're doing our training courses, and I look at the deformed bureaucracy that professes a desire to do the right thing and dehumanizes these kids every day, and I feel my mind and my heart and all of my personal resources click into overdrive like a machine or an athlete getting ready for competition. I feel beyond myself. I feel that there is a very good possiblity I will "fail" in the ways that one measures such things, and I don't care. The system is building the conditions for failure every day, and maybe I can interrupt it just long enough for someone to catch a break.

We’ll see what happens. The foster care system is already sending us clear messages to beware, be realistic, and be ready. But for me all that matters is to try.


Ashley said...

Hi, I just found your blog and am starting at the beginning, working my way to the end. I love that people have thought to write down their experiences for others to learn from. I'm looking forward to seeing how your journey panned out! My husband and I are looking to adopt older children, so a somewhat similar situation to yours. -A

Heather said...

Like Ashley I found your blog and am starting from the beginning. This post felt like someone putting my heart on paper. My husband and I have often made comments similar to many in this post, but you said them how I wish I could have articulated them when asked. My mother's reaction was even similar to your own...mine shared multiple worst case scenario stories and did not get the intended reaction from us. I'm excited to read on and see how your journey has progressed!

Lauren said...

I just found your blog too, and I am also starting at the beginning. I hope to adopt a child from foster care in a few years when my partner and I have a more stable financial situation. I have been researching adopting an older child for several years now, and I am studying to get my master's in Human Development and Family Studies, so that I can become an adoption counselor or work in foster care. I am trying to read everything I can and learn as much as possible about adopting older children in the meantime.

Like you, I do not know of any reason why I would not be able to have biological children someday. In fact, I do want to have a baby/babies, but I would love to give a home and family to an older child too.

You write so beautifully, and I know I am not alone in saying that you have put many future (and current) foster/adoptive parents' feelings into words. My mother, sister, and even my partner (initially) expressed some of the same concerns that your mother had. I'm looking forward to reading about how everything is turning out for you! Thanks for sharing with us.


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