At the end of last week, my husband and I spent two very intense days at the mandatory foster care workshop that we were supposed to attend before bringing a child home. Obviously since Rafael has been with us nine months, that requirement was deferred but we made a commitment to complete the seminar before a year went by.
The room was filled with eleven couples who had passed the rest of the foster care screening process; attendance at this seminar was the final requirement before receiving approval to foster. Two of us already had children with us, nine didn’t. My husband and I were both impressed with the caliber of the couples there – really solid parents with good communication, stable families and a strong desire to give. In almost every couple, one spouse worked in the education or psychology fields.
The last seminar that was held took place the day before my son’s wedding, so attending that one wasn’t an option. I went to this because I had to, but I didn’t expect to learn much. Since this intended to prepare parents for fostering before bringing a child home, I thought it would be two very long and boring days of lectures about a topic that wasn’t really relevant to me anymore.
I was wrong. Although a lot of the content didn’t directly apply to our situation, I found the presentations very interesting and thought-provoking. Of course I love hearing about anything having to do with any aspect of child development! I made notes on a number of the activities they did but as much as I want to go through each one and share my thoughts with you on how it applies to parenting in general, I know I’m not going to have time so I’ll share just one!
This is the activity that I found the most powerful and it really deeply affected me. It was a guided imagery exercise. Sounds relaxing, right? It wasn’t.
As you read this, I suggest you imagine being in a deeply relaxed state and pause at each point that I say there was a pause, and consider the question being asked.
It went something like this:
“Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a place in your home that you love and feel relaxed.” I don’t remember if she said to imagine those you love around you or not, but I pictured myself in my garden, watching one of my children swinging. I felt very relaxed and peaceful.
(Abrupt sharp knocks on the door.) “I’m here because we’ve determined you can’t stay here anymore. There’s another family that very much wants a mother just like you and can’t wait until you come. They’re so excited that you’ll be coming! You need to get ready to leave now.”
She randomly called on people to answer, with their eyes still closed – I was the lucky first one to be called on – and asked: “How do you feel right now?”
You know how I felt? A huge pit in my stomach.
She continued. “You have thirty minutes to get your things packed up in this bag we’re going to give you. You can’t take anything big with you; it all has to fit in this bag. I don’t know when you’ll be able to come back here.” Pause.
Question to participants: “What would you take with you?”
Responses from every single person: “Photo albums, momentos to remember those I love.”
“You’re now in a car driving to your new family. As you drive, you notice the neighborhood you’re in is nicer and the homes are larger than your home. ”
Question: What are you thinking about right now?
Some answers: “How long it will be until I can go back to my family?” “What will the new family think of me/expect of me?”
“You get to your new home and the new family is so excited and happy to see you. Your home is beautiful and filled with many things you never had in your old home.”
Question: “How long do you think it will take you to adjust?”
Some answers: “I don’t want to adjust – I want to go back to my family.” “I’m never going to adjust.”
There were a couple more parts to the guided imagery, and then after a pause, everyone was brought back to their relaxing state, before being opening our eyes and ‘coming back’ to the room where we were.
My husband fell asleep in the middle, and as we opened our eyes, smiled at me and said, “Wow, that was great – I got a good rest!” I look at him with a pained expression and responded, “Oh, my gosh. That was a nightmare.” Feeling the loss of family, the dread, fear, loneliness, uncertainty, more fear..it was really intense.
During the discussion afterwards, we were reminded that however powerful what we experienced was, we are mature adults with a healthy self image and have had a lifetime to develop our emotional coping strategies. Young children don’t have that.
This exercise brought home to me in a deep way how much connection a child feels to his home, however imperfect and even painful it may be for him to live there. As adults, we look at a new foster home and think how lucky the child from the troubled home is to now have a loving and stable family, a room of their own filled with toys, regular meals and clean clothes. The foster parent can understandably look at himself as saving this child, being a hero of a sort. But for the child, it’s all frightening and unfamiliar, and often unwanted.
Even in the most unstable homes, there is emotional attachment to parents or siblings, and the familiarity of what to expect. What this two day workshop brought home to me was the depths of loss that a child experiences, and how extraordinarily difficult it is to fill that hole.
I spoke to a number of the parents during the seminar, and every person but one told me they are reconsidering if this is something that want to do or can do. They were all discouraged and hesitant about continuing the process. The illusion of being a savior was definitely smashed and the difficulties were made very clear.
At some point during the second day, it was feeling very heavy and discouraging. I spoke up in the middle of a session and shared my belief that the point in understanding the loss is to not to get stuck in it, but to ask how the loss can be mediated, how the hole can be filled. Yes, holes can be filled.
It doesn’t mean that the loss didn’t happen and you may not be able to completely ever fill that hole, but there’s a lot that a parent can do to create a positive and supportive environment for the child experiencing loss. Later a number of parents told us that they were very encouraged by that.
Another thing this seminar brought home to me is how extraordinarily difficult it is for anyone else to do what you do as a parent every day for your child – even these very wonderful parents who are the cream of the crop. The power of the attachment you and your child feel for one another is so deeply significant and can’t be understated. Especially in a field in which children are constantly losing their attachment figures, the importance of those figures is so clear.
I’ve been asked a number of questions about foster care in Israel by parents considering beginning the process; if you ask your questions in the comments below, I’ll try to respond to them!