From Safety to Love: Fostering Perspectives on Fathers' Day

I examined the little card. It had two red flowers cut out of paper, with Fathers' Day greetings written in both English and Chinese. A simple card, ordinary in many ways, and probably one of the many made by children around the world for their fathers on this special day. But this card was different. It was found in the school bag of a child who probably doesn't fully understand the meaning of the words "father"; a child who has had his whole world shaken up when his birth parents couldn't take care of him and when he ended up first as a ward of the state, and then as a newcomer in a completely different household. The card belongs to K, the scared little boy who first entered our home some seven months ago. And I am his foster father.

What does the word "father" mean to you? This is a difficult question that many foster fathers struggle to answer.

I remember that day in November last year very clearly. We had been ready for another foster placement following the departure of our first little foster girl, who stayed with us for the first 1/1/2 years of her life, and after the return of a 5-year-old boy, who stayed with us for a brief respite period of two weeks while his foster family sorted out various personal issues.

We were seated in a food court and had just ordered a meal. Then we heard the phone. It was the call that we had been waiting for all day. "They're on the way," said the voice. "They'll be at your place in about an hour's time."

Few words were exchanged as our family of four hurriedly gobbled down what was left of our dinner. I remember experiencing the full weight of the world on my shoulders as I considered the enormity of the task that we were about to embark upon; and I suddenly lost all my appetite. 

We barely had time to swing over to my in-laws' place to grab a mattress. But we made it in time, with just a bit to spare as we transformed our former learning room into a new bedroom for the two 3-year-olds who would be staying with us for the season.

And then the doorbell rang. 

Two little boys entered our home, their faces as white as the day. They were accompanied by the social worker as well as the childcare principal and another teacher, and two huge suitcases were at the entrance of our home, apparently filled with clothes and their favourite toys. All it took was a signature, and we were left with two additions to our family. All on a Monday evening, the first day in a week when everything in our lives would change forever. Once again.

The first few months were hard; we had to adjust to the addition of two boys to our family. Wherever we went I received comments such as, "Wow! You have four boys! Not easy to manage!" And there were the raised eyebrows and presumptive looks directed at Sue and myself, " Wow! Four boys! So productive!" 

One of the first few days as a family of 6. This was the week Sue was away on a course, and I had to care for the needs of the kids almost singlehandedly! 

And it was difficult to take care of the two foster boys; kids who seemed to snatch and gobble up their food as if there was no tomorrow; kids who messed up their room and destroyed things in our house on an almost daily basis; kids who were constantly disobeying our instructions and refusing to eat, bathe, brush teeth, wear clothes and sleep....

J and K getting used to life with us. Initially even mundane occurrences such as choosing shoes or carrying bags served as points of contention for them.

I felt more like a disciplinarian than a foster parent, barking out the same instructions everyday almost like clockwork, with almost the same results - or so I thought. Then as the days went by, the foster kids slipped into a routine. They began to learn when it was time to wake up, when it was time to eat, when it was time to nap, and when it time to bathe and brush teeth and sleep. They began to learn when I was upset with the things they did, or when I was pleased with the way they behaved.   

The next few months seemed to crawl by. Each hour, each day, each week. Sue and I seemed to be like headless chickens running around as we attempted to meet the physical needs of our foster kids; and that's in spite of having two other boys around to help care for them in simple yet very tangible ways. We were so proud of our dear Z and E as they started to do more chores around the house, and also as they took fostering in their stride, and set the dining table for the foster kids and as they held their hands in the park and in the playground.

Our younger son adopting a creative way of getting them to follow us.

And then Covid-19 arrived. As more and more of Singapore began to be closed to us, our little home began to feel more and more crowded. This was compounded by moments of mischief that seemed to emerge at the most opportune times. For instance one day we returned home to find a box of toys at the lift lobby. There was a note attached which seemed to indicate that the items had been thrown from a higher level, and that they may have broken a toilet window. To our horror, we realised that all the toys belonged to our older boys, and that our foster kids had been throwing them down from the balcony in their room. On other occasion we woke up late on a Saturday morning to discover that the foster kids' bedroom had been creatively re-decorated. Lego boxes had been ransacked and their contents strewn all over the room; books had been dog-eared and randomly flung into all corners of the room; toys of all shapes and sizes had been unearthed and scattered all around. It
was a picture of complete chaos. Coupled with other considerations about the importance of individuation and the establishment of a separate identity, as well as the inability of both boys to self-regulate in the presence of each other, we finally made the decision to split the boys, and another kind foster parent made the decision to take care of the older boy J. 

And that was how K ended up as our only foster kid; since about two months ago. And we feel that was one of the best decisions we have made for him.

Today little K seems to have undergone a metamorphosis. He springs out of bed in the mornings, comes into our room, and wishes us good morning in a sweet and pleasant voice. At meal times he sits patiently at the dining table, and asks us politely for his food. He uses "please" and "thank you" on a much more frequent basis. He has stopped gobbling food and now knows when he has had enough to eat, telling us by using the word "enough". He plays fairly peacefully either alone or with the older boys; laughing hysterically with them on occasions. He goes to the bathroom to brush his teeth and to bathe without any tantrums. He goes to his room peacefully when told to take his nap or to go to bed.

K spending some alone time quietly reading when the Kor Kors are doing their work.

I have been reflecting what has caused the change in K in such a short span of 7 months. How is the child we have now different from the screaming, biting, tantrum-throwing kid who first entered our house on a dark November evening?

Neuropsychologist Ron Federici did some work with post-institutionalised Romanian children who had been adopted into Western homes, and he shared some important findings which have shed light on the issue we have been facing.

In a powerful article written for The Atlantic on how institutionalisation affects the mental and emotional wellbeing of children, Melissa Fay Greene shared the findings of Federici and other experts:

“In the early years, everybody had starry eyes,” Federici says. “They thought loving, caring families could heal these kids. I warned them: These kids are going to push you to the breaking point. Get trained to work with special-needs children. Keep their bedrooms spare and simple. Instead of ‘I love you,’ just tell them, ‘You are safe.’ 


"The most successful parents, he believes, were able to focus on imparting basic living skills and appropriate behaviors.” 

I believe that was what happened with K. Coming from a family of origin where there was no physical and emotional stability, he and his brother were operating from a survivalist mode. It was every boy for himself, as they snatched, hit, bit and screamed their way to get the things that they wanted. Every sentence was punctuated with the words "I want" and "Mine". After all if K was not fast enough to get the food, his brother J would have snatched it away from him. And that was after J had already eaten his own sizeable portion of food. 

As such, the first few months were about creating a safe environment of rules and routines. This was in essence a complete re-wiring of everything the child had experienced. The children came from an environment of great unpredictability. They were unable to read the emotions of their birth family, and lived in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety. When we imposed rules and routines at the onset of the foster placement, we were conveying to them that they were now living in a different home. While some of these rules may have been strict to them at first, however as time went by, they learnt that as long as they kept within the rules and routines imposed by us, that they were free to be themselves. This is the paradox of fostering; that a strict routine provides a safe environment that is predictable to the foster child. And once there is predictability, the foster child is then able to explore his emotions and the world around in a safe and secure manner.

In the two months since K's brother left, we have observed another aspect of his development. Gone are the snatching and biting behaviours displayed at the start of his placement. Instead, we hear K physically speaking more, and attempting to inject himself more into the fabric of our family. For instance, when we were discussing where to go to "celebrate" the dining out phase following the end of the Covid circuit breaker lockdown, we heard a tiny but clear voice from the back of the car. "Chicken rice, please." Then again later when Sue was asking our two boys what fruit they would like after dinner, we heard that same determined voice. "Banana, please."

Our 3-year-old foster child had learnt how to individuate and express his desires in a clear yet undemanding manner. 

Little K has grown in self-confidence during his stay with us, He now tries to scoot around when we go for a walk around the neighbourhood.

We are only human. While many of us foster parents choose to love our foster kids because we feel sorry for them or their birth circumstances, such feelings of love may sometimes give way to exasperation or grief when the foster kid tears up your favourite book or destroys your grandmother's antique porcelain plate. For us the initial months with K were hard as he and his brother seemed to be destroying all semblance of normalcy in the home. Everyday was a tussle which was peppered with lots of tantrums and displays of disobedience. And while I admit it was hard for me to love them in relation to the touchy-feely sense of the word, the love that I had for them stemmed more out of responsibility and also a desire to change their behaviour from the inside.

However, as the months went by, and following J's departure from our house, K began to display more and more signs of affection, and I believe this change in disposition was likely a response to the change in physical environment that he was now encountering. He was feeling safe; and he was now able to experience what it meant to have love and intimacy.

But love and intimacy does not come from thin air. Developmental theories largely link these emotions to that of healthy attachments. This builds on the entire body of literature discussing attachment theory, a concept I had written about in my previous blog posts. Consequently, it seemed that K needed to feel a sense of safety before being able to attach to our family, which resultantly caused him to feel love and desire greater intimacy with us.

The advent of Fathers' Day in Singapore coincided with the post-Circuit Breaker Phase Two opening of the economy. As our family went out for our first evening meal following the resumption of outdoor dining and the opening of playgrounds, little K tagged along without any additional attention drawn to him. He ate with us, played with the older boys, and ran around just like any other member of our family. From the outside, nobody would have guessed that he was a foster kid; one who has a whole host of emotional baggage trapped within.  From that perspective, Fathers' Day has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I know I am not only a father to my two older boys, but for this season, I represent everything that the word "father" should mean to little K. And I need to continue demonstrating what it means to be a father; for only then would the little boy continue to feel that he is being protected by us, and only then can he develop in a more healthy manner in all the other aspects of his life. 

Our first night out celebrating the start of Phase 2 of the economic re-opening period. Little K was absolutely thrilled to just eat out with us.
                                                             

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