Fostering in the Trenches - A War Story

It was a heart-wrenching wail which permeated the stillness of the night. 

And the accompanying cry was no less disturbing, an appeal which persisted for no less than half an hour.

"I don't want the light off!"

Yes, it was time to sleep, and our 3-year-old foster son was throwing a tantrum once again and refusing to sleep. 

This incident took place about a month ago, and it was the first in a series of nightly tantrums, each persisting for seemingly innocuous reasons; the day after it was "I don't want the giraffe water bottle!", which was followed by "I don't want the apple!" and then, when all else seemed to fail, it became "It is not nighttime!"

Little K on one of his earlier outings with the family. The twin boys were then amused to be given twin bananas!

Sometimes we feel we're fighting a battle. 

As a history student I will always remember the trenches of World War One where the British and German forces fought hand to hand for years. If World War Two is remembered for the atomic bombs and the mass destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War One memories are largely linked to its trench warfare, which was a stalemate for both sides. And for us, fostering sometimes feels like we are fighting trench warfare, with a metaphorical stalemate on all sides. 

We know the reason for our foster son's tantrums - they seem to occur without fail each time the child meets his birth family. But for that week, the tantrums were especially bad, and we know it was probably because he got to stay with his birth family for four days. Isn't it a good thing for the foster child to have a close relationship with his birth family? After all the goal of fostering is reintegration with the birth family, and the state operates on the premise that regular interactions between foster child and birth family are beneficial and would help in the eventual reintegration process.

K loves the beach and the outdoors, activities that are very much part of our family.

But for foster children, they are often conflicted. On one hand they really do enjoy spending time with their birth families. It is a reminder of a life in the past, and children remember all the good things that such a life entailed, with the brain blocking out the difficult moments experienced. On the other hand, foster kids have become accustomed to the routines and the modus operandi of their new homes, and the stability affords them a security that they have become used to. 

So when foster children go back to see their birth family, they are bombarded with the emotions from these two contrasting settings, and they experience an inner anguish. This is manifested when they "act up" upon their return to their foster family. For younger children who are unable to express themselves, the contradictory emotions take the form of multiple tantrums, whether at home or in school. As for older children, they display more "emo" behaviour, either choosing to withdraw into themselves, or to lash out at everyone around them, with the foster parents bearing the brunt of the outburst. This is as foster parents become the embodiment of the child's emotional turmoil source.

And the demands from the birth family are no less intense. The birth parents have constantly focussed on things we deem to be external, such as aspects of his appearance. However, our emphasis has been more on things on the inside, like his character and manners.

So it can get very tiring and draining, as foster parents, to continually have to explain yourself - why you do the things that you do; and it can sometimes feel like you are nothing more than an "underpaid nanny", having to pander to every whim and fancy of the birth family.

K on one of his recent outings. He has grown so much more confident in his interactions with the playground equipment; quite a far cry from what he was like when he first came to us.

Yet we are reminded why the birth parents do this - because they are unable to care for their child on a regular basis, and that there is an inherent anxiety about the care of the child. Birth parents therefore tend to overcompensate when they meet their kids, and the children are often given all sorts of treats. And birth families expect foster families to treat their children in the same way. 

Moreover, birth families are dealing with numerous physical, mental and emotional issues - there's a reason why the children are under foster care; so that the families can use the time to deal with these difficult issues. As such, many birth families may express resentful against the foster parents for "taking away" their children, and the demands on the foster families are a manifestation of their own unmet desires and expectations. Hence foster parents can become the punching bag of many birth families.

That's all theory naturally.

In practice it is really hard to foster the child; to deal with the day-to-day tantrums of the child, and yet manage the expectations of birth parents who don't seem to appreciate anything that you do.

Routines are important for foster kids. Yet the new routines of the foster family can serve as stressors for the children, who are so used to the old habits of the birth family.

Why then do we go on?

This is one of my favourite quotes from Lord of the Rings and it explains why we still do what we do.

"Frodo: I can't do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness, and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo...and it's worth fighting for."

There is much darkness in our world; but at the end of the day it's the vulnerable families who are at the short end of the stick. And the children always end up suffering.

So when we foster, we get down into the trenches and fight for the ones who are not able to fend for themselves. We fight for the children who are hurting from all the pain arising from their past difficult circumstances. And we fight for the hope of a better tomorrow; that a child with a painful past can get a lift up and rise above his or her circumstances.

Yes, we have many chances to turn back; but we instead choose to keep going. For there is still some good in the world. And there is the hope that we can make a difference for these precious little ones; one proverbial sea star at a time.

"The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

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