My husband and I were pretty laid back parents to our birth child. There were boundaries and expectations and rules, but we all tended to go with the flow to some extent. There was an inbuilt, unspoken trust and understanding which grew naturally between us as our daughter grew.
So there was me, thinking I had the parenting lark all sewn up. Show by example rather than being a dictator, always be emotionally available and open, explain things in a rational way, be slow to get angry, be physically demonstrative and close to your child, tell them you love them, fill their days with exciting challenges and new experiences.
Then we started fostering. All the assumptions I had made about what good parenting was went flying out of the window, along with a fair dose of smugness.
Show by example – this idea falls down flat on its face unless you are fostering a baby, who hasn’t had a chance to attach itself to someone abusive or neglectful or incapable. Alfie and Rose were aged 2 and 3 when they arrived in our house. After months of trying to ‘show by example’ – about everything from eating, to dressing, to sharing, to empathising about others and allowing people personal space – I gave up. Alfie and Rose’s parents had subjected them to unimaginable abuse and neglect. They had grown up in fear and chaos, with hunger and pain being used to control them. And here was me expecting them to stop stealing food, to think about others, not to shoplift, and not to inflict injury on people and pets. Just because I, and the rest of my family didn’t do it.
I found that, in order to get Rose and Alfie to behave in a way that was even partially acceptable, I had to state the obvious, each day. ‘When we go to the shop, you must not take things that we have not paid for.’ ‘Do not put your hands into the bag of the person in front of us in the queue.’ ‘Don’t sit on the lap of anybody you don’t know.’ ‘Don’t offer anybody a massage – ever.’ ‘Don’t follow any other families or run off.’ ‘Stay close.’ The list of instructions grew with each week that the children spent with us. And while to me it seemed crazy, sometimes rude or patronising to have to give out these dictates, it worked…..sometimes.
Moving on to my wonderful idea of explaining things rationally. That’s fine when you’re speaking to a calm, confident child who is used to receiving helpful advice from adults. When you’re trying to discuss the reasons for not running across a road, stepping closer to the train line or moving towards a cliff edge but you’re faced with a chaotic, flailing child who has only ever been guided by fists and kicks – it’s a different story. Detailed explanations have to move aside for short, sharp orders. I had to become the kind of strict, dictatorial parent who barks at their children, watches their every move and tries to pre-empt disaster by keeping them close at all times. I couldn’t allow Rose the luxury of exploring – she would disappear, attaching herself to a family, a couple, a lone man – anyone who happened to be in our vicinity. I became, not over protective, because I was, after all, doing what she needed, but on constant high alert. My stress levels reached ever higher with each trip out to the park, the shops, a friend’s house.
Being slow to anger – I had never had a problem with this until I was, over night, given the charge of two extremely chaotic children. Most of the things which are bewitching and loveable about children were missing in Rose and Alfie. They lacked empathy. If they saw something they wanted, they took it. If someone was in their way, that person was pushed aside, kicked, stamped on, whatever it took to remove them from the equation. Both children displayed highly sexualised behaviour, towards each other, towards other children and towards nearly every adult, including myself and my husband. Rose took great delight in hurting our pets, nearly causing the death of one of our kittens. I discovered that I could get angry, very quickly, that seeing friends and family members and pets shocked, hurt and upset by Rose and Alfie made me furious. I found myself shouting at the children, on a fairly regular basis. I couldn’t speak to Rose for nearly a week after she threw our kitten down the stairs.
Of course, I had experienced anger before, in relation to our daughter, but the strength of our bond and the nurturing parenting she had received meant she and I would reconcile soon after an argument. She would understand the need to make amends and would want to win back my approval if she had done something wrong. The making up made us stronger.
All thoughts of trying to get Rose and Alfie to make amends, admit responsibility or say sorry disappeared into the ether within a few weeks of their arrival. If they were caught out stealing food, breaking toys or belongings, running off or hurting other children, their response was complete emotional shut down. Overwhelmed by confusion and shame, they would switch off to me and everyone around them, head in the sand, hoping desperately that we’d all go away. It took years for them to even be able to look at me when they were being told off.
Being physically demonstrative – an absolute no. Children who have been sexually and physically abused by their parents and who are suddenly uprooted and dropped into your household will not usually be receptive to touch, or certainly not in a healthy, safe way. In the first few weeks he lived with us, Alfie responded to any physical closeness by screaming. Rose responded by becoming hyper excited or inappropriate. We had to tread ever so slowly with both if them, and although it went against all my maternal instincts, I had to allow both children to come to me when they were ready, and not to rush them.
Likewise, telling Rose and Alfie that we loved them seemed to elicit strange reactions. Alfie clearly didn’t understand what we were talking about, while Rose took it to mean we wanted some kind of sexual contact with her. We had to find other ways to express our love, to become inventive.
New experiences and exciting adventures – yes, back in the early days we really did think that foster children would welcome such things. Wrong. Taking the children out of a home environment where, for the first time in their lives, they felt safe, and then expecting them to embrace the outside world was clearly a mistake. They were terrified, and expressed their fear in a raft of different ways. Rose would run off, disappear, beg for food from other people, steal things, and generally ramp up the chaotic behaviour. Alfie would become catatonic, standing frozen in one place, dissociating from what was happening around him. He lost control of his bowels and bladder and sobbed silently, wrapped around my legs, under my feet, hanging onto my arm as if it was a lifebelt.
I cringe when I cast my mind back over some of the times I’ve shouted, given ridiculous ultimatums, pushed my crazy expectations onto foster children who could never dream of meeting them. My naive younger self had her assumptions well and truly trounced by each new placement, every child bringing their individual needs and challenges which shook me out of my state of complacency. Which, ultimately, was a good thing.
Just lately I’ve been wishing I could go back to that younger self, just before we started fostering. I would have a lot of advice to dole out, a lot of warnings to give, as well as words of hope and joy.
But hey, I thought I knew it all, I don’t suppose I would have listened anyway.