July 3, 2015
There was a while during which I seriously wondered whether our decision to foster had forever changed my second oldest son, and not for the better. I avoid names except for Todd’s and mine here on this blog, but since I’ll be talking about him quite a bit in this post, let’s call him Maverick. Maverick has always been my happy-go-lucky kid, imperfect in many ways, but a frequent source of entertainment and laughter.
He also tends to have a higher level of emotion than my oldest son, period. When we were taking our PS-MAPP class in preparation to foster, they had us do an exercise they called the Imaginary Journey (clever name, yes? because it was a journey, and it was imaginary? get it?), which was just a way to visualize what it might feel like to be a foster child. We closed our eyes and listened closely while someone described scenes of us being taken away from our families, taken to a home we were unfamiliar with filled with cheerful people who wanted us to feel glad to be there; we were told to imagine becoming first used to then attached to the family we were with; and we were asked to picture the transition home, to a biological family that had begun to feel like strangers, after a long period of time growing apart. After we did this in class, we were asked to do it with our children at home, so the next day I sat my older two boys on the couch, asked them to close their eyes, and began to tell them the story. When I finished, Maverick opened his eyes and he was crying. He couldn’t put to words exactly what he was feeling, but I understood–the whole thing felt crummy, he hated having to imagine those things happening to him, and it made him feel compassion for the hypothetical child who would come to our home.
When that hypothetical child became our girl, Maverick’s compassion quickly turned to forbearance, and forbearance began to turn to resentment. Probably because they’re closest in age, she picked on him the most. In the beginning I would sometimes find him quietly crying because of something she had done. He didn’t want to retaliate, he didn’t want to tattle, but he was hurt by her actions. I would comfort him, applaud him for his patience, and try to help them make things right.
But here’s the thing that’s hard about bringing a situation like this into your home when you have young children–It changes EVERYTHING. For my kids, it wasn’t just that they had to share more, or forgive often, or figure out how to interact with a creature far more emotional than they. It’s that before, if they had a bad day at school, home was their place of safety. Whatever else was happening in life, home was the place where they could get hugged, where they could feel peace, where they could laugh freely and be themselves. Bringing our girl into our home changed that, and suddenly home was the place of least safety, at least emotionally speaking. In the beginning, she was wound up all the time. She shouted and screamed and snarled and banged the walls and kicked the boys out of their room and commandeered all their stuff and blamed them for everything that ever went wrong. She waited for them outside their room in the mornings and started shouting at them as her morning greeting, she shoved them, hollered in their faces, told them where to sit, where to go, what to do, and completely went to pieces if they didn’t obey. Todd and I were actively trying to find ways to solve these problems without making her feel like she was in trouble all the time, but this is what our days looked like. My oldest son, to a large extent, was able to let all this roll off his back. He would see some humor in it, he would feel some compassion, he would offer me his insights on why she was behaving that way, and he’d move on. He naturally treated her with more kindness and generosity than Maverick did, and because of that, and because he was older, she showed him some respect. She showed zero respect to Maverick, and it began to take its toll on him.
Goofiness turned to snarkiness, and humor turned to sarcasm. He didn’t laugh or smile as much, and he seemed edgy. He didn’t start lashing out, or even reacting to her mistreatment of him. But he started undermining their relationship in subtle ways, and the thing that felt so discouraging to me was that this began around the same time that her behavior started to improve. So, I would see her actually trying to be kind to him, or have fun with him, and he would respond flippantly or with sarcasm (which she still doesn’t get). She would adopt an interest of his as her own, and instead of taking joy in having something to share with her, he would leave that interest behind, to his detriment and hers. We would be having an otherwise calm and pleasant meal, and he would suddenly say something ridiculous, knowing it would get a reaction from her. He can look at his older brother and say “Hey, you’re the worst kid ever,” and they’ll stare blandly at each other for a moment and then burst out laughing, because they both know he thinks no such thing. When he looked at our girl and said that, well, I imagine you can guess the response it elicited. I don’t know how many conversations I had with him about exercising wisdom in what he says to whom, that the things he can say to his brother are not necessarily things he can say to her. We talked a lot about the second half of Romans 14, about how there are many things we can do that are not wrong in and of themselves, but they become wrong when they cause problems for others. I kept telling him that the problem wasn’t what he was doing, but the fact that he wasn’t demonstrating love towards her.
But the fact was, I don’t think Maverick loved our girl. It’s one thing to talk about unconditional love, how Jesus called us to love all people, but it’s another thing to live it. It’s asking a lot of a child to say “Here–you don’t know this girl, and she’s going to spend the next few months treating you like crap and stressing us all out. Please love her.” But we didn’t let him off the hook, and we talked often about what love, in its rawest, realest sense, looks like.
He spent five hours in our room one day, in a protracted time-out of sorts. He was bickering with her so much that I sent him in there to do his homework, away from her. I went in and talked to him when he had finished his homework, and he didn’t seem defiant or angry, just…flat. He couldn’t articulate feelings of frustration or bitterness, but he also couldn’t say “You’re right, I’m not acting very loving. I’m sorry and I’ll keep working on it.” He just stared at me, looking defeated. Keeping him in our room for the rest of the afternoon wasn’t really a punishment for him, it was more like a reprieve from reality. He had some books, he napped a little, and he had some peace and quiet. I hoped that he would emerge with a cheerful and magnanimous spirit firmly in place, but he didn’t. I cried that evening, cried about how different he seemed, and about his apparent inability to love her.
When we were preparing to foster, Todd and I often talked about how comfortable our kids’ lives had been, and how we knew that fostering would shake things up for them, and how we were okay with that. But we didn’t want our home to no longer feel like a refuge to them, and we hadn’t expected to see some of Maverick’s sweet personality traits, which we had taken for granted, start to disappear.
It’s different now, though. I wish I could say exactly where we turned a corner, but I’m not really sure. Practically speaking, one thing we did was make the boys’ rooms and the hallway leading up to them off-limits to her, and her room off-limits to them. (Our girl hates to be alone, so she is rarely in her room voluntarily except when she’s sleeping, but at least this arrangement kept things fair.) We started with just banning her from their rooms, which backfired with the whole standing-in-the-hall-shouting-into-their-room-first-thing-in-the-morning business. So then we told her she couldn’t go in that hallway at all, and to her credit, she has respected that rule, to the letter. She stands with her toes right at the edge of the hallway, but she doesn’t enter it. By giving them their room back, they once again had a place of peace and quiet, and that seemed to help Maverick start to relax. He didn’t just need a five-hour stint in my room once every few months, he needed an oasis from the chaos.
Having that space definitely helped, but I don’t know how many other factors did. It’s time and the Holy Spirit, I guess, but Maverick is back. He came back bit by bit, encouraging us with glimpses of his old self. He’s changed of course, because we all have, and because he’s older now. But those sweet personality traits–the ones we took for granted until we missed them–they came back. He acts sort of dramatically chivalrous towards our girl now. He sometimes calls her “my sister.” He laughs with her, and seeks her out to include her when he and my oldest are doing something fun, or when the baby is being cute and he doesn’t want her to miss it. He’s gone back to being relaxed and lighthearted and jokey, he does his silly opera voice, he smiles a lot. Things can still be tense, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a little easier now that the cloud has lifted from him. And you can see how much our girl enjoys his cheerful attention.
People who are considering fostering often ask me about the effect it has had on our kids, and all I can offer is this encouragement–it gets better. I used to struggle against feeling like it was our girl’s fault that Maverick was acting unloving, that somehow she had made him that way. She didn’t, though. Her presence only revealed things that were already hidden in his heart, and if anything I should be thankful, because she is the reason those things are being dealt with. For Maverick, for me, for all of us, I pray this season leaves us with bigger, softer hearts.
Metaphorically speaking, of course. Medically, I hope our hearts remain exactly the same.