After a busy day, we all sat down to eat dinner. We were talking, but I don’t remember what exactly prompted Maliah (5), the oldest of the kids in the home to say that she only loves her mommy and dada and not Gabe and I.
It’s times like these that I’m grateful we took the foster care training, I have found it helpful to understand how kids think in general, not just those in foster care. I knew Maliah wasn’t really saying she didn’t love us, there has been many times in the past where she has expressed love and affection towards us. Kids (and even adults sometimes) feel they need to be loyal to their blood family no matter what the situation is and sometimes, expressing love to other adults or parental figures may feel like they’re betraying or offending their family. Her claims of “exclusive love” didn’t bother me, but then she proceeded to say “well, you guys don’t have any kids, I’m their kid” as she pointed to her parents. Even clearer now, I knew she was simply affirming her understanding of who her immediate biological family is versus close friends or even extended family. This is actually very important for kids to do, especially small kids in foster care who live in ever-changing situations, bouncing around from home to home. Maliah was never in foster care, but in her short life, she has lived in different family member’s homes and now finds herself in a house full of other people. It’s important for kids in any situation to have a clear understanding of their identity as someone’s son or daughter, it helps them understand where they fit in, where they belong, and what their role is. I understand this. What I wasn’t ready for were the emotions that her statement “you guys don’t have any kids” made me feel.
It felt like a gentle, but solidly grounding call to put my feet back on the ground. After living together for months, I honestly started feeling like these are my kids. Obviously I know they’re not, but the daily routines, the familiar voices, shared experiences, and the overall involvement we have had in their lives, starting with Melody in 2018, has really put me in a place where I can identify with parents and their struggles (You can read our story about fostering Melody, her reunification and now, in a way, fostering her whole family starting with this post or browse the different “chapters” here). Hearing that statement from this little 5 year old girl put me in my place. Not that I was trying to fill a role that isn’t mine or that I have literally lost touch with reality, but as I said, it was a friendly reminder of who I am in this picture. Let me be clear that I am not resentful of what my role is, I love being “Mamita” (this is what the kids call me, who relate to me as their godmother) I love this fostering role that God has called my family and I into. It provides a unique perspective to the situation which allows us to both deeply empathize but also to provide a more objective evaluation of how we can help a family thrive. I understand this… HOWEVER, I can’t control or hide the fact that it did hurt to be reminded that technically… we don’t have any kids.
In foster care, the ultimate goal is always reunification, and ideally for the bio family and the foster family to work together on good terms for the best of the child in care. God granted us the best possible outcome of foster care- a reunification where we didn’t lose a child, but gained a family. So much so that we are literally all living together right now and have come to know each other pretty well. We get to see our first foster daughter every day along with her siblings and her mommy and dada! This is all good! However, I just want to acknowledge those feelings that are still present and real to foster families. I write these blogs, not knowing who will read them, but I do hope that I can both shed some light to what it’s like inside the foster care community and to give a virtual nod to all those foster parents who may be experiencing the same thing. It’s ok to be both happy and sad at the same time, it’s ok to feel the things you feel so long as you are grounded in truth!
As I reflected on these feelings I thought about how situations like these are like eating a piece of dark chocolate. A little bitter, a little sweet, and slightly dry, but actually good for you. Having this piece of dark chocolate slowly melt in my mouth, I have come to realize that everyone in our home has had to bite into this bar. Living together has helped us see where that bar of chocolate pops up in each of our lives. For my husband and I, the sweetness is in getting to be a part of these kids lives, to be able to help their family as a whole flourish, to be able to witness the role of foster care come to fruition— preventing the disintegration of a family. All these good things have been worth the bitter tinge of the bite, that is, knowing that as much as we can be considered family, these are not our kids.
During these past months, I think we have all come to catch glimpses of each other going through some bittersweet moments. Keeping up with the dark chocolate analogy, sometimes we take a nibble and sometimes we tear off a huge chunk but we have all been there. Paternal relationships have been a subtle, but very pervasive undercurrent of this whole experience. 7 out of the 9 people living in our home have either an estranged, non-existent, or an ok yet complicated relationship with their biological fathers, that’s about 75% of our home! Some have a present father figure in their lives that isn’t biologically related but is fulfilling the role of a father and I would say are indeed a father. However, this doesn’t erase the fact that there is a biological father that is wondered about, hurt about, and maybe even still loved and missed deeply. It’s ok to feel both happy and grateful for the people God has placed in our lives but it’s perfectly normal to still feel hurt over the relationships we have lost, have broken, or long to have. We can feel happy and sad at the same time, this doesn’t mean we are diminishing the value of the people present in our lives.
This makes me think of how many kids grow up with complicated family relationships and how we need to do the best we can to help them navigate through them. It’s important to allow kids to work through their feelings and to acknowledge and validate their hurt or confusion about whatever their situation is. We don’t have to try and ignore or downplay the questions kids may have about their blended family. I know that many times it’s an attempt to protect them that adults may say things to make the child think that they shouldn’t be sad about the state of a certain relationship with a specific individual (or individuals) because they have other people who love them in their lives. This may only cause kids to feel guilty or scared to talk about their feelings of grief of longing or to simply repress and ignore them.
It’s ok to tell kids that sometimes life is messy and complicated and that their family may look different than what the world expects it to and that’s ok. Instead of trying to block kids from reality, we can simply listen, validate, and we can ask if there is something we can do that would help them feel better. Don’t promise to change the situation, promise to be there through it, let kids have their dark chocolate too.
One of the most valuable lessons that our foster care training gave us was the importance of telling kids they don’t have to choose between their foster family or their biological family, they can love them both. This same principle can be applied to all types of blended families including step parents, step siblings, and half siblings, kids should not be made to choose who to love, or who to love more, out of fear of “hurting someone’s feelings”. As adults, we need to be secure in ourselves and know that kids have the right to love all those who are in their family, not just us. Acknowledging that we love each individual in a different and special way is fine, but make sure to assure kids that there is enough room in their heart to love all their family members. Some may think that we shouldn’t even make distinctions between biological, step, half, or adopted family members but at the end of the day, we cannot lie to children, they will find out one way or another. What I do agree with is that the day to day interactions and functionality of relationships shouldn’t be distinctly different. The love, care, and treatment of foster, adopted, and biological kids needs to be indistinguishable.
Many times the relationships between the adults in the family are rocky, but we shouldn’t allow our hurts and resentments against others to lead us to make kids take “sides”. As kids grow and learn about life and ask more about how their family came to be as it is, they will be able to formulate their own opinions and judgments. I’m not suggesting that we necessarily hide the truth about how we have been hurt by particular members of the family, but we must evaluate if particular details are relevant to the child’s relationship with the individual.
Every situation is different of course, some relationships may be unsafe and unwise but this is still not a reason to hide the truth from kids when they ask. It may be a better reason to tell the truth. If kids start asking questions when they’re still too young to understand, we don’t have to make up an answer or ignore the question, we can simply let them know that they will know when they’re older, and tell them the details they can understand and that are age appropriate.
Families involved in foster care including, social workers, case workers, and counselors eat a fair amount of dark chocolate in their lives. This has been an experience for my husband and I that has brought about many complex emotions but has also spurred a lot of growth in the both of us. Those who are not involved in foster care but have complicated relationships with parents or are in blended families often times also experience lots of complexities. However, everyone has or will experience some bittersweet moments or situations in their lifetime. Not necessarily around the relationship with family or friends, it could be an illness, or an accident that has brought both good and bad things into your life. My husband, for example, went through a horrible accident while serving in the army many years ago. To make the long story short, after almost 2 years in the hospital, 30+ surgeries and extensive burns, he should not be here today but God had other plans. It is because of this accident that God has blessed him with many opportunities to serve other people in many ways. While it’s not in the least bit a happy time to remember, it is a constant, sweet reminder that God has always taken care of him and still wants to use him to bring blessings into other peoples lives.
Where have you found dark chocolate in your life? Would you be the same person you are today if you hadn’t experienced those moments or situations in your life?
A little bitter
A little sweet
But still a treat
A little happy
A little sad
Yet greatly glad
A little left
A little right
But still just right