I am exciting to be participating in the 2012 Adoption Blogger Interview Project, the brain child of Heather Schade.of Production, Not Reproduction (a smart and thoughtful blog on open adoption). She lad this soiree last year and I remember wishing I had participated, so I was excited to be a part of it this year. Heather assembles a great cross-section of adoption bloggers; from birthmoms to adoptees to adoptive parents, and allows us to interview each other. I was paired with Thorn of Mother Issues. My interview with her is below. You can read answers to the questions she posed to me on her blog.
We need some back-story. Can you give a quick run-down of your family makeup and members?
I am nerdy white lesbian atheist pacifist in my early 30s, raised near where we now live in an intensely Catholic family. My partner Lee is sporty, black and in her 40s, has a strong Christian identity, and was raised and adopted by her paternal grandparents after being informally removed from her mom's care at about 18 months in a deep midwestern state. Our daughter Mara, 5 this month, moved in with us two days before her third birthday as a foster placement and her adoption was finalized about a year later. She is black and both her parents currently live in our town, while her siblings live with relatives in the next town over from ours. Our foster daughter Nia, 6, who's also black, moved in with us at the end of June. We see her paternal grandmother periodically and she's recently started visits with her mom. Plus at home we have a dog, two cats, and a turtle.
How did you decide to build your family through adoption? Was it something you and your partner both felt strongly about, or did one of you initiate the conversation?
Both Lee and I were independently interested in adoption before we got together, and one of our first conversations was about that. Neither one of us felt an urge to have a child who's biologically connected to us, and we started the foster training process a few years into our relationship. It took two years from starting classes to ending up with Mara placed in our home. I know that during the training class, we took turns wavering on who was freaked out by what was being taught that week and whether we could handle it. Lee was not sure she could handle the short-term nature of fostering and so she wanted us to only be open to adoptive placements. We had decided to change our home from adoption-only to foster and adoption a week or two before we got the call about Mara, and we knew that there was a good likelihood Mara's case would go to adoption from the start.
You've had several foster placements. Was adoption the end goal there, or did you plan on just being foster parents as well? What was it like having kids leave your home? How have you dealt with the ambiguity of short-term placements?
We started out only being interested in adoption and were having a hard time being matched with kids who seemed like a good fit for our strengths, possibly because our homestudy was absolutely horrible and full of errors. We were twice matched with teen boys and both of them ended up choosing not to be adopted by us, though both have remained in our lives and are now 18. (It blows my mind sometimes to think about how different life would have been if I'd started parenting a 16-year-old rather than a 3-year-old two years ago!)
Mara came to us as essentially a foster-to-adopt placement and once she was settled in our home, it was clear that she wanted more children around and we thought we could manage that. We opened our home to foster placements again in late summer of 2011, but were very deliberate about the situations we were willing to accept because with two working parents and a little girl with her own trauma history, there was only so much we had to give. At the same time, we finally met Mara's siblings and extended family and eventually her parents through fall of 2011, so we were building new relationships there too.
In fall of 2011, we accepted placement of a sister and brother, Val and Alex, who were 5 and 4 at the time and who had been living in the home of a relative who could no longer keep up with them. We were the only open foster home in our town and thus their only chance to easily stay in their school district, which is what pushed us to agree to take them into our home. It was clear from the start that their parents loved them and had their best interests in mind and that returning them to their parents seemed like the appropriate goal to us. Lee and I had a very challenging time managing three kids within 18 months of age at once, and it caused huge relationship stress. By the time the kids went home (technically to a relative's custody but living in the same home as their parents) we were at a point where we probably would have had to ask to have them moved to another foster home rather than stay with us indefinitely. Lee hung on because she knew there was an end in sight, and I really commend her for that because I know how hard it was on her. It wasn't sad to see them go because we had a long transition and because I knew how much their parents loved them and had the capacity to care for them appropriately if given the right support. It has been incredibly tough, though, that their parents didn't keep in touch with us and then that things went wrong enough that now they are back in foster care. I do a lot of soul-searching about my role in all of this, but I think for the most part we were a positive factor and the system (as their family caseworkeer implementd it) was a big problem.
Four months after Val and Alex had gone home, we were approached by our caseworker about 6-year-old girl, Nia, whose foster family was closing its home, which also was the situation in which Mara had come to us. Lee and I were both hesitant about whether this would be a good fit or whether we'd fall back into habits that would hurt the relationship, but Mara and Nia hit it off from the start and Nia moved in with us about 10 days after we first met her. Her case is a hard one, where it's not clear whether her mom will be able to do all the things she needs to do to be an appropriate parent. If she's not, the trial to terminate her rights will probably begin in summer of 2013 and Lee and I at this point expect to be willing to adopt Nia if it comes to that. At the moment, there aren't any relatives who are able to take custody of her. I'm in the tough position of hoping her mom can get herself together for Nia's sake and also selfishly wanting to keep this awesome child with us for as long as possible. Mara still misses Val and Alex but understand why they left. She is much, much closer to Nia and I think a separation would be extremely emotionally difficult for both of them. We'll see.
You've been pretty open about the stress of foster care and the strain it placed on your relationship. What would you want to tell other parents about that as they prepare?
You have to know yourself and know your partner, if you have one, but also recognize that you really don't know what any of this will be like until you're in the middle of it. In our case, I had some suspicions about how Lee's painful childhood history would be triggered by parenting a child if she didn't feel strongly attached to that child, and it turned out that I was right on the mark but I hadn't anticipated how hard it would be for me to deal with her responses. There were some things from my history that we thought would be emotional triggers for me, but the teen whose experience overlapped them from a different direction ended up learning a lot from what I had to say and using me as a resource for several years to come. (Sorry that I talk about a lot of this obliquely; it's not my story and it's hard to know how to say what's going on without saying too much of what's going on.)
We now have an excellent relationship therapist, and that's been a wonderful thing. She's good at reminding us to put on our own oxygen masks first, saying that each of us needs to prioritize herself first, then the relationship, and then the children, which is not to say that they get ignored but that we need to have ourselves as individuals and as a couple healthy and secure before we can really be effective parents. So we're working on that! So much boils down to communication, though, and when Alex was waking me 20 times a night and Lee was so frustrated by the chaos in the house that she tried to spend her evenings out with friends instead, we weren't in any position to be able to communicate effectively. Now we may disagree on how something should work, but we try to back each other up and to check in frequently. I love her so much and I don't want to see us sabotage that by stretching ourselves too thin elsewhere.
For me, a lot of this means giving up on my ideals of how family should look. I am hugely in favor of family dinners, but Lee can only manage 10 minutes or so before certain table manners turn her stomach and drive her away. When Val and Alex were with us and everytng was a struggle, that lt like a rejection of me every single night. Now that I understand where she's coming from, I respect it and appreeciate her effort even if deep down I think she should just suck it up and join in. We're both doing our best, but because we're very different people that can look very different. And my way is not always better. I really am working on believing that!
Right now, you have an adoptive daughter and a foster daughter in the home, who may reunify. How do you balance the dynamic of having a permanent child and a temporary child living as siblings? How do you temper your own feelings when you don't know the future?
Lee and I would have very different answers to this one! I don't have much trouble living with ambiguity and a variety of potential futures, but it drives her up the wall! For Lee, it's been very important to carve out time for Mara to spend time with her moms as part of our core family, which is easy to do since she has a later bedtime than Nia does and so we get to spend some family time together at the end of the day. At the same time, in a lot of ways Mara was excluded from "family" life in the foster family she was with before she came to us, and it makes me so sad to think about that. So we also make sure we're spending time individually and as a couple with just Nia and including her in larger "family" things we do, like a vacation with my relatives and just going to the pumpkin patch, hanging her photo around the house, that sort of thing.
We just had new concrete steps poured from the sidewalk to our yard and Lee and I tussled about whether Nia's handprint should go in there or just Mara's. I ended up winning, my argument being that if Nia ends up leaving and seeing her handprint there makes Lee or Mara sad, we can just put a plant on that corner of the steps and be done with it. But if she stays, we don't want a reminder forever that Mara got to do something she didn't even though she was here.
One of the other things we have to juggle is that in addition to our family, they each have their own biological families and none of the rest of us are technically part of those. I have to say how impressed I've been with how each family has welcomed the other girl, with Nia's grandma bringing extra treats so Mara and Nia could have the same when we met her at a park downtown and Mara's dad compliments both of them on their tumbling and dancing and pats them both on the head when we see him. Mara has a sister who's four months older than Nia and while we haven't done as much as I'd like with all three girls together, that's a connection all three find special. In fact, three of Mara's siblings were with us for Mara's birthday party and the kids played well together.
You've always been an advocate for birth parents working their case plan to reunify. Why is this important to you?
I can be general about this or specific and I'm not sure which version is more honest or accurate. Taking on the job of fostering means recognizing that except in drastic circumstances, family reunification is going to be the initial goal. To me, there's the added piece that I don't want to end up adopting a child whose parents were cheated out of custody. In Mara's case, neither parent made any steps toward reunification, which I think was their way of signaling acceptance that they weren't ready to parent then. With Val and Alex, it was clear that their parents had made great strides toward fixing the problems in their lives and both Lee and I intervened significantly because we thought their parrents were being treated unfairly and that advocating for them was a way to advocate for the kids' best interests. With Nia, I'm somewhere in the middle, praising her mom for the incremental improvements she's been making but not trying to make it any easier for her because I'm honestly not convinced she can take care of herself and someone else right now. I did make a complaint on the record when I thought she was being treated unfairly, but I'm not going to try to be her voice or anything like that, not at this point.
The reality is that living in poverty in our country is painful and impacts the kids and their families. If your caseplan says you need to hold down a job, attend counseling sessions, and get weekly drug screens, what do you do when your caseworker calls to say something is scheduled during work hours? How much time are you spending on buses if you have no car? How are you going to get housing or a job with a drug felony on your record even if you're clean now? How do you keep in touch with your kids' foster parents if you don't have a phone? How do you make peace with yourself when you've always defined yourself by your role as a loving parent and have to accept that your actions and choices hurt your children and that your separation from them is hurting you both? As a foster parent, I try to approach the parents the children in my care have universally loved with empathy. Even in cases of abuse, I think that wow, your life must be in a pretty miserable place if you think hurting a child will help you feel better. It's rare that there are true monsters who enjoy torturing children, though we had to deal with something similar once, and mostly I try to think of the kids' parents with as much kindness and generosity as I can muster.
I've shared a bit of Mara's parents' story on my blog, but it was clear from the start that there were both sympathetic and unsympathetic ways to read the reasons they were no longer caring for her, and for her sake I chose to start from the assumption of making the sympathetic choice. Neither parent made any effort to reunify, as far as I know, but both are a part of her life now after the year-plus they were separated while she was in foster care, and I didn't get to know them until after their rights had been terminated. Mara's mother had a baby die of SIDS and has not successfully parented since then. To me, that doesn't excuse her problems as a parent but I think it clarifies the unresolved pain underlying some of them. I hope that she will be able to get to a point where she can be an effective parent someday, but it will take work. Her dad is older and seems able to be excellent in an uncle-type role but is not more active than that in the lives of any of his kids, and dealing with him means acknowledging that reality and accepting the love he has to give.
You have mentioned that parenting this way can be isolating. I can relate to that. Why do you think that is?
As I write this, there's an acrimonious school board election going on in our town. I don't have the luxury some of my neighbors in our more gentrified zone have of talking about "our kids" versus the "needy kids." I adore my kids and that means acknowledging they were born poor and black in a culture that values neither of those attributes. So my concerns about attachment, about the progress they're making or not making academically after whatever deficits they bring with them come into play, are different from the worries of the other mothers whose kids are in ballet at the Y. I have a lot of different groups of friends, but the foster parents we know here seem to be threatened by the openness we have and how much we discuss race, while the black lesbians who are raising kids have biological children without adoption histories and the lesbians who've adopted are mostly white, and so on. I want the girls to see other families with gay parents and other families withh adopted or fostered children, but I've seen too many transracial adoptees whose only same-race or same-culture friends are also adopted, and I'm also trying to keep them connected to their cultures and their families. I'm doing all this while dealing with two very verbal girls who want to process everything, want Lee and me to watch everything they do, want to be cuddled and coddled more than some of the kids their age who've gotten that consistent support all along might. Mara still can't comfortably fall asleep by herself and I'm writing this in Nia's room while she drifts off to sleep. I understand where their fear, worry, need for reassurance come from, but responding appropriately takes significant time. (Hair takes time too and as the white mom of black girls, I really don't think I can economize there, even though the amount of time I spend in a week sounds unreasonable to other white people.)
Partly, too, it's a function of the girls' ages and I'm seeing our friends whose kids are 9-12 suddenly have a social life, but I'm doing parenting that is therapeutic, though not necessarily what often gets referred to as "therapeutic parenting" online, and also working full-time and reading books on my lunch break and writing on a blog occasionally and learning to quilt and trying to find time to be the partner and person I want to be in there somewhere too. The girls will take as much of my waking time as I have to give, and so I'm working on boundaries that keep me mentally healthy and keep them satisfied and it's hard!
A huge thanks to Thorn for giving us a peek into her life as an adoptive and foster parent! I would encourage you to head over to the main page for the 2012 Adoption Blogger Interview Project and check out the other interviews.