This is hard; this isn’t about me; this is foster care.

Yesterday I was minding my own business at work, deep into a pile of deadline projects (due tomorrow). My husband CT was prepping for his third round of an interview for a dream job. My daughter Issy would be returning from her dad’s that day. Our next respite weekend with the babies was another week and a half away.

That morning, I’d received a gorgeous box of candy and doughnuts from a friend, an amazing gift she sent because she thought we deserved some kindness after all we do for the babies 💗

IT WAS ALL AMAZING

Talk about divine timing. Or irony.

After lunch, we got the call. The babies needed a place to stay – their whanau caregiver was in hospital. At least tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe longer.

Why now, I thought. Of all the days.

CT freaked. He needed to prep for his interview. He needed to sleep well. I was up to my eyeballs at work. I could not take half days or work from home.

Is there anyone else? I asked. Any other whanau?

No, no one. The girls would likely be split up and put into different foster homes.

Nightmare scenario.

So CT and I hashed it out. And said yes, because I couldn’t live with myself if we’d said no.

To manage this, we hyper-extended ourselves. I collected the girls and they cried for 75% of the 75-minute drive. Ana because she was over being in her seat, and Baby because she had been sleeping when I got her, awoke, realised I was there but she couldn’t get to me, and lost her sh*t for 40 minutes.

CT and I struggled through the girls’ marathon 2-hour bedtimes, tag teaming so he could study his material. We were up today at 5:30am on broken sleep, trying to get me out the door early with the babies to take them to their daycare on the other side of town.

We left late. I got lost. It took me 2 hours to get to work.

Coming home mid-afternoon, traffic was diabolical. Another 90 minutes. I lost my sh*t. I cried for 10 of the 90 minutes.

You know, only light sobbing, so as not to traumatise the kids.

Tonight, we braced ourselves for a long-haul visit, beyond a few days, because you never know. To prepare, I decided to re-sleep-train the kids with controlled timed crying, so as to save our sanity and back muscles. We’d done this when they lived with us full-time, and it saved everyone’s lives. I also can’t get onside with Ana newly needing a bottle of milk to fall asleep at nearly 2 years old plus 2 hours of music and shhh-ing and cuddles, or Baby needing 15 minutes of back patting and 20 minutes of wrestling her back into the crib before that. We couldn’t survive like that if they stayed longer.

Well. It was very painful. Baby was furious. Ana was a snotty, tearful mess. It was hard but they both were out within 30 minutes (of many intervals with soothing back rubs).

I still had to do work. I haven’t finished it yet. It’s due by 9:30 tomorrow. I’m still awake. At least, I felt, it’s great that the babies’ sleep would once again be sorted within a few days of the method.

Got the text. Girls going back tomorrow.

Now I feel terrible. Both girls were crying for me at bedtime; both call me Mama or Mummy as of yesterday. I’m officially their Other Mother. And I put them through rounds of shrieking and ugly sobs for nothing.

Mamaaa! No!

They only wanted to be close. Now they’re leaving again. Little beings who love me and call me Mama.

Life feels unfair. I feel like a monster. I still know they need that sleep training. I’m so tired.

As I brushed my teeth tonight, I glanced at the little tub we got for them within the shower, at all their bath toys, and tried to remember that they’d had a nice time here, that they feel safe here, that they love us. It feels like a huge responsibility, a blessing, and a natural disaster all at once.

Goodnight, world. See you again at 5am. Good thing there’s still lots of candy left for tomorrow when they’re gone.

Advertisements

Pets: The unsung heroes of foster care

The babies are here for the weekend, and it’s going really well (all usual exhaustion considered). After a short adjustment period on arrival – it had been three weeks since we’d last seen them – both girls settled into laughing, exploring, playing and generally living their best lives while we zoomed around clearing cast-off toys out of the way, removing crayons from mouths and generally preventing trips to A&E. Thanks to Baby’s terrible diaper rash, this included a new challenge called “Quick, She’s Moving!” where we hurried to lay down sheets on the carpet wherever Baby crawled during her “free the nappy” time.

As soon as Ana and Baby went down for morning naps today, I sat on the couch ready to finally eat more than a few squares of Ana’s rejected toast…when I locked eyes with my dog from across the room. We had a silent moment of solidarity and understanding, in which I knew she was bored, and she knew I wasn’t getting up off the couch.

For anonymity’s sake, let’s call the dog Donut, since we almost did when we got her four years ago.

Donut now seems to understand that, on weekends like this, ain’t much going to happen that she’ll enjoy. There will be no car rides to a park for a walk (although we did try that once when the girls lived with us). No long games of tug (too much risk in a small human getting knocked over) or even eating from her Kong food dispenser instead of her boring bowl (no one likes seeing a dog’s nose smearing all over the carpet and onto toys that inevitably go into a baby’s mouth).

No, for Donut, weekends with the girls involve a lot of “Leave it!” and “Kennel!” and “Come here – not you, Donut!” At the worst of times, she gets “Go away, Donut!” which, heartbreakingly, she understands, having intuited the meaning. As she slinks out of the room, this is usually followed by “Sorry, Donut. You’re a good girl!”

Sorry, Donut.

Our cat – let’s call her Jingles – doesn’t fare much better. She’s always innocently around when the girls arrive – you know, living her life – and within five minutes we inevitably have to hold back two zombie-like babies as they stumble (or crawl) towards her, wanting desperately to pull out fistfuls of her fur. We only know that this is their aim because I wasn’t fast enough on Ana’s first visit back, and boy, did she get a tuft and a squawk out of poor Jingles.

After this introduction to Hell, Jingles makes herself scarce during the girls’ awake times, which is the most helpful thing she could do. (Especially since she has no self-awareness or shame about meowing loudly when she already has food. Why do they do this?)

Donut, of course, stays here. And watching her with the kids is where we’ve truly realised what a gem of a dog she is.

Donut is a reactive dog, which for her means she flips out at the sight of people or another dog (whether said dog is on TV or in real life). Born into terrible conditions (thankfully rescued), she was later attacked by another dog on the beach as an older puppy, and our friendly but anxious girl was forever changed. We’ve been on a long journey with her, and a few trainers and several medications later, Donut is friends with the dogs at her daycare and can meet people if she decompresses (and stops barking the house down) in her kennel first. She remains so wound up that we can’t walk her, and trips to the park involve constant surveillance and escape routes in case of cameos by offlead dogs. If you were to meet her out in public, you’d think she was Kujo’s lil sister. The last dog you’d want around traumatised young children.

But from the beginning, Donut has been gentle, loving, and patient with the girls. One of Ana’s first baby signs was “dog”, and she has always been obsessed with being near – preferably on – Donut. We shepherd and intervene constantly, calling Donut away and using baby gates and giving the dog her own space and teaching Ana “dogs don’t like hugs…no kissing on the face!” but if Ana gets too huggy or sprawls all over her on the floor, Donut will just move when she’s had enough (having figured out early on that she was much more agile than Ana). We’ve been through a lot of stress and worry with Donut’s reactivity, and seeing her good nature around the babies has been really beautiful. What an angel you are, doggo.

Donut has also been the ice-breaker when the girls arrive for the weekend. On their first joint weekend back with us, when both Baby and Ana were taking a while to warm up to us, they reacted to her first (after the cat had fled), smiling and laughing, and Baby belly laughed watching her do athletic jumps to catch the ball outside.

Each respite weekend, when Donut returns from dog daycare and sees the girls, she gives Baby a quick lick and nudges Ana, met with delight from both. (And then, of course, Donut grabs her rope toy to show her excitement by whipping it around, met with our cries of “No, Donut! Not now!”)

Yes, many a nap and bedtime has been dragged out or ruined by Donut barking or appearing outside Ana’s room because we forgot to shut the baby gate behind us, claws clicking on the floor just loud enough to snap Ana’s eyes open.

“Da? Da?”

“No. Doggy is sleeping. Oh…you can see her. Ok fine, you can say goodnight to doggy. But THEN you go to sleep.”

But Donut has been such a good friend to the girls and us. She lets Ana cuddle with her sometimes, plays an energy-reduced version of tug with her sometimes, and is the perfect patient teacher for manners and boundaries around dogs. She’s another constant in the girls’ lives, another source of joy. And at the end of the weekend, she’s ready to be our fur baby again, playful and totally forgiving.

And if she poops in the house, which she does sometimes, she does it on the bathroom floor. What more could you ask for. (Aside from not pooping in the house. Donut, are you listening? Just wait, we’ll be home in 10 minutes. I know you can hold it!)

By the time I’m finishing this post, the girls have gone. I really miss them this time, possibly exacerbated by the fact that the transporter was a stranger, and Ana was uncomfortable with her and sad to leave.

Their last faces have stayed in my mind. Ana’s sad dark eyes over my husband CT’s shoulder as she clung to him. (Once in the car, she kept telling the transporter “No. No.” in her firm, baby voice.)

Baby never realises until I put her in the seat that anything is happening. She looked at me with confusion, her mouth open in a question, as I shut the car door. It was painful, and left me feeling sad.

Donut, of course, was thrilled to have the run of the living room again, and Jingles made an appearance not long after. “Hey Jingles. It’s been awhile,” I heard my husband say when she arrived.

Thank you, our cat and dog, for still being friends to us despite the chaos. For being saints around the kids, for being enthusiastic when we need a boost, and for largely being quiet (or blessedly absent) when you can sense it’s just not the right time. You’re both really good girls. The best.

Note to self

This is a memo to my future self, the brave woman who will once again welcome two foster babies, one infant and one toddler, for respite in a few weeks’ time.

Remember: It’s going to suck.

It’s going to suck because life hasn’t been fair to these kids, and it won’t be fair to you. Trauma and changes and disruption have made them feel unsafe, so they won’t easily fall asleep at night, even though they used to live here as a full-time placement and sleep in these very same beds. Your toddler will still stare at the ceiling as you rock her, blinking and blinking and blinking, until she becomes so tired that she’s hysterical and wants only “Daddy,” not you.

Remember: It’ll be frustrating.

It’ll be frustrating because you don’t have any control over their routines, nor do you know anything about what they do at their usual caregiver’s, so you’ll always be stuck doing anything and everything to feed and soothe these kids instead of creating structure that would help them settle. They never arrive with everything they need, whether it’s clothes that are all too big or the wrong age formula for Baby. Your biological daughter will use your diverted attention to blow past her time limit on the iPad and eat way to much junk food because you’re too weary and busy to remember the boundaries you set, let alone enforce them.

Remember: You’ll feel unimportant.

You don’t and won’t get the information you need, even though you’ve asked. You’re not allowed to communicate with the girls’ regular caregivers. You have no control over whether the transporters are an hour early or two hours late. You’ll spend the forty-five before scheduled pick-up wrangling bored kiddos and anxiously watching the driveway, waiting for a stranger to arrive any minute to take them away, destination unknown. You’re less than a glorified babysitter. Even babysitters know the routine.

Remember: It will hurt.

You know you shouldn’t take it personally, but your toddler’s rejection of you, even after a day spent bonding your heart out, will hurt. A lot. You’ll feel like shit, and then you’ll feel sad for her. It’ll hurt to watch her cry desperately for your husband when you’re right there, offering something she cannot trust. It’ll hurt to look at Baby and think suddenly that she’ll never remember you.

Remember: It gets better.

You always forget this one: the first day is the hardest, and then it gets easier. Why? Because you put in the work. You coo and make faces and help colour and make food and give cuddles and you go to any lengths to help them rest. By Saturday, things are smoother. By Sunday, behaviour has improved and everyone is relaxed.

Remember: You don’t need to be perfect at this.

You’re doing enough. You are. Stop killing yourself by trying to send them back with all their clothes freshly washed and dried, for God’s sake.

Remember: It makes you stronger.

Each challenge of foster care tears you down, then builds you up. More experience means things get easier. Not everything all at once, but overall – yes. It’s easier now. You can juggle two littles on your own now. You can get anyone to sleep. You can work as a team with your husband when you’re both exhausted and hating life. You’re stronger now.

Remember: It’s worth it.

These girls need you – they really do. You’re making a big difference to two little lives, whether they will ever know it or not. It won’t feel like it sometimes, but this is big, important work. You’re helping to give them their best shot at a happy life.

Now re-read as often as you need to. Remember: You’ve got this.

 

Je ne give-a-sh*t pas

Another weekend of respite with our two girls and already, within a few hours, I wonder why I’m doing this.

I remain, of course, grateful that the girls are again here with us regularly. It would be a total nightmare if they were going elsewhere for respite, not just for them (i.e. having to stay at a stranger’s house…again) but for us, too. After having them full time for a few months last year, they still feel part of our family.

But now that they’re not here with us full time and are instead coming back for weekends, our bond is fragmented, and that makes things harder. I know, I know, things are bound to get better the more often they come to stay with us. But at the moment, it just feels like things are getting weirder.

Baby seemed to be happier and more relaxed this afternoon when she arrived, compared to the past few weekends. She was off crawling after some settling time spent on my daughter Issy’s lap, and was immediately very laughy. She chuckled when she arrived at the toy box and pulled herself up to standing to look in, and once she’d grabbed hold of her favourite jingly ball, she was laughing and grinning and looking around to find me and make eye contact so I could share in her joy. She belly laughed a few times with my husband CT, spent some time gazing at him with a grin on her face, and was generally into everything and loving it. Little Boss Baby, conquering the world.

AND she crawled over to Ana’s open colouring book, grabbed crayons and coloured. Like, whaaaaaaaaaa? At 9 months old? Baby genius.

Ana was a little slower to warm up this time and wasn’t really all that into bonding with CT – when he arrived home from work, she actually looked up briefly and then ignored him. #likewhaaaaaaaaaaa?!

She was friendly but detached, and didn’t volunteer any hugs to either of us. Ana’s favourite phrases are still “No” and “Tahp it!”, and as CT summed up once she was asleep: “She didn’t want anything.” I tried to teach her to say “No, ta,” since having my every singsong suggestion met with “NO!” quickly began to grate, but I think that train has sailed.

Lindt
The chocolate that’s supposed to get us through the weekend, since we’ve sworn off crappy food. DEAR GOD IT’D BETTER.

At bedtime, as I swayed with Ana on and off, I noticed that when she laid her head on my shoulder, she turned her face away.

I will admit, even though it feels awful and I know that none of this is Ana’s fault, that it’s hard to like being with someone who doesn’t seem to like you back (noble cause or not). I dislike the feeling, but it’s how I feel.

I experienced this before with Ana when she was first with us, but I mind-ninja’d myself into loving her anyway and in time she became very attached. Now that our time together is so spread out – and probably completely confusing for her – it feels very much again like we’re giving her our all and she’s just in survival mode. Whining or screaming where she used to use a sign or a word, or grabbing toys away from her sister and looking to me with that glint in her eye. I even got a toddler’s version of “f*ck you” from her crib this evening – playfully, not like actually “Screw you!”, but obviously something she’s heard before and was now trying to use to get a reaction. Lovely. And alarming.

If the experience of our respite weekends so far has taught me anything, it’s that by Sunday Ana will be happy and relaxed again. It’s human nature to want some certainty, so it would be easier if I know that every Friday she’d be unsettled and untrusting, and by Sunday she’d be sweet – but since she seemed to be a new level of detached today that I hadn’t seen before, who knows. We will keep going, and keep caring for her with love no matter what – even if it feels a bit like crap behind the scenes.

 

Missed connections

The babies (well, one baby and one toddler) were here this weekend for their regular respite, and on the whole it went much better than last time. My husband CT and I focussed more on eating real meals and drinking enough water than worrying about re- establishing our old routines from when they were with us full time. We met each instance of Ana’s saucy “no!” with a bright “yes!”, which lifted the vibe and usually convinced her to do what we were asking by contagious enthusiasm alone. We haven’t yet figured out how to counteract her newest gem: “Stop it!” (pronounced “Tahp it!”) That made us laugh. Only too easy to imagine her caregivers telling her “stop it!” in exasperation… and she, of course, having the cheek to use it right back.

4CF7ECA6-DDFE-4711-884D-8416D8D86A76.jpeg
To the makers of colouring books who think clowns on page 1 is a good call: Tahp it!

The girls took less time to settle at night as well, which was lucky, because we again had no information on their routines or schedules, even though I’d asked for this in a note when the girls left us last time. Not being told these basics annoyed me, but it also made me feel sad. Both because I’ve tried really hard to keep the birth fam informed when the girls are with us – I used to create a newsletter in Canva and really took pride in making it special – but also because it left me feeling like we’re regarded as “just the respite carers”, like why should they tell us anything.

There is one innocent possibility: We’d been told last week that the preference of the social workers is now that no one sends notes back and forth. So maybe the caregivers wanted to give me the schedule this time but either forgot to tell their social worker or the social worker didn’t pass it on. That’s best case. Worst case: They don’t give an eff about how well it goes and just need the break.

I wish I could develop a good relationship with the girls’ fulltime caregivers. I’d like to make sure we’re following their routine, both for our sakes and theirs. I’d love to share photos of the girls’ weekend and find out what foods Baby is eating and how many times a day. It would be nice to work as a team. Without that, we wing it. Fun times.

Ana was also suffering from an unfulfilled connection this weekend. She can say a few more words now, and one of these is “Daddy.” We taught her CT’s name, and my name, and she can say an almost-version of her own name. But sometime on Friday night she started calling CT Daddy. We corrected her, and she gleefully repeated CT’s real name. But it happened again and again. Both nights at bedtime, after about an hour of me alternating rocking her and laying her down, she said “Want Daddy” and pointed out the door. I told her it was CT, not Daddy, so she said, “Want CT.” I couldn’t get CT for her because we know from experience that bedtime with CT is too painful for Ana – she can’t bear him saying goodnight or putting her down in the crib. She finally settled after I told her she was safe with me.

On Sunday, she began asking for him as Daddy when she was tired or upset that I’d told her all the crackers were gone. As the day went on, she gave me more side-eye frowns from CT’s arms and heaped most of her charm on CT – running to him with an unexpected laugh, seeing me delight at something she did and immediately repeating it for him with a big, big smile. I’m not sure what this is all about in terms of her and I (possibly a re-surgence of her old avoidance that grew as she became more comfortable over the 3 days) but it also made me sad. Personally, I felt little iced out, but also sad for her and the loss she has felt in her little life thanks to bad choices. CT and I don’t know whether he reminds her so much of her dad that she calls him Daddy, or whether she misses Daddy so much that she wants CT to be him.

I can only hope her parents are busy getting their shiz together, and someday soon this nightmare of separation will end for her. Here’s hoping,

 

Well, that was nuts.

I’ve been lying on my bed for the last two hours, stunned. What. A. Weekend.

I can’t speak for all foster parents, especially since we’ve only had two placements in our fostering career, but it might be safe to generalise and say that the ups and downs of foster care, including respite, are insane. Please imagine the following in the same high-pitched voice of enthusiasm throughout for the maximum sense of how unhinged I have felt this weekend.

Up: Yay, the girls are here! We know and love them and we get to give their caregiver a break, keeping their placement stable!

Down: Both Ana and Baby won’t sleep, and we’ve been settling them for 2 hours! I’ve lost all sense of myself and why I ever said I would do this again!

image.jpg
Why do I want my living room to look like this again?

I yelled this weekend. At a child. Guess who. CT also yelled. Same child. Losing my cool made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be a parent of any kind, let alone a foster parent. I Googled what to do, mainly to calm down and so I wouldn’t feel like the only monster who had ever lost it at a toddler, and then took the Internet’s advice and apologised. We hugged. “This will get easier,” I told myself, “as they come back more and more, and get used to a routine.”

But into the evening, as I rubbed Ana’s back and she fell asleep (or didn’t – can’t remember if that strategy worked, since we tried everything), I suddenly knew the reality. This will never be hearts and flowers. This will never be the way it feels when I know they’re coming – like it’ll be a fun weekend with our favourite little people.

It’s never going to be like I imagine it. Not for a long time, anyway.

Why? Because the way we love them and have thought of them – with fond nostalgia – is not their reality.

CT and I have a stable home. Since the girls left our full time care last year, we’ve been living our lives, starting new creative endeavours and seeing family and having fun, with a few ups and downs in between.

The girls haven’t grown up in a stable place to start with, and since they left, they’ve been adjusting to their new home, new daycare, still getting sick, still not sleeping, still displaced from parents, still too young to understand. So when I imagined them coming back, I thought, “Yay, a fun visit!” but who knows what they thought, or think, or feel. Their disrupted life has continued, only I haven’t been there to see it.

In the end, this weekend forced CT and I to re-examine some of the kinks in our armour, namely idealism (little kids are hard work, whether you’ve missed them terribly or not), communication (we argued over what details and information he had given me when he came over to ask me “where did this onesie come from?”) and a false sense of control (toddlers not sleeping, or undoing perfectly packed suitcases, will bring that to the fore).

I feel like we’ll be better prepared to be less stressed and work as a team again next time. Fingers crossed. In the meantime…sleeeeeeep…

Return of the mac(s)

There are two little people asleep in this house, after a 2.5-hour bedtime marathon.

Ana and Baby are back!

For respite – Friday to Sunday. And they’ll be coming back regularly!

Right before we first heard about and agreed to this arrangement two days ago, I had just finished telling our social worker that we had decided to take a long break and focus on ourselves. We hadn’t had any calls for foster placements over Christmas, and this had given CT and I time to start some new creative endeavours and set goals for the new year. We’d set up my little writing desk in Ana’s old room (in reality a tiny, converted laundry room with just enough space for our washing machine and a crib or desk) and we had just launched an effort to Marie Kondo our entire place.

f277321b-7b3e-46f8-8d8e-0478ecba88b0.jpeg
The concerned face of a pet who had long wished to stage a clutter intervention, but lacking the vocal ability, was forced to instead chew things at random, hoping we’d get the message.

The exception, I explained to our social worker, would be Ana and Baby, if they ever needed respite care.

”Oh good,” she said. “Because the family has asked!”

So now we get to care for the girls again a few times per month, and of course we forgot how hard it was until Ana was screaming bloody murder at bedtime and Baby (now huge! and with tiny, adorable teeth) was lurching away from the bottle and couldn’t settle to sleep for two hours.

When they arrived, Ana was immediately friendly but made little eye contact, and Baby didn’t know us (or make any eye contact) at all. (It was a shock just seeing her – so much hair!) After both girls had lit up laughing for the dog, then warmed up to CT (king of goofy faces), I started wrestling with Baby to take her bottle, and finally had success after changing locations to our room. I burped her and lay her down to change her top, and then – BAM! She was smiling and kicking and very excited to see me. *cue heart melting*

I have no doubt that this weekend, and each weekend that we have them, will be tough at times and overall tiring. We received no notes on their current routine or nap times. Baby seems to be sick. But as I stood in Ana’s room tonight, saying “shhhh” quietly into my second hour of being calm and present so she could feel safe enough to sleep, I reminded myself that we aren’t doing this because it’s fun. The love is the reward. Just like caring for any little kids, we love them, but the actual doing can be hard. Here’s hoping we all sleep well and have lots of fun tomorrow… and lots of luck with naps.