When first-time parents come home from the hospital, in addition to their beautiful new family member, the only other thing you come home with is a large bill.
As foster parents, one thing we’re grateful for is the intense training we go through to become licensed. Past what we have learned in our upbringing and previous childcare experiences to-date, we are trained in Trauma-Informed Parenting (TIP).
I say those words and I stop and catch my breath because despite how much I learn and try to understand it is frustrating that we live in a world where “Trauma-Informed Parenting” is necessary. Nonetheless it is required and it is part of the foundation in which we approach caring for children who find themselves
removed - torn away - displaced - unwillingly
taken from a place they likely love despite what circumstances are surrounding them.
So where do we begin?
We begin with welcome - with a plate of cookies, a glass of chocolate milk, some grapes…we begin with comfort, often unwelcome comfort.
For a brief moment close your eyes imagine being removed from a place or a person you love and dropped off at the doorstep of a stranger. You may or may not have had the opportunity to grab your favorite stuffed animal or blanky let alone much else.
Now step back out of that with me and switch sides, step into the shoes of the foster parent receiving this child. Likely you are anxious and excited, you have fresh baked cookies in the oven so the house smells good, clean sheets on the bed, maybe even a new toothbrush or new stuffed animal to greet them! For me there is also some soft music on in the background. We have a GIANT bear, who’s name is Howell. He was a gift and we’ll share his story later. And then there’s the feeling of caution - what is this child coming with? Why do they need a new place of shelter? Will they like me/us? Will they like their room? Et cetera, et cetera…
(end scene - for now…)
For over a decade I have led worship as a minister of music and if you don't know, ministry is messy. People are complicated and even though my focus on music and art should be fun and worshipful all the time - it isn’t. But, even on the hardest days I remember a lesson from long ago regarding my conducting technique and how our approach towards people can make a huge difference.
A simple rotation of the hands actually helps invite rather than repel people from your offering. Think of it like this - if someone had their arms coming towards you with two fists clenched, do you think they’re going to hug you or hurt you?
I have a memory from my childhood that I hesitate to share because I know the people it involves had good intentions and I respect their decisions even if I didn’t fully understand them. But this memory helps me relate to and begin to step into the feelings foster children might experience when they are taken away.
There was a time as a child when I was spending time with some extended family and they took us to see another family member but in secret. We weren’t told where we were going or who we were going to see, my guess is that it was out of a mix of fear of me refusing to go and their strong desire for us and that family member to have contact that I wasn’t told what was happening... To this day I don’t know exactly where we went that day, I know it felt like it took forever to get there, I remember the activities we did together. I also remember the effort put forth for us to have nothing but fun that day.
And then, although I’ve talked through this event in therapy, even now my chest is tight, my breathing is a bit strained, my body remembers the anxiety and that strong almost overwhelming feeling of unease.
I can’t fully imagine the feelings the child being dropped off at the doorstep has but when I try, I quickly remember my feelings from that day over 2 decades ago! Fortunately enough for me in that experience, I knew I would be safe, I knew I wouldn’t be hurt, but I didn’t know where I was going or who I was going to meet or why I couldn’t stay where I felt safe.
Have you ever invited and welcomed a stranger into your home?
Have you ever been the stranger invited and welcomed into someone’s home?
The doorbell rings. There we see the child standing with their social worker, a wheelie backpack and a couple duffle bags. We smile, we offer a handshake, and say ‘Come on in we’re the Jollys”. (We’re cautious to NOT say “welcome home.”)
After brief introductions, we show them to their new room and offer them time to settle into the space that will be theirs for a while and say that we’ll just be in the next room ready to help when they’re ready. They may or may not check-in and this is part of why we have a snack ready to go.
The story pauses until another day…
Trauma-Informed Parenting (TIP) helps us understand that it would be presumptuous for us to immediately assume our home is their home. TIP provides us a foundation for remembering that the way a person reacts to any situation is a result of their past. Good or not-so good there are learned reasons that we make all of our conscious and unconscious decisions.
For us, foster parenting requires hospitality. Our success or failure is not measured by the outcomes but rather remembering that every interaction matters.
“We’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful” - Mother Theresa
Even with our training, Day 1 feels a lot like a mix between a first date, bringing a baby home from the hospital, and walking into a room of people who solely speak a different language than you but at least you have a pocket dictionary. There’s no telling where the journey will go from there, but we ALL have to start somewhere.