I am a foster carer who happened to overhear the end of a conversation about foster caring.
“I’d be no good at foster care,” explained my sister-in-law to my wife. “I could never love someone else’s child.”
Wow! The finality of that statement shocked me. Suddenly I found myself living in a post-statement era. A new era, where my mind ponders and ponders some more on whether or not I could love someone else’s child.
Love was never mentioned during my training to become a foster carer. Bonding and attachment was what we were taught. Now, you would think bonding and attachment would be one and the same, but apparently they are not. How can two words that share something in common have a completely different meaning in regards to caring for children?
But what I do know is that foster care is like going on an emotional drive with an unstable child behind the wheel. One such child in our care slammed her foot on the accelerator, snapped the brake cable, ran the car off the emotional road and crashed us all into a wall.
That child was 10-year-old Lilith. She was a solid and robust package of hate who detested DOCS because they – as far as she was concerned – stole her from her mother. She loathed her “fat cow” of a case worker. Most of all, she hated being in the care of my wife and me.
“Don’t touch me!” Lilith shouted, recoiling in revulsion from the affection we offered.
“Stupid fucker,” Lilith hissed at me whenever my wife left the room.
“Don’t call me Lilly!” Lilith snapped at me with a sharp edged scowl, every time I used the pet name I had given her. (Lilith is such a mouthful to say.)
One hard punch from my foster child, and I suffered a dead arm. She smiled with delight as I winched in pain. She slammed me into the wall when my back was turned. Lilith enjoyed my humiliation; it gave her a good laugh.
“Don’t take it personally,” explained the psychologist provided by DOCS. “Children removed from their parents believe they have lost control of their lives. Lilith’s violence towards you is just her way of gaining control of her situation.”
“But why does she only abuse my husband?” my wife asked. “She doesn’t do it to me.”
Straight away the psychologist knew the answer. “Because Lilith treats your husband the same way her mother treats her father.”
Oh great. So not only am I victim of domestic violence from a 10-year-old girl, I am also the victim of monkey see, monkey do.
When Lilith was feeling talkative, she would tell us about all the neat stuff that made her mum so awesome. Lilith’s mum never made her children wear shoes outdoors. Mum was okay with her children watching R-rated horror movies – cos that was cool. Never mind that mum called Lilith a “stupid fucker” when she was angry, or hit her daughter when she was infuriated. None of that mattered, because as far as Lilith was concerned, her mum was the best mother in the world.
So what’s a carer to do with a child who hates being in care?
All my wife and I could do was to do our job. Fostering requires the art of illusion to weave an artificial family around someone else’s child. Our magic tricks pull a Hallmark moment over a foster child’s eyes. That’s why I am always amazed by a foster child’s bedroom. It is such a powerful statement that sells the illusion, gives it a reality. With vampire posters on every wall, clothes on the floor, an unmade bed and her school bag in the corner, Lilith’s bedroom created the false impression that she had lived in our house for most of her childhood.
For nine months, Lilith was in our care. Nine long months it had taken the Family Court to decide it was safe for Lilith and her siblings to return home to their mum.
There was no stopping Lilith when her caseworker gave her the news. She shouted an avalanche of hateful words at my wife and me, to inform us she was done with foster care, and then she split. Lilith marched through five suburbs, a 16 kilometre journey to her mum’s front door. She never even packed any clothes or toys we had lovingly brought for her. She just abandoned her bedroom and everything in it like a snake shedding its skin.
Lilith is the most antagonistic and vicious human being I have ever met. So what I don’t understand is why am I mourning the loss of this little bully? I had to solve this conundrum or else forever be disturbed by it.
For answers, I reflected upon the time I had spent with Lilith, all the way back to when DOCS first delivered her to my doorstep.
How is it possible that grief and loss can emerge from memories all steaming and jagged edged from hostility?
But the more I contemplated this, the more the barbed memories revealed to me.
There, twinkling between steaming geysers of animosity. And there, hidden jewels in the spiked clusters of aggression. I couldn’t believe it! Little moments of joy sparkled everywhere I looked.
Lilith. Her humour kept sharp by the grind stone of her intelligence. Whenever she expressed her witty observations or sarcastic opinions, my wife and I would be in hysterics.
Lilith who taught my wife and I to play card games I never even knew existed. For the entire hour each night that we dedicated to card play, I was delightfully surprised by the exotic rules of the game.
Lilith. Red cheeks and eyes reflecting her grin as she battled alongside my nephews in the neon maze of a laser tag game.
Lilith and I, every Sunday night we would sit at the dining table, have a chat while we dunked choc chip cookies into our glasses of milk. I don’t remember what we talked about; our ritual was so ordinary and routine that I thought nothing of it at the time. And yet, long after Lilith had ejected herself from my care, one look at a box of cookies was all it took to make me rub my eyes dry with the back of my hand. Every hidden tear contained a splinter of my heartache.
So to respond to my sister in law’s statement, fostering isn’t about whether or not you have the capacity to love someone else’s child.
It’s not even about you. A foster child never asked to be placed in your care. They certainly do not want to be separated from their mum. All you can do as a carer is perform your magic tricks, to make a child feel at home in a home that isn’t their home.
Should you succeed in this, convince the child that the illusion is real, than that child will let their guard slip and forget they are someone else’s child.
When this happens, you will be rewarded with moments of pure joy. Oh you won’t notice these moments at first, not under all the hateful and angry muck that is part of foster care. Worse still, once the child is gone and you are suddenly cut off from these joyous moments, endless sorrow will take hold and scoop until you are hollow.
And yet, at the same time those precious moments will become sunburst bright memories through the bleak darkness of your heartache.
It’s certainly not love, but it is foster care’s greatest trick.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem