The cat lover who hates cats, that’s what you’d be thinking if you spent a day with my wife and our pet cat.
The cat meowed incessantly. My wife yelled at it to shut-up.
The cat scratched the furniture. My wife’s rage could boil pasta.
When a fatal illness left us with no other choice but to have our cat put down, how odd is it that my wife should be the one to lament for two weeks straight. So did she hate the cat when it was alive, yet love it when it was dead? I can’t help but wonder.
Same as with cats, the foster care that we now do also infuriates my wife.
So than, does this mean she hates foster children as well? Will she love them when they are gone? Now I’m really confused.
I never did find an answer to this question, but the answer found me when a 15 year old foster child was placed in our care. Her overuse of eyeliner and black-ripped stockings were as Emo as Emo can get. Her name was Lovely and she was delivered to our doorstep by her caseworker, along with all of her belongings stuffed into two swollen trash bags.
This new edition to our family was Lovely by name, lovely by nature. Yet, no matter how delightful and cordial she was, Lovely had my wife exasperated after one week of being in our care.
“If that girl can’t take her clothes out of a trash bag and put them in her wardrobe,” fumed my wife, “then she can take her trash bags and leave.”
“Why won’t you use the wardrobe space in your room?” I casually asked Lovely one night while we watched TV together.
“Why should I,” was her reply. “I’m only gonna have to move again.”
This poor girl’s apprehension became mine as well; sympathy made sure of that. I wanted her in my care forever.
However, a putrid smell oozed out of Lovely’s bedroom and the flies began to swarm. Damn! Just as I was starting to get attached, it was over.
A quick snoop through the trash bags and my wife’s detective work exposed Lovely’s sweat stained, unwashed clothes plus the real reason why the flies had gathered. It wasn’t the stink of body odour that attracted the swarm. Oh-no. They came for the packed lunches, forgotten and left to rot in Lovely’s school bag. Each bit of food unrecognisable under the layers of fungus and mould.
“Right, that’s it,” yelled my wife. “I’m getting my camera. I want DOCS to see this filth. They can find some other sucker to care for Lovely.”
An urgent phone call to DOCS had Lovely’s caseworker on our doorstep the very next day. She was both apologetic and disappointed. Obviously she has been down this trash bag road before.
“This is the same reason why Lovely was removed from the last three foster homes she was in. If you want her removed from your care then I totally understand.”
What? Get rid of Lovely? Desperate measures called for a creative solution.
“Um . . . why don’t we try a rewards chart,” I suggested. “You know, give Lovely extra pocket money if she keeps her room clean.”
“That only works on younger children,” criticized my wife, her subtle way of saying: ‘I’m done with this.’
The caseworker dissolved all her emotions with a squirt of apathy. It was how she coped with giving Lovely endless bad news. She was about to tell Lovely it was time to go, but then my wife contradicted herself by agreeing to keep Lovely in our care, just to see if my idea would stick.
Sure enough, my idea worked. Turns out even a 15 year old will keep their room clean to score stickers and extra pocket money.
Lovely’s Little Orphan Annie routine only lasted two weeks. The energy and effort required to maintain her blithe persona was too exhausting. So she quit and her true personality was revealed.
Scowls replaced smiles. Abrupt rudeness replaced chit chat. Just like that, Lovely was lovely to us no more.
Five times I had to ask her to do her chores before she would untangle herself from the social net of Facebook and go dry the dishes.
She got out of doing her homework by throwing a temper tantrum that would put a toddler’s kicking and screaming to shame.
“I’m not paid to do this,” fumed my wife. “I don’t have to put up with this shit.”
The truth is she didn’t just put up with Lovely’s shit, she also put Lovely’s needs before her own. She even worked an extra hour at her crappy retail job to make up for the extra hour lunch break she had to have so she could attend a meeting with the principal of Lovely’s high school. The topic the principal wanted to discuss was Lovely’s abusive rants at her teachers. He warned my wife that should our foster child persist with her teacher abuse, she will be suspended from school.
Indeed, life was harsh for our angry foster child. Cutting herself with a razor blade was the only way she knew how to cope. When my wife found a blood stained razor blade on Lovely’s bedroom floor, she couldn’t cope at all.
“Foster care! What the fuck was I thinking,” raged my wife.
Now, I’m guessing by my wife’s ‘pushed over the edge’ reaction, you’d be thinking that Lovely’s placement with us was about to be terminated. Well, you’d be wrong. In fact my wife did the opposite by demanding DOCS organise a meeting between us and Lovely’s psychologist so we could get a handle on Lovely’s detrimental behaviour. For almost two years, Lovely has been seeing this psychologist to help better manage her anger.
“Lovely is a girl with many complex issues,” explained the psychologist, who is hip, metro and loves his metaphors. “All her issues, every single one, stems from the rejection she has received from all the adults responsible for her wellbeing.
“Lovely was born to drug addict parents. Now drugs and babies, that’s not a good mix. So when a drug overdose had Lovely’s father rushed to hospital, DOCS swooped in, snatched Lovely away from her mother and placed her into a foster home. Throughout her childhood, Lovely was told repeatedly by DOCS that – by law – she can never live with her parents until she turns eighteen.
And yet, her parents are raising Lovely’s younger brother and sister; and yes they still do drugs. The only difference now is that they’re not overdosing anymore.
“By the time she hit puberty, Lovely’s feelings were like ants swarming out of their nest after it had been kicked in. The dear old lady who was caring for her at the time was frightened of her foster daughter’s rage. The poor woman couldn’t deal with it so she had Lovely removed from her home.
“Lovely had lived with that carer for thirteen years. So you see? Rejection is all Lovely has ever known. This is why she rejects every foster home she is placed in before – in her own mind –she herself is rejected. It has become her self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Wow. It all seemed so hopeless. What could we do? How could we help? The psychologist explained:
“Lovely needs carers who will stay in the boat with her, no matter how many times she rocks that boat and tips it over. It’s the only way she will ever build trust again.”
Halfway through the session, the focus of the discussion shifted to my wife – wait! We came here to talk about Lovely. Why are we talking about my wife?
“Hmm. You have all the symptoms of anxiety disorder,” the psychologist said with concern. “You need to see a psychologist.”
When a psychologist recommends you see a psychologist, you best hurry up and make an appointment to sit on that comfy leather sofa.
The psychologist that my wife chose to visit got straight to the point.
“Are you doing foster care to help pay off your mortgage?”
“No,” my wife replied, shocked by the question.
“Oh. So you do it because you want to. That’s interesting. Well, working full time and doing foster care is causing your anxiety. There are two ways a person will react to anxiety; fight or flight. And from what you’ve been telling me, you’re definitely a fighter. Now, if you’re serious about reducing your anxiety, I suggest you either quit working full time or quit fostering.”
“No, I have to do both.”
My wife was right. We couldn’t do one without the other.
“Okay. Well, I will prescribe to you medication that will take the edge off your anxiety. But more importantly, we need to curb your fighting reflex. To achieve this, I’m going to teach you how to breathe.”
“Yes breathing. You do it every second of every day. It costs nothing and if you didn’t breathe you would be dead. Buddhist monks have been using breathing techniques for thousands of years. So the next time your anxiety is about to trigger your fight reflex, I want you to stop and breathe. I’ll show you how.”
Like Mr Miyagi from Karate Kid, the psychologist trained my wife in the fine art of breathing.
Straight away, my wife’s new found mix of Zen and medication was put to the test.
Lovely’s caseworker quit DOCS for a new position as a safety inspector for child care centres. The career change had Lovely convinced that she was being abandoned all over again.
A war of retaliation was declared by Lovely on everyone that mattered to her, pushing them out of her life before someone else abandoned her.
Her first target was her psychologist. She quit seeing him on the grounds that their anger management sessions were pissing her off.
Next, Lovely quit high school to distant herself from her most hated enemies. No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.
For her carers, Lovely used a different tactic. She didn’t push us out of her life, she simply cut us off. It was a cruel manoeuvre, I was beyond devastated. We had opened up our hearts to Lovely and she treated us and our home like a boarding house.
So how did my wife fare with all this? I hear you ask. As promised, the medication did its job. Anxiety wasn’t her immediate reaction. In fact, she didn’t react at all. She just stood still and breathed, again and again until her mind was an expanding emptiness so wide, not even her fight reflex could leap across.
Nevertheless, the final punch in the face to Lovely’s placement with us came from – of all people – the government.
At sweet sixteen, Lovely was entitled to Youth Allowance, that fortnightly payment of four hundred dollars to be used as financial support for a student’s education.
Taking full advantage of the free cash splash, Lovely made the leap from uncooperative to all out renegade. She spent all her allowance on re-inventing herself with Gothic fashion, Vintage fashion; blue hair, pink hair; a new piercing for her already pierced face. From out of the shopping bags she was born again and again.
Gothic paraphernalia and Vintage style dresses piled up on Lovely’s bedroom floor. Within a month her room resembled an up ended bin.
On the weekends, Lovely told us that she will be staying the night at her girlfriend’s house, but there was no fooling us. We knew when she walked out that front door, she jumped into the car of some 19 year old boy who was waiting for her at the end of the street. Some weekdays she didn’t come home at all. The only times she was ever home with us was when all her Youth Allowance was spent.
Amidst the chaos unleashed by cyclone Lovely, my wife remained centred in mind and spirit, the eye of our foster child’s storm.
Suddenly that vast emptiness that expanded to the rhythm of my wife’s controlled breathing was no longer empty. My wife wasn’t floating in nothing; she was swimming in an ocean of liquid care. All that willingness to care, stretching out to the horizon of my wife’s soul, it had been there all along and she never knew. Her anxiety had always ensnared her before she could dive into the oceanic depths of her care.
With her rage now absent and with an abundance of care, my wife did what was right for Lovely – what was right for us all.
It was time for Lovely to go, my wife had decided, but not until she turned 17. A teenager at that age has more access to independent living grants. My wife firmly believed that while Lovely was still only 16, she should remain in our home so we could bail her out whenever she got herself into trouble.
For almost half a year Lovely stayed with us, until a month after her seventeenth birthday.
DOCS refused to set up Lovely with independent living. Why should they! Just the thought of handing out an independent living grant to a teenager who can’t clean up after themselves, let alone keep their room clean – was scandalous. A refuge was all Lovely’s new caseworker was going to offer.
Lovely refused the offer, instead choosing to move in with her dad. A new life in a house where the fridge is always empty, she is side stepping the empty syringes scattered across the floor and the couch was all she had to sleep on.
And that was that. Lovely was gone from our lives.
We tried to change Lovely, believe me we did. We encouraged her to do better at school, to think about her future, be more responsible and all those things.
But in the end we failed to make a difference as Lovely wouldn’t listen to anyone, wouldn’t trust anyone but herself.
However, the pressure of caring for Lovely exerted change on my wife. Forever free of her anxiety trap, having transcended her fighting reflex, my wife is now unlimited. So too is her capacity to care.
With plenty of care to spare, we now have two teens and one tween living with us in our foster home.
Oh, and one pet cat.
“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