I have the beautiful and broken privilege of being a foster mom. It’s the most incredible, rewarding, exhausting, and sacrificial thing I’ve ever done. It’s never not painful, but it’s always full of love.
Foster parenting and traditional parenting are two very different beasts, but I think they’re both, well… beasts. Being a parent in any form is hard work. It’s rewarding, but it’s equally as wearying. It’s the unyielding, unsparing lesson of choosing others before yourself all day, every day, while also maintaining your own wellness. A fellow foster mom described living with toddlers as the definition of a hostile work environment. Toddlers, while not intending to be, are… abusive. As their parents, we’re screamed at, hit, willfully ignored, disrespected, and unthanked. We constantly serve and teach, all the while keeping ourselves in check because they’re always paying attention—except when they’re willfully ignoring us, of course. It’s unfair, and yet inescapably true, that we can’t have a bad day because then they have a bad day, which makes our bad day worse, and their bad day worse, and… you get the picture. We never stop being aware of these little people—their needs, their wants, their safety, their ever changing skill set, their health, and their schedule. It is consuming. And as much as I wish I could say otherwise, I don’t always like being a mom. I’m often exhausted, frustrated, angry, hurt, and even resentful. I wish I was gracious, kind, and patient all the time, but I’m not.
My oldest has had several challenges emerge in the last year. The makings of a person are intricate, the influences of identity intertwined; I know that there are many things that make my daughter who she is. And, to be very clear, I love who she is. But being her mom isn’t easy, and I imagine that being her is even less easy. She feels deeply and, without the skills necessary to manage and respond to her feelings, she reacts the best way she knows how—even if her reactions are often not appropriate.
When she struggles, I respond to her as calmly as I can (man, do I ever fail sometimes), with the goal of inviting her into to my rest. I know that when she’s up there—in the “red” zone—she’s acting from instinct. I know she’s overwhelmed, overstimulated, and over-feeling. She wants to be calm and cooperative, she just doesn’t know how to get there from where she is. I know that tons of brain development happens in the first five years of life and that the areas I use to regulate and respond to my emotions aren’t mature in her brain. As her parent, I lend her my nervous system, figuratively speaking, and co-regulate with her. I also know she’s not a typical child and everything is much more complicated for her. So, no matter how many times I fail, I continue striving to respond to her with grace and compassion.
I’ve learned some really important things in this aim. There have been times when she’s crying, screaming, kicking, hitting, pushing, hair-pulling, and biting—and, sadly, those aggressions aren’t always outwardly directed. In these situations, I have to wait until she lets me comfort her. I’ve learned that if I try to hold her—to sync her heartbeat and breath with mine—before she’s ready, it’ll backfire. So I wait. I remember once sitting in a closet with her while she raged at me. When she screamed blue murder, looking me dead in the eye, all I saw was wild, uncontrolled fear. She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t rebellious. She was afraid. I sat on the floor suppressing all my instincts to get away from the feral explosion in front of me. Adrenaline shot through my body and I consciously overrode my basal brain so I could stay—stay with her and stay with peace. I spoke to her softly; I told her I loved her, I told her she was safe, I told her I was there, I told her I was ready to hold her. Over and over I reassured her and welcomed her to me. I waited until she wanted me to help her. Eventually she did and eventually we found calm, as we always do. It was hard, but we made it.
The other night, she had a small episode just before bed. When she finally let me hold her and I felt her little body relax, I thought, “See, isn’t this so much better?” I sensed my Father’s amused smile. Isn’t it? In reply, I thought about how often I fight his comfort, avoid his grace, push away his open arms, flee with my inheritance, beat him, beat me, and refuse to let him help. My daughter may throw some exceptional tantrums, but I’m not too bad at them myself. Like her, I’m not happy when things don’t go the way I want or when my Father won’t give me what I think I need. And, like her, I’m sure to let him know.
But he always waits patiently, his heart alive and aching with compassion and grace, while I battle my fears, insufficiencies, failures, and sins. Even when I surrender to the darkness, if only for a time, he comes charging brightly in after me, ready to walk me home when I decide it’s time to turn around. Unlike me as a striving mother, he has never wavered in his kindness and understanding; he has always waited for me with eager peace. And he’ll never stop waiting for me. He’ll always kneel calmly beside me while I rage and scream, thrash and curse, fight and weep. He’ll bear it all with unrelenting grace. And when I’m ready, he’ll hold me close as my heart and lungs slow to his cadence.
When we’re afraid—which, to be clear, is often what’s underlying our struggles—we act from survival instinct; ironically, that’s how he designed us. But no brain mechanisms, no hormonal responses, no protective strategies, and no person can help us the way that he can. As a general rule, we hate feeling weak, being scared, and needing others. Our culture has raised us to be strong, stoic, and independent. My toddler, when she’s feeling insecure, must do everything on her own. In that, she’s just like me. But that’s never how it was meant to be. It was always the intention that we would be children in our Father’s house, garden, paradise, what have you. Although we, for some reason, think it’s so much easier to live in the pain of going it alone—it’s not. We don’t need to calm our storms or heal our wounds. That’s his job.
Just now, as I’m finishing this piece, my daughter woke from what I can only assume was a nightmare. She flew from her room, screaming my name, and flung herself into my arms. As she anchored herself in me and I soothed her wildness, I remembered that children have an older, more primal instinct: to cry out for their nurturers and protectors. Though they fight us some of the time, they know we bring calm and safety. Just the same, we must know, there is comfort, peace, rest, and relief to be found in the ever waiting arms of our kind, kind Father. Let’s run to him—quick as we can.