A foster and adoptive mom offers words of wisdom to build relationship with children who join your family
By Christina Jones
For many, the moment you see the stick with two pink lines it becomes a mile marker in your family; a before and after event. The due date is still months away, but the pink lines instantly reroute your future. You dream of baby names and nursery themes. You research the latest car seat or wipes warmer. You picture Saturday morning snuggles in bed as a family, playing catch in the front yard, school plays and A+ report cards or cute artwork on the fridge. In every fantasy, the child is grinning, parents are grateful, and everyone is happy to be a family together.
All the dreaming is finally personified in one tiny human when the baby arrives. It may feel like love at first sight, but really it was love before first sight because you spent the last nine moths falling in love.
Now consider foster parenting.
Your phone rings. You roll over and check the time (12:30 a.m.) then answer, “Hello?”
“Hi, this is Mary with the Department of Family Services, do you have an opening for a 4-year-old boy? He’s part of a group of three. The others have placement but he’s been in my office all day.”
One hour later Mary shows up at your house with the little guy. She lays his sleeping body down on your couch then sits at the table with you and reads off his rap sheet.
“This is his second time in care. Dad is MIA, we think possibly jailed out of state. Mom is no stranger to the courts. She lost custody of three kids back in 2015 for drug abuse. He came into care this time with 2-year-old twin sisters. Drugs again. I grabbed a few of his things for you and a pack of pull-ups. He’s not potty-trained. One more signature here and I’ll be out of your way. Someone will contact you within the week.”
She gathers her things.
On her way out the door she remembers, “Just a heads up, the foster mom who took the twins said she found lice.”
Two arrivals. Two opposite stories. In one story you play dress-up with adorable new baby clothes and get lost in that unmistakable baby smell. Friends bring casseroles and celebrate in your joy. Maybe you have paid maternity/paternity leave to make all those doctor’s appointments. You definitely buy matching clothes and schedule a newborn photo session.
In the other story, though, you wake up one day thrust into the world of a traumatized child. You clean the rug after your new 4-year-old intentionally peed on it. He screams through nap time and dumps his entire plate of dinner on the floor. He sneaks food from the pantry and terrorizes the dog. He comes home from daycare with a behavior report. The lice return after every weekly visit.
You know in your head his behaviors are a result of the traumatic situation he is navigating, but it doesn’t matter. Everything about him makes your life harder. You are shocked you could get so angry at a 4-year-old child. You have immeasurable guilt.
The two stories could not be more different. Is it any wonder that foster parents often have a hard time bonding to new children in their home, particularly children with behavior problems. Forget love at first sight, sometimes it’s barely like at first sight.
If you find yourself in this situation, there is a hopeful way forward. If love for your child is not happening naturally, know that it can be manufactured with some intentionality. With effort, time and grace for yourself, you can actually create a bond that rivals any biological relationship. You can fall in love with a hard child simply by choosing to fall in love and working for it. At first, it’s a choice, but the feelings will follow.
I know because I’ve done it.
Here are a few practical things that worked for me:
- Focus on the physical connection. Our family went swimming as often as possible. Our newest member couldn’t swim yet, so he had to rely on us to hold him, and that built trust and safety between us. Plus, pools are a fun environment that make space for playfulness. At home we wrestled, snuggled during movies, jumped on the trampoline, hugged and read books side-by-side.
- A physical relationship might be hard to navigate, depending on the child. Be sensitive toward those who may have endured sexual or physical abuse and have wider boundaries. Try shared activities that keep you in the same space but don’t require touching. Shoot hoops, play video games, paint fingernails, put on make-up, build a Lego set, bake something, or sit together on the couch and snuggle a pet.
- Limit your venting. Everyone needs a safe place to express frustration, but constant venting without a desire to change will only solidify negative thoughts in your mind. Children in foster care are vented about enough and need someone who sees the good over the bad. Help them envision a new future for themselves. Ask questions like: “When you are a grown up with a good job, what’s the first expensive thing you will buy?” or “What’s your dream vacation spot?” or “How will your best friend describe you in five years?” or “What are you really good at?”
- Listen when people brag about the child and don’t dismiss their compliment or immediately turn negative. Children often behave worse for the parents, particularly the mother. But when the teacher tells you how helpful he was, be proud that he treats her with kindness even if he only sasses you. If your friend oohs and aahs over him, try to see him from fresh eyes and not the eyes of someone who was up with him six times last night. Become the child’s cheerleader, whether that’s on a soccer field or because he learned a new guitar chord. Let yourself be genuinely impressed.
- Use music to manipulate your own emotions. The same way movie scenes intensify with the right musical score, love intensifies with the right song. Find a song with themes of love, loyalty, home or family, and play them over and over as you picture the child in your mind. Some songs our family likes are “Home” by Phillip Phillips, “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds and “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers.
Whether you add a child to your family through nine biological months of dreaming, or through a contractual obligation that started with a caseworker at your table rattling off the child’s history, the end result can be the same. It can all lead to love.
As we’ve added more children to our family through foster care and adoption, the definition of motherhood has changed for me. It is bigger and more expansive. I’ve learned that there is no limit to who I can love, who I can mother, because it’s not about me and it’s not about the child. It’s all about a choice. I’ve quit believing the lie that motherhood must be love at first sight to be real. A love that has been earned and fought for is truly unconditional. I’d rather be loved unconditionally for a lifetime than be loved at first sight, and I bet your kids feel the same way.
Get back up. Forgive yourself of the guilt. Put in the work. And go fall in love.
Christina Jones is an occupational therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas. She and her husband Cory first became foster parents in 2011. They have eight kids through birth and adoption, seven boys and one feisty girl. Together they started a company called 366 Gathering and contract with Arkansas Department of Children and Families Services to teach continuing ed classes for foster parents in their state. They also speak at foster/adopt conferences nationwide. Jones is passionate about open adoption, transracial conversations and authentic story sharing.
Details in this essay have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.