March 10, 2012

"The Good Girl" and "The Other Mother"

There is a powerful scene in the movie Blindside, where a young man, who has been away from home for a few years, is searching for his birthmother.  The contrast between his wealthy white foster parents’ neighborhood and his former neighborhood with its loitering minorities, broken-down cars, and crowded apartment buildings is striking.  As my own family sat watching the movie in the comfort of our living room, I could sense that the scene was going to get ugly; it involved gang members, weapons, violence, and drugs.   I paused the movie and asked my children to leave the room until the scene was over.  When the story resumed, there was indeed an altercation.   During the chaos that ensued, a crib tipped over and the baby inside started crying.  I was stunned by the disparity:  here I was protecting my children from seeing that situation on a television screen, while there are children in the world who are actually living it!
When a child comes to live with my family, it’s tempting to ignore all of his previous history and experiences, and proceed as if we are starting from “square one.”   Like a toddler covering his eyes, if I can’t see it, then it doesn’t exist, right?   Of course I am aware that my foster child has a birth-family, and the older child will arrive with memories, habits, preferences, fears, and sometimes scars.  But since I did not know the child then, and there’s nothing I could have done to change what happened, it’s easier to pretend that Chapter 1 begins with me.

In the privacy of my own home, I have the illusion that I am the only “Mama” in this child’s life.  I invest my time and energy into loving and caring for him to the best of my ability.  I am the one who is with him 24/7, providing for his physical needs, reading his favorite stories again and again, and tucking him in at night.  I love it when I hear a little voice sing the verse to my favorite song or when I detect my own tone of voice being imitated during playtime.  And I can think of nothing more rewarding than watching a child grow and thrive, knowing that my loving care contributed to the progress.

But every week, during my trek to the court-ordered visits at the Department of Social Services, I am reminded that there is another prominent figure in this child’s life, one whose DNA is intricately woven into the child’s personality and physical attributes, and whose influence may be every bit as strong as mine:  the “other mother.” When we see each other, I’m instantly insecure in my role, never quite sure how I should act or what I should say.  In all of those self-help books on the shelves today, there isn’t exactly a chapter that covers the “Foster Mother-Birthmother” relationship.

Actually, part of the preparation for becoming a foster parent is a required class called MAPP:  Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting.  We are taught that parenting the foster children involves teamwork with the biological parents.  We should learn from each other, utilize each other’s strengths, and work together to meet the needs of the children.  But exactly what this is supposed to look like in real life has been as varied as the birthparents and children themselves.

How do I define my relationship with my foster child’s other mother?  I know we’re not “practically sisters” as one birthmother declared us to be.   And yet we are closely linked together in our love for this child.

How should I respond when the other mother gets angry, or feels justifiably jealous of her child’s attachment to me?  One birthmother was outright hostile towards me, accusing me of plotting to steal her daughter.  Her verbal abuse and ridiculous accusations became so frequent, that the social worker required me to secretly bring the child in through a back door of her office building, while the biological mother waited in the lobby.  Ne’er the twain shall meet.

How should I interact with my foster child when his other mother is present?  It doesn’t take long at all for me to become accustomed to being “Mama” to every child who enters my care:  I’m the one who understands what the incoherent toddler is trying to say, who sets the rules for acceptable behavior, who has learned to care for every medical need, and who kisses away every tear.  So how do I become invisible and silent when the other mother is in the same room?

During the time that he had lived with us, one precious 4-year old had become quite attached to me, in spite of seeing his other mother on a regular basis.   One week, during a visit in the playroom at the county offices, the quietness of the room felt particularly strained . . the whole time that they were together, the young boy had been concentrating on coloring a picture while pointedly ignoring his birthmother’s attempts to interact with him.  When he finally finished the picture, he walked right past her, handed the picture to me and proudly declared, “Look what I made for you!”  Awkward!  Although it wasn’t my intention, I’m sure that experience was bitterly painful for his mother.  How could I have handled that differently?

Insecurity and awkwardness aren’t the only feelings I must frequently deal with.  I have found that the same heart that is capable of much compassion and tenderness for a child is also capable of a surprising amount of anger towards that child’s birthmother.  How dare that mother expose her defenseless unborn baby to illegal drugs, condemning the little one to a life of physical and mental disabilities!  How can I help but feel contempt for the mom who claims that she loves her children but ignores the court’s instructions, never making it a priority to reunify her family?   What kind of woman would possibly choose to stay with a boyfriend who hurts her children? 

I was raised to be a “good girl.”  You know, to always be polite to people.  I hear my parents’ words ringing in my ears:  “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  However, what gracious words could I possibly say to someone who has seriously or even permanently damaged the child I love?  When I see her, I courteously say, “You’re new hairstyle looks nice.  Those braids must have taken hours.”  But what I’m really thinking is, “Is that why you didn’t have time to look for a job or to go to your parenting class this week?”  I pleasantly ask, “How are you doing?” when what I really want to do is scream in her face, “Where were you while I was with your child in the Emergency Room all night?”

A few years ago, I was confiding in a friend (okay, gossiping) about my frustrations with my foster child’s birthmother.   I truly can’t believe some of the terrible, selfish choices that grown adults make!  In the middle of my rantings, my friend said, “Wow!  We should pray for her.”  What?!  Pray for her?!  I felt instantly chastened and humbled that I had never even considered doing that! 

That conversation with my friend was a turning point in my perspective.  I realized that I had been guilty of what James 3:10 describes:  with my tongue I was praising my Lord and Father, and with the same tongue I was “cursing” a woman who was made in God’s likeness.  I guess deep inside my heart, I’m not such a “good girl” after all.

Of course I can’t condone abuse, or excuse a mother’s irresponsibility, or just pretend that her poor choices don’t adversely affect an innocent life.  But as hard as it is to believe, God loves her every bit as much as He loves her child!  How can I do anything less than pray for her, and to extend God’s love to her whenever possible?

Naturally, the Lord soon gave me an opportunity to put my new-found conviction into practice, placing me in a position to show unconditional love to my foster child’s birthmother.  While still struggling with a drug addiction, and making no visible progress towards her court-ordered goals, she became pregnant again.  This always complicates things in numerous ways!  How can she care for another child when she hasn’t even proven that she can care for the one(s) she already has?  Maybe the newborn will automatically be placed in foster care, giving the birthmother a chance to focus on reunification with her older children first.  What if the baby’s lab work shows traces of drugs?   Perhaps the judge will use the newborn as a “test” of her mothering skills.  Indeed, a pregnancy further muddles an already confusing situation.

Providentially, this birthmother’s new pregnancy was a “wake-up call” for her, and it wasn’t long until she voluntarily entered a residential drug-rehab program. I prayed often about how I could show God’s love to her during this difficult season of her life.  Although it was completely outside of my role as the foster parent to her son, I decided to visit her after her new baby was born.  Like that disturbing scene in the movie, I was raised as a “good girl” who had rarely even seen this kind of place in a movie, and here was a woman I knew who was living here!  It took an enormous amount of courage for me to enter that building! 

I could tell that the birthmother was embarrassed by my presence.  What was she supposed to say?  How could she proudly show off this adorable newborn, when here he was in a tiny cradle next to his mother’s cot in a bland brick facility, surrounded by recovering addicts?  When I awkwardly handed my small present to her, she began to cry.  This was the one and only gift that she had received to celebrate the arrival of her new son.  Wow!  If only I had known, I would have given more!

Over the years, I have encountered many occasions to positively influence the life of my foster child’s other mother.  Perhaps it has been as simple as showing her how to change a diaper, or modeling an appropriate response to a child’s tantrum.  With one mother the Lord gave me strength enough to overcome my timidity, and I was able to pray with her in the waiting room at the hospital while her son was undergoing major surgery.

But oh, how many opportunities have been irrevocably lost because I was too uncomfortable, or too angry, or too full of pride to show God’s love and grace to the other mother!  How I regret those squandered moments.

On the other hand, I have learned many things from the other mother, which I may not have learned otherwise.  I have learned to be grateful that she decided to give life to her unborn child, when she had other options that she could have chosen.  She has taught me how to replace the pride and anger and hate in my heart with unconditional love.  I have realized from her the need to set aside my critical, judgmental attitude, and to show compassion instead.  And most importantly, I have discovered from her the importance of prayer.  I can’t change her or force her to make good choices.   But I can pray for her, and I can encourage her child to pray for her.

Maybe this isn’t about my foster child after all.  Maybe the other mother is the one who needs to experience God’s love, and maybe this “good girl” is the one who needs to learn how to show it to her.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. It's like you were speaking directly to the situation we are in with our foster son's birthmom. It is so, so hard. I go back and forth between compassion for his mom because of the reasons she is where she is now and complete frustration that she continues to bring children in the world while dealing with addictions and homelessness. Thank you for the reminder that we need to pray for her and show her compassion and Christ.