There is a passion, almost an obsession, in my heart to nurture, protect, and provide a secure haven for children in need. It could be even a little bit of selfishness or secret pride, the desire to be needed by another human being and to fill a role that no one else is able or willing to fill. So what happens when the child doesn’t seem to need me or want me, and rejects all of my attempts to care for her? Is love still love when it is one-sided and unreciprocated?
This unlovely little girl came to live with us many years ago, long before Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) was a common term in adoption and foster care circles, and even before many professionals understood that there was such a diagnosis. But even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to put a specific label on her, it didn’t take long for me to notice that something wasn’t quite right. Her withdrawn, sad expression never changed, and her squinty, wary eyes never once made contact with mine, not in the entire year that she lived with us. But every day was a new opportunity for me to try again, to hope that maybe this would be the day she responded to my attempts to reach her. I was eventually able to hold her on my lap for brief periods of time, but only if she was facing away from me, and even then her body was limp and unresponsive. How is it possible to love such a child?
One thing that I never quite understood about this little girl was her unpredictable and frequent screaming. She would occasionally reach for me, but if I tried to touch her, or hug her, or pick her up, she would screech in distress. Her screaming was so common, in fact, that I cringed at the thought of taking her out in public places. When those other moms in the grocery store looked at me with scorn, no doubt criticizing me for my inability to calm this out-of-control child, I almost wished I had a banner or t-shirt that read, “Don’t blame me, I’m just the foster parent.” Or better yet, “I’d like to see you try!”
One day, when we were all home in the afternoon, another foster baby was asleep in the room down the hall. When this little girl’s screaming started – yet again! – my first and foremost thought was that I didn’t want the noise to wake up the baby. I abruptly picked her up, carried her out to the back porch, and propped her on a chair, informing her that when her screaming stopped she was welcome to come back inside the house. In my annoyance and intolerance, I didn’t realize that it was a hasty, unwise decision. Moments later a passing neighbor heard the screams and reacted as any concerned citizen would: she called the police. Oh, great! Now I had to humbly explain a questionable situation involving a child whose erratic behavior I could barely comprehend. Where was that “Don’t blame me” sign when I needed it?
Every mealtime was the same story: a nightmare that the whole family dreaded. She would double-handedly stuff her food into her mouth as fast as she could until she was practically choking, making an awful mess of her face, hands, and table in the process. But if I tried to help her, or feed her, or moderate her portions or regulate her frantic pace, she would react violently by refusing to eat, arching her back, and beginning her high-pitched, hysterical shrieking. She rarely used words, but the few times she verbalized her thoughts, she would demand stubbornly, “I do it myself!” How would she ever learn to eat properly and regulate herself if she never accepted my assistance?
Slowly but surely, as good nutrition, regular sleep, and daily sunshine became part of her routine, I witnessed the change in appearance. Her hair started to exhibit a healthy shine. Her thin arms and legs began to turn into chubby pinchable rolls, and the rosy tint on her cheeks became more and more noticeable. But even more astonishing, the day came, months after she began living us, when I caught the first glimpse of her cautious smile. I was so accustomed to seeing her despondent countenance, her disinterest in toys, her stubborn refusal to respond to my clumsy attempts to connect with her, that this tiny glimmer of light in her eyes was wholly unexpected. So there really is a resilient, happy girl somewhere inside after all, but her fear and suspicion had been hiding it all this time!
A foster parent’s rewards are few and far between, but these are the times that make the difficulties all worth it. The tantrums, the unpredictable behavior, the turmoil it causes in our family schedule, the unrequited affection – all of it is soon forgotten when a child finally finds the joy and security she denies that she needs but is so desperately seeking. The road to wholeness and healing will remain a long one for this little girl, possibly her entire lifetime, but what a privilege to be right there when she chose to take that first tentative step.