August 12, 2012

Teenagers: My Reluctant Calling

Taking in teenagers?  No way!  They are unpredictable, impossible to control, and maybe even dangerous!  I am more than willing to care for babies and toddlers, and I would consider fostering school-age kids, but definitely no teenagers!  Such was my perspective when my husband and I first began our foster parenting journey almost 17 years ago.  And actually, who would have blamed me?  Getting used to being a mother is challenging enough, but at least when you have a baby, you get a chance to become secure in your parenting role as the baby grows and matures through the different stages of childhood.  But to jump right into the parenting experience with a teenager?  That would have been incredibly overwhelming for even the bravest adult!

Okay, so this is, like, so lame!  You would think that after spending most of my 16 years in this stupid foster care system, that changing homes and getting to know different families would be no big deal.  But really, it’s not like it’s getting any easier.  I mean, how am I supposed to even know what to expect any more?  Is this placement going to last just a few months like the last one?  It’s such a bummer that I won’t even get to stay at the same school this time!  And I hate my social worker!  She didn’t even let me say goodbye to my boyfriend!

I first met her at a family event that our agency had planned.  She had recently moved in with a foster mother that I knew, a fairly inexperienced single woman who had agreed to take this difficult-to-place teenager.  When we were introduced, I could tell from the girl’s sullen expression, her arms folded tightly across her chest, and her mumbled responses, that this party was the last place on earth she wanted to be. 
My heart gave a brief flutter of compassion when I learned of her sad life in the foster care system, her birthmother always doing just barely enough to prevent her parental rights from being terminated, but never quite enough to prove she could be responsible for raising her daughter.  

It’s so annoying when people ask me personal questions.  Like I really want to talk about the fact that I’ve never had a permanent family.  Sometimes when I’m by myself I try to remember how many different homes I have been in, but I’ve pretty much lost count.  Maybe 10, but it could have been 12.  Anyway, who cares?!  And I really hate answering questions about my mom.  People always think she’s some loser who couldn’t take care of me, but I know she’s really been trying.  The last time I heard from her she said that she has a new job, so maybe soon I’ll be able to live with her again.  Ugh!  How much longer do I have to listen to these people?  I really wish we could just leave so I can go back to my new room and be left alone.

Despite that small stirring of sympathy I felt for her, I mostly remember thinking how brave that woman was, welcoming this aloof, sulky teen into her home.  Wasn’t it uncomfortable always trying to make conversation with someone who obviously didn’t want to talk?  Thank God I’m not in that situation!  I truly love my little foster kids, and I’m even learning to relax about the tantrums and messes.  I’m just really glad that God has called OTHER people to care for the bigger kids!

OMG!  This just sucks!  I met that lady like, once, at some lame party or something, and now I have to stay with her and her family for the week-end.  My foster mom says that she needs a “break” from me, but what is that all about?!  What does she need a break from?  What does she do while I’m at school all day?  And when I come home all she does is get on my case about doing my homework and getting my grades up.  Fine.  Whatever.  Let me just get through this week-end with these strangers, and everything will get back to normal on Monday.

Despite my insistence that I would NEVER take a teenager, I reluctantly agreed to provide respite care for this 16-year old, but only for the week-end.  I have experienced first-hand how important it is for foster parents to get a reprieve from the incessant demands placed on them, and I really wanted to be able to provide a much-needed break for my fellow-foster parent.  And honestly, since I had met the girl once before, she didn’t seem quite so intimidating to me.  I figured, since it’s only for the week-end, we would muddle through, and then everything could get back to normal on Monday.

Can we say “awkward?”  I have no idea what I’m supposed to do or say around these people.  I can tell that the lady is really making an effort to have conversations with me.  But duh!  Obviously I don’t want to be here!  Why should I even try to make small talk with her?  After this week-end, I’m sure I’ll never even see her again.  

I have to share a room with another little foster girl who lives here.  She offered to play Barbies with me, which was kind of cute, I have to admit.  But really, I am so bored.  They don’t have cable here, so I can’t even watch MTV.  Give me a break!

Oh great.  Another foster child who doesn’t know how to behave properly. I have no problem establishing boundaries for the little ones, letting them know what is allowed and what they shouldn’t do.  With my words, mannerisms, and my tone of voice, it’s fairly simple to assert my authority and expect compliance.  But with this teen, it wasn’t at all simple.  I found her to be quite presumptuous, turning on our television without asking for permission, rummaging through my refrigerator looking for food, and just lounging on the couch while I fixed dinner, not even offering to help.  How could she not see how rude she was being?  Did she not have any common courtesy at all?

I had to quickly remind myself that she had never had a mother to teach her how to be a guest in someone’s home.  What I considered to be common courtesy may not actually be “common” at all.  It was my home, so I guess it was my responsibility to let her know my expectations.  I didn’t want to just let her get away with this inconsiderate behavior, but what should I say?  I knew she didn’t want to be here in the first place, and I didn’t want to begin our first day together by correcting every little thing she did wrong.  And what if she ignored me, or rolled her eyes at me, or worse, was disrespectful or defiant right to my face?  Lord, please give me wisdom to know how to handle this situation, and courage to speak up!

Oh, great.  Another home, another set of standards I’m supposed to remember.  Actually, I would never admit this to anyone, but I’m kind of relieved that the lady said something to me.  Usually the adults in my foster homes assume that I know what to do, and then get mad when I break some unspoken rule that I never even knew about.  So now I know to ask before taking things from the kitchen.  No problem.  I’m good with that.

I actually couldn’t believe that she asked me to help her out in the kitchen.  I’m not a very good cook at all, but it was kind of fun.  I think cooking may be something I’d like to learn if anyone ever gave me a chance to try it.  I’m not really good at anything really, but maybe that’s because no one has ever patient enough to teach me.
When that man came home from work I didn’t really know what to think at first.  I’m not a huge fan of strange men.  But he is pretty funny when he jokes around.  Hmmmm . . . A family eating dinner together, seeing the parents laughing with their kids, the lady actually hugging me before I went to bed . . . maybe this week-end won’t be so terrible after all.

In spite of our rocky beginning, over the next few months, that respite week-end turned into a regular routine, one week-end per month.  As I got to know this girl better, I realized that she’s a person with feelings and thoughts and goals and dreams just like anyone.  Yes, her life has been more difficult than most, and for that I could excuse some of her idiosyncrasies.  We both began to relax during those week-end visits. I realized that, unlike being a mother to demanding toddlers, I enjoyed having her around.  I went shopping with her and had real conversations with her about interesting topics we had in common.  And the more I listened, the more she talked. I actually found myself starting to look forward to our time together! 

That foster placement sure didn’t last very long, but why am I even surprised?  That foster mother called the social worker all crying and everything, describing our argument that ended up in a “physical altercation,” but she’s the one who started it.  She is always yelling at me to do my chores, grounding me from the phone, threatening me if I don’t get better grades at school.  Of course I got mad.  Who wouldn’t?  At least this time, even though I have to move to another foster home again, it’s going to be with someone I already know.

When her social worker called me, explaining the urgency of the situation, how could I possibly say no?  After all these months, I had gotten to know this girl quite well.  She trusted and respected me (as much as it’s possible for a teenager to respect an adult), and my initial fear of her had completely disappeared.  And from a practical standpoint, if she lived with us, she would be able to finish out the school year at the same high school, minimizing the impact to her education and her tentative, budding social life.  Amazingly, my husband and I did something we never thought we could possibly do:  we said yes, she could come and live with us.  

And that is how I became a foster parent to a teenager.  She became the first of several throughout the years who were welcomed into our home.  God didn’t just suddenly call me to do something He knew I truly dreaded doing.  He gently led me through microscopic steps in the direction He wanted me to go.  He gradually nudged my heart, filling it with true love and compassion for this girl and others like her.  He gave me courage to welcome them into my life, knowing that even though I still felt ill-equipped to parent them, He would provide the wisdom and grace when my best efforts were entirely insufficient.  

After 17 years to become comfortable in my parenting role, and after getting to know 44 children, each with their unique personalities, I still feel that I am most prepared and gifted to care for the sweet, innocent babies who have not yet been hardened by life.  But I have also realized that teenagers are every bit as precious to the Lord as the little ones!  I may not have perfect wisdom, creative parenting skills, or infinite patience, but I DO have the love of the Lord to share with them.

No longer do I say “never” when it comes to the older ones.  Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the Lord has compelled me to not just grudgingly consent and “accept” the task of caring for teenagers, but to actually “embrace” it.  No longer is it necessarily a role for someone else to fulfill; what an honor to realize that sometimes it is His calling for me!


  1. WOW. What insight. Your life is so full, and maybe someday I, too, can open my home to others. You are such a special family and the lives you touch are blessed.

  2. Belinda! Stop making me cry! hugs to you-Joye