December 21, 2012

A Lesson in Humility

Seventeen years.  
45 different children.  Tens of thousands of unforgettable moments experienced, challenging conflicts resolved, feeding schedules perfected and complex behavioral issues researched and figured out.  Young lives literally saved with tender nurturing and attentive care.  So where is the sure confidence I should be feeling?  Why am I unable to find the sense of pride in my accomplishments?

Perhaps it is because I am sitting at the well-worn table in my slightly cluttered kitchen, and across from me is a woman I have never met before, questioning, probing, prying into every imaginable area of my life.

“What was your relationship like with your siblings when you were younger?”  Oh, right, do any siblings always get along perfectly when they are growing up?  And anyways, what on earth does that have to do with who I am today?

“What age were you when you first started dating?”  What kind of answer is she looking for?  If I was quite young, she might question my moral convictions.  If I was older, she might think I was too sheltered and couldn’t possibly understand the experiences of today’s teenager.

“What kind of parent are you?  How do you plan to discipline the children in your home?”   Well, of course any kind of physical discipline is out of the question for a foster child.  I strive to be strong yet not over-bearing, consistent but not too strict, loving and kind without being too permissive.  Is it even possible to find that perfect balance?

The palms of my hands are a little sweaty and I can’t help but feel nervous and insecure, as if this is an interrogation in the principal’s office, and with one wrong word she just might yell, “Aha!  I caught you!”  It’s really a simple, standard home-study.  However, in the midst of this tedious process, I am receiving a lesson in humility.

I should be used to it by now.  After all, it’s a procedure that my husband and I complete every two years in order to renew our foster care license.  In some ways, it’s almost as familiar to me as walking down the school corridor, opening my locker, and making my way to my next class.  The county fire inspector knows us by name and has memorized where all of our smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and carbon monoxide alarms are located.  The woman at the Bureau of Investigation never seems to age.  She continues to sit behind the glass window year after year with her coppery hair and perfectly lacquered nails, scanning our fingerprints and conducting a background check to make sure that we haven’t committed a crime since the last time we were there.   The forms we take with us when we get our physical exams, the copy of our driver’s licenses and birth certificates, the list of references from friends and family members who know us.  Check, check, check.  Those have all become a regular part of our relicensing routine.  Inconvenient maybe, but I have learned to accept them as necessary.

But somehow, I never have become accustomed to the changing faces of the social workers.  There is a considerable turnover rate among social workers (as high as 90% per year),1 so I am continually introducing myself to yet another stranger, welcoming him or her into the privacy of my home.   The majority of them are just starting out in their careers, young 20-somethings who have far more enthusiasm and confidence than practical experience.  (I used to be like that . . . I was a great parent before I actually had children!) 

It can be especially challenging when one comes across as condescending and authoritative, making it obvious that she is searching for something, anything, to write in her report.   The one who noted that we had no milk in the refrigerator, even though the children in our home at that time were all lactose-intolerant.  Or the one who criticized me for not knowing my foster child’s shoe size, when he was in a body cast and wasn’t even able to wear shoes.  It is then that I smile, try my best not to roll my eyes, and pray quickly for a polite reply that doesn’t sound too defensive.  I try to be gracious and kind.  Indeed, home-studies can be a humbling experience that require an unnaturally calm, submissive spirit.

And the questions, oh the interminable personal questions that I must answer!  Does it really matter what my father did for a living before he retired?  Or how much my monthly car payments are?  I completely understand that they want to make sure that I am not a criminal, but how will knowing what sports I played as a child determine whether or not I am a good parent today?  And does testing the temperature of my hot water really prove that my home is safe?

Oh, how I long to live in the middle of the back of beyond, where no social worker will ever enter my door again.  A time when I can decorate a bedroom or rearrange furniture without wondering what someone else will think about it.  When I can have a fire pit in my backyard or even (gasp!) leave the medicine cabinet unlocked.  When I can actually spend more time with my foster kids than filling out paperwork about my foster kids.  When my family will never again hear the words, “The social worker is coming; the house needs to be perfect.”

Every rebel drop of blood running through my veins feels like screaming, “Just get out of my home and leave me alone!”  The Free Spirit in me is restless from so many years of being repressed.  What sane person would voluntarily subject herself to this life of incessant scrutiny?

Well, I do.  Today, even as I write, there are 424,000 children who are in the U.S. foster care system.2  Children who have suffered unimaginable abuse and neglect.  Children who need a safe home and loving family.  Is sacrificing a little bit of pride and privacy really too high a price to pay?  Are solitude and seclusion really more important to me than a child in need?  

So I will continue to do it.  For the next child who may need my unconditional love and tender care, I will continue to fill out the mountains of paperwork and provide excessively private details to people I don’t even know.  I will continue to meet the state’s cumbersome list of requirements.

For the child who needs me, for the one who may need an opportunity to thrive in my home, I will continue to enroll in the school of scrutiny.  I will continue to accept these lessons in humility.


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