Present, Not Perfect

My husband and I went out for dinner recently with another couple who have been involved with foster care and adoption. We enjoyed being together and celebrating an accomplishment together, recognizing what a gift it was to be out at a fancy restaurant, enjoying delicious Italian food, and savoring the ambiance of candles and low lighting and the hum of adult conversation all around us. It wasn’t long into our time together, however, before the four of us started talking about our shared experience, not just of parenting, but of parenting kids from hard places. (My comment about “smiling for the first time all day” was what launched us into that topic. It’s been a hard season.)

We talked about relationships with birth parents (and their ubiquitous presence in our lives, whether the kids have seen them in years or not), the dynamics of kids processing their stories at ages five, ten, and into their teens. We discussed medication and therapy and challenges at school and sibling dynamics. It was so nourishing to be with people who got it.

In the wake of our time together, I had a lot to think about. I came away with Two Big Thoughts I want to express.

First, it is so life-giving to have people you can talk with about this journey who really get it. There are aspects of this experience that people who have not done it simply cannot understand or appreciate. If you are a foster parent, do what you can to befriend other foster and adoptive parents. Move whatever mountains you must in order to have time with one another to talk and laugh and lament over the incredible ups and downs that foster and adoptive parenting can bring. For us, in the season we’re in right now, that can look several different ways. Sometimes, it means hiring not one, but two, babysitters–one to focus on one of our children, who struggles with some neurological issues that often make it hard for him to manage his behavior, and one to focus on the other three kiddos, who are better able to play and interact age-appropriately. Other times it means asking a good friend to have one child (the one who struggles more than the others) over for the evening so we can just hire one sitter or ask a friend to watch the other three. (Have I mentioned that it takes a village to do what we do? It does. And we have a pretty wonderful one.)

Second, parenting—especially parenting kids from hard places—will bring out the best—and the worst—in you.

Foster parents are not saints or angels. We are regular people trying to do a beautiful thing. Sometimes we do this beautiful thing beautifully, and sometimes we stumble and fumble and fail. We are capable of tremendous love, hope, and faith for our children and, often, their families of origin. We are advocates. We are champions. We are cheerleaders.

We are also as susceptible to impatience, frustration, selfishness, fatigue, illness and anger as the next person.

Our foster son recently said something that was very humbling and very convicting. He said, “I don’t like being with you. You yell at me.”

I wanted to laugh. This is a child we have poured out our lives for over the past many months. We truly love him, and we have treated him like family from the moment he arrived. He came with us on our summer vacation, he gets snuggles and stories every night. We bought him a bike and my husband taught him to ride it. I take him to therapy and dance class, we maintain contact with his family of origin, even renting a van and driving seven hours each way during our east coast vacation so he could have some time with relatives in another state. We do all we can to treat him like one of us, to give him a life that is rich and filled with love and opportunities.

But he’s right—sometimes I yell at him. (To be fair, I yell at all of my children equally. I am an equal-opportunity yeller. But take note, I yell much less now than I did before I started Positive Parenting Solutions. But I digress.) When I ask them for the tenth time to put their shoes on, and they ignore me… when I ask them to get their hands washed for dinner and they ignore me… when we are out somewhere and I am trying to get everyone to follow me to the car, and one of them ignores me and keeps doing their own thing… when I discover that one of the children has cut an ice pack open and painted her entire bedroom with its contents… when one of them poops his pants and then tries to hide it, even though we’ve told him a million times that we won’t get mad if he poops his pants, but we will get mad if he tries to hide it, and I find poop (dried up, fresh, whatever) in places poop should just never be… sometimes I yell.

I’m human.

I’m susceptible to frustration, discouragement and anger.

But I eventually calm down, and we talk it over. We review the expectations, and I apologize when I’ve been wrong. We hug it out and we move on.

Like you do.

In life.

Because in life, conflicts happen. People aren’t perfect.

Foster parents are not perfect.

I’ve yelled at my foster children.

But, aside from one tiny baby who needed a lot more care than we were able to provide with three other children in our home, I have not called it quits and had any of our children moved because things were hard.

# # #

I heard recently from an adult woman who aged out of foster care. She was talking about the way one of her foster parents hurt her most deeply. I expected her to talk about her foster mother yelling at her in anger or saying “no” to something she really wanted or losing her patience and saying something unkind in a moment of frustration, all of which my children (all of them) have experienced with me, but that wasn’t it.

The thing that hurt her more than anything was that the foster mom gave up on her and had her moved to another home. What this girl wanted more than anything was to stay in one place. To not have to change schools yet again. To not have to get to know another new foster parent, with new house rules and unpredictable expectations. But after having gotten to know this foster parent and feeling comfortable enough to start trusting her, she had to move. Again.

The thing our kids need more than anything from us is not perfection. What they need is our presence. They need a love that stays. They need us to stick with them through thick and thin. They need the safety and security of consistency, stability and predictability while they are in a time of uncertainty and, sometimes, for the rest of their lives. They need us to show them how to own our mistakes and reconcile after we’ve failed them somehow. They don’t need us to model perfection—they need us to model integrity in the absence of perfection. They need to know that love doesn’t mean we never wrong each other–but it does mean that when we have wronged each other, we pick up the pieces and move forward, together.

There are plenty of days when I feel I don’t deserve to have the gift of parenting my children. I wish they had a better mom—someone with a longer fuse, someone whose tongue was not quite so sharp at times, someone whose tone was not quite so hostile when she had reached her limit. I am often convinced that other women would do a much better job at being patient and compassionate and empathetic than I do sometimes.

I can’t give them perfection or anything even close. But I can give them a love that stays, a steadfast presence through the ups and downs of life. I can keep a promise that I will be with them through thick and thin, that I will get the help they need (and the help I need) for as long as they need me.

I can show them how to sit together after a blow-up (theirs or mine) and talk through what happened, admit where I was wrong and ask for their forgiveness. More is caught than taught, you know—especially when it comes to forming the character of young people. They imitate what they see, for better or for worse. Yes, sometimes that means that my kids yell at each other things I’ve yelled at them. It’s crushing. But sometimes it also means that they learn how to reconcile with one another—how to own their part, how to ask for forgiveness, and how to forgive.

# # #

Talking with this couple the other night, I was struck by one more thing: the devotion I see in foster and adoptive parents who give their lives over to the needs of the children entrusted to their care. These are people who carry a steadfast conviction that their children deserve a future that is bright and hopeful, and they (we) do all we can to ensure that for them, despite their hard beginnings.

Sometimes, we each confessed, we just do it in a very loud tone of voice.

Even as we confessed to one another our failures to love perfectly, to always say the right thing or do the best thing, we agreed that we do what we can to believe, hope and endure all things in order to give our kids the future they deserve. Even when things are hard.

Because things are not always hard. Sometimes things are really great.

And when it comes down to it, what our kids need from us more than anything is not perfection. It’s presence.

For better or for worse, in good times and in bad, what every child needs, whether they’re in foster care or not, is parents who are present—not perfect.

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