How foster parenting changed the kind of mom I am

The foster kids in my care have had to deal with domestic violence, addiction and mental health issues. They’ve taught me what kids really need.
two kids with a basketball

Instead of wondering if something was going to help Luke and Peyton get ahead, I started to ask myself if it might help my kids become kinder and more inclusive. Photo: Lindsay Smith

I was standing in my hallway, looking down at the red-faced toddler having a tantrum, wondering what I was going to do. I wasn’t new to freak-outs—my six-year-old twins had seen to that—but this was different. This was my two-year old foster son, in the middle of his third throwdown of the day, and I knew the crying, screaming, hitting and throwing might last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. He wasn’t verbal yet, so he couldn’t communicate with me in any other way, and I didn’t know him very well because we’d only had him for a week. I was at a complete loss.

I’d been a foster parent for more than two years and I thought I knew how to handle pretty much anything. This time, though, all of my well-honed approaches—ignoring the behaviour, giving timeouts, sitting near him quietly while he raged—fell flat. It was the first time since my early days as a mom that I felt helpless, with no idea how to help the distressed little boy in front of me.

When my husband and I became foster parents three years ago, we expected a lot of things. We expected to welcome children who needed love, security and stability into our home, quickly and sometimes without much notice. We expected to have to parent through a lot of emotions and trauma and to be a temporary safe place during turbulent times. We expected to say goodbye to kids we loved and would miss dearly. What I didn’t expect was how becoming a foster mom would change the way I approach parenting.

Like most parents, I had worried about everything from breastfeeding to organic foods to my kids’ screen time. These issues seemed incredibly important, worthy battles I needed to wage on behalf of my kids. If Luke and Peyton ate food with added preservatives, was I setting them up for health issues later on in life? If I didn’t get the twins into swimming lessons, sports and extracurricular activities, would they fall behind their peers? Would allowing them too much screen time make them lazy? I obsessed over these things, and they became the bulk of my parenting world. But when I came face to face with children who were struggling with trauma and loss, their lives turned upside down in mere moments, I found a new perspective.

There I was, watching this two-year-old boy unravel in front of me. The toy cars he’d thrown were scattered at my feet. His face was red and swollen from crying. By this point, we’d been at an impasse for an hour. My words weren’t resonating with him. Ignoring the screaming hadn’t made it go away, and a timeout was completely fruitless because I wasn’t sure that either one of us even knew what started this whole thing. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sat down across from him and watched him for a moment. He didn’t stop crying, but I noticed him glance over at me. After a moment, I held out my arms. He scrambled into my lap without missing a beat. We sat like that for a while as he calmed down. I just kept whispering that I was there and everything was going to be OK.

I realized that so many of the issues I had worried about were so extremely small in comparison to what I saw this little boy and other young foster children wrestling with: domestic violence, addiction, mental health issues and the breakdown of their families. It shaped how I wanted to invest my time with my own children—how I wanted to empower and encourage them.

Instead of wondering if something was going to help my kids get ahead, I started to ask myself if it might help them become kinder and more inclusive, or teach them to take responsibility for their actions. Running parenting decisions through that filter enabled us to focus on the things we find important—things we also want to teach our foster children.

The tantrums didn’t stop that day; in fact, they didn’t ever stop. But as this sweet little boy learned more words, they became less frequent. And as long as I could separate the behaviour from the child and remind myself that this was the only way he knew how to process his emotions, I was able to help him through them. I focused on letting him know he was safe, that he was loved no matter what, and that I’d always be there to help him through it. And that was how he learned not to throw things, hit people when he got angry or use screaming to get what he wanted. That perspective shift was what brought us from multiple tantrums a day to only a few a week.

I don’t do this perfectly—I still have hard days like anyone else. But foster parenting has forced me to take a step back and be very intentional about the decisions I make as a mother for my children and my foster children. Am I setting boundaries that make sense? Am I available for them? Am I empowering them to solve their own problems and manage their emotions? I’ve learned that there’s no one way to be a good parent. What our kids want more than anything else is us: our time, our love and our presence in their lives. When everything else fades away, that’s what they will remember.

Read more:
Elliot: A new kids’ book about the foster system
How adoption made our family complete
Could you be a foster parent?

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