“How could any mother not want their child?”
Yes, that is something I hear all the time from friends, family members, and even strangers when they find out that I am a foster/adoptive parent. I have heard it so many times, yet those words still make me cringe. I never said my child’s birth parent did not want him. I never said my child’s birth parent did not love him. I never said my child’s birth parent gave him away. I understand how easy it is to believe that if a parent is unable to care for his or her child, it must mean he or she does not love that child. But that is hardly the case.
I believe all the birth parents I have met truly love their kids even when their actions did not show love. Prior to becoming a foster parent and meeting birth parents myself, I am sure I would have made very similar remarks to other foster parents. It is difficult to comprehend how a parent can abuse or neglect a child yet still love them very much.
“My views of birth families have changed since I became a foster parent”
My views of birth families have changed since I became a foster parent and met some of these birth parents. I was shocked to hear their stories and to see what drastically different lives some of them have had compared to my life.
One of my first experiences with birth families was with a birth mom named Sarah*. Sarah’s daughter had been living with a family member in kinship care but was then removed and placed into foster care. At first I thought the child had been living with her grandmother, but I later learned that it was the great-great grandmother who had been caring for her. “What had happened to her mom, grandmother, and great grandmother?” I wondered. How is it that the only person available to watch this precious child was probably the oldest member of the entire family?
Then I attended a family conference at Job and Family Services for this child. I will never forget walking into that room. There was what looked like a family tree hand written on the whiteboard up on the wall. I, of course, did not recognize any of the names that were on the family tree, but what I did notice was that several of the names (at least 13 of them) were crossed off. I sat there trying to figure out what that meant. One lady had several names written under her name. I assumed these were her children but they were all crossed off. Eventually I asked the caseworker and I was shocked when she told me that all the crossed off names were deceased. Yes, a couple of them were passed on due to old age or natural causes, but she explained to me that the majority had died due to substance abuse and overdose. I will never forget sitting in that room and realizing that an entire generation of this family was gone due to drugs. That is when everything changed for me. That is when I realized that not everyone has the same kind of life as me. I had never imagined that people lived like this and faced such hardships and tragedies with no role models, no support, and no one to teach them how to parent.
As I began to learn more about this child’s birth mom, Sarah, and her family and history, things began to make more sense to me. Sarah started using drugs at the age of 12. That would have surprised me had I not already known her family’s history of substance abuse. While I grew up with my parents teaching me to stay in school and to “just say no” to drugs, her family was most likely the ones providing the drugs and showing her how to use them. Then I remembered learning that trauma and substance abuse can stunt brain development. Therefore, even though Sarah is now 19, she functions in maturity and intellect as more of a 12 year old because that is when she began using drugs. Her immaturity and inability to care and provide for her child was starting to make more sense. After all, I thought, parenting was hard in my thirties–I could not imagine trying to raise a child on my own at age 16, even without all the other issues and obstacles she was facing. I know that if I had become pregnant at a young age I would have had numerous family members to help support me. I would have had a safe home environment with my mom to help me raise the child. My mom would have taught me how to care for the child and she would have been there to answer all my questions and support us financially if needed. Sarah, however, did not have anyone in her life to guide and support her and her daughter.
I can see now that Sarah loves her daughter very much. She wrote this letter while her daughter was in foster care and Sarah told her all the time, “I love you to the moon and back!” I realize that Sarah and many birth parents are simply doing their best with what they have and with what they know. Unfortunately, what she had and what she knew was not enough to keep her child safe.
Do not get me wrong; I am not trying to make excuses for anyone. Abusing or neglecting a child is never okay. I am simply asking for people to be less judgmental and more understanding of how parents might end up in these situations. It is easy for me to say, “Well, I would never do that!” but the truth is I do not really know what I would have done in that situation. I am just so thankful that I am not in that situation. I have been blessed with an amazingly supportive family that has always been there for me. Not everyone is so fortunate.
How have your perceptions of birth families changed since you began your foster parent or adoption journey? Please share your experiences in the comments.