In preparing for Mother’s Day this year, I called my mom and asked her if she had her heart set on anything special. I wanted her to be happy and to know how much she means to me. Of course, she gave her usual answer. “I don’t need anything, dear. Just to see you.” I shook my head, but smiled as her simple words reminded me of the love she held for me. Of course, I never gave her any reason not to love me. Perfect in every way, as a teen I was studious, amicable with all, and never ever in trouble.
Disclaimer: If you knew me back then, you would be either incredulous or laughing along with me right now.
Truth is, I was a really bad teenager. I can admit it. Headstrong from birth, I swam upstream for most of my life. Authority was but another barrier to jump over or bulldoze through. Factoring in the fact that my family had it’s own dysfunction with an alcoholic father, and the fact that my mother was also headstrong, you can only imagine the fireworks under our roof. I mean we butted heads like a couple of longhorn sheep during rutting season. And yet, through the yelling, the hurt feelings, the rebelliousness and the defiance, I never once doubted that my mother loved me. Even when she looked like she wanted to kill me, I never feared her. And in the end, after all the grief I dished out, the strangest thing happened.
I grew up. I began to see the world and her differently. Especially after I had children of my own. Our paths no longer diverged, but flowed together.
In thinking about my mom, I realized that being a mother can be exhausting, especially with challenging children. Giving and giving despite getting nothing but grief in return…Wow that is so hard! I pushed and pushed my mother away as a teen. But I always carried with me the understanding that no matter how far I pushed, she would always come back for me. And I am grateful. I know now, that had I not possessed that deep rooted truth, my own path might have taken a much different turn.
My childhood wasn’t idyllic, wasn’t story-book for sure. I can look at the bad times and the dysfunction of living with an addict through the lens of a social worker now. Back then, I had no lens. It was real and raw and could be ugly. But even saying all of that, I know that I was blessed. My earliest childhood experiences with my parents helped me to form attachments and roots so that I was able to transcend the pain of the later years.
Children who come from broken, abusive families aren’t always so blessed. Their very safety can be threatened from the time they are infants. See, as babies, we tentatively send out tender shoots hoping that those tendrils will find love and caring so that they could take root and help us to grow strong. The roots become strong through the repetitive actions of crying-declaring a need- having the need fulfilled-and building trust. If the cycle of trust and attachment that forms our earliest feelings of safety, becomes damaged through abuse, neglect, domestic violence or drug addiction, those roots cannot form. Our needs are not met, and instead of learning that the world is good and safe, we learn that the world is cold and that we can trust nothing.
Children often come into foster care with damaged root systems. Mistrust, anger and fear are their longtime companions, because those emotions helped them to survive their beginnings. Just being in the foster care system, their feelings of having no worth and no roots feel validated in their minds.
Mother’s day for a foster child can be rough. Programs in school and media all focus on the contribution and emotional support of mothers. But for them, the experience might be a little different. Not having comparable comparisons or experiences further separate them from the “norm.” Behaviors, born of trauma can escalate. Mental and emotional health expressions may become muted. These reactions are common and speak, not to their inherent ‘bad-ness” or “deficiencies” but to their early experiences and the desperate desire for a connection (even if if it a negative one).
Foster Parents often bear the brunt of this pain, as it is expressed towards those with whom the child feels most safe. Our responsibility as social workers is to acknowledge this dynamic and to provide extra support to those foster parents and to the foster children. Simply knowing to expect an escalation around family-oriented holidays can help the foster parents to be prepared and to understand the etiology of the behavior. But it still can be hurtful. They are trying desperately by their words and actions to the foster child, that they are safe; they are cared for; and that they have worth. Like a mother’s love, Fostering these hurt children is hard! But with the support, education and connection between the social worker and the foster family, everyone can survive Mother’s Day intact.
Today’s Challenge: Make sure to check in with your foster parents and your foster children before the holiday. Start open dialogue with the children about how they feel about Mother’s Day with the foster parents involved. Encourage the child’s honesty, normalize the feelings and let them talk through their pain. When they recognize it for what it is, it is actually easier for them to be mindful, as long as they know someone hears them and understands. Communication about the hard things can actually rebuild some of those lost attachments slowly, and give those still-tiny root tendrils some fertile soil in which to grow.