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Foster Parenting: What We Won’t Tell You

May 12, 2015

May is Foster Care Awareness Month and I love a good awareness month, so I popped over here to write about some things that have been on my mind the last few weeks. We recently became foster parents again, having finalized our first adoption from foster care last fall. People are often interested in what we do, why we do it, how it works, and perhaps one day soon I’ll get into all of that here, but for now I wanted to discuss some things that come up a lot in our daily lives as foster parents. People often want to know how they can be supportive of our family, and honestly, more than clothes or food (maybe not more than babysitting, we’d love babysitting), I want people to be more conscious about how they interact with us and other families in our situation. So today, I’m addressing a few of those problem areas.

Why we don’t talk about our foster kids’ stories

A while back a friend posted one of those listicles about what NOT to say to fostering and adoptive families. As helpful as the article was for her, she struggled with hopelessness thinking she would never be allowed to say (or ask) anything. She asked several of us, “Is there a polite way to ask about your family?”

My advice was to first, check your entitlement to the family’s story. The thought that I’m entitled to an explanation of someone else’s family is often a mark of personal privilege, and an indication that I could be treating these folks more like an exhibit than like people.

Not every story is yours for consumption.

Not every story is yours for consumption.

Empathy is key here. Would you, upon meeting a stranger or even an acquaintance, disclose all of your family’s business? The sister in rehab? The mom dealing with mental illness? The dad in and out of jail? Perhaps you are an open person, but chances are you’re not going to tell tales about your family without their permission. Well, neither will I, and my kids are too little to give their permission. In fact, they are too little to know the scope of their backgrounds. Total strangers definitely don’t get to learn that from me before they do.

Kids come into foster care because they have been neglected or abused. They have been traumatized in some way and now a whole team of strangers has taken over their lives, hopefully for the better. Those strangers, lawyers, social workers, parents, doctors, counselors, all know the story. Almost all of us are bound in some way to confidentiality about these children and their families.

There are need-to-know zones I navigate as a foster parent. Only a couple of close confidants know anything about our kids’ background (and those are my “if I die and need someone to pass this historical knowledge on because I know you’re a fixture in my kids’ lives” folks). And even they don’t know everything. For what it’s worth, we don’t either. We know what we’ve been given.

If it’s a close friend or someone we’ll be regularly interacting with, I’m happy to respond to some questions as long as that zooing motivation is checked. Treading lightly here looks like, “I know you have to protect your child’s privacy, but I’m trying to understand better. Can I ask you something? Feel free to shut me down if it’s too much/inappropriate/you don’t want to discuss it.” If you have to ask, and again, check yourself before you do, take the pressure off the family to answer. We like to educate, but let us do it on terms that are best for us and our kids.

Why I might be “rude” to strangers or even friends who get weird about my transracial family

I don’t want to be rude. It’s not fun. I’m a rowdy person behind a computer screen but in real life I want folks to like me as much as the next person does. But, there are realities we’re dealing with as a “conspicuous” family in a segregated culture and we are required, as parents, to protect, advocate for, and teach our children about the world.

We used to be a white family of four. When we starting fostering our son (who is Asian) we got lots of ridiculous comments that I snarked back at: “He speaks good English” FOR A ONE YEAR OLD, YEAH HE DOES. In a store, “where did you get him?” AISLE 5. “I bet he’s well-behaved.” WHY DO YOU THINK SO? We know other folks who have been asked how much a kid cost. There’s no gif for this level of intrusion and stupidity. Oh wait…

All those 80's sitcoms did not prepare me for this degree of nonsense

All those 80’s sitcoms did not prepare me for this degree of nonsense

Now that we’re fostering our black daughter, we have white folks asking us all kinds of questions about skin and hair care. Seriously white people, on this and so much more, Google is your friend. You can ask Google anything you want and it’s just between you and the NSA.

Even more invasive, I now regularly have to fend off white ladies who want to touch her hair. And I mean, petting her and droning on about how surprised they are it’s soft, or waxing nostalgic about that time they touched their black friend’s hair.

From the film, "Dear White People"

From the film, “Dear White People”

White folks’ curiosity about black hair is incredibly loaded with historical and cultural significance, and if you don’t know what those significances are, again, GOOGLE. I’ve indulged a few questions I probably shouldn’t have out of shock, but I’m quickly becoming accustomed to these situations and my tolerance for them has run out. I no longer care if you are family, friend, or foe: our daughter isn’t going to be your all-access-pass to blackness.


And YOU’RE rude for asking.

Don’t I want people to know about fostering & transracial adoption? Why won’t I teach you?!

I do. I am. I will. But not at the expense of my kids. Growing up as a kid with rheumatoid arthritis, I know a little about what it’s like to have to deal with this kind of uninvited attention. Race and disability aren’t the same thing at all, and the invisibility of my disability affords me many privileges in addition to the ones I get for whiteness. Still, I’ve been that kid whose mom has to decide whether to educate someone or put them in their place, whether to confide in or confront.

As tricky as it is for the adult, it’s hellish for a kid who has zero power and is at the mercy of grown-ups. Sometimes my mom confided or educated and I was embarrassed by the details and the helplessness of not only having the disability but having it named and described without my permission. Sometimes I was embarrassed by the confrontation. I wanted the invisible to stay that way to the ignoramus in front of us. Most of the time, though, I knew my mom would rip the world apart to get me what I needed. I felt loved and safe watching her do her best to have my back.

I can’t give my kids intact birth families, and I can’t give them the just world they deserve, but I can have their backs. And if that kind of loyalty offends a few people along the way, I think I can live with it.

Take-No-Mess-Mamas Unite

Take-No-Mess-Mamas Unite

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