MOTHERHOOD OR BUST: Reflections on the dreams, and nightmares, of foster parenting

MOTHERHOOD OR BUST: Reflections on the dreams, and nightmares, of foster parenting

by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

I have always maintained that life is a progression of serendipities. Things happen, not as we anticipate, but with a haphazard kind of kismet. Childlessness was not my choice. At times, it was like a multiarmed crucifix with me skewered dead center. I could teach school, play the piano, grow a garden, sew, write books, and tend a farm, but I couldn’t make babies. I had even begun resenting my own heifers and barn cats.

I am Southern and accustomed to nosy questions. Don’t I like kids? Am I too vain about my figure to risk getting pregnant? Would I rather have a neat living room than sons and daughters? Eventually, two rounds of surgery answered my tormentors’ questions. I was just put together wrong at the factory. Still, I believed the Bible promise: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” And He does.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass (left) with her foster daughter Deborah.

For most parents, bringing home a new member of the family involves driving to the hospital, loading mother and infant into a wheelchair, and waving proudly from the elevator. My experience was different. No less proud, I followed Highway 70 to Valley Hills Mall, parked outside Sears Roebuck, took the elevator to the main floor, and waited until Deborah finished her stint demonstrating eyeglass cleaner to shoppers. It wasn’t the first time I had seen my new daughter. Unlike parents who get their initial view of offspring in ON THE ISSUES FALL 1990 the delivery room or later at the hospital nursery window, I met Deborah in the homeroom of Vivienne Stafford, my partner teacher.

Deborah was an abandoned 16-yearold. Despite their daughter’s cheery sweetness and good manners, Deborah’s parents got a divorce, split up the furniture and dishes, closed their joint checking account, and tossed Deborah and her sister out like so much refuse. Vivienne made her own observations and decided that my roomy farmhouse would do nicely during the Christmas holidays until Deborah could arrange for something more promising than the county home for abandoned children. I said yes. I learned long ago not to argue with Vivienne.

Deborah arrived on December 19 and settled in with grace and style, but only two paltry boxes of personal belongings and no winter coat. Yet nothing daunted her optimism. It was not until years afterward that I pinned down her unique strength. Deborah is a survivor. The ability to nest wherever a meager branch extends her way is the real trick to her success. In no time at all, she issued me my mom’s training wings.

I submitted to two sessions of pseudo – psychological grilling at the Department of Social Services, had my well certified, allowed the fire inspector to peer under beds and down the chimney, and bought a fire extinguisher just to keep him happy. (One small discrepancy required immediate attention – for some inexplicable bureaucratic reason, the sewing machine could not stay in the bedroom.) While all this was going on at my house, my neighbors were being interrogated as to my stability and solvency. Somehow the interrogators missed the fact that my husband was a dedicated drinker, but that’s another story.

The last stage of accreditation was the most bizarre. Health department officials weighed matters of the utmost importance. Did I keep turpentine and/or paint thinner? (It seemed odd that no one asked if I kept guns.) Did I feed my dog in the kitchen? Was there a thermometer (not a gauge but a real, graduated, mercury-filled thermometer) in my refrigerator? Then came the final test of my ability to parent. The agents inspected the bathroom ceiling for mold. Piece of cake. I was in!

Somehow, I had acquired a belief that foster children were round-eyed, long-faced urchins from lower-class environments, like Little Orphan Annie or Oliver Twist. It came as quite a shock to me that all classes of people abuse their kids, from degreed professionals in snotty neighborhoods to third-shift hands on mill row.

Fortunately, Deborah bore little resemblance to any of Dickens’ foundlings. Self-confident, intelligent, ambitious, enthusiastic, she was more than I could ask for. In the early stages, raising Deborah was sheer delight tinged with moments of self-doubt when I over-reacted or expected too much. I loved her smile, her zippy comebacks. The first few nights I couldn’t sleep, so I hovered near her bed and watched her breathe. It was magic. It was also absurd – a 5’7″ woman protecting a 5’11” teenager from crib death.

Our relationship lacked none of the rubs that plague all mothers of teenage daughters. Deborah could be unreliable. She kept late hours. She parked overtime alongside the telephone. She used more than her share of shampoo, but never endangered her body with over consumption of vegetables. Her T-shirts were too revealing, her homework not revealing enough. I responded, not like a parent, but more like a veteran high school English teacher who knows how to lower the boom. Still, there was love and a growing bond that satisfied some urge that had nibbled at me for most of my adult life.

I had developed the standard recoil from the term “foster home” from too many media encounters. The lead sentence in the crime section leaped out at me personally. “After living in a string of foster homes, the axe murderer rebelled against his dismal past before dismembering his victims and disposing of them and the family dog in a pit of lye.” Funny how foster homes are always counted like beads on a string. But there is nothing funny about the job. It is parenting at its most frustrating – with an extra portion of officious, bureaucratic meddling thrown in for good measure.

In my five-year career I was foster mother to six children – not all at once, heaven forbid. I was licensed for no more than two teenagers at a time. I had plenty of help from social workers, psychiatrists, counselors, juvenile judges, teachers and probation officers. Some professional help was the clipboard-carrying variety – an impersonal, tight-lipped visit, unannounced and punctuated by officious check marks in the appropriate black boxes. Others became lifelong friends and supporters both to me and my children. Taken all around, social workers do a bang-up job against a burgeoning tide of responsibilities and governmental mishmash. Their hours are long and client responsibilities cover every aspect of human existence, from finding decent housing to ferrying sick children to the pediatrician. The burnout rate for social workers far exceeds that of public school teachers, and salaries are laughable.

I did a lot of learning in those five years. I now know that family life bears little resemblance to “Father Knows Best” or a Norman Rockwell painting. That the Reagan administration could cut Medicaid to foster children without generating a single protest march. That jobs at hamburger joints are hard work for young people who have homework awaiting them. That upscale doctors and dentists can’t be bothered with the paperwork that accompanies treatment of the poor. That some health department nurses can look straight through a client without seeing a human being. That incest, spiritual abuse, neglect and/or a stay at a home for unwed mothers take their toll on self-esteem.

My most frustrating lesson belonged in the realm of values. Even though I have had 20 years’ experience in the high school classroom, I learned that mothering differs from teaching. Bringing up teenagers is like sweeping back ocean waves with a frazzled broom – the inundation of outside influences never stops. Whatever the lure – cars, easy money, cigarettes, drugs, booze, sex, crime – much that glitters along the shore has a thousand times the appeal of a parent’s lecture, especially when that parent is not your “real” mom.

Despite some people’s belief that taking in foster children is like found money, I must say that six dollars a day never seemed sumptuous. The thrill of a $100 check to outfit a grown teenage boy for the opening of school escaped me. To fulfill my shopping list, I found corners of my home town that I never knew existed, like a freight salvage warehouse, the Thrift Shop, Goodwill and the Salvation Army. To complicate matters, the unpredictable issuance of checks from county funds often meant a wait of several months for reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses.

To offset these minuses, I discovered pluses, such as the fact that real friends are the people with generous hearts who make no display of their charity, like the colleague who delivered a bicycle to my house while I was away. Or the friend who put up the money for Deborah to take a school trip to New York. Or the coach who passed on a pair of wrestling shoes to Tony when I was scratching just to find money to replace the boy’s missing front teeth. I had no such backup from church, neighbors, or relatives.

Not all of my experiences with foster parenting bring joyous memories. Some of my kids were abysmally ignorant, particularly the 14-year-old who could not tell time, had never learned how to multiply and divide, and dropped trash wherever she happened to be standing. One girl was a victim of the “clean child” syndrome, an enigma stemming from virtual enslavement at an early age to tasks like meal planning, major cleaning chores, and care of younger siblings. No matter how much care and encouragement Cindy received, she found contentment only in hard work and gospel music, which she hummed while she toiled. The depth of her wretchedness became clearer to me as the color began to vanish from the kitchen tile from her vigorous assaults with steel wool and cleanser.

Then her bad dreams started filling in the blanks – Cindy, whose I.Q. skimmed the boundaries of retardation, bore the scars of incest. When there was no work available to stay her mind from its voyages into the past, she sat in the living room, moaned, hugged her arms to her body, and rocked back and forth, humming hymns. At night she slept with the overhead light and radio on. Cindy ate little and said less. She avoided contact with males and fled to safety when the doorbell rang. I had great difficulty communicating with her and begged Social Services in vain for a psychiatric evaluation of her condition.

To my amazement, after a four-day stay with me, the courts decided to return her to her parents. She never got medical attention for depression. No county representative took seriously her threats of suicide. My own nightmares filled in where Cindy’s left off. True to regulations, social workers refused to tell me what happened to her. At this point, I had no trouble understanding why volunteers for foster parent programs are few. The county expected robotic child care of the same type that I gave my hens – constant, mechanical and impersonal.

Other incidents turned my home into a hostile camp when my husband and I differed in response to our next child’s manipulation, deceit and general uproar. My youngest foster child, Tammy, traded sexual favors for attention from any male she could entrap. Even her school relationships involved a trade – gossipy notes and chewing gum in exchange for friendship. When we attempted to punish or control her, her tantrums rent the day’s peace with one long wail. One morning at 6:00, as I got up to dress for work, I realized that her room was vacant, and the window and screen ajar. She had gone next door to visit the bed of a 20-year-old neighbor. Eventually, Tammy’s case worker, who apparently knew about her promiscuity before placing her in my care, intervened and provided counseling, tests for venereal disease and warnings about pregnancy – but no contraceptives.

Because of Tammy’s poor upbringing and lack of self-discipline, she could not adjust to a foster home. My daily encounters with her never surpassed the level of “Do it or else.” I loathed the role of top sergeant, yet no other persona sufficed. One Saturday night, Tammy left for good out the same bedroom window and was never heard from again by local authorities. When I discovered the open screen on Sunday morning, I felt both relieved and alarmed. In time, relief won out. Heaven knows how she copes on the streets, but I have a vivid idea.

The worst memories of my five-year stint as a foster mother belong to the period in which I agreed to take juvenile offenders under a federal program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Tony, a facile liar and delinquent who was removed from his parents’ care because of repeated incidents of trespassing and breaking and entering, came from a neighboring county which produced more problem children than it had places to put them. He grew up in the center of a trash heap. His home, like a gopher hole, was ringed with industrial waste and the leavings of dumpsters. His parents, who had joined segments of old trailers and discarded wood to create a kind of boxcar shelter, augmented their meager income by harvesting tidbits from their front lawn.

The rule concerning parental visitation usually conceals the location of the foster home and protects the volunteer parents from confrontation with the natural parents. The summer after Tony’s arrival, his mother contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever while gathering blackberries to sell, so I agreed to take him to visit her at the hospital. A simple, trusting woman, she reached out for his hand, asked if he was being a good boy, and smiled at me. She expressed no thanks, yet revealed no hostility. I learned something important from that visit. There is love between parent and child, even when the relationship fails. Like no fault divorce, there were no recriminations from Tony or his mother – just a moment’s enjoyment of being together and hope for better times.

Like a feral infant brought up in the wild, 16-year-old Tony had never been socialized. He smelled gamy, wore a haphazard assortment of garments, lied and stole when the notion struck him, talked baby talk, and masturbated in public. I am not one to quail in the face of challenge, but he was beyond my mothering powers. With little practical help from social workers, I combated his numerous shortcomings. I taught him how to wash his body and how to behave at the table, but I yielded the field after I found him lighting a fire to a pile of gasoline-soaked cardboard in the basement.

Enraged and thwarted, I slapped him across the mouth (a real no-no by social services’ standards) and demanded that he pack his belongings and depart before nightfall. His case worker, who implied that Tony’s maladjustment was largely my fault, poured out sympathy for him while directing disappointed eyes at me. I ignored the textbook criticism of my parenting and slept well for the first time since I accepted Tony into my home. My only qualm was pity for the next volunteer who tried to civilize him.

My experience with Elizabeth, Tony’s replacement, was almost as unsettling. She resented me because I received pay for her care. A recent inmate at a state mental institution, she sat in the den rocker like an oversized cataleptic lump, painted and repainted her nails, and disdained communication. She ate constantly, refused all part in family activities and chores, went through the motions of attending school, and absorbed herself in “I Love Lucy” reruns. Nothing I did or said could win her over. When she threatened to burn down the house to avoid her share of housecleaning duties, I had to pass her on to other quarters.

Huffily hostile, Elizabeth stuffed her few belongings into grocery bags, perched on the living room sofa, and waited for a social worker to carry her away to her next pseudo-parents. Muttering veiled threats against the dog, she spewed out her pent-up frustrations with authority figures. I had applied all the nice-Nelly canned speeches I learned in foster parent school. At that point I let fly with real words, which scarcely penetrated her prickly outer shell. Immediately I felt better, but shortly I felt worse. I had lost control, a state of affairs that foster parents are expected to avoid. I wondered which of us had the greater need of counseling.

At this point in my career as mother for-hire, I doubted that I had done much to benefit anyone. And least of all was I benefiting myself. Except for one sympathetic cousin, I shunned visits by relatives or friends because I didn’t want anyone to see how deplorable my homelife had become. My husband, a problem drinker, was sliding further into the morass of alcoholism. Usually, he left crises for me to solve and sat on the back porch, drowning his senses in booze. Knowing his own family’s penchant for alcohol, I suspect his deterioration was inevitable and cannot blame foster parenting as the contributing factor.

After lengthy discussions with self, self and I came to the inevitable conclusion – give up on further placements. At least my relationship with Deborah had borne fruit. Within a short while, my husband departed. I lived alone on the farm, contenting myself with letters and phone calls to Deborah, who had moved to an Air Force base in Texas with her new husband. Because she genuinely loved her foster father, she mourned the breakup of my marriage and continued to seek mothering from me. Within a short period, I remarried, gave up teaching, and sought a new life as freelance writer. Still, I did not abandon my role as Deborah’s mother.

Even though my foster parenting went down in flames, there had been rewards. How could I leave them out? My first Mother’s Day unveiled a treasure fit for Scheherazade – a yellow nightie and love note from Deborah. Then followed graduation days (high school and college) and my debut as mother of the bride. As with normal mothers and daughters, Deborah and I argued flowers, cakes, soloists and hooped slips right up to “Trumpet Voluntary.” As with normal mothers and daughters, I usually lost. But Princess Di had nothing over my girl, dressed in white and glowing with happiness.

Some of the less showy moments, like humble gifts wrapped in brown paper and grocery string, rounded out my developing sense of motherhood. Often blended of maternal joy and bitterness, they reminded me how blessed my own childhood was, like the time that I soothed away Cindy’s nightmare and ground my teeth at the villainous father who played the starring role. Or the day my embrace made up for Tammy’s one-sided telephone call that began, “Please, Daddy, I want to see you.”

Always I wonder, will they grow up to be decent parents or will they abuse or abandon their own children? Have they learned anything about pride and hope and trust? Will they become self-reliant? And the hardest question of all, did I do it right? I have stopped fearing that I may be listed among the “string of foster parents” of some hapless soul on death row. If Deborah is any indication, I’m hoping for at least a few stars in my crown.

Does this tale have a happy ending? You bet. Deborah, the one out of six who has remained close, still comes by for a hug and motherly advice. We have weathered two divorces (hers and mine) and celebrated 11 Deborah days – December 19, the day she came to live with me. My daughter is now a competent banker, runs an efficient office, and loves her chance to shine. At the beginning of her career, she defeated a lecherous boss by being as persistent and wily as he. The sleaze was fired and Deborah got a raise. Score one for the kid with the tenacious mom!

Mary Ellen Snodgrass is a freelance writer from Hickory, North Carolina.