The blue dress reminded me of the kind of silk my great grandmother used to trim her blankets. My seventeen-year-old daughter stood at the edge of the dressing room drowsy with possibilities. I bury the thoughts about the sensible everyday clothes we were "suppose" to be buying. The results of sensibility, I reminded myself, were the white Bermuda shorts purchased two summers ago, which were never worn.
"Can I buy this dress?" Crow black hair fell folded into the small of her back, and the Morning Glory blue material rippled like wind walking across grass. I nodded my head yes, and her face lit with a thousand watt grin. Two seconds later her smile faded. "But what if something happens and I do something bad, will I still get to keep the dress?"
"Honey, there is nothing you could ever do that would cause me to take this dress away from you. It will be yours no matter what." Unlike my son and youngest daughter who needed to be held lightly, this child needed to test the strength of my grip. Perhaps there is no adequate description for some older foster children whose trust has been damaged time and time again. This kind of love needs to stay molten. In it's lifetime it will often need to be thrown back into the fire, recast, reshaped.
When we arrive home she puts the dress on again, and leans hard into the mirror's reflection, pushing aside all that thick black hair. The mail arrives bringing me the latest issue of a newsletter featuring foster kids in need of a family. I glance at the photos of waiting children. Lisa's high-cheeked face stares at me. She is eight, and has experienced extreme neglect in her birth family. An athletic girl, Lisa enjoys sports, and she also likes to cook and bake, but she can be bossy, and stubborn. It says a two-parent family, where at least one parent is Native American is needed; that she'd do best in a family experienced in parenting children who have been abused and neglected.
I'm an instinctive mother with lots of hard won parenting experience, and my heart tells me they are looking for another mom like me, for I know what it is like to parent children whose needs are almost beyond my strength. I remember when I used to think that all a troubled child needed was to be brought into a loving family and be loved. Now I know better. My oldest daughter came to me at age eleven, after years in multiple foster placements. Although we eventually adopted her, the word forever when it came to family was a source of anguish for her. She was a smart girl, beautiful, with a loving heart, but also with unresolved emotional problems stemming from abuse, deprivation, and rejection in early and middle childhood. We had years of what felt like at the time as getting-no-where counseling. Never one to waste money, or admit defeat, I spent those sessions discovering my own thorns--we all have them.
Foster parenting an older child requires a strong support system throughout the parenting years. You must teach yourself to work at creating positive memories. Learn to think of parenting your child as a relationship waiting to be built rather than a wall needing to be torn down. It's important to be aware of common behavioral problems of older children, who have lived in multiple placements, and to find a therapist and begin family counseling--before you need it.
For older kids who have experienced much loss, those losses and abandonment issues will surface at holidays, on anniversaries, and at other times when we least expect it. Marker events bring out an old sadness (ones that we usually don't even know about) and it gets mixed up in our current family life, and masked sadness often surfaces as anger.
Still, there are those of us bound for the older foster child placement trail. We saddle up, and get ready to ride. Violet water bathes our thoughts of what could be. Lisa, the child in my minds eye, learning to accept the consequences of her behaviors, tenderly loved, with opportunity to grow up within her Native culture, dancing in a beam of sunlight with a billow of fringed jersey shall around her. This time I know the dream giver comes to me not with a child, but instead with this story.
Terra Trevor is a contributing author of The Foster Parenting Toolbox (EMK Press) from which a portion of this essay is excerpted. She has also worked at a group home and youth crisis shelter with runaway, homeless and foster youth in transition, and is the author of The Huffington blog post My Year at the Shelter.