Most of the comments people make about our slightly changeable and somewhat odd family are lovely. Like all parents my husband and I love hearing how beautiful our kids are, how well behaved (even when it isn’t always true), how nice it is to see us all together, what fun it is to see a big family having a good time.
There are a few that trouble me a little, but I understand why people make those comments – our family is different and strange, and people are processing how to respond to it. I’ve made mistakes when in those kinds of situations too, so I don’t mind it. I know some people get offended easily, but I generally don’t – the reason is that our family DOES occupy a strange and unfamiliar place in the cultural landscape, and people don’t always know what to say in those cases. Indeed, I’m going to talk a lot more about just how strange that space is in a moment.
Among the comments that do trouble me, I dislike being called a saint or told how noble we are. The reality is that no one has children by any mechanism because they nobly want to help children. For that there are plenty of outlets of service – lots of ways to help children. The only reason to take kids into your home day and night and love them and live with them for the rest of their childhoods is because you love kids and want to have them there. We don’t do it out of nobility of spirit, we do it because the kids give us something we want, just like all parents. I know this one is totally well intentioned, but it bothers me just a little because the implication seems to be that THESE children are different, that one takes them because of a charitable or noble impulse, not for the same reason anyone becomes a parent. In fact, that’s not true – the kids we’ve had have been some of the most wonderful, fun, loveable people I’ve ever known, and I’m by far the richer for them. I didn’t have my own biological kids out of selflessness, I don’t do this from that impulse either.
A lot of people say “I could never do that.” I don’t usually say what I think about this, but I always want to say “Well, yes, you could. And in another time or another place, you probably would have.” Consider what HIV did in Africa. A whopping 95% of all Ugandan children were taken in by family – often older teens just barely able to care for them or grandparents. Think about what happened in Haiti after the earthquake when rural families took in whole families – and thousands of orphaned children. Yes, you could do it. The difference is that in our culture, only a few people have to want to do this work – but you could.
Often what people mean is “I couldn’t give them back.” And I get that – giving them back IS really hard. At the same time, most of us love and lose in our lives and it doesn’t stop us from seeking to love again and again. Moreover, I think the underlying assumption is that you will be giving the kids back to terrible, horrible people. And sometimes that does happen in foster care, although so far never to me, but thankfully more often what you are doing is giving the kids to extended family, relatives who have done no harm and love them, or maybe to parents who really are trying to pull their lives together. Faced with a grandfather who travelled 30 hours on a bus to carry his beloved grandkids home, with the aunt willing to take a fourth child into her two bedroom public housing project because he’s family, you could do it too. Because if it was your nephew or niece or grandchild, no matter how wonderful and loving the foster parents, you would want them in YOUR family.
I know that is hard to understand from outside, when people ask “But how can you do it?” I really get it. Until I did it, I didn’t know either. And some days the thought of giving Baby Z. back is the worst thought in the whole wide world. When recently I learned more about the biological family that may take him eventually, I thought “Dammit, I don’t want to humanize them. I don’t want to understand that they grieve that this little part of their family is out of it. I don’t want them to be real – I just want them to go away.” But they are real, and I don’t know what the future holds for Z, and it may be that as hard as this will be, I may be glad to give over the child – in the same way that I’d be glad if someone had taken in my nieces in a crisis point in my sister’s life, and grateful to that they gave them to me when the time came. It is hard. Most of the best things I’ve done in my life were hard.
Sometimes the questions are funny. My favorite was the time I was on a playground with 2 1/2 year old M., watching my little, very black foster son go up and down the slide. An acquaintance came up and asked “Are you going to tell him he’s adopted?” There were so many things wrong with that question that all I could do was laugh and ask “Why? Do you think he’ll guess?”
A childless person once accused me of foster parenting as an ego trip, getting to view myself as a heroic child-saver and getting all sorts of praise for it. Now I do get a lot of praise for this because I am a semi-public person. The problem is (and the reason I mention childlessness) is that that praise doesn’t necessarily do what you think it would. Like most parents, I walk around with a voice in my head when someone says “What a great parent you are” thinking “If only you knew.” I know all of us do (one of the best parents I know recently used just those words), but parenting for me isn’t really an ego boost, and foster parenting even less. The reality is that children in general, and traumatized children in specific push you to the wall and show you the limits of yourself in ways that are hard to imagine if you’ve never parented. Foster parenting, with a whole host of ethical dilemmas and complicated issues from “What kinds of disabilities am I really ready to accept” to “How do I judge other people” to “How hard it is to love a kid who is furious at being here and who hates you for not being their parent” to “What is my temper really like” is really a great way to come to know yourself. It is a lousy place to feed your ego. I don’t mean that in a bad way – the best experiences are the ones that push you hard and make you know who you are. But it isn’t something you do to raise self-esteem.
A few questions aren’t offensive, but are too intrusive – I do have an obligation to maintain my foster children’s confidentiality, so while I reveal some general details “His parents just can’t parent…” I can’t really tell you everything – and honestly, I don’t really want to. The kids have the right to privacy too. Again, these don’t upset me, because I know they don’t extend from malice – and in some respects, because I tend to be so open about my life in a public way, they are a logical thing. I just have to draw a line at some point, but I don’t take offense.
The only one that really bothers me is one of the most common – it is the statement that we must do it for the money. This one gets on my nerves for several reasons – and one of them is that the money is a real issue for foster parents, but probably not how you think – but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The first thing that bothers me about this idea is that it presumes I’m dumber than dirt or malicious. While it is true that there are a few really rotten foster homes that “do it for the money” and deprive their foster kids in order to turn a profit, these are a tiny minority – and you really have to be pretty evil to take your profit from the neglect of traumatized kids. I make no pretensions to nobility or sainthood, but defrauding the elderly and small children is a too sleazy for my taste.
Moreover, as a way of doing anything for the money, it is one of the dumbest ways I’ve ever heard of. For example, the per kid rate for subsidized daycare in my area is $40 per week more than my foster stipend for taking the same child. The home daycare certification process is less onerous, daycare kids go home at night, if they are throwing up the provider can ask them to stay home, parents often provide diapers and clothing, etc… (which should NOT be taken as any kind of a slur on childcare providers who often work long hours and provide a LOT for their kids, this is just an example for comparison). So why on EARTH would I do this for the money when I could make much more money and get tons more sleep? Flipping burgers pays MUCH better (I make about 62 cents an hour – and that’s before costs). I vaguely resent the assumption that I can’t do arithmetic.
In fact, most of the foster families I know lose money. I lose it in time I don’t spend writing (way more lucrative), in lost hours for dealing with illness. We lose it in having to maintain a household ready for up to 10 kids, while in fact, we have only five. We lose it in household costs to please the state (buying milk, for example, because foster kids can’t drink our goat’s milk, or home structural changes we had to make and pay for before we could be licensed). We feed our kids what we eat – wholesome, local food for the most part. We get a per diem for clothing – but I’d have to wait a whole year to get the $300 annually we are paid back for – but a kid who is in my home a month needs a full wardrobe and several sets of shoes, a winter coat in season, etc… even though I’ll only ever get $30 for everything. There are dozens of little things like this that make me really grateful for all the help I’ve received from so many people – because if we had to do this all outright, we never could.
Many foster families are seriously challenged financially – the kids may have special needs that require tons of time – and lost work. I know several who have lost jobs due to the needs of their kids. Others spend all the subsidy on childcare (some states subsidize childcare, some don’t). Sometimes even if the state reimburses for things, they do so so sporadically that I know more than one foster parent who are fighting collection cases for medical services or other things that months later they still haven’t gotten a check for. I recently was told politely by our beloved pediatrician’s office that while they won’t send our case to collection (punishing us for a Medicaid problem, which technically they legally could do), they won’t take any further foster children either due to chronic non-payment by the state. Yikes. Another family was told the state will reimburse them for their son’s medical needs…eventually, as long as they are prepared to put out the 3,000 bucks up front.
A sibling group of four would provide a monthly income on the order of what I’d make burger flipping full time – but foster care isn’t consistent, either. We go months in many cases without a placement, and have to keep everything in place and ready for that group of four – even when there are no kids in our home.
But besides the “they think I’m an idiot and can’t do arithmetic” issue here, there’s something much more serious. The prevalence of the “doing it for the money” belief is really tough on the kids. I know more than one foster child who has come home in tears – or simply resolving not to trust their foster family because they were told at school or by a “helpful” grownup that their foster parents don’t LOVE them, they are getting paid to take care of them – that they aren’t part of a family, and it is just a job. This is SO destructive to kids who have no real reason to trust us anyway. I try to warn older kids of this upfront, and to be very clear about what the money is and is not – it is a stipend (not a paycheck, more on this in a minute) for the kids’ care, one that by no calculation covers the actual cost of raising the kids (at least one independent evaluation places New York state stipends as covering about 1/2 the cost).
The reality is that the answer to “You don’t love me, you just get paid to take care of me” from either your biological or foster children is the same. “Honey, I must love you, because there isn’t enough money in the world to make me put up with you otherwise sometimes.” The truth is the pay is poor, the burdens onerous, the work exhausting – and the joy well worth it. The money doesn’t enter into it – I lose money on all my kids, and I’m delighted to do so.
Except, of course, that it does. It does when families push themselves to the financial limit to keep fostering. It does when families use the stipend of several kids to enable parents to stay home – and are made to feel tremendous guilt for that. And it does when foster parents with children who really need an at-home parent struggle to provide that because of the skimpiness of the stipends. It does for me too – I’d still foster if there was no reimbursement, but would my family be able to swing sibling groups of 3, 4, 5, 6 kids? Maybe. Maybe not. I admit, I have never quite wanted to do the math.
The money lurks under all of this. We don’t do it for the money – that’s too easy and too cheap, but money is no less a part of our lives than anyone else’s. But the fear that we might actually be doing this for an income is a very interesting one in and of itself. Think about it – you don’t ever say of your doctor, working with the most desperately ill patients “she’s only doing it for the money” or of a teacher selflessly devoting herself to her severely disabled students beyond the call of duty “She’s only doing it for the money.” Yes, they get paid, but there is a fundamental recognition that they get more than that.
In fact, Foster Parents DON’T get paid, but we are constantly accused of doing it “for the money” as though we’ve done something wrong – because we feel so very squeamish about the issue of parenting as work and about money in domestic life. That’s the really interesting part of this for me, besides the fascination of seeing the collapse of my society from the people hit hardest up close, and the joys of the kids – that my work “mothering for money” places me at an intellectual margin that challenges what we think family is, what we think constitutes work and how we value children. I couldn’t do this if I didn’t love and want kids, but the view from here of the larger society is one so fascinating that I think it is worth some more exploration. Why are foster parents so vulnerable to this accusation? The implication, of course, is that if they do it for the money they don’t love their children, that is all that there is – but why? I would argue that foster parenting opens up a space that we’re not very comfortable with – the question of whether being a parent is really work or not.
The easy answer would be that we are judged this way for the same reason prostitutes are assumed to be “doing it for the money” – once you intrude a check into what is among the most intimate and personal of all relationships, you have made the entire thing questionable – no one can ever sincerely trust that the money IS NOT the fundamental motivator. Except that we don’t assume it is just for the money when you are a parent of a disabled child receiving SSDI, or when you are receiving child support, or for that matter, receiving a tax deduction for your children.
Indeed For most of human history, as I’ve written elsewhere, the economic relationship between parents and children was a real one – SOME kinds of economic relationships are viewed as tainted – taking a couple of hundreds for sex does seem to call into question your love for one another. At the same time, my receiving my husband’s share of SSI later on doesn’t (if, by any chance, it is around, which it probably won’t be) evoke charges that I just spent the last 40 years with him for the $693 bucks a month. So I think that’s too simple. Or maybe I just don’t want to be called a Mommy-whore.
What do I mean by saying we don’t get paid? I mean that quite literally – all states are entirely clear on this – foster care board payments are STIPENDS for the use of the children. Because of this, foster parenting is not a profession. In fact, no one is really sure what we are – except marginal. We’re something strange and bizarre – because the state feels strongly that being a parent is not, in fact a job. So we get no paychecks, no benefits, no social security. We have no unions, we cannot really organize, and have no clear status. On the other hand, we also aren’t taxed on the stipends.
We’re often implicitly treated as low-grade employees of the county or agency we work with, and we can be critiqued and shut down on grounds of not complying with our “bosses” requirements. Because not professionals, so there’s no need to listen to us or give us status and standing. We still have to take training, accept regulation, and get fingerprinted like any professional who works with kids, but we are not professional. And to our good, it is still not clear what constitutes a “good” foster home – that is, it isn’t possible to standardize it. Social workers must visit regularly to ensure that we’re treating kids well and safely, but most places have to acknowledge that there are a lot of really different kinds of homes that make good foster homes – that there’s no one thing out there that constitutes the “right” foster family.
This is because the state doesn’t think that parenting is a job – it is something else. An avocation, a volunteer role, a semi-professional state – no one really knows. But let’s be honest, most of us don’t really think parenting is a job either. Remember I said that it was really revealing to stand in this marginal space?
A few months ago, we all stood their when Hilary Rosen pointed out that Ann Romney never worked a day in her life. There was a lot of outrage at Rosen. But let’s be honest – how many of you didn’t know what Rosen meant? What we thought was “Oh, that was politically stupid because she forget to give nominal credit to “motherhood..the toughest job you’ll ever…whatever” but none of us failed to understand the distinction between parenting work and outside work. We didn’t think “What does she mean?” We thought “what a jerky way to say it.” And it is precisely here in the foster trenches that you see the ambiguity of motherhood and fatherhood as work – we do not, in fact, view parenting as real work. And it isn’t even entirely clear that we should – or that we can.
This stands outside the larger question of whether money is involved. Of course money is involved – money is always involved in all issues of family. I have written before about the danger of trying to write economic costs and benefits out of family narratives, whether in marriage or with children, but saying that money is bound up in this does not answer the question – what kind of work is mothering and fathering?
Don’t get me wrong, I think parenting is one hell of a hard job. But then the reality is that you get to call your job your job whether the work is hard or not – someone who picks beans for 12 hours a day has a job. A long-tenured faculty member who hasn’t published anything or taught a new class in 20 years also has a job. So really, the idea that mothering the rich isn’t work doesn’t hold up logically – we don’t evaluate the category of work by its difficulty. While I agree with Rosen’s attempt to call out Mitt Romney’s social welfare policies, that wasn’t a great way to do it. At the same time, the fact that we all knew exactly what Rosen meant comes from the fact that we are at best ambivalent and often openly hostile to the idea that parenting is work that has real social value.
You see this most clearly at the margins of society – with welfare recipients, and also in foster parenting. Consider the radical change from the Great Society Era of “welfare” to the modern one. In the 1960s it was considered eminently reasonable to pay low income women to stay home and raise their young children – after all, parenting was work, and someone engaged in that work was deserving of support. That’s not to say that anti-poverty programs haven’t had their critics all along, but enough people agreed that poor women should be able to be with their kids that such a program was viable.
By the 1980s it was under intensive fire, and by the 1990s dismantled – parenting was no longer a “real” job, and low and middle income women who struggled with jobs and childrearing resented the heck out of poorer women getting to stay home. Mitt Romney’s welfare-to-work programs, which insisted that women be out there getting a job right away is a legacy of that – and it isn’t only a legacy of the right, because after all, it was under Bill Clinton that the programs were dismantled. Ultimately the mainstream ceased to feel that domestic parenting labor had significant value, value enough for society to support. It was enough that poor women were home with their kids a bit at night, just like all the other working women – they didn’t need to be with them all the time.
Society does support foster parenting…sorta…kinda. But it resists very strongly the idea of professional parents – even though they exist. The reality is that group homes and some specialized foster homes (those dealing with kids with major medical needs that require constant care or theraputic homes dealing with the most troubled foster kids) ARE professional foster parents (and also loving PARENTS) – and they need to be, because the kids need full time parents, and money does not grow on trees. Indeed, many kids in the system who don’t qualify for theraputic care could use just that – a full time parent to deal with medical and behavioral needs, but that often isn’t an option, precisely because the system is so deeply averse to professionalizing parenthood.
Ultimately, working with the poorest, most troubled and most vulnerable kids gives you a sense of how much segments of society want to value everyone equally – and how badly we fail at this. My kids get access to some amazing resources and generosity. And yet there other very basic needs that no one fills because of budget cuts and lack of interest.
Last year my county issued new guidelines for reimbursement in the face of substantive budget kids to foster care – among them the fact that they would no longer reimburse for transportation for any “routine” transport that was consonant with the ordinary realities of family life. That means no more reimbursement for educational transportation (even though many foster kids attend schools in districts very far away from their new homes), court dates (of course, doesn’t every family have those), jail visits (ditto) and a host of other “normal” family activities that don’t come up a lot in my household except when fostering. Now there’s nothing wrong with those things being part of your life, I just was fascinated by the emergence of a new sense of what constitutes normal family life. Ultimately the circumstances of many of the most marginal families are the ones that my family can be expected to mimic in financial expectations – that is, the families that are clients of social services have court dates and jail visits – why should I expect to be different, or expect to get paid for hauling my kids to and fro to them?
This can be tremendously frustrating for foster parents for a host of reasons. It is tough when high-need kids (and most of the kids in the system simply have needs that are much greater than most (not all) biological children will) can’t get what they want because both Mom and Dad (or Mom and Mom or Dad and Dad or whatever) have to work full time to keep them fed. It is frustrating because of the lack of respect for foster parenting that is fostered by ambiguous status. Foster parents need nothing so much as a union, I believe, because often they are taken advantage of by a county that is focused on the kids (rightly) and see the family as a means to an end and nothing more, tools to be used and abused. Better reimbursement could attract more and better foster families, and it could make it possible to give kids some things they really need.
This ambiguous status reflects something important, however. That is, that the FAMILY cannot be fully industrialized. We live in a society that has professionalized, externalized, commercialized and industrialized pretty much everything that was once domestic, local, part of a commons or private space. Dinner? Available at thousands of locations near you. Caring for grandma? A host of assisted living options at your finger tips. Breastfeeding? Formula is just as good – and far more profitable. Self-provisioning? Outdated, just shop – there’s plenty of food at the store. None of the things that the domestic sphere have historically provided remains outside the realm of the industrial – except this one.
The single and only thing that has resisted full industrialization is the family as a space for the raising of children. It has been partly externalized – daycare centers, preschools, schools and creches create public and for-profit spaces that share the basic role of childcare. But while there’s a lot of debate about how much good or bad daycare is, what isn’t debatable is that children MUST have a family to go home to in order to be successful. Attachment to a few primary adults in your life as an infant and young child is critical to both neurological development and the ability to have normal human relationships. No children’s house, no orphanage, no other institution has ever been able to take the place of the family at this level. The destructive cost of not having this to society is so clear and so great (you can begin looking at research from Eastern European orphanages to start with this, but even kibbutz child houses ultimately went the way of the dodo) that we MUST provide families for children who cannot live in their families of origin.
I rail against the system that doesn’t value domestic labor, but I wonder sometimes – would I really want to live in a society that managed to fully professionalize what I do? I don’t mind losing money, although it is a struggle sometimes – but I don’t make money on my bio kids, so why would I expect to on other kids? Moreover, the fact that this one kind of work I do can’t be replaced – not by paid caregivers, not by robots, not by certified pros – because the reality is that no matter how awesomely trained and certified you are, the fundamental coin of family life is not money and it is not training – it is family-ness. It is a thing you can’t buy or sell, coin or organize, collectivize or privatize – it is the reality of you are mine and I am yours and I’ll jump in front of a bus to protect you if I have to or more realistically, figure out a way to make the paycheck stretch a little further so that we can go do something fun on Thursday. It isn’t necessarily done best by the smartest guys in the room or the most savvy (although smart savvy people make awesome parents and foster parents too), but by the most ordinary people. And it cannot be replaced, unless you are willing tolerate unbearable harm to children.
As much as I would love to see foster parent reimbursements pegged to income (for the lowest income caregivers, often kinship providers who take in family members, the rate of reimbursements are not merely inconvenient, they are appalling), and for us to revisit the question of how domestic family labor is work, I do feel a certain fascination and satisfaction in occupying a space that can’t be bought and sold or made into a job, because it isn’t one. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, hard work, but the very inability of the state or ordinary people to really get what it is I am doing is not because anyone is ignorant, it is because we really are very uncomfortable with parenting-as-work – we’re uncomfortable with the idea that it has value to anyone outside of ourselves. Some of that discomfort is dismissive – the idea that either Ann Romney or a woman receiving welfare nursing their respective babies isn’t doing “real” work is destructive. The idea that I’m not a professional Mommy not because I don’t resemble one but because such a thing cannot exist, however, has its uses.
At the margins of the norm one can begin to find a way into the extant reality of a semi-private sphere in which domestic work simultaneously has value and cannot be taken out of the domestic sphere. Only here do you find this – and oddly, I find that hopeful. If we can acknowledge (and we are a long way from fully recognizing and acknowledging this) that some spaces are not well suited to industrialization, are the spheres of an economy that is greater than the formal one, than perhaps we can begin to locate other spaces, also not well suited to extenalization and privatization that we could colonize, hold and adopt as our own.