20 Mar Embracing Vulnerability
When it comes to parenthood I believe the following to be true: you must be a parent in order to really understand it. You can try to anticipate the lifestyle change, how difficult it is, and how rewarding and joyful it is – but despite your best efforts there are no measures you can take ahead of time that will fully prepare you for what is to come.
I believe the same to be true regarding foster parenting. I don’t say this to be holier-than-thou or make it sound overly intimidating. The fact of the matter is that I have been surprised (just as I was in first becoming a parent) that I didn’t and couldn’t fully comprehend all that fostering would hold until it became a reality.
Supportive Husband and I knew ahead of time that we were putting our family in a seemingly impossible situation: welcoming a child into our home and loving and supporting that child as one of our own knowing all along that it is likely temporary. Is it rational (or even possible) to invest oneself completely in a relationship that is not meant to last?
We expected heartbreak (and the full thrust of that we have yet to feel), but what we didn’t expect is what the anticipation of heartbreak would do to us emotionally and psychologically and how that would affect our relationship with our foster child.
Three and a half months into fostering bio-mom continued to do well and the “R” word (reunification) became more prevalent in our vocabulary. Unsupervised visits would begin soon. At that time I felt myself getting frustrated with the day-to-day care of Sweet Baby Boy. It was a frustration foreign to me… I had never felt it in the same manner with my biological son. Granted, the circumstances were fundamentally different. When my son was a baby I was working, had more time away, a different support system, and only one child to care for. But the most important difference was that our relationship was meant to last and I was ALL IN emotionally. I was investing myself completely and loving him with my whole heart. I was not looking back or “waiting for the bottom to drop out”.
I eventually came to realize that my frustration with Sweet Baby Boy stemmed from unknowingly holding back emotionally with him. I had started to “go through the motions” of caretaking, lacking its soul of love and connection. My optimism and enthusiasm of the beginning gave way to a mode of self-protection as the prospect of saying goodbye loomed more near and likely. Unwittingly, I was trying to shield myself from the discomfort of vulnerability and the pain of loss.
I believe it was no coincidence that this stage in our fostering journey intersected with my introduction into the work of Brené Brown on shame, vulnerability and whole hearted living (which I strongly recommend to anyone and everyone). It was her work that sparked the powerful realization that I was holding back and provided direction for working through it.
Firstly came the understanding that there is no defying vulnerability. My family and I are not going to avoid discomfort and pain or reduce it to a more palatable 50% (or whatever percentage) by holding back with our foster child. We are going to get hurt. Period.
Additionally, by holding back I was denying myself (and probably Sweet Baby Boy) the best rewards of the fostering experience – really feeling the joy, love and connection of that relationship. Vulnerability is not just the source of pain; it is also the “birthplace” of all positive emotions and experiences. One cannot avoid the bad without also stifling the good. Everything became very clear to me at that point: how could I fulfill our mission of forming a healthy attachment with Sweet Baby Boy – while staying sane – if I wasn’t ALL IN?
But how does one get ALL IN? When I shared my realization with my Angels Clinical Case Manager, she 1) assured me that this is a very normal stage in the fostering experience, and 2) felt that the answer to my question is individualized. Not everyone can give all of themselves. One must do the best one can, giving to the extent that they can emotionally and feel good about that contribution.
So, I did my best to open up my heart as much as possible to Sweet Baby Boy. Simply recognizing what I was feeling and speaking about it with people I trust did wonders in embracing vulnerability and recognizing the gifts in front of me. The fact that my body/mind felt a need to put up an emotional shield meant that Sweet Baby Boy and I were getting attached – VERY attached – and that there was much joy and connection to be had. I could choose to allow that shield to harden, or I could choose to open up and fully enjoy this experience.
In addition to changing my perspective and attitude, changing my daily practice was critical. For instance, Supportive Husband and I had not felt comfortable referring to ourselves as “mama” and “dada”, as if we were overstepping the invisible bounds of foster-parenting. Post-realization, we made it a point to call ourselves by those titles. We felt we had earned them. Plus, every child deserves to know those roles, even if the people who fill them change.
Above all, I want to be clear that accepting vulnerability was not a one time choice – it has been a series of daily choices, a perpetual work-in-progress. Our family has had to draw on this knowledge and continually choose open-heartedness as reunification has drawn nearer. But, I can say without a doubt that it has transformed our relationship with our foster child in the most wonderful ways, allowed us to feel joy to its fullest and helped us understand ourselves and our family in new ways.
In my opinion, fostering does not just require love; it also takes a healthy dose of perspective and the courage to acknowledge and embrace vulnerability.