Fostering; by Jonquil Graham

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My beautiful picture

Jonquil Graham is an orphan advocate and founding member of Inter-Country Adoption New Zealand, an author, wife, mother to numerous adopted and foster children and mentor to young adult adoptees.

She wrote ” How Many Planes To Get Me ”, her story of adopting nine children from Romania and Russia.

Proceeds from the sale of her book help support an orphanage in Romania.

In this heartwarming, down to earth and inspirational article, Jonquil shares the challenges, joys, and unconditional love which are an integral part of a foster parent’s journey.

Fostering.

Most people get a toaster, linen or cutlery as a wedding gift. We were given a three year old child on our honeymoon whose parents were going through a messy custody battle.

Since she was my niece, we readily agreed, expecting it would be a temporary arrangement. She was a middle child, somewhat neglected, which played out in her behaviuor. Tiny, blonde and extremely active, there was something not quite right about this vulnerable child who needed firm, loving boundaries. She screamed, was a bed-wetter and ran around the house until she was exhausted. We were mystified by her challenging behaviour.

Often, I soothed her by wrapping her in a blanket, rocking her on my knee, sometimes gently humming or reading a story. Clearly, this little moppet had missed out on vital bonding. When I took her to playgroup, the teachers looked at me as if I was the cause of odd behaviour. She would climb into a play bassinette and suck her thumb. I was inexperienced. I didn’t know why she did that. I couldn’t give them an explanation except to say we had taken her on and doing our best as new parents. Looking back, I am grateful to have had this experience. She laid a foundation of what we could experience when we continued fostering and eventually adopting. Most of the other foster children were slightly easier, but we still had many ups and downs.Our first child returned to her birth family after ten years but was in for a rude awakening.. By then she was a teenager. And teens are hormonal and still vulnerable. She went through difficult times but remained in contact although she was living in another country. Today, she has a family of her own and is serene. She is unlike the little girl we nurtured. She gives us hope that foster children who absorb the basics of loving family structured life can heal. They can remember safe, fun, family time, and thus provide that for their own children later. We remain close and visit when we can, which includes her siblings.

We hadn’t considered fostering initially but we went on to foster more children, even after we started adopting. Unable to have our own children, any child was a blessing and we looked forward to parenting them.

We mainly fostered sibling groups because they were offered to us. After all, we had a large, old house in the country and plenty of space with trees and swings and a creek. Idyllic. We thought there could be behavioural problems after discussions with the social worker, but we were optimistic and addressed issues as they arose. Most of our foster children were aged between three and fifteen.

When fostering, there is a honeymoon period. You are keen to provide a safe, happy home for the child, the children you have are excited about a new arrival and everyone is in a party mood. The euphoria only lasts days. Some children become obnoxious and test you. Their behaviour comes from their frustration, their grief, separation from family and testing the boundaries. The children already in our family never resented another foster child. The new kid was a source of fascination. Depending on the age of the child, our own children were co-operative in sorting out toys and making up a bed. I didn’t tell them the reasons for a child staying with us temporarily. My job was to make the child feel safe and wanted. We didn’t quiz the new arrival. Social Welfare provided some background information so we would be aware of food allergies, behavioural alerts, that sort of thing. One child wanted to change his name, so we went along with that, until he decided to revert back to his Christian name. This alarmed Social Welfare, not his teacher, and today he is a well-adjusted, successful young man who calls in periodically and invited us to his wedding. He is like another son to us.

It is heartbreaking when estranged parents promise to visit , then don’t turn up. The child stands excitedly at the front gate looking at the traffic, only to be let down again. We would give lame excuses for them and reward the child with a treat or distraction; whether it’s popcorn and staying up a bit later, making marshmallows over a bonfire outside, playing spotlight with our torches or putting on an impromptu  concert for the whole family. I found that the best way to get a bruised and tired child to sleep was through music. My husband rigged up a music system for the bedrooms upstairs and every night, a child selected a classical C.D. so music wafted into their bedrooms. They never had sleep problems whilst getting their fill of Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Chopin.

Once, I had a family of four siblings who refused to go to bed at the appointed time. It affected the other children. I suggested they do running races up the back lawn. My husband held a stop-watch and timed them. They loved it and within a short time they were all tired and happy to go to bed with thoughts of being a successful athlete. It was my way of changing irritable negative behaviour into a positive without causing friction. You need to be inventive. I knew taking on other people’s kids wasn’t going to be easy so I’d be adaptable, not a pushover.

Teenagers were harder to foster because they’d suffered some abuse, usually, and they wanted to be in control. They were upset being separated from their birth families, however negligent, and of course all teens are hormonal. Once we found out their interests, we’d engage them in activities they likes. Our circle of friends widened, for instance, if they went to a particular church group, then we’d go. It was to give continuity to their past life.

One foster teen daughter was so obnoxious I was on the verge of giving up. My husband reminded me that was in her best interest for now to be with us. So, could I change my attitude towards her? How? Treat each new day like a cassette tape or a book. Turn the tape over or the page over and start afresh. Often this worked. Don’t dwell on past negative behaviour. The kid has moved on and I could too. I found this particularly helpful advice I’d never considered. Also I was grateful that he was supportive and felt the children’s needs were vital compared to me being upset by their temporary meltdown.

At this time we were offered a Fijian toddler to adopt, but my husband said our commitment was towards these foster children as other people also wanted to adopt him. He said our foster children were our priority until their family situation improved. I was a bit upset, but later we were offered a Rarotongan baby. To foster or adopt, you have to both be in agreement. For instance, I had a seven year old. He was going to be adopted by a couple and he liked the new father-to-be who did boy-things with him The mother wanted to nurture him but he didn’t want to be close to anymore. The dad gave him space. It caused conflict because she wanted a little baby to love. The adoption failed because the parents were in conflict.

You can never make a foster child love you; their loyalty is towards their family. How often do people say, “I could never foster. I’d get too attached to the kid and would find it hard to give him/her back.” We never felt like this. We knew the rules. Our happiness was watching them blossom, knowing one day they’d fly the nest when their home situation improved. They knew they always had a place in our hearts. And still do.

Copyright; Jonquil Graham.  http://www.jonquilgraham.com

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