Even when we know that life is rushing by and things are piling up, we tend to forget to do things for ourselves, replenish, and even to just take a step back. At times this is my nemesis. While I am good at making sure everyone else has what they need, I always seem to be missing to do something for me like taking my own medicine. If you have spent a few days with me then you know I have an afternoon alarm for meds, and used to have a morning reminder to eat lunch. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sometimes I need to be reminded that I am not superwoman. In late June I needed a reminder to cut something from my life and unplug.

With June’s post about my Roller Coaster Year, I openly admitted to feeling a bit overwhelmed and needing a breather. Since spring sprung I had been pushing to get a wide variety of things done from doctor appointments to school registration not to mention my ever growing “honey do” list. While I have been pushing very hard to shrink my ever growing list, not much else in my life has taken a break or slowed up.

At some point I realized the folly of my ways. If I didn’t slow something down, or cut something out, well I was quite likely to burn out. The anxiety of it all was physically wearing me down. Other than pushing forward and completing my honey dos, there wasn’t much I could do to ease the anxiety I was feeling. As one project after another was completed it was true that some tension subsided but the fear of burning out, or getting sick, stayed with me.

What would happen if I did get sick before the end of the summer? What if my summer “honey dos” got left undone? The big answer is that we would all survive. Life would continue to move forward.

Still I felt a need to get projects completed. What would give? The answer was step back; put projects into perspective (make a list); and see if anythjng could be sidelined.

The first thing to get evaluated was my limited free time.

After my first few kid free days, I knew the likelihood of having lots of kid free time was unlikely. Two weekends a month I watch one niece. That is always a given. While time with my other nieces and nephews is not always planned, my youngest nephew dislikes going more than a few days being away from his second home. So my free time is not really just mine. Yet my free time was the only thing I had any wiggle room with.

Ultimately the decision wasn’t hard. I needed to unplug and put our blog on hold.

After all, when would the kids ever be this age again? Answer: never.

I knew that once school started back up and really got going that I would have more wiggle room to write. The priority was to get the boys’ bedroom completed and then see what other projects I had time for. With my priorities straightened out in my head I plunged back into my long list of projects.

The good news was I had plenty time to do fun things with my family including a weekend spent with a college pal and her family and to have lots of adventures with the munchkins!!!

The downside? I was right about burning out. After a month of pushing, pushing, pushing… when I began to slow down a bit I did end up with a summer cold. While I needed to slow down for a few days I still felt like I was in a good place.

With school started and a routine firming up, I can see that there will be room for me to add writing back into my routine. As a family oriented person, I don’t always do a lot of “me” things. I tend to focus on time spent with my family and the things they want to do. Writing, that is all me. Even is Rent-a-Dad proofs a post for me or gives me his thoughts, my posts are my posts. It is important to have something that is mine.

Becoming the Helpers

Posted by Rent-A-Dad | Fostering Love

While we were watching the news play out over the course of the weekend and trying to make sense of it all, I posted something on Facebook that several friends seemed to find helpful.

Here’s the original post:

I like to think that, if Mr. Rogers had an extra minute or so to address those of us who grew up watching him and are somewhat older children than we used to be, he might add something his message about always looking for the helpers. Something very kind that gently suggests that we try to be helpers in the sort of situations that make us sad whenever we can. And that not everyone needs to help in the same way, because there are all kinds of different ways to do that.

I like to think that, someday, we’ll get to the point that we don’t need Mr. Rogers to remind us of these things. That so many good people are already actively helping so much that fewer bad things ever happen in the first place. That when something bad does happen, we don’t even have to really look for the helpers because they’re the first thing we see.
I like to think a lot of things.

 

After a little reflection I was able to put more of my feelings into words.

As I was processing the news over the weekend and waiting for friends who live in the area to check in, my mind kept going back to my childhood. Mister Rogers, everything I learned in kindergarten, a world where I could imagine nothing more horrifying than missing an episode of He-Man or Voltron after school. In hindsight I can’t really pinpoint a moment when my awareness expanded to include the real unpleasantness in the world, so I’m sure that it was more of a process of gradually awakening than a switch being flipped. I thought about all of the kids in our lives, ages ranging from 2 to 5, and for a moment I was selfishly grateful that they’re not yet at an age where I’ve got to explain things like this to them. I know that those days are numbered and I don’t doubt that it will happen sooner than I’d like, so on that level it was a small wakeup call that I should probably prepare myself because that first unpleasant “why?” conversation will be here before I know it. That thought was immediately followed by a wakeup call that was broader and arguably more important that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since, and that’s what made me think of Mister Rogers and that specific message.

In the middle of feeling pain for people I’ve never met, worrying for those I know who are close to the event, and the fact that these are current events in 2017, I’m thinking a lot of what the helpers look like in this situation. There’s a clear need for all kinds of people to pitch in after bad things happen, but wouldn’t it be better if we could invest our time and energy up front? I can certainly do a better job of modeling the behavior I want the kids to emulate if nothing else. I can try to be less grumpy, kinder in general. I can find organizations locally and across the country or the world and give time and money when I can afford enough of either that will improve the world to whatever degree in some small way. I keep thinking of that horribly overused cliche “be the change you want to see” and believing that it can’t hurt to try to be a better version of myself, to help the kids grow into responsible, kind adults in whatever way I can as long as I’m lucky enough to be a part of their lives, to find tangible ways to affect change at whatever level I can.

It’s going to take a while to process a lot of the thoughts and concerns that the last 72 hours or so have brought to the front of my mind, but I know that I haven’t been comfortable with the status quo for a while and that I want the world that our children inherit to look better in as many ways as we can make it. I’d like to help.

If you are a foster parent, you have probably heard at least one person say some version of “God bless you. I don’t know that I could do that.” Rent-a-Dad and I have heard that phrase so often that we don’t even blink anymore if it is said. In all honesty… it is just fine with us if you admit that.

For the first year, as foster parents, when I heard some version of that phrase I would jump into explaining my choice to be a foster parent and talking up the rewards. I really wanted others to see the positives of being a foster parent. Perhaps even help convince others considering fostering to take that final leap.

Sometime into the second year I began just saying “thank you” and leave it at that unless questions were asked. Most times questions were asked.

This past spring, I flip flopped between being actively pro-fostering and pro-privacy.

After several conversations, both with foster parents and those who have no thought of ever fostering, and sitting on several foster parent panels, I now have a new take on and response to that phrase.

Being a foster parent is NOT for everyone.

There is no shade or hate in that statement, nor is there any judgment.

Being a foster parent takes a special commitment that not everyone can handle. It is just as important to admit (acknowledge) what you can not do as it is to acknowledge what you can.

As a seasoned foster parent, someone in the “trenches”, we have this part of us that knows how taxed the system is and how spread thin foster parents are. We have this second nature to nurture and protect others, and ourselves.

Naturally we want others to stretch themselves and reach out to become foster parents. It helps everyone involved.

Yes, being a foster parent WILL change a child’s life.

But if at any point you question your ability to foster, then don’t do it.

I have said the same thing about marriage to friends who have asked how I knew Rent-a-Dad was the one. It’s not that I didn’t have doubts about marriage in general or that I wondered if the timing of getting married was right. Everyone has doubts. What I knew was this: I couldn’t imagine my life with anyone else. When ever I tried to really picture someone else as my partner I felt physically ill. Doesn’t mean we are a perfect match and never have any relationship issues. Hint: All couples fight about something. I just couldn’t imagine not spending my life with Rent-a-Dad.

For me being a foster parent was a bit of the same thing. It has always been about timing not questioning the actual act of fostering. I have always wanted to be a foster parent and had no doubt that someday it would happen, when the timing was right.

If at some point, any point, I had any doubts then I would have put the brakes on.

Being a foster parent takes commitment, reliability, accountability, love, attachment and so much more. Some of these qualities come naturally to people. For others it is a struggle to tick off a few boxes. Sometimes having an abundance of one will overcome any challenges or struggles with the other qualities.

Regardless of any of these qualities, knowing yourself is the key.

If you don’t think you can be a foster parent and freely admit that then I admire you for knowing what you can not do.

Seriously.

I would much rather someone admit that than know they can not do something, absolutely do NOT want to do something, and try it anyway.

Kids in the system deserve to have people committed to them. They do not need people who are trying to be something they know they can not be. That only hurts everyone.

I once thought a foster trainer was being a little harsh when she made a similar remark but she wasn’t wrong. Being a foster parent involves a lot of harsh truths. If you can not take harsh truths, then definitely walk away. With that in mind, Rent-a-Dad and I have put our heads together to come up with five topics a couple should consider if they are trying to decide if becoming a foster parent is really something they should do.

Have you been thinking about becoming a foster parent but not really sure? Are there misgivings holding you back? Deciding whether or not you have what it takes to become a foster parent is a big decision for you and your family.

Rent-a-Dad and I have spent a lot of time talking about fostering and convincing others they have what it takes to be foster parents. Certainly there are times where we don’t feel that someone should become a foster parent. Often it is not because we think someone is “sketchy” but rather they are already so over committed and spread thin.

Recently Rent-a-Dad and I got into a conversation about topics couples should consider when deciding whether to foster or not. Whether you are hearing this for the first time or have had a great foster parent trainer talk to you about these topics…

Here are five topics to put some serious thought into if you deciding if becoming a foster parent is for you:

1. Time

Being a foster parent takes a lot of time between DCS (department of children’s services) procedures and actual care of the child. In the first week alone there has to be a health center visit/health care provider visit, court appearance, and meetings at DCS in addition to getting the kid registered at school/daycare and any shopping needs.

There are support systems in place to help with various aspects of the time needed to be a foster parent. But sometimes the support systems do fail.

DCS does not require foster parents to be at court appearances. However, if a foster parent is serious about the care of the foster child then attending court dates matters. It is important to talk to the caseworker(s) involved to figure out which court dates need you in attendance.

Foster parents are not always required to attend the state mandated family visits. When possible, DCS will help with transportation arrangements for the foster child. It is often recommended that a foster parent not be the only person observing the family visitations so they can not be blamed legally if a visitation does not go according to plan. That said it is still important to form a working relationship with the birth family when reunification is the goal. Relationship building takes time.

If both foster parents work and the child is too young for school, DCS can help with childcare arrangements. The level of the help changes not just from state to state but even from jurisdiction to jurisdiction or even depends on the caseworker or program involved.

Between meetings, court dates, and doctor appointments there is generally something going on weekly. That doesn’t take into account the life you are helping to build with/for the foster child like play visits or after school activities.

It is possible to balance all that you do currently as well as all that is expected of you as a foster parent. Thinking about your time constraints is important. If you and your spouse have jobs that are not flexible, then being a foster parent may be very complicated, tricky, or even impossible.

2. Privacy

Rent-a-Dad and I often joke about how when you have children you should throw any thought of having privacy out of the window. Being a foster parent doubles the sentiment.

If you are a private person and do not like it when others poke your “bubble” of privacy, then being a foster parent may not be for you.

DCS will do a criminal background check. The home-study writer will interview both you and your spouse asking very personal questions. Personal questions about your life will also be asked of the friends and family you have given as character witnesses on your home-study form. An inspection of your home will also be conducted to make sure you can provide a safe living environment.

Once the home-study process is completed the scrutiny only subsides a little. Depending on whether you have a foster child in your home or not, your home will be visited at least once a quarter by one case worker to once or twice a month by two caseworkers (this depends on each case and state).

Foster parents often find that they have to justify many of their actions on a daily basis not just to DCS but to birth families, teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges and more… This type of scrutiny never really ends. For most foster parents it just becomes a part of daily life and you either live with it or walk away from fostering.

3. Your Family/Loved Ones

Before becoming a foster parent, it is very important to think about how fostering will affect the lives of your loved ones. I am not talking about an aunt who lives five states away. Think much closer to home like your children, and yes, even your parents.

I have heard some foster parents talk about how they didn’t realize how fostering would impact their grown children’s lives.

Often we can see the impact of something as it directly relates to us but forget how hard our actions will affect those close to us. Small children will have to learn that mom and dad have to split their time up between them and the foster children. Some kids handle this well while others become very resentful.

I have talked with a few friends whose parents fostered. They expressed that what hurt the most was losing contact with the foster children after reunification. That it hurt like they were losing a sibling or a piece of themselves.

Trauma affects everyone. Losing loved ones is traumatic. Sometimes being a foster parent can cause trauma to your own children.

On the positive side, some of the same people said they are still glad their parents chose to foster and make a difference.

Now some grown children have expressed their displeasure with their parents fostering in their twilight years. Why? Because they feel that grandma and grandpa are not as present in their own grandchildren’s lives as they are for their foster children. The grandparents/foster parents I have talked to in this situation feel a little torn because they love their grandchildren but also feel the grandchildren have safe homes. The point being they want to provide a safe place for children less fortunate.

As for your parents, in my situation I had to take into account my mom and her health. Currently my mom still does a lot on her own but at some point soon will need a lot more help. In most areas (not sure of one that doesn’t) any adult living in your home has to attend the same foster training classes as the people who want to become foster parents. Every adult also needs to be criminally background checked.

4. Your Health (physical and mental)

If you are young, twenty-something or thirty-something, you might not think your health is an issue. Even still it should warrant a thought depending on how long you want to foster. Most foster parents foster until they adopt and their home becomes “closed” because they lack additional room.

If you are someone who has a hard time handling trauma (loss like that of a family member), then you may want to sit down and have a serious “think” about fostering short term versus long term.

On a long term basis, being a foster parent you will find yourself in an assortment of situations. You will also be dealing with a variety of traumatic experiences your foster children have had to live through. This doesn’t even bring up your own feelings when/if reunification happens and the foster child leaves your home.

It never hurts to ask yourself if you feel you can physically and mentally deal with a situation. Your own physical and mental health is just as important, if not more so, than the children you are going to be caring for. I am always reminding myself, and others, about self-care and taking time to replenish.

5. Vision of your future

A lot of young people considering becoming foster parents today are dealing with infertility. Whether they have been unsuccessful in their attempts at becoming pregnant naturally or through fertility treatments, they are considering other options. The big three are open adoption, international adoption, and fostering to adopt. I urge any couple going through fertility troubles to think long and hard about each option. Weigh the pros and cons of each. Talk to as many people as you can about these options.

If you are fostering with no thought of reunification, then you are fostering for the wrong reasons. Reunification is the first priority of each case. If reunification with the parents is not possible then family and friends will be sought. Only when all options are exhausted are foster parents then considered. Adopting a baby through fostering happens but it is the needle in the haystack scenarios (the extenuating circumstance and not the norm).

If the end goal is adopting, and you truly do not care about age, then you should consider just adopting an older child through the foster care system. A large portion of children in foster care, sadly, age out of the system annually.

Rent-a-Dad and I are an infertile couple. What makes us so different? In some ways we absolutely are not.

Our biggest difference is our intention. We had discussed becoming foster parents during the infancy of our relationship. Rent-a-Dad knew it was something I always wanted to do and why. It became a dream of ours. We had always thought to become foster parents when our own children became old enough to understand what we were doing and why. The hitch in our plan was that we didn’t know we would be dealing with infertility.

With the original plan I am not sure how we felt about adopting through foster care. Certainly we had talked about it. It was always an option. As an infertile couple it certainly becomes more fore-front.

Even though adopting is something we want to do as a couple, it is not what drives us as foster parents. We want whatever is best for the child in our care. Whenever possible the answer is reunification and we support that.

These are just a few versions of a vision for the future. It is important to sit down and speak with your spouse and family about what your vision is.

Again I come back to a bit of advice given in a previous post: If at some point, any point, you have any doubts then put the breaks on.

Becoming a foster parent is an important responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Just because Rent-a-Dad and I have had some good experiences doesn’t mean it is all sunflowers and roses. Each person and family is different. What works for us may not work for you.

Deciding if you have what it takes to be a foster parent deserves lots of serious thought. Even if you disagree with the points we feel are important for consideration, check out this article on deciding is fostering is for you?

After people find out that I’m a foster parent, I know that I’m on some sort of timer before the inevitable question or comment about taking care of kids that aren’t really mine and how the other people in the conversation couldn’t imagine having someone else’s kids in their homes for however long and then seeing them go home because it would break their hearts. People respond with that sort of thing so often I actually get a little confused whenever I don’t hear it. I’ve said all kinds of things in response but in the last couple of weeks something struck me out of the blue: they really are my kids.

That may sound disingenuous for me to say as a foster parent who will never have children of his own. I even label myself “Rent-a-Dad” in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Part of the reason for that is because I’m easily amused, but the other more serious aspect of that for me is the constant reminder that I am at most intended to be a temporary parental presence. Not “forever dad” or “favorite uncle”, definitely never “daddy”, because the children we’ve fostered have had fathers who love them very much. “Rent-a-Dad” is the temporary guy you get when actual dad can’t be there for whatever reason.

Then why would I say something as clearly untrue and arguably click bait-y as claiming that they’re actually my kids? It’s a matter of perspective, really.

Because we’ve supported reunification in all of our cases, I can only imagine labeling a biological parent as “not really the parent” in the worst possible situations of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. The sorts of things that people hear about on the news that make them sick to their stomachs and that we can all agree means that no child will ever return to that home. I can’t conceive of ever claiming a child as “mine” in an exclusionary sense that implies their biological parents are somehow not valid. That’s one narrow way to read “mine” and not at all what’s going on when I use the word inside my head.

It’s fairly common to say “this is my company”, “my job” or “my coworkers”. “My friends”, “my family”, “my parents”, “my wife”. “My graduating class”, “my school”, “my chosen field of study”. “My religion”. All of those things are mine, but not in the sense that I own them. Also, “my cats”.

If anyone reads that and thinks the statement implies I’m somehow claiming ownership of the cats, they clearly have never had any sort of feline presence in their home and don’t understand that the ownership very definitely goes the other way.

All of those things that I listed aren’t things that I own, but things that I’m part of, belong to, am devoted to, have some responsibility to. Just because I have some connection that makes them mine doesn’t mean that I have them locked up and no one else can ever have another connection to them, that they can’t be someone else’s “mine”. When people ask “oh, are they all yours?”, what they’re really asking is “did you contribute half of their genetic material” or “did you adopt them and on paper do they belong to you”. In that sense, they’re not mine and never will be regardless of the fact that I could not possibly love them one iota more if they were really my offspring.

In the sense that I am always going to be one of their biggest supporters, that I will be there every moment I can be as long as they want Papa or Uncle B around, that I will fight bears for them if required? In the sense that if anything gets past their parents and evades me and manages to hurt them somehow, I will devote a nontrivial amount of time to finding a way to fly around the planet backwards to reverse time a la Superman III because I can’t stand the thought of any of those kids being anything but happy? Yes, they are absolutely mine. They will always be my kids, and they are more mine every day because that’s one day longer that I’ve had to love them, one more day that I get to see the amazing people that they’re growing into all the time.

In the spirit of full disclosure I’ve found that I can handle a certain amount of upset when they’re visiting and being horrible little snots about sensible nighttime routines. I mean, seriously? Some of us have jobs and enjoy sleep. Where’s Samuel L. Jackson to read a bedtime story when you need him?

We’ve been lucky enough that I still get to see all of my kids regularly and be involved in their lives. I think my nephews’ mom had it figured out long before we did – it’s been over a year ago that she said something along the lines of “whenever they’re over at your house and I ask how our kids are doing, I mean ‘our’ as in all four of us”. Of course she knows that we aren’t their family by blood and don’t have a “claim” on them, but looking back on that offhand comment I’m starting to think that she had figured out most of these things within the first year of the boys being home and I’m late to the party with my sudden personal revelation.

Fortunately, Stinkerbell’s mom seems to feel much the same way. When our baby girl was hurt and needed to go to the doctor several months ago she was extremely fussy and kept asking for us. The doctors and nurses said that only family could stay with her while she was being examined and they asked if I was dad. I said no, I wasn’t her biological dad but her mom spoke over me and said that for all practical purposes and if they wanted Stinkerbell to calm down at all, I was dad in that moment. All three of us ended up going back with her because the staff decided that she had a better chance of calming down and being comfortable if she had her whole family with her, blood related or not.

Looking back on that day, I think that maybe Stinkerbell’s birth mother figured this whole “mine” thing out before I did too. I’m starting to wonder if I might be the slowest kid in this particular class.

As I’ve dropped some of my other hobbies, one of my favorite new ones is watching people try to do mental math when we’re out in public with the boys and their little sister at the same time Stinkerbell is visiting. We get the typical “oh, aren’t they all so cute!” and “you’re very patient parents” reactions so many times that I’ve lost count. Whenever someone asks their ages and we respond with the impossibly close range between the four children, though, I can almost hear the gears grinding as they try to figure out how we could have that many kids with birth dates that close together. No one has ever asked if they’re all ours and we’ve never offered that information because it’s none of their business and it would take too long to explain properly anyway. I will admit that I sometimes want to respond to their looks of confusion by simply saying “different moms” and walking away, but I’m told that would be a horrible thing to do and I would somehow be a bad person if I did that.

The next time the topic comes up or anyone so much as drops a hint in that direction, I’ll be ready. Of course they’re really my kids. Always will be. And we’ll probably be dropping them back off at their parents’ house sometime on Sunday.

I’m sometimes asked why I refer to myself as a “rent-a-dad”. This is usually by people who haven’t known me for a very long time at all because most friends and family either know the origin story by now or were present for some parts of its formative years. Some, I suppose, have simply accepted that they will never understand the way my mind arrives at any given phrasing and have learned to roll with it the majority of the time.

A good friend and former coworker once stared at me, unblinking, for a solid thirty seconds or more in the middle of a conversation before coming out of his apparent trance and saying “oh, sorry, sometimes I just need to take a minute to process and figure out whatever it is you just said”. In this case there’s definitely some method behind the silliness.

For a number of years Nicci worked with a choir where she came into contact with a lot of children. I kept showing up at rehearsals and other events to support her at first, but over time it became as much about being there for the kids and interacting with their parents as it was about volunteering to help her. I’d sometimes help younger siblings with homework while rehearsal was going on or help keep an eye on the kids while we were waiting for their parents to pick them up afterward. I got to know some of them better than others because we sometimes helped supervise the summer tour trips for the 13-18 year old choir members which was a much different experience than just seeing them once a week at rehearsal. Now that it’s been several years since I first met some of the children, I’m happy to say that some of them are still friends now that they’re young adults. Thanks to this occasional dad-like behavior and the rapport I established with some of the kids, I became a part time father figure. Rent-a-Dad, affectionately I hope, for short.

Before we became foster parents, there was no time in my life that I felt more solidly rent-a-dad than the time I went to a father/daughter dance. We had become friends with the family of one of the younger girls whose mother asked me in early February one year if I would take her to the dance that was being hosted by another organization in the community. Her father had taken her before he passed away, and when the subject came up she said that she wanted me to take her in his place. I don’t know how anyone could refuse a request like that. She had a great time with her friends and seemed very happy to be there, and when I ran into friends and coworkers who were actual biological fathers and knew that I wasn’t I simply explained that I was a rental. She’s since outgrown that sort of thing and now goes to dances with boys, something I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around because I keep thinking of her as nine years old instead of nearing her graduation from high school. As actual fathers sometimes do, or so I’m told.

I’ve written a little bit here and there about how much it hurt me that we don’t have children that are biologically ours. It’s taken more time to come to terms with than I would have liked, and I’d be lying to say that I never think about it any more. There was even, I suppose, an occasional hint of bitterness when I started referring to myself as rent-a-dad because it always reminded that I will never have a child that’s biologically mine. Sometime after we got our first placement though, a switch was flipped and since then it’s always come from a positive place that’s filled with silliness and hope. I’m not likely to ever see a baby’s eyes light up and see 50% of my DNA staring back at me, but I’ve snuggled a handful of babies in the past few years who still call me papa even after they’ve gone home and are (usually) thrilled to see me when they come back to visit. I’ve been there for a lot of their big milestones, several of the high points of their lives so far, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’ve got little buddies who aren’t blood relations at all but who have somehow “inherited” some of my little mannerisms like the way I tilt my head quizzically when I’m confused or a particular stance I adopt when I’m grumpy. I’ve got a Stinkerbell who is almost as excited to see me as I am to see her whenever we’ve been apart for any length of time. I get the chance to be a positive presence in all of their lives and I might be able to do the same thing for more kids in the future which is something I couldn’t begin to understand the significance of before we got our first placement. I think that maybe Rent-a-Dad is exactly what I’m supposed to be.

So here is where the stigma with “second hand” really bothers me. The foster care system (in general) places a high value/standard on new over second hand. DCS has its reasons and plenty of people with good intentions buy into those reasons and don’t see their hand in making changes as having anything but a positive outlook. However life is rarely so clear cut.

When going through foster training classes (a multiple week process called PATH) we learn a variety of things from medical administration and CPR to a variety of scenarios we may find ourselves in. One big thing is learning the difference between being poor and neglect.

Our instructor made a big deal over the fact that someone can be poor, have a clean home and nice things BUT that doesn’t mean they are dirty, or scum of the earth. Why would she need to say that? Well because our society thinks that poor means you are “trailer trash” or scum of the earth. That poor people are lazy and get what they deserve. Even in the definition of “poor” one of the meanings states “low quality”. There is a difference in being poor (lacking funding) and being of low quality. The poor in our society still have value.

Instead of focusing on how the rich get richer through the sweat of the masses, the bulk of society focuses on the multiple meanings of the word poor and false statements attached to being poor. Thus devalues the people who are in many ways forming the infrastructure of our society.

With a view like that it is no wonder that our instructor put such a high value on making sure that our class, and others taking foster training, understand that being poor does not equal neglect. That even the rich can be neglectful. How a lot of cases of neglect come not from the truly poor but the upper lower class through to the middle class.

This builds a case over understanding what neglect really means. It puts an emphasis on how poor people can have value, a good clean home and never once have a situation that would need the involvement of DCS.

In foster training, one week we learned the difference between being poor and those who are neglectful. Another week we learned about some of the conditions children are found in. We also learned that when many children are taken from their dwelling that any “stuff” that is brought with them is often bagged up in garbage bags. The reason could be a duffle bag or suitcase was unavailable. Perhaps any available bags at the residence were unfit (dirty, drug covered, or bug infested).

This juxtaposition of learning what poor truly means, what being neglectful is, and the mental image of an infested residence where not even one clean bag could be found is all rather overwhelming. It is easy to see how it can all get muddled in someone’s head and evoke strong negative feelings.

The idea of a child leaving their home with only a garbage bag filled with an odd mix of belongings always pulls at people’s heart strings. It is no wonder then that a large number of organizations have popped up over the past five years with the sole purpose of making sure no child enters the system with their belongings in a garbage bags.

Most of these organizations are grass root based. Some have been formed by teenagers who want to help make lives better for others.  A few of these organizations don’t just provide a bag for belongings (like a duffle bag) they also make sure a stuffed animal or blanket is included. Some even go out of their way to make sure new clothing is available to CPS workers for children coming into care. All wonderful intentions especially when trying to make a scared child feel more like themselves.

So where is my argument? What is my problem? How does “second hand” even fit in here?

The fostering classes provide scenarios that seem grim and often are. DCS paints pictures of abuse and neglect. These new non-profits see a need to provide children entering the system with new items. If foster parents or birth parents provide clothing or shoes that are not brand new, often they are questioned, criticized and made to feel less. Sometimes they are called out as being neglectful as they are not providing a “new” item. Why?

These children deserve the best; they need to feel valued; and used items make these children feel less than.  The stigma surrounding the second hand item is that it is used and therefore dirty or less. One never wants a child in the system to feel less.

I won’t argue that children entering the system deserve the same opportunities as all other children in our society. What I will argue is that having something new is what will change their lives or that somehow receiving something second hand will in effect make them feel second hand. Getting a new pair of shoes or a shirt does often brighten the day of anyone, especially someone who has had grimy, filthy clothes and shoes filled with holes. But I will argue that a nice second hand outfit that appeals to that person will have the exact same effect.  How do I know? Lots of personal experience most of it first-hand.

Beyond my own experiences as a child receiving second-hand items I see how my own nieces and nephews react. They are always ecstatic. They love consignment shops and thrift stores as much as they love Target.

I have seen children in very poor conditions be offered a bag filled with washed second hand items in great condition and love them as equally as they love the brand new items. They never know the difference between the second hand items and the new ones because I remove price tags off of everything before I give them. To them everything is bright and new.  The key is to get them things that are tailored to their likes. As long as all the second hand items are in great condition then no one should ever really care. Both new and used items have a value.

The take-away is that one does not have to equate second hand or used with something dirty or shameful. As long as we (the providers) make sure that the items are clean, spot/tear free, in-style, and tailored to their likes, well there is no “big deal” between something being second hand or new. It is all based on our (society) outlook.

Am I wrong for purchasing second hand items for children in foster care? If I am purchasing stained, torn or items ready to fall apart, then yes. However I am not.

All second hand items I buy are in decent to very good condition. Most times I let the kids pick out their own clothes from the thrift store. The kids find their own value in the items they choose.

Am I only purchasing second hand items for my foster kids? No.

So on two accounts I am not doing anything wrong. Everyone in my house has second hand items. I am not singling out any foster child in my home and making them feel any less than myself. Also I am not only buying second hand items. There is always a mixture of new and gently used that way everyone has a good choice of clothing.

I do want to take a moment and point out that DCS as a whole (at least in our area) fundamentally has nothing wrong with second hand items. Our DCS has even supported a locally formed organization that provides an “open closet” with both new and used items available to foster parents. The goal of DCS is for every child to have items that are weather appropriate, clean, free of stains and tears.

Another standard is that everyone in the household be treated the same. So if a birth child wears second hand items then yes second hand items for a foster child are fine. However if no one in your house wears second hand items then it is wrong to force a foster child to wear second hand items.

All that said, there are plenty of case-workers who look down on, and question, foster parents and birth families for providing second hand items to children in care. They place a higher value on new items and look at the birth families and foster parents as being neglectful for providing used items. Faced with those case-workers, and well meaning volunteers or organizations who only value using “new” items, it can be hard to be a family who believes in using second hand items.

Want to read this article in its entirety? Click here.

My big question is: Why is there still a stigma surrounding thrifting and consignment shopping? Why is it there still a bigger emphasis placed on buying something new over just wearing something you like regardless of where it came from?

I can see an argument being made that it is all about consumerism and how industry/marketing has implanted in our (society) heads an emphasis on new vs. second hand. Yes, I can clearly see that argument. In working with kids I see how the more money a family has the larger the emphasis is on having the new trendy thing. How it doesn’t really matter your income, you want to have a new thing but money is what dictates what you have. The monetarily poor get left out.

Here is where I get a bit left behind in this… a second hand item like a DaVinci painting has worth but a second hand shirt is considered “used” in the sense that a tissue has been used and therefore dirty and less. How does that make any sense?

I grew up having things but my family not having lots of disposable income. For all intensive purposes we were monetarily poor. That didn’t mean I went without all of the time. Overall, I was a happy kid. Society (or consumerism, take your pick) is saying that because my family was “poor” that I shouldn’t have been happy because I didn’t have “stuff” but I did have stuff and my life felt full and rich regardless of our income. My parents tried not to place a strong value on what we didn’t have but chose to focus on what we did have. They have even said I taught them so much about thrifting and making do because I saw color in places they felt were bleak.

Great, I changed my family’s outlook and view. I have had a hand in changing the outlook some friends have had. All of that is great but it doesn’t change society as a whole or the view it has on second hand items, unless it’s a highly prized/sought after item.

Something needs to change.

Why? Because I still see today kids placing value on having brand new Nike sneakers over being happy that they have a pair of shoes that fits well and they like irregardless of the swoosh on the shoe. Most of the time the kids don’t know why they want those Nikes except for peer pressure or other outside influences.  Worse, I see this misplacement of value being forced on kids not just by their parents or the media but even by schools and the branches of the government. Shouldn’t we (society) be doing more to change how “second hand” is viewed?

So here is where the stigma with “second hand” really bothers me. The value of the term “second hand” within a flawed system: foster care.

 

I bet you are wondering how others treated me and my second hand items. As a child no one said anything really. No one other than those who passed along items knew that my ridiculously expensive clothes were in reality hand-me-downs.

It was a slightly different story as I got older. No, the kids didn’t really know that some of my clothes were hand-me-downs. What they knew was that I didn’t have the same saddle shoes the rest of the girls wore. They assumed I couldn’t afford it. Why? Well, because my parents didn’t dress as lavishly as theirs did.

At first no I didn’t get picked on for my second hand items but rather I wore sensible loafers while others wore the black and white saddle shoes. I received some heckling because the shoes were not as pretty as theirs. It was true. Also true was that my shoes cost less. The reason I had them though was more medical than cost. I have low ankles so shoes with firm high backs caused my ankles to bleed. My sensible loafers had soft leather backs.

The preteen me did get treated differently and picked on for her second-hand items but I don’t believe it was ever solely about what I wore. Once you get heckled or picked on you are always an “easy target”.

Moving from middle school up to high school I had a whole new world open up to me. Suddenly I was going to a school where only a few people actually knew me. The world was changing (vintage was so in!) and there was a good variety of students. Kids wore brand new things, used things, old things, and things they made themselves. It didn’t really matter what I wore, although at the time it still felt a little bit like it did.

All freshmen feel like they have something to prove. They are little fish in a bigger pond and they are searching for their identity. Once I felt like I knew who I was, no it didn’t matter one bit what I really wore. In fact most times I found it thrilling that no one else really would be wearing the same thing. Even when my best friend and I chose to wear the same dress the same day we often had different accessories.

Going through college, post-college and full on grown-up, I still have kept my thrifty ways. My wardrobe has a mix of new, used, and vintage. Generally no one knows what items I have that are from thrift or consignment stores. I became so good at “thrifting” that I could tell someone where they could buy high end items (like manolo blahniks) for next to nothing. In fact I made a business and career of it for some time as an ebay seller and a costume coordinator for a theatre outside of Washington DC.

My move to Tennessee only put a small crimp on my thrifting. Thrift stores down here are just as big of a deal as they are up in Washington DC. It is sometimes just a bit harder to find high end high heels in good condition without hitting up a consignment store.

For the past twenty years of my life thrifting and consignment shopping has been so popular that my friends and I try to see who can find the best deal. We have even “snatched” up items at places while the other person is “thinking it over”. No hard feelings ever. Some of the thrill is in finding a great item for a great price. We even see who can find the best “brand new” item at a thrift store or even the lowest priced “new” item at a high end store. For us it is all about saving money while looking good. It doesn’t matter if it really is new or gently used.

It is true that most of my friends understand the value of a dollar; that money comes and goes; kids cost LOTS of money; if it looks good- wear it!; and life is too short to make a big deal over how expensive something is.

Not only is saving a “buck” a good thing but vintage trendy. It is also trendy to take old items and give them new life: Up-cycling. People are more aware and concerned over their carbon foot print then ever.

As an adult… I could care less what others really think and “how am I treated” over my second hand items isn’t even a concern.

So why is there still a stigma surrounding “thrifting” and consignment shopping?

Why is second hand such a bad thing? Seriously, why is second hand such a bad thing? The double meanings and strong negative connotations associated with the phrase “second hand” and the word “thrift” have had me baffled for a long time. How I was raised taught me to appreciate what I had including second hand items.

As the baby of both my immediate and extended family I always had hand-me-downs. Getting second hand goods didn’t bother me. Sometimes I even really looked forward to receiving the items if I had good memories of my cousins wearing a favorite item. When I got older I even appreciated said hand-me-downs especially when they were not cheap to come by and we’re still in great condition like a leather jacket.

With hand-me-downs there wasn’t often a need to buy me new things. Several of my aunt’s friends passed on high-end dresses and coats from Lord & Taylor. Why would I need my parents to buy me something new?

Most times the only new items I needed were shoes. This helped my parents out at a point where our family hit on hard times because of unexpected illness with my father.

Even still, my parents made sure that if I needed, I could get brand new shoes as well as a brand new outfit up to four times a year. As I went to a school with a uniform, this was all I really needed.

From an early age I learned to have positive associations with hand-me-downs and second hand items. So as preteen, I would ask to go to a thrift store well before I would ask to go to a department store. First I saw thrift stores as a veritable smorgasbord of clothing options from brand new to gently used.

I would get my biggest thrill over vintage items that fit my rather curvy frame. One Halloween I used a vintage pale blue 1930s gown with a gorgeous Irish wool cloak as my backdrop to a silver screen vampire costume.  I have a love affair with fabric, costumes, shoes… I grew up at the heels of generations of women who sewed.

Now ask the question I am sure you have been wondering about.

How have others treated me and my second hand items?