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?

Have you ever felt a bit erased? Everyone experiences this on some level daily without ever giving it a single thought. Each passing day we stop doing something we once did. Most times it is something very small and innocuous while other times it is a big deal, even life changing. As a kid this process is referred to as making bridges or reaching milestones. This is because as a kid we don’t just give something up we make a trade off with a new and improved skill. It is something we are all expected to do, just another part of life.

At some point, as adults, we may realize that we have done more letting go, or compromising than we thought we would do. The trade off may not feel like an improvement. It could be this realization that through natural change, or compromise, you have slowly erased the person you once were. Perhaps you even realize that the bits that have been erased were pieces that you worked so hard to hold onto or become.

Ever found yourself here?

I have found myself in this position a few times in my adult life. When I find myself feeling a bit erased, and wondering what is left of me, I sit back and look over how I got here. Then I ask if the “me” who I am right now is happy. I also have to ask if I am ok with this version of me. It is important to take a moment, or two, to take stock of “who I am” at this moment.

The answer is not always right in front of you at this very moment. Sometimes it takes a couple of days, a week, a month, or even a year to figure out the answer to those questions. Certainly it takes time to put things into perspective. Sometimes the perspective is not so easy to find.

I knew this past year was going to be one of change. There was an expectation that a lot in my life would never quite be the same.

The munchkins in my life are getting older and ready to begin school. At one point we even thought we would become weekend “auntie and uncle”. Now we are going to be helping with the schooling of two of our munchkins. Not to mention that for over a year we have been in a foster parent holding pattern. Sadly my mother’s health continues to decline. With all that is happening and flying by, I have tried to cherish all the moments. Breathe them in a little deeper and hold them close just a little bit longer.

What I never expected was that one day while I was in the middle of making plans for my family that I would suddenly feel like I didn’t recognize myself.

Sure I can look in the mirror and I can see an aging version of myself, someone who has fought hard to be confident while staying strong for everyone around her.

However as I move forward with plans for our family and house, I found myself also packing away pieces of me that I always thought were integral to who I am. At this time I am unsure of when these items will be unpacked, if ever. As I do this I am left wondering when will this the packing away of “me” end? How much of me has already been erased? How much more will continue to be erased? When I am done will I still be me?

The good news…?

That was the start of a post from several months ago.

Rent-a-Dad and I have wanted our nephews to have a bedroom they can call all their own at our house for a while now. The original goal was to create this space for them for when they visited. Now that they are going to live with us part of the school year, well that goal is more of a necessity. So a room for the boys while maintaining a separate room that can be used for foster children. That means saying “bye-bye” to our home office.

As I was packing up our office I was also packing up all of my art supplies, craft supplies and everything sewing related. Giving up our home office puts my home business on hold. I have been fine with that aspect for a lot of reasons. But packing away all of my supplies suddenly felt like I was packing myself away.

Essentially I was packing away everything that I felt made me who I am. Over the years I have struggled owning the title of artist but seamstress… I have been sewing since I was old enough to be a Brownie. Begged my mom for a sewing machine by the time I was five. Both of My great-grandmothers sewed. One worked in a leather glove factory while the other was a personal seamstress. Sewing is in my DNA. Suddenly I was asking myself: How can I pack away the biggest piece of my identity?

As I packed up these items I wasn’t sure where in my house I could make room for a craft/art/sewing station; especially one that toddlers or possibility of infants in my home could grab stuff from. It left me all a bit confused as to how to take a step forward as me, an individual. I felt a little bit heartbroken if I’m honest.

Rent-a-Dad and I have plans for an addition to our home. This addition would help alleviate some of this concern while helping create additional space for my mom at our house. It would be a win-win situation for everyone. However, until those plans come to fruition I was left a little bit confused as to where exactly I fit in as a person within my family. I’m the one who sews costumes, the one that hems pants and fixes holes. I am also the one who gets crafty with gifts. So, what was I supposed to do now?  It left me feeling like my only purpose would be that of purchaser of stuff, cleaner of the house and maker of the dinner.

I spent a several evenings after the kids went to bed thinking about “what did this all mean for me?” A couple of those nights I even spent talking to Rent-a-Dad. We brainstormed ineffectively over what I could do and where my things could live. Like my sewing machine when it wasn’t being used could live in our closet. That didn’t give me any idea of where I could use it. Our dining room table is not a good place to sew. So the question arose “where WAS I going to sew?”

Neither one of us had a really good answer.

But I didn’t let that hold me back from continuing on with the boys’ room. I had been waiting for over a year to work on the room and get it completed. It was May 2016 that we had decided that our office was going to turn into the boys’ bedroom. That was before termite issues and other fun family drama. For me it was a long time coming. I am sure the boys felt the same way. At this point I needed to keep moving forward.

As the room is an interesting shape we knew the nook area within the room was going to turn into a workstation Rent-a-Dad and the boys. So that was one problem tackled.

But again the question came up “where oh where would I sew?”

I kept packing and wondering; and packing and wondering. Then over the course of one very sleepless night a thought came to me. If the boys were getting their bedroom, and a good portion of the toys were moving from our family room into the boys’ bedroom… Well then why couldn’t I set up a desk in our family room? Sure all my supplies would have to be boxed up and kept of reach but when I needed them I would have my own work station. The work station could then be used by the whole family for anything from homework to folding laundry.

Later that day I ran the idea by Rent-a-Dad. He liked the idea too. By putting the desk in our family room it opened up more than a window of not losing “me”.

At this point I felt a great weight lifting from my shoulders. I wasn’t really losing myself as much as I was rearranging myself, assessing myself, and finding new possibilities in an area where I thought none existed. And that’s what we all need to do sometimes: self-assess.

When we feel that a door has been closed on us, we are sometimes left wondering “when will the next door open?” Many times we are so emotional about that one door that we can’t even imagine a window existing.

Often I feel like I am the one who has to make her next opportunity possible. Sitting around waiting for things to happen has never worked for me. If waiting is involved I need to be working on another project while I am waiting.

In this situation I started to worry that I have packed away so much of who I am, compromised on who I have wanted to be, that I began to doubt the steps I was taking and the plans I had made with/for my family. Growing up I spent so much time wanting my kids to know who I am that I suddenly felt worried that I had botched that all up. I had to ask myself if I had compromised too much.

The answer was no but I still had to figure that out.

In so many ways I am a much different person than I was at 20 but in so many more ways I am exactly the same. Something as simple as putting a desk in our family room helped me see that clearer than before. Painting clouds for one of our nephews’ bunkie board drove it home. Just like that, all was put back into perspective and I no longer felt slowly erased. For a while though I was admittedly feeling a little lost.

I just needed a moment to sit back and see I was still me. A moment where I knew I am still an artist, a seamstress, a dreamer and so much more. Things like not reading nearly as much as I used to seemed like small pieces of the picture instead of big systemic issues. The realization was not lost on me that while these aspects may seem hidden at times, that when they do get to got o the ball they still very much shine. I am not gone or slowly being erased. I still remain.

I am an artist…. Right? The question of whether one thought of him/herself as an artist was asked of every art major completing their senior thesis. At least that is what happened the year I was a senior. All of the seniors sat in a circle with the professors interspersed so it was more of a round table discussion instead of a drilling session. The professors wanted us to feel more like their equals as they asked questions about our senior theses : artist to artist.

When it was my turn to answer that question I remember my reply gave everyone pause. If I was not the first one to answer I knew I had to be second. How unsure I was of the statement that I was an artist came out. Did receiving a college degree truly make me an artist? Was someone without a degree therefore not an artist?

After all the art history classes I knew what art was. That there was a difference between high art (legitimate art) and hobby or craft art. So I begged the question if what made me an artist. No one  n n had a real answer fir me, neither teacher nor student. The moment of contemplation past when another student boldly proclaimed that she was indeed an artist but she never backed up how she knew.

At that time I wasn’t sure that I really was an artist I mean at least not an artist like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. I might have felt like an artist but not one of that caliber. Since graduating, I have not gone on to make and sell lots of pieces of artwork. The bulk of my productivity has been that of a crafter, a hobbyist, or a mixed media/textile artist. Ten years ago none of that was considered to be on par with painting or sculpting. I was not a consistent creator of high end art.

I have been a seamstress and an artist with thread. Even for my senior thesis I created mixed media art. My entire senior thesis was based on painting clouds on fabric that I then turned into quilts utilizing both hand sewing and machine sewing techniques. The title of my senior art show was cumulus.

Ten plus years later I still don’t think I am a da Vinci or a Michelangelo but I am an artist. I say all this to then come back to the present. This morning as I was trying to do some finishing touches on the underside of a bunk board for one of my nephews.

I had shown both my nephews several types of clouds that I painted in the past that are displayed in paintings and quilts around my house. Then I showed them a picture of some Toy Story clouds someone painted for their child, never once referencing the movie. I wanted them to tell which type of clouds they wanted painted on the bunk board.

And what would you think they picked?

Yep you’re right they picked the Toy Story clouds.

And so I sat there wondering as I was making a stencil, to then make “perfect” Toy Story clouds, what would da Vinci or Michelangelo be thinking to themselves if they were asked to do something similar for a child that they loved? Would they be muttering to themselves “I painted the Mona Lisa” or “I painted the Sistine Chapel” and “but now I am reduced to stenciled clouds”. That train of thought made me smile.

Yes, I have an art degree (actually art/art history and business) and I have been reduced to making a cloud stencil to paint perfect clouds on a bunk board. That is my life and I’m happy with that.

I could have a kind of a weird outlook on it and be very upset but I’m not. Truth is the kids see my clouds that I paint displayed all around the house. The kids don’t need more of my clouds. They need their own.

I still enjoyed thinking back to that discussion, remembering how my insecurities of that time left even the professors in silence, and having a good chuckle over how I was at that moment painting stenciled clouds.

Over the years I have had people tell me that they think the tradition I have with my mom for my birthday is sweet. Most don’t even know the reason behind the birthday tradition. About a week prior to my birthday last year I decided to share that reason on my Facebook wall.

Ever since I had enough of my own money, I take my mom out to dinner on my birthday. Fundamentally it is a big thank you to my mom. She is who nourished me and cared for me both in utero and post utero. But it is more than that. I wouldn’t have a birthday if it had been left up to my mom’s doctors.

My mom has suffered from poor kidney function most of her life. Between being pregnant with my brother and myself (a nine year difference), she had been hospitalized due to, and on medication for, her kidneys. Even though women have had children well into their thirties for a long time, I was still considered a change of life baby and hazardous to the health of a normal woman back then. Between my mom’s kidneys and her age, her nephrologist and a second opinion doctor both agreed she should terminate her pregnancy. Terminate me.

Yeah it is a bit much to hear that information as a child. The doctors saw me as a threat to my mom’s health and to her lifestyle. At one point they even asked my mom if she wanted to die and leave her husband a widower/single parent. Leave her son without a mother. The doctors laid it all on thick.

So what saved me? Several things.

My mom’s OBGYN was the family OBGYN. His practice saw my grandmother and all my aunts that lived in the area, later on even me. He let my mom know there would be risks and it was possible that both she and I would lose our lives. That said, he supported her decision, whatever that was, and he would be there every step of the way. The OBGYN also let her know he would work with all of her doctors to try and make the pregnancy as safe as it could be.

That’s the doctor side of things.

My mom is also Catholic. She wasn’t born catholic. As a child she was baptized protestant and raised in that faith. However also as a child she noticed my grandmother would slip out of the house very early on Sunday mornings. My grandmother was first generation American. She was also of French/Italian decent and devoutly Catholic. So even though my grandmother married a Protestant, and took his religion as she did his name, part of her would always remain Catholic. Most of my grandmother’s adult life was spent attending both catholic mass, by herself, and protestant mass with her children.

When my father, a Lutheran, married my mom they both felt disconnected from their own churches so they attended mass of various faiths as well as other locations of their own faiths. Finally they settled on Catholicism because it felt like a homecoming of the soul. Both of their families had roots in the Catholic church and it felt right to “return”.

Religion aside, they both felt strongly about every life having meaning and value. My parents had multiple failed pregnancies in between my brother and me. They had been trying to have a second child for what felt like a long time. Suddenly they were pregnant at a time where they had given up and they were told they should let go of the idea. But they couldn’t.

What my mom did, with my dad’s support, was very brave. She accepted the fact that she might die but that she was going to try to have her baby. To her, and my dad, I was a miracle they had almost given up on.

Those nine months had its fair share of ups and downs.

Medications, multiple hospital visits, lots of monitoring… and still when she went into labor the hospital refused to admit her because the OBGYN on call was not familiar with her case. There was a complication but still she was not admitted. My mom almost bled out in the waiting room waiting for the OBGYN on call to show up. Back in that day lawsuits against hospitals were rare and women did not receive recognition for “little” malpractice issues.

Thankfully when the doctor on call did show up he not only made sure my mom was admitted but that her doctor was called. By the time my mom gave birth her doctor was there handling everything as promised. In the end mother and child were both fine.

Having been raised with this tale, it is hard not to celebrate my mom’s bravery and perseverance while celebrating my birth. After all without her courage I would not have a birthday.

 

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Side note:

When I have chosen to share the story of my birth with others the take away starts with warm fuzzies towards my mom. Sadly it often ends with some pro-baby comment as if my story is a good poster child tale for being pro-baby. It’s not. If anything it highlights the importance of women needing to be able to make decisions about their body.

My family is pro-life but we are also pro-choice.

That statement often confuses people because I am Catholic so I MUST be pro-baby. But being pro-life is more than being pro-baby. It is about caring about life from start to finish, not just when it is convenient. Not just when a baby is in utero. It is about making sure there is a good life waiting for that child. Helping to ensure that child is not going to end up dead before it has a chance to experience the good this world can show it.

Another point here is for those who wish the mother to be dead if she even considers abortion. That means you are pro-baby not pro-life. That only venerates babies not life as a whole. Most of the same people who are pro-baby do nothing to ensure that women who choose life for their baby have any assistance. How does that make any sense?

Being pro-choice is more than about being pro-abortion. In general I am anti-abortion. I advocate choice. The right to say “This is MY body”. That a doctor should not make a decision without my input into the care of my body.

Too many women do not have a choice over what happens to their body. They can not receive decent healthcare. There is no “good” or “consistent” sex education in America. Being on a contraceptive is looked down upon and yet so is an unplanned pregnancy.

So please, before you put my tale in the pro-baby category, make a third category. My story proves you can be pro-life and pro-choice. I am glad my mom had a choice and that she was brave enough to pick life for me.

Some day when I feel like discussing religion a little further I will delve into the concept of sin and how taking away someone’s choice is not the same thing as saving them from sinning.

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?