By Sarah Anderson
Many moons ago when Bethany* came into our lives, our home was her foreign land. Her mum was in a psychiatric ward and in and out of rehab – sometimes she just disappeared – and her seven other siblings were also in care, for which the deep sadness of separation never left her. Bethany had no contact with her mum apart from third-hand whispers from friends and family. She grieved for her mum and her siblings, although it dimmed a little over time and she began to embrace our way of life as her mum and extended family paled into the background, blurred, but not gone.
She started to attend school at fourteen. Slowly, and by choice, she began to dress as my own daughter did, her makeup changed, she started to discard her own food choices and embrace ours, came on holiday with us, spoke differently, for a while she mixed with the other children at school whilst she caught up educationally and began to look to the future and college.
Bethany was doing what many looked after children do, like a chameleon, changing metaphorical colours to survive and blend in, an attempt to absorb more approval, warmth and to communicate.
After two-and-a-half years, out of the blue, her mum came back on the scene and it upended everything. One sunny evening, Bethany’s phone rang, she answered it and scurried upstairs to her bedroom. Ten minutes later, she reappeared dressed in the very outfit she had arrived in on that first day, complete with heavy makeup, all of which had been resigned to the back of her wardrobe.
She announced she was off to live with her mum in her new flat. Her mum said it was going to be different this time – she wanted Bethany with her and they were going to get all her siblings back too and live as a happy family. With deep happiness and joy, seeing the end of her longing, with the promise of hope, the reconnection with self and her inner six-year-old bursting with the certainty of the long absent love of her mother, she left the house to begin a new life.
At our end, the wheels turned in motion, the missing child protocols played out, the safeguarding and child protection teams kicked in, we stayed awake day and night. We sent text after text and waited anxiously for her to put the battery back in her phone. She would do so periodically to reassure us – “Don’t worry I’m fine”, “I’m so sorry to put you through this, you don’t deserve it, but it’s not you, it’s me, it’s me and my mum now, I love you both, B”.
It only lasted five days before Bethany’s mum had disappeared again. Her mum had a new boyfriend who was going to change her life, it was all going to be different this time. Bethany was alone in the flat again, her mum had left no contact details, food or electric, just a dog she’d been given a few days previously.
Bereft and grief stricken, Bethany returned home, but our home was once again a foreign land. She was heartbroken, confused, disorientated, and traumatised and no amount of our love was going to fix that. She couldn’t settle, wouldn’t go back to school, she no longer felt she fitted in, she’d lost herself once more and the ground had gone from beneath her again. So once more she left, this time to extended family, bed hopping, sofa surfing and the street. We managed to get her home just one more time, but, restless and unsettled, she walked. The team around her tried so hard but it was fruitless, and we didn’t have what she wanted or so badly needed.
They are never yours
Our children’s needs are primal, and those needs will ultimately drive them. You cannot parent them, not in the true sense of the word. You are not, nor ever will be, their parent as they already have or had parents. Apart from that, you are never allowed to parent them the way you might wish, it is not within the statutory or legislative remit of our role. They are never yours.
What can we do? We can ensure we do not dismiss their feelings nor discourage them from their longing, and never dismiss their family or disparage them in anyway. We must metaphorically embrace their families. We must only listen as they love and hate their parents at the same time. We cannot take sides; we can only hear them in whichever place they are.
We can sit with them, however unbearable, and try not to fix or pretend it’s all fine; we can only walk behind them on their path and pick them up when they fall. We must not, through our own discomfort, try to distract or divert or encourage abandonment of their thoughts and feelings. If those emotions get buried in an inaccessible deep place, they may reappear in other forms, morphing into adverse and complex behavioural issues, over-compliance. attention seeking, drugs, alcohol, self-harm, absconding or trafficking. Therapy can help, but our children rarely get such a luxury and when they do happen, those interventions are intermittent and scant.
As foster carers, we help children and young people navigate our foreign land the best we can. We welcome and embrace them for who they are and hope that they might find their comfort zone in our alien world, that we might adapt our identity along with them and meet somewhere in the middle, so that they might formulate ways of being that are tolerable. We can sit with them, but we can never claim to know how they feel.
However, despite our foreign land, the trauma, and the darkness, we are critical in the equation of our youngsters’ lives, and we make an unequivocal difference, but it really is not always in the way people think.
*Bethany is not her real name and some details have been changed to protect anonymity.
Sarah Anderson is a foster care consultant