Session two was actually called “Teamwork toward Permanence” but I like my name better. 🙂 Our second in-class session went well. We had another cheesey sunshine and rainbows video from DCFS where the birth parent actually hugged the social worker and proudly proclaimed, “I LOVE having a social worker in my life. She saved me!” Before the video faded to black, the birth family and foster family were gathered together in a cozy living room, laughing and smiling over the children like they had always been extensions of one another’s family trees.
As our instructor switched off the VCR she turned to us and said, “Okay, now let’s talk about real life.” Including air quotes around “real life.”
I have to admit, I love that they are not sugar-coating any of the “one big happy family” propaganda that DCFS is providing. I am not discrediting the idea that there may be wonderful teams of birth families, foster families, social workers, and children that hold hands and come together for an afternoon at the zoo, but after blog reading for 16 months, you, my fellow bloggers, are painting a much different picture. Like my instructors, I thank you for the dose of the “real world.”
The big idea of the day was, “Be prepared to work with birth families, don’t judge them.” The woman next to me shook her head in disapproval, “I thought they just brought you some kids and you got to take care of them…” She wasn’t in class this week. Is she over it?
We learned the about idea of concurrent planning (which I can thank Carrie Ann, from Foster Wee, for sharing about here first) and how the team will be working on reunification for the child with their birth families all the while also planning for termination of rights and adoption. It looks good on paper but my “real world” lessons tell me otherwise.
We did a simple exercise where we were given a few minutes to answer the following questions:
1. What do you plan to do tomorrow?
2. Who do you plan to have with you tomorrow?
3. What do you want to be doing one year from now (personally or professionally)?
4. Who do you plan to have with you?
5. What would you like to accomplish in the next five years?
6. Who would you like to have sharing your accomplishments?
We handed in our worksheets and our instructor promptly ripped them up. There were a few gasps but I saw it coming. I get it. A person, of any age, is going to have plans and when those plans are disrupted, they are not going to be happy. As we have heard more than once now, no kid ever wakes up and says, “I want to be taken by DCFS today.” This feeds into the idea that no one (foster parents or otherwise) should ever expect their foster/adopted child to be grateful. Even if being abused, they are attached to the adult in their life and you are different and strange and you interrupted their plans, no matter how big or small.
Two other key ideas we hit on were connections and continuity. Connections in terms of establishing long-term and ongoing relationships with people who have a lifetime commitment to the child. Connections provide belonging, stability, and a sense of cultural community. Continuity refers to children’s ability to understand and make connections between their past, present and the future. It has to do with knowing where you’ve been and where you’re going. It’s a sense of familial and cultural heritage.
Enter the homework. In addition to about 20 pages of reading we were required to complete a genogram, or a drawing of our family tree structure. It examines family heritage and current family relationships. It’s a chart of our hereditary past and present. (My photo is purposely pixelated to obscure family names and to apparently protect the identity of my dog napping on the floor.) It resulted in a phone conversation with my mom where suddenly I was picking her brain for birth dates and dates of death. I love how the mind works, as she was rifling through her mental schema for the information I needed she would mutter things like, “She passed just after we moved to…” or “Well he was this many years old when your father was born so…” Family factoids tied to family trivia. Without cousins, my genogram came out quite compact. Mr. Something’s genogram, with an extensive supply of aunts, uncles, half aunts, and half uncles, required computer charting and quite a few creative guesses on his mom’s part.
Again, I got it. Bringing a child into our family adds a different type of branch to our tree and also provides them with a tree that isn’t really theirs to begin with. It’s a matter to never forget.
Purely by coincidence, I found myself climbing deeper (higher?) into my family tree just a few hours after that phone conversation with my mom. She and my father were headed out-of-town for a road trip and I finally got the opportunity I had been waiting for. In April, my parents will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I have known for a while that I wanted to make a DVD slideshow of pictures of them spanning the 50 years of their marriage. A project that would include raiding their family albums and scanning A LOT of photos. (If this post mysteriously disappears it’s because I have finally shared my blog with my mom and I’m being very top secret about the whole anniversary project. She was running internet on a dial-up connection until about a month ago, so spending casual time online reading blogs was not within her realm of patience!) So, with them safely across state lines, I headed to their house and took on the task.
After 3 1/2 hours of scanning photos I had taken a journey, not just through my own childhood, but into the twenty-ish years they spent together before I came along. In my scope, that’s practically a lifetime they spent childless and together. A lifetime that I know very little about. Apparently, they had secret lives as movie stars in the 60s. Could this pic be any more amazing? Out of the albums I unearthed, my favorite was one I had never seen before. It was stashed away in the back of a shelf, dusty. It was faded green leather with the word PHOTOS embossed across the front, black photo corners fastened the square snapshots (way to bring it back Instagram) to large black pages. My father’s neat handwriting was there with simple dates and locations penned in white under the images. Oh, I should have taken a picture of it. I’m hoping to return tomorrow, perhaps I will snap one then. Already feeling like I was being super sneaky taking on this project, this album was what I had been hoping to find. It started with pictures around the time of, and including, their own wedding. There were honeymoon pictures from the beaches of Miami and a photo of my mom standing outside their first home, an apartment above my father’s parents’ house, labeled “First morning back.”
The pages that followed included family gatherings and lots of other weddings. My dad smiled politely as a groomsman with unknown bridesmaids on his arm. My mom clutched bouquets next to glowing brides. It was “that time” of their lives. Everyone was getting married. We’ve all had summers like that, “What? Another wedding?” I was recognizing the faces of family friends that became my honorary aunts and uncles twenty years later. Sitting there at my parents desk with albums scattered around me, I came to the realization that my family genogram could have been, should have been, much bigger. These dear friends of my parents are as much family to me as my biological aunts and uncles. Does it matter that they aren’t officially on my tree? No! When did I finally realize that they weren’t actually related to us?
I was seeing the reflection of myself in those faces. Bridesmaids in matching dresses, boutonnieres pinned to tuxedo lapels, friends smiling around banquet tables draped in white linens, it’s not far from what the last several years have been for me. I’ve said since the beginning that part of the reason Mr. Something and I hope to foster to adopt is to bring a child into the nurturing fold of our family and friends. Our friends, that have trees of their own but will no doubt be “aunt” and “uncle” to our children. The genogram was supposed to bring us to the realization of the loss that one would feel to not have that information, that sense of self and history.Yet, I came to the entirely different conclusion that there is far more than that tree in one’s support system. You can feel loved, and nurtured, and protected by anyone that devotes their energy to caring for you. A tree can’t grow alone in the dark. It is our friends that make up all the rest. I cherish my family tree but I’m also so grateful that it grows in a forest.