I'm proud to announce my article, Soulful Gestures, was published in the AAMFT's professional magazine, Family Therapy: The American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy.
foster (fôs’tər) v. cherish, nurse, nourish, raise
I remember the first day of graduate school when the professor asked how many of us had children. Very few hands went up and mine wasn’t one of them. Then, in a foreboding tone he prophesied that we would most likely not become parents because this career path would realize our instinctual motherly needs.
He was right. Of the 23 years that I have worked in social services, I have only been a mother the last four. My maternal needs were, in fact, met by my clients. Good social workers nurture their clients, of any age.
My mentors have all been childless, all work horses: two rock-solid women and one wise-as-a-library gentleman. All three had the real-deal look of a social worker, that mystical combination of fatigue and enthusiasm – flyaway hair, comfortable clothes, tired faces - always hurrying towards their feeble vehicles loaded with boxes and files.
Today, I am a dinosaur in social services: pencil, clipboard, common sense. It’s a draining job and the rewards must come from within - one’s own internal dialogue about making a difference and how the world is better and all that smart self-talk.
But, the real reason I put off bringing a child into this world for so many years was because I rarely experienced a happy kid. The only children I knew were raging rivers, sad, and unable to attach - their psychic injuries manifested in a thousand different ways.
It’s a bit like trying to re-weave a basket, with the reeds stiffly jutting out of shape, except they are tiny hearts and minds. TLC is necessary but no longer sufficient to meet the developmental needs of the kids in my care. Once a child’s folder has been handed to me, the child has not only been abused, but she has now abused others.
Being pregnant was a chilling time for me. A social worker often becomes the central authority figure in a family’s life, and to the children involved, my pregnancy signaled one more inevitable abandonment. Angry adolescents assault and lash out, mostly towards their consistent and safe adults.
Children raised in foster care, crudely referred to as “system kids,” know how to find your vulnerable area, like bloodhounds, they seek out a soft spot and target it. Even the sweetest child who is happy to see me will wish a miscarriage upon me so I don’t leave her, for my new “real” family.
They know every square inch of their environment - scan, study, memorize. Abused kids are especially hypervigilant, often their very life has depended upon it. When I wonder if a client’s mom has returned to drugs, the child always knows after “hello.” From a block away, he can tell. He will know instantly, yet do his best to hide his discovery from me (I may not be able to read her but I can most definitely read him).
The names of clients rattle around in my head – press in on my heart - and seem to be unforgettable; but they are, over time. I try to recall the girl with the long hair and pretty teeth. She was quick…broke a staff’s nose during Phys. Ed. She later cut her hands on a window in my office during a therapy session with her pedophile father. Another client was found dead at the age of twenty in a nearby anonymous park, a beautiful park really, after “aging out” at 18 with nowhere to go. Never had a chance really.
Or the 7-year old blond girl who had witnessed so much perversion that she would masturbate against bedposts, door knobs, and trees, with a maniacal energy – pitifully unable to manage her anxiety and overexposure.
Still, there are a few names that I will carry to my grave, like Milo*. He was an obese boy with an electric face. He needed his second hip surgery and it fell upon me, alone, to be with him through that surgery. His mother came to visit each week. She started showing a pregnancy about the same time I noticed she was using drugs again. Mom made a long trek by bus, always punctual, soft-spoken and polite. It was sickening and surreal to witness; those slow gray lids as the baby inside her grew a little each week. The baby was born premature and blind.
And another name – Rebecca*, the oldest of seven children, incidentally beat by her father when she got in the way of him roughing up mom. Rebecca’s mom could hardly make eye contact, with her severe depression. Yet, she would bring her daughter complete meals - fresh salad! - accompanied by silverware and real plates: the family’s best to sit at our dirty picnic tables with some feeling of normal. Mom would bring her other six children when visiting, including a newborn. To this very day she was the most agile nurser I have ever seen.
I remember her hazily mentioning that this was to be her last baby - she had her “tubes tied” when the doctors declared one more pregnancy would kill her. I always wondered about that.
The foster care child of today is usually hit in all major arteries. There are numerous reasons a child enters foster care but the cornerstone of all social services recipients are those evil twins known as economic and psychological calamity.
Physical touch and professional boundaries have become words with the single most weight these days. In the current climate, it’s best if I don’t make physical contact, but, maybe a quick hug, in broad daylight only, and after asking, of course. My touch is authentic but feels dryly clinical. In Noelle Oxenhandler’s exquisite book, “The Eros of Parenthood,” Oxenhandler contends that the prevailing no-touch policy has inadvertently amplified the risk for inappropriate touch to occur.
For two years I ran a monthly “rap session” for mothers in maximum-security prison. It’s not hard to guess that the sentiment most echoed, wrenchingly so, was the void of their children. The inmate uniforms were identical, yet, each woman would tie yarn threads in such a way as to make it hers, individualized. The big stories and personal dramas don’t tug at me so much, it’s the dainty poetic human behaviors that capture my attention. I would come home from that morning visit and sleep for the rest of the day, limp from the full-body invasion.
Early on, single and in my 20’s, I optimistically volunteered as a mentor for an at-risk youth program for a brother and sister pair living with their disabled grandmother. Grandma made me tamales sabroso at Christmas - her only condition in our on-going relationship was that I be out of the neighborhood before dark set in. Occasionally the kids would stay overnight with me in my small apartment near the beach. We would gather shells, bake cookies and attempt to wash my gigantic dog, until the laughter overcame us. But my best memory is an out of town drive we took to visit my family - they inhaled those two children and everyone was better for it. This could never occur today.
I ran into that little boy, now a gorgeous young man while standing in line with my baby at the DMV. He had grown up well, strong and responsible. He had just come from seeing his mother hospitalized, one more time. His sister had followed his mother’s legacy into a life of prostitution and heroin addiction. We exchanged numbers but I never heard from him again. Oh, he also said that I had made a difference in his life.
When I become judgmental, I take inventory and remember that I am very lucky. I live in a safe neighborhood, have health insurance, and reliable transportation. I can afford the more nutritious food choice and am grateful for the luxury of (accidental) good fortune – as James R. Lowell says it, “That best academy, a mother’s knee.”
And, when I sometimes I wonder if these experiences have made me a better mom, I realize, yes, they have broadened my scope of human nature. I trust my intuition and encourage others to pay close attention, be present at all times. I have been knees to knees with enough perpetrators…I look into their eyes, and say “I Know” and they look away
My father told me that he avoids this shadowy “other” existence, while I run directly towards it, and I know this is true. I defer to the wide and textured arc of humanity because darkness is true too, pulsating. Supposedly an artist should pursue a career in art only if he cannot imagine doing anything else for a living. The same philosophy would apply for social work as well. Only do this if you cannot imagine doing anything else.