Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

My Ongoing Journey as a Foster Dad
Or, learning to be the father my children need me to be

by Bob DeMarco

If I had to sum up how I feel into one word, it would be impotent... It's taken me some time to come to grips with it, but like it or not, that's the word.

It's a Different Kind of Parenting
Like some of you, I stepped into this world of fostering/adopting at my wife's prodding and it took me a while to "get on board." But once I did, I was equally committed to helping one or more children who desperately needed it. I felt that I'd done a good job raising my biological four, so I reasoned that I had something to offer other children, too.

What I didn't realize was that the parenting paradigm I'd operated under needed to be thrown out the window, and that the things I count as strengths are of little value to kids who have been traumatized. Or so it seems. For these little ones, learning to be respectful, responsible, and obedient aren't a priority. For them, continued survival is their core goal, and they pursue it in ways that have worked for them in the past: by distrusting adults, lying, stealing, sneaking, ignoring directions, hoarding, fighting, manipulating... the list goes on.

My kids need a dad who has characteristics such as kindness, patience, gentleness, loving, wisdom, self-control, and empathy. I don't have many of these traits. Sure, I have love to give, and I'm as compassionate as the next guy, but patience and gentleness and wisdom...maybe not so much.

Thank Goodness for My Wife
My wife, on the other hand, navigates the challenges of our home quite well, seeing beyond the kids' behavior and meeting them where they are. Where I get angry, she finds compassion. Where I think we should come down hard, she thinks we should go easy. Where I take disrespect and blatant disobedience personally, she knows it's not about me. My wife is very well read on the subject of traumatized children. Although she, too, gets frustrated and tired, in general I find myself often deferring to her judgment.

In contrast, at work I'm part of the leadership team. I'm respected. People listen to me and appreciate my contribution. My opinion is sought. It's stressful, fast-paced, and results-driven, but I know my job and I know what needs to be done. At the end of the day, when I leave the realm of mutual respect and teamwork to enter into the realm of constant bickering, disobedience, yelling, and school suspensions, my energy is sapped and there is little left in my mental gas tank.

It's hard to make the shift. One minute I'm in the middle of a corporate deal and the next I'm irrationally tangled up with a disrespectful child, desperately but futilely trying to gain control of the situation. At just that moment, my wife swoops in to rescue one of us, either me or the child, I'm not sure which.

That Chorus of Doubts
It's just here, in the midst of all these complex emotions, that the quiet voices start. Just like in Whoville, they start off low but then they start to grow. They say:

It's better for the kids if you just keep quiet.

You can't get them to do what you ask or be who you know they should be.

All you do is make things worse.

You have nothing to offer.

You can look forward to 10 more years of this.

On and on they go, cutting at my core. Once strong, I find myself succumbing to these relentless voices, now a chorus. I pull back. Because otherwise I'm just impotent and in the way. Or so I feel.

A Big Conversation with My Daughter
Recently, this all came to a head. My daughter's sarcasm and cutting remarks were in especially rare form, and I HAD HAD ENOUGH. Fuming, I decided I was done. I would stop trying. From here on out, I told myself, she and I would simply coexist in the same house!

When it came time for dinner, and knowing that I didn't have anything good to offer, I chose to spare my family my misery and took my plate into my office and began to eat alone. I was low and at a loss for what to do.

After about 10 minutes there was a small knock at the door and I heard my daughter ask if she could talk to me. Worn out, I quickly responded, "No! I don't want to talk to you, just leave me be."

As soon as the words left my lips, I felt regret and disappointment that I could not rise up and do what I should. But I was at the end of my rope.

To my surprise and relief, 5 minutes later came a second small knock. "Daddy, I'd like to talk to you, please." This time I invited her in but I expected her usual fake apology where she blames everyone else and then just tells me what she thinks I want to hear.

I was wrong. She perfectly communicated her feelings, along with an apology. She didn't just come in and stare at me as she so often did. She didn't need the usual coaching for every word. She looked me in the eyes and clearly communicated her message and waited for my reply.

With my face in my hands and tears in my eyes, the anger quickly melted away. All I could do was admire her strength in that moment: this was a really big deal for her!

I congratulated her on this momentous accomplishment. We spent the next several minutes connecting, apologizing, and forgiving each other.

In a word, it was beautiful. She managed to overcome her feelings and my feelings, to connect with me and repair what had been broken. In that moment, of the two of us, she was the stronger--I needed help and it came from my eight-year-old daughter.

Great healing, growth, and connection happened that evening. It also highlighted what I already knew: I was not being effective or helpful. But I felt inspired. Her strength encouraged me and caused me to want to be better.

A Powerful Choice
We have therapists and support people in our home every week. Many times, the therapist seems to be more help to my wife and I than to our kids. At the next opportunity, I shared my daughter's feat of strength and my feelings of impotence and hopelessness.

The therapist reminded me that the worst day in my home is still helping my children heal from the trauma they experienced before entering foster care. She reminded me of the important role I play in my kids' life and that I show them every day that men don't hit women and that dads stick it through even when it gets hard.

She reminded me that even in the face of my failures (and they are many), I teach my children the power of forgiveness and that each day we get to start fresh.

Then she wrote this down on a piece of paper and handed it to me:

You have the power to choose to forgive.

She said, "You are not impotent. You have all the power and control; the power to forgive your children for not responding to the love and caring that you give them."

Suddenly it all made sense. This was the key I'd been looking for!

I keep that paper with me so I'll always remember that the choice to forgive is mine to make as often as I need to. It helps me to take the disrespect and disobedience, because in the end, I must take the onslaught, but I cannot be forced to forgive. That is my choice. AND IT IS POWERFUL.

Bob DeMarco is therapeutic foster parent in North Carolina.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~