Monday, September 8, 2014

Lessons From The Playground

Most of you know that Chris and I have recently become foster parents.  I've been discussing this new journey over on my YouTube channel, so if this comes as news you can catch up here (Foster Care Playlist) and hear about our first placement here (1st Placement).  Recently we provided 5 days of Respite Care for a 4 year old boy.
Respite Care: Respite care refers to one foster family caring for another family's foster children for a short amount of time. This allows for the children's original foster family to have a break. This type of foster care is especially helpful when foster children have behaviors such as seen in many therapeutic foster homes.
Before I get too deep into this story I want to tell you about something that happened a few weeks ago.  I took both kids grocery shopping and it was a great outing - they listened, we laughed, they were helpful - I walked out of that store loving my kids and feeling like I had this Mom thing figured out.  I put the groceries in the car while Hannah buckled herself into her car seat, and then I went to put William into his driver's side car seat.

As I lifted him out of the shopping cart I noticed a mom and her teenage son walking towards me.  The boy had the start of facial hair and looked sullen with his head down.  I thought nothing of it, in fact he looks pretty much like the typical teenage boy stuck grocery shopping with his mom on a Saturday.  She slowed to open the trunk - turns out they were parked next to me - and put the groceries in her car, but he kept walking.  She called after him and asked him to wait (I was trying to buckle William in at this point and help Hannah adjust her chest clip) but he kept walking and proceeded to open the car door forcefully into my back and got into the passenger seat.

Normally I would have been annoyed.  If I was having a rough day I might have even had a dirty look or a few choice words for the son (and perhaps even the mother if I was really looking for a fight), but I was in a great mood and it didn't phase me.  The mom rushed over apologizing profusely.  "He has autism.  He doesn't even know you're there."

I could see it in her eyes, she was trying to beat me to the punch by explaining, but was braced for judgement.  I smiled.  "No worries.  He's fine.  No harm done."  I tried to convey everything I felt with that smile - not pity, just understanding from one mom to another.

On the drive home I thought about that mom, and since that day I've continued to think about her.  I wonder how many times she's had to apologize like that, how many times she's been met with judgement instead of kindness.  I've never been so thankful to have been in a good mood.  She unknowingly reminded me that we're all just doing the best we can and a smile and some understanding goes a long way.

Fast forward to our respite care placement with Travis* (name changed to protect privacy).  He was fairly new to the foster care system.  He'd been with this family for 6 weeks after he was found wandering the streets in a diaper.  Yes, he's four years old and not potty trained.  He also didn't speak more than a few words.  From what I understand he's on a waitlist for a pediatrician that might give him a diagnosis other than neglect.  I suspect (strongly) that it might be Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Regardless, he was a perfectly sweet little boy.  When you sat with him you could see his deficits: His voice and hands had tremors which made talking and eating difficult.  He could build anything with legos, but couldn't understand interlocking puzzle pieces.  He was friendly and kind, but he also didn't understand personal space and would often get in Hannah's face and wouldn't stop when she asked nicely - or when she yelled not so nicely - for him to back away.

But on the playground he looked like any other 4 year old.
He had limitless energy and loved going down the slide.  He made friends because he was so outgoing and nice.  He ran and played for an hour without the smile leaving his face once.

I took Hannah, William and Travis* to the park and everyone had a great time.  William tired first and so I sat on the bench next to the other moms and he sat on my lap as we watched the big kids play.  Then it happened.

Travis went down the slide and his shirt flipped up in the back.  As he ran around to the ladder his diaper was visible above the waistband of his jeans.

"Is that boy wearing a diaper?!" exclaimed one mom.
"He's not potty trained yet? That's just lazy." muttered another.
"I wonder what's wrong with him.  Maybe he's slow." posed the third.

I was frozen in my seat.  Stunned silent.  Flabbergasted.
I wanted to call them out for their judgments and point out that he's a little boy that's been through hell.
I wanted to ask them if they'd ever changed a 4 year old's dirty diaper.  Honestly, it's gross.  It's much easier to be a 'lazy' parent when your child is potty trained.  I can't remember the last time I put Hannah in a pull up or diaper.  Life after potty training is a breeze comparatively.
I felt so judged as his 'mom'.  I wanted to advocate for him.  I wanted to hug him and protect him from their words even though I knew he hadn't heard them.  I wanted to pause that moment and have time to figure out the best way to handle this situation.
Instead, as calmly as I could I said "His name is Travis, and he's doing the best he can."

I stood and collected the kids and we went home.  Hannah exclaimed "This was the best day ever!" from the backseat and Travis* asked "We go back?" and I told him we could return tomorrow.  Inside I felt defeated, and sad, and slightly proud that I had said something instead of letting their judgement continue.

A week later and I'm still not sure what I should have done.  Travis has since returned to his foster home, but in many ways I'm still back on that playground.  Thinking of those moms, of all the children like Travis*, of the future foster children I'll care for and the judgements they'll receive.

I suppose I wrote this to remind you to smile at the mom, for an ounce of kindness goes a long way, and to be mindful of your words, for they carry more weight than your realize.

“I have learned silence from the talkative, 
toleration from the intolerant, 
and kindness from the unkind.” 
~Khalil Gibran



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