The Family Centered Foster Care Unit
It's December 14th and New Hampshire has no snow yet, at least there's none in this part of the State. For me, "Christmas" conveys the idea that there will be "snow." Somehow the atmosphere and the attitude of folks around me are different when there's snow.
I was on my way to attend the New Hampshire Foster Parent Association's Christmas Party. I had been invited to participate in this annual event as a representative of New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families. It is always a privilege and an honor to be invited to share with these caring folks. I always come away from foster parent events with a feeling of enlightenment and a deeper understanding of the difficult job they do. Tonight was no exception.
When I arrived, the room already radiated a warm holiday atmosphere. Laughter and enticing odors drifted into the room from the nearby kitchen. I noticed that the group was made up mostly of foster mothers, foster fathers having been left behind to provide child care and a night out for their wives. After dinner the group began to swap stories. Eventually raucous laughter gave way to introspection as the evening wore on and we thought about and discussed our holiday plans. One of the foster parents suggested that they share holiday traditions and asked if I would include them in the "Stories of the Heart" collection.
Foster parents walk a difficult line at Christmas time, balancing their own family Christmas with the wishes of the foster child's parents and their Christmas plans as well. Some foster families are able to include the child's parents in their Christmas festivities, some are not. Foster parents who celebrate Christmas want the holiday to be a meaningful time for all the children in their home. They want each child to take a piece of Christmas with him as he moves on through life. They particularly want to commemorate the festivities for the child in care as a particular time of sharing, love and good feelings which he will remember.
If you have ever looked at the nondescript design of a three dimensional holographic picture and allowed your eyes to gently focus deeper into the depth of the pattern until a hidden picture emerges, you will have an idea of what foster parents do. They are, somehow, able to look beyond the illusion (presented to them in the form of a traumatized family) each time they accept a child into their home. They have, long ago, looked into their own hearts and found that there was enough love there to be shared. They look beyond the circumstances of the child and his family and see many of the gifts and lessons these individuals bring with them. They don't always see the full picture in the beginning, but, when they open their hearts, slowly the picture emerges from the background. They have learned how to look in a way that the good qualities in the families they work with, like the holographic picture, will unfold and become visible.
Foster parents are such humble people. They tend not to blow their own horns. As they began to share their Christmas traditions, I noticed that some of them were conquering self-consciousness. They aren't comfortable talking about their lives.
"We loved all of our foster children," one foster parent began, breaking the ice, "It's hard not to bond with them and with their families, too, when we work so closely with them. We wanted to remember each child, so we decided that every year we would hang golden ornaments on our Christmas tree and inscribe each one with the name of a child who had been placed with us. We have been foster parents for many years and now we have a golden Christmas tree."
"We have dated ornaments with the child's name on it, too. They hang on our tree while the child is with us, but the child takes it with him when he leaves. I put up a mock evergreen garland covered with imitation red apples over the living room window. The apples have the kids names on them," another foster parent volunteered. "I need a longer garland!"
"Tell us about `Singing the Glasses,'" the group begged the foster parent who had been sitting quietly with her husband across the table from me. "Well, you know the song, `Twelve Days of Christmas,' don't you? I found drinking glasses inscribed with the various lines from the song in one of the department stores one year and bought them, thinking they were cute. We always have a house full of people at Christmas time, including our grown children and their families, the children who are still at home, the children in foster care and, sometimes, their parents and even relatives as well. At this time the children were all over ten years old. You need to entertain a group this large to keep mayhem to a minimum, so I invented `Singing the Glasses.' The rule is that you have to sing the line from the song on the glass that you get, you know, 'seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings,' and so forth. The kids loved it the first time we did it and begged to make it a yearly event.
"At our house, I get each one an ornament that imitates a hobby or something the child likes to do. My foster children are mostly teenagers so the ornaments were, a guitar for one, a weight lifter for another. The rule is that each child makes a wish and hangs his or her ornament on the Christmas tree. They each get a Christmas stocking, as well, with their name on it, that they can take with them when they leave. I take lots of pictures at Christmas time and save them from year to year. I put them up on a door and I make little doors to cover each one, like an advent calendar. The kids can open each door and see what happened last Christmas," an ambitious foster mother explained.
"We hang Christmas stockings and make special Christmas cookies together," another foster parent added.
"We love the holidays. The week before Christmas, just before bedtime, I load all the kids, dressed in their pajamas, into the van and we drive around town and look at all the Christmas lights. It's like magic," one of the "young-at-heart" foster parents told the group.
"We do things a little differently at our house. Building suspense is an important part of Christmas for us. Since the children placed with us are all girls, they all `camp out' with their sleeping bags in the same room the night before Christmas. They can't come downstairs while `Santa' is arranging the presents. They love it!," another offers.
"A European Christmas tradition was brought to us by my husband's parents," another foster parent remembers. "When we spend Christmas at my `in-laws' house the whole family gets together for a meal which consists of seven different kinds of fish. We are told to leave the dirty dishes as the `Spirits' will clean it all up during the night! The kids love not having to help with the clean up and, I think my mother-in-law protects her Christmas china this way. The kids are always surprised the next morning that the dishes are all done and the place is all cleaned up. My house is a ranch style home and, if we have Christmas at home, the kids all wait at the end of a hall until they get the signal to `go ahead' and get their presents. I have a camera ready to catch their expressions.
"To build suspense, our kids have to wait until the grandparents arrive," another mentions.
"At our house, the children open their presents by age, the youngest goes first," recalls the foster mother whose children range in age from preschool to junior high.
"Our oldest son has a beard, he came in with a garbage bag full of gifts one year and our two new foster children thought he was `Santa!' He's been `Santa' ever since," a foster mother laughingly tells the group.
"All our kids, at one time or another, have `peeked' at their gifts before Christmas day. Sometimes we caught them, sometimes we didn't. We have a handicapped child who never had a chance to `peek' at her gifts. My older son got her up and gave her a chance to `peek' at her gifts like the other kids had done," my table companion said.
"I have a way to guarantee the parents an extra half hour of sleep Christmas morning. We fill the stockings and put them at the end of the beds. In the toe of the stocking is a box of juice and a coffee cake. The kids have breakfast in bed! They love it and so do we! They are too excited to eat much more than that anyhow," another foster mother contributed.
"I made up little reindeer hoofs and took baking soda and sprinkled it near the fireplace and the Christmas tree and made hoof prints in it. The kids were convinced that Santa had come. They loved it and, now, I do it every year," another said.
"We do something like that on Christmas Eve," a foster mother added. We use baking soda and leave reindeer tracks and footprints in each child's room. We make a little red dot on each child's cheek while they sleep with a red Flair pen, a kiss from Rudolph and Santa."
"I always get each child a present with `assembly required.' It keeps them busy, even if it's something we have to help them put together, another foster mother contributed.
"Those who are never too busy to stop for the love of a child, remain forever young," a Christmas card advised, wishing me a happy holiday season. Indeed, if this is the case, these foster parents have found the fountain of youth!
We hope you have enjoyed this selection. It is one of my favorites!
To view other "Stories of the Heart" selections go to the Contents Page