Belonging

by
McKenna Murray, FCNI Program Coordinator
May, 13, 2020 -

“In these chaotic times...” Over and over again, in some form or another, I come across this phrase in my conversations--when I turn on the t.v. and as I scroll through social media for just a few minutes. Fires, floods, war, rumors of wars, pandemic illness, reeling economies, scarcity of resources, and community shutdowns have all become characteristic of 2020. While several of these things stem from natural causes, I of course find myself considering the human contributions that have exacerbated them and created the others. How did we get here? I’m not an economist, a climate change scientist, or even an expert on human behavior, but I find a compelling piece of the answer in these words from Mother Teresa, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

Throughout my time as a Rehabilitation Specialist and Foster Care Coordinator, I have repeatedly witnessed how lack of belonging marrs the human spirit. Conversely, I have seen the restorative power of remembering our belonging to each other through our community’s unsung peace-makers: our foster parents.

Few, if any, children come into the foster system without deeply ingrained issues regarding belonging. Most of them feel a sense of belonging to their families that never goes away, but this is often warped by experiences of abuse and neglect. Although it is oftentimes necessary for safety, the very act of uprooting children and placing them with a stranger does damage in this area. Kids are plunged into a stranger’s home with different routines, strange meals, alternative speech patterns, foreign smells, and unfamiliar hands tucking them in at night. Consequently, children often develop behaviors on a spectrum between two extremes: rejection/avoidance and indiscriminate clinging to others. Practically speaking, these behaviors can look like “acting out” at school or in the foster home--aggression, self-isolating, running away, lowered sexual boundaries, inappropriate relationships with adults, gang affiliation and involvement in manipulative relationships among other things. These behaviors can also be seen among children/youths who are not in the system but struggle with issues of belonging in their homes. To complicate things further, these behaviors frequently lead to further disruptions in children’s placements as they burn bridges and/or get involved with the wrong crowd.

Enter our foster parents. They look at these anchorless children and teenagers, and say, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but it doesn’t matter. I belong to you, and you belong to me.” I doubt many of them say it with these exact words, but I have seen them show it in their actions. Foster parents give endlessly of their time and creatively find ways to incorporate the child’s own culture, values, and family into their own in order to create a new sense of belonging. I remember one youth telling me how her foster mom brought her along to help pick out a new puppy; that puppy grew into a dog that brought comfort to countless other children who came into the home even after that youth left. Another foster dad of teen boys regularly connects with them by watching Netflix series together, and asking for the boys’ input about family activities and meals. I’ve seen multiple foster mothers earn the title of “Mom” or “Mama” within a few short weeks even from children who still are connected to their biological mothers. These are just a few ways that foster parents help their children develop a new sense of belonging. At the same time, foster parents teach children what healthy belonging looks like by modeling boundaries, creating routines, and utilizing open and assertive communication in hopes that foster kids will go on to build healthier relationships with others. 

And that brings up another point, our foster parents dedicate their hands and hearts to belong to children who, in the best-case scenario, will leave them.  Belonging to another comes with sacrifice, and even with grief. However, several foster/adoptive parents and their kids have creatively found ways to continue their relationships regardless of whether the child stays in the system, returns home, or finds another placement. Many foster/adoptive parents include their kids’ biological families in holiday celebrations, creating a messy and awkward but beautiful expanded network of love and belonging. Others are able to stay involved in their foster kids’ lives after they’ve moved on as mentors, friends, or “extended family members.” Even if they never see them again, we cannot underestimate the power of  relationship even over just a short time; the important thing is that we have a healthy sense of belonging of some kind even if it shifts during life’s transitions.

Indeed, the foster parents I work with have sparked in me a sense of belonging between us even in a matter of minutes together. I cannot tell you how many have offered me homemade snacks or a cup of tea when I come over to work with the kids, despite their knowledge that agency policy does not allow me to accept them. Once, I called a foster mom I previously worked with but hadn’t seen in awhile to briefly inquire about paperwork, and after quickly working through it, she asked, “So… how are YOU doing?” It was a mundane question, but in it I heard all the possessiveness of her mama-bear heart. I felt seen, heard and loved; and I now know that she has a deep, even subconscious sense of our belonging to each other. 

Our county is in dire need of more foster parents. Beyond that, our world needs more people who are keenly aware that we belong to each other. Oh, they’re there alright. Think of all the medical staff, first responders, and community volunteers who are stepping up throughout the COVID-19 crisis. They do so because they take ownership of their community, and in turn they give of themselves out of the awareness that they belong to the community. However, a minority is not enough to achieve widespread peace. We need mentors, tutors, volunteers, and donors that give what they can to make the foster parenting and restorative relationships work that we do at FCNI possible; we need them to tell our clients through action that the shame they feel about their struggles will never cut them out of the fabric of this community, and that they are capable of and welcome to contribute to that said community. We need CEOs that know they belong to their employees, and politicians who actively belong to their constituents and to those across the aisle of political thought. Our community needs friends, spouses, family members, and neighbors that know that we are intimately bound together. I too often forget this; we all do. But what if we didn’t? What would we do differently in our daily life if we looked at each person and thought, “I belong to you, and you belong to me”?

To speak with our Foster Care & Adoption Services Supervisor about how to become a foster parent, please e-mail us at balexander@fcni.org.