Published on April 8th, 2016 | by Rachel Pepper2
Fostering Motherhood: RACHEL PEPPER on When Your Personal and Professional Worlds Collide
Recently, I attended professional training on the traumatic impact of child sexual abuse on children. With me were a large number of fellow therapists and child protective service workers from multiple agencies throughout the Bay Area. The presenter, a seasoned clinical psychologist with extensive experience working with victims of trauma, at one point stated, “Predators are everywhere.” Many in the audience nodded in agreement, because quite frankly, when you’ve worked in this field for even a few years, you’ve likely seen it all, including the worst parenting practices imaginable. Such statements ring a bell for professionals working in the field of child welfare, especially for parents. So I’m not going to apologize for being “over-protective” when I work daily with youth who’ve been victimized due to parental neglect. I’m proud to bring a hawk-eyed protectiveness into my own mothering as a result of my work—and a deeply felt, maternal nurturance into my healing work with clients. It’s a magical cross-pollination, the conjoined beating heart of my identity.
Becoming a mother has the capacity to crack us open emotionally, like a nutcracker eviscerating a walnut. Our ability to empathize with our own child’s needs emerges out of forced necessity, in order to guarantee the survival of our young. Through this process, new parents are reborn as caretakers. Going through the process of graduate school to become a therapist is somewhat of a similar experience: you must confront your own darkest demons to effectively heal others.
Shockingly, in my many years as a professional therapist, addressing issues around parenting and clinical work has never been raised as a topic at any job I’ve had—unless I did so. In part, this may be because many of the clinicians and supervisors at my own agency are younger, without children of their own. Women of a certain age (ok, my age) don’t usually stay as providers long-term in community agencies. They burn out, numb out, quit the field, or move up to management, where they don’t have to deal with the crushing needs of their clients on a daily basis. Most of the social workers in my field leave before they become mothers—or when they become mothers. So I’ve been stumbling towards making sense of this issue all on my own.
After graduation, I began to work with youth ages 16-24, all of whom had experienced some degree of serious mental illness. Multiple incidents of psychosis and hospitalizations were the norm for these clients. I used the real compassion I felt as a parent to join with these young people and their struggling families. Yet nothing could prepare me for the emotional experience of working with neglected and abused children.
To be clear, I have always wanted to work with foster youth. I was the kid who obsessively re-read books like The Family Nobody Wanted. A force was driving me forward, compelling me towards this work, from my earliest days. Certainly I am proud of my better-known accomplishments, including publishing The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians back in 1999, inspiring a generation of queer women to create families of their own. However, my more private self was always striving to satisfy a stronger calling. So I returned to graduate school to learn how to work therapeutically with the kids who’d just be happy, at the end of any given day, to feel safe and cared for, without constant fear of molestation, hunger, or being locked alone in a room for three days while Mommy goes on a meth bender.
As my own child has grown up, the age gap between her and those of my clients has narrowed. These days, it has now leveled off completely to match the average age of the clients I work with: teen girls ages 14-18, many of whom have come into care because of sexual abuse from relatives, a parent’s chronic drug use, and appalling neglect. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the wants and needs of my average teenager (Sushi! Boba! Manicures! Boots! Conditioner!) with the paucity of essentials my clients experience on a daily basis. For even though my clients are in licensed foster homes now, more often than not, their foster “parents” are unwilling to actually parent them at all, let alone work to revive hope, or understand and address the serious after-effects of trauma. By coming into their lives on a limited basis, as a paid professional, I can’t buy them all the things they need or desire, and can only offer the smallest salve for these kids’ deepest, most primal wound: their own lack of a mother’s guiding love. What I have discovered they wish for the very most—time spent with a genuinely caring adult—is very hard for them to come by.
And so, I do what I can. I show up when I say I will. I take them for lunch, usually on my own dime, to introduce them to the wonders of food groups beyond frozen or “fast.” Have you ever witnessed a teenager experience the joys of drinking bubble tea for the first time? It’s a wondrous sight to behold, and I’ve seen it, times twenty. In the culture I come from, food is love. It’s easy to serve it up to these kids, if you just spend the time. I bring art supplies to sessions, and am amazed by what they create.
Unlike most adults in their lives, I hold safe boundaries for them, follow up when I say I will, and advocate for their needs. Together, we tour college campuses, and I talk to them about the rewards of succeeding, of holding on to hope for a better life, of the possibility of breaking multi-generational family patterns of abuse, drug use, and incarceration. I provide the framework to psychologically make sense of what has happened to them, but not let it define them. I validate their feelings, and help them problem solve. Most importantly, I listen. And often we laugh together, in part because it’s good medicine, and also because foster kids, like all kids, are kind of goofy.
And how has my own parenting changed, as a result of therapeutically nurturing these youth? For starters, I continue to spend as much time with my own teenage daughter as I can. She remains my top priority, placed way ahead of professional achievements or personal endeavors. I like to think that my own parenting has become more thoughtful as a result of my work. I use more reflective listening, and give less advice. I’ve become more honest, calm and flexible as a parent, and I sweat the small stuff a whole lot less. I’m way less uptight about grades and chores, and more concerned with raising a child knowledgeable about social justice. I laugh more, celebrate every small success, and try to avoid the twin perils of guilt and shame. And because of my work, I’ve also hung on more tightly to my teen daughter than most parents do, and for that I offer no apology whatsoever. I like to tell people that there’s no apron string between us—only a super size bungee cord.
Subsequently, my daughter knows I’m still protecting her, a sense of safety foster youth rarely have. From working with so many young people, I know that far from needing space from adults, teens do best when they have lots of one-on-one time with trusted adults, are included in family events and decision making, and feel they are valued members of their families. Perpetuating the myth that your teens don’t need you–thereby pushing them away—sets them up for the risk of isolative behaviors, potential victimization, and other risks. Similarly, when teens don’t feel they can come to their parents for help, they’re more susceptible to the promises of predatory adults and/or substances. Yes, it really is that serious.
As a therapist, it’s hard to resist the pull towards rescuing most kids I work with. I know I can’t parent every child, but I do try to be the best parent I can to my own precious daughter. Not surprisingly, I do plan to become a foster parent once she leaves home for college this fall. I’ve seen the need, and it is glaring. I also cannot imagine my life without having children around. Parenting my own child, and working with others, has kept me young, curious, active, alert, hopeful, and maybe even a little bit hip Polishing the art of combining my parenting practices with my therapeutic ones has definitely made me better at each, and given me high confidence and satisfaction in both. No mid-life crisis for me, I’m just far too busy. I can’t guarantee that I’ll work with foster youth forever, but while I do, I’ll bring all my best parenting abilities to the task. Because foster kids, just like our own kids, deserve the best we can offer.