A reader sends me a letter and gives me permission to reprint it here, because I suspect he’s not the only one with this question:
“I think what you are doing with your family is great, but I feel like you’ve moved away from peak oil and climate change to write about foster care, and I don’t see a connection. I feel bad saying it, but I miss the old stuff. Is there a connection I’m not seeing?”
In some measure this is just a fair cop, in that my subject matter HAS changed as I’ve spent more time working on issues of families in crisis. It isn’t that I don’t have things to say about peak oil, climate change, food and energy anymore, I just feel like some of those subjects are ones I’ve hashed out more, and I have newer things to say about foster care and families. In some measure it is just the problem of shifting gears – while all those crises are real and still there, I’ve been buried in the foster reality and it is distracting. I will be writing more about the other stuff.
Still, I also think there IS a deep and important connection between what I’m doing now and what I have been doing for the last 12 years, and it is worth articulating and exploring. Because in some measure what we are doing is getting a very intimate and profound look into exactly where the fissures are opening in our culture. There have always been people who fall through the cracks, but where the cracks are, how deep the holes go and who gets caught in them can teach you a lot about the future.
When I write about our energy, economic and ecological problems, I’m often looking at things in the writer’s equivalent of an aerial view – a big picture, or maybe using a smaller picture to give a wider view. Doing foster care is like taking a microscope and looking at one piece of the falling-apart systems around me very, very intensively, and both views give you parts of the picture you wouldn’t have any other way.
Getting a clearer sense of what IS NOT there in terms of resources for those in dire situations gives us a view of just what may happen as the things we have depended on for our comparative security – a stable climate, abundant cheap energy, a secure food system, economic prosperity – disappear. I’ve always argued that the best case for what may happen is what HAS happened in previous, similar situations. If you look at the very poor, both globally and in the US, and see what their struggles are, which resources they can’t access or compensate for the loss of, you can get a picture of what the future looks like for a lot of us.
That’s one of the reasons that for the last decade or so of writing about this, I’ve concentrated so much on what happens to the poor – the global poor, and the American poor. I’ve written hundreds of essays about global poverty, food insecurity, food stamps, lack of access to medical care, energy resources and other basic services. I write about these issues for several reasons.
The families that I deal with are most often, although there are some exceptions, very poor. In additon to their poverty, they usually they lack other basic resources that most families struggling with similar issues – mental illness, cognitive delay, addiction, lack of housing, domestic violence – may have. They lack supportive family with the resources to help, or the medical care that would allow them to treat their problems rather than suffer from them. Most of the families that we deal with have major problems – but major problems that many families have, but are pushed to the wall by lack of other supports. You begin to see how families who share huge disadvantages and great suffering can differ – and what kinds of supports can make a difference and allow a family to stay together, or come back together.
Looking at life for these families in one of the richest and most privileged places in the world reveals usefully that what we have failed to do when we had more money, energy and resources than ever before in human history is an excellent measure of the bottom line – that is, there is no point in assuming that we will do BETTER when we have fewer resources. So, for example, if we don’t feed nearly a billion people in an era of the largest harvests in history, we can reasonably assume that if we ever face CONSTRAINT on food access, that more people will go hungry. If we have failed to give basic access to medical care and services to the global poor in an era when we could have afforded to do so and had all the energy resources needed to do so, we probably won’t be doing that when we don’t have those things.
This is obvious on some level, but people miss the point all the time – those of us who have been insulated by good fortune and accident of birth from the worst outcomes often think that that insulation will always be ours – but simply observing that that’s NOT true for most people who have been hit hardest by life can teach us a lot. Most of us have to break out a shell of assumptions that there will always be help available. Seeing when and where that isn’t true can teach us a lot.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, figuring out what people who have been desperately poor for a long time NEED can guide us in planning for the future. And seeing where new people are falling into the holes we’ve dug for ourselves can give us clues about how long and how well various systems will hold up, and what might help protect people when they fail.
Naturally, I don’t do foster care for those reasons – I do it because I enjoy it and love the kids. But I’m also fascinated by the connection to families that I get. And foster parents get a particularly interesting view of the world, because they come at it from a perspective that almost no one else gets. When people like me deal with the desperately poor and least functional families in our community, they mostly do so in a professional-client relationship. People with my level of education are usually the teachers, the doctors and nurses, the social workers and other people who provide support. That’s good work and important work, but there’s a measure of unbridgeable distance.
Foster parents are in the weird situation of co-parenting with biological parents who have been unable to care for their children. Their kids live with us, but the parents still have lots of legal rights to their kids and they are often deeply involved. I can’t cut my foster kids’ hair, get them a flu shot, wean them to a sippy cup or send them on a sleepover without permission from birth parents. I need them to tell me things like how premature their child was, what she likes to eat or sleep with, why he does that funny thing with his socks, how he does at school. In many cases, kids who come into my care will go back to living with their birth parents or with other kin fairly soon, and so I have to temper my teachings and my thinking into helping kids function well in THEIR families, with the struggles they have. I don’t meet my children’s biological parents as a professional meeting a client – I meet them as a fellow mother in a very weird relationship, weird for both of us. I need them just as much as they need me. Sometimes I need them more, as reinforcement from them can make my job a LOT easier. And they need me too – I’m the one who makes sure they get phone calls on the weekends between visits, and who explains what the doctor just said about their daughter’s umbilical hernia. I may be the one who gives them a ride so they can attend the specialist doctor’s appointment at all, explains what “concurrent planning” means when the social worker talks to them, or tells them what their child’s homework REALLY is when the kid says he doesn’t have any at the visit.
Most birth parents are struggling with a lot of things, and their struggles overflow into our conversations. So I learn about how hard it is to get in-home dialysis, or what charities will give you a cell phone free so that you can call your kids. I may get frustrated with how they parent sometimes, but I also feel for them – as when one of my cognitively delayed birth mothers arrives in court all alone, with no one to help her through the process, or when a birth father is put in a bind – he has to hold down a job to prove he can support his kids, but he also has to attend all sorts of mid-day appointments and court dates that put that job in danger. Don’t get me wrong, the birth parents aren’t saints, but you can see just how hard their lives are. A few of them enrage me, but most of them need so much help – and so little is available, that I’m just filled with sorrow at the futility of it.
It isn’t my job to fix their problems – I take care of the kids. Sometimes I cross the line for birth parents who I think can pull it off with help. We had two boys a year and a half ago, and I did all sorts of things to make it possible for them to go to their Dad. Sometimes I just explain things “Hey, this is how you find your court-appointed lawyer’s number, and then you can…” or “You know you can get medical attention for that if you call here…” In a kind of trade, they help me understand what I might not know about grinding poverty – the places that will let you trade some of your food stamps for tampons and toilet paper, even though they aren’t supposed to go for those things, or what you do when you are giving birth all alone in hiding, because if anyone finds out you have a baby CPS will take it away. Why it sucks to be both mentally ill and addicted – because places that treat one don’t want to treat the other, or how long the waiting list is for housing after they closed down your house because of infestation. You begin to see the picture of what happens when things, as they say, fall apart.
My kids teach me these things too. D. would ask every day “Are we having dinner?” Not “What is for dinner?” – because dinner isn’t routine in families that don’t always have food. I know that, of course, have known it for years, but there is knowing and KNOWING. Watching your kids teach you how to panhandle as “Hey, Mom, you should know this” is really enlightening. Having a child show you how to sleep in a bed infested with insects is horrifying – but it is also a useful skill in some contexts.
What this also teaches is the complex ways that families are powerful forces – mitigating forces, as children living in terrible poverty and difficult circumstances can come through beautifully in a strong family that works together to pool resources and provide good care. And families that don’t have those strengths can fall apart under lesser stresses. Fostering itself is, as I’ve written previously, proof that the family cannot be professionalized or industrialized, and that while it is not the only resource out there, it is a fundamental organizing force around which other resources must build and reinforce. The fact that we can’t make professional institutions that duplicate the functions of family suggest that there is something about families that cannot be marketed, sold, professionalized or made into cookie cutter product (despite all the commercial resources that tell us other) and that children and adults both desperately need – and that can offer a kind of resilience not available anywhere else.
A lot of what I learn is heart-rending, but also I don’t let myself view it from a distance, as though it could not be part of my future. It is hard to believe that if kids as wonderful and sweet as these needed these skills, or know what it is like to be cold and hungry, you couldn’t have to learn that to. And, realistically, that’s probably true. It could happen. And we let it happen to little kids, so you can be pretty sure that we’d let it happen to anyone.
So yes, there’s a connection.