I watched Mary Poppins the other night the way I watch most movies these days: a kid in my lap, a kid on either side of me, and a kid laying on the back of the couch behind my head. We are a snuggly bunch. It was so much fun to introduce them to the songs, the dancing, the imaginative story of this favorite childhood movie. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched this movie in my lifetime, but this was the first time I realized it:
Mary Poppins was basically a foster mom.
She swoops down and steps in during a very difficult time for the family. The parents are not attending to the needs of their children and the children are acting out. Apparently, Mary Poppins has a lot of experience dealing with kids who need that healthy balance of structure and grace. She includes them in fun new activities. She has standards of behavior for them. She introduces them to members of the community who can serve as a support system after she’s gone. She teaches them to have compassion for others, even for their struggling parents. She helps the parents see their role in a new light. And she does it all with a song.
As outside observers to the Mary Poppins story, it is easy to see Jane and Michael as the victims. We see their disinterested parents. We see their running away, problems with authority, involvement with the police as childish and unhealthy ways to try and get the attention they crave. Sadly, the Janes and Michaels of the foster care world don’t often get that same empathy expressed to them. Their own failings or attempts to find love and attention can be seen as the out of control behavior of wild and rebellious troublemakers. They can be hard to place in a good foster home because of their juvenile record or history of acting out. It can be tough to see past the behavior to the root causes which make their behavior understandable even if it is still problematic.
As foster parents, we aren’t practically perfect in every way. We get frustrated with a system that may move too quickly to put a child back in an unsafe situation or too slowly to give a child the permanency they need. While parenting can be fun, foster parenting isn’t all magic carousels and sidewalk chalk paintings. Our real job can be to teach a child how to express their feelings appropriately (without punching the wall), or how to do their own laundry (because they may have to be responsible for that when they go home), or how to advocate for themselves and their boundaries (because they have had those boundaries violated in the past). I’m sure many of us wish we had a magic carpet bag with all the tools we’d need for every unexpected problem, but with time and experience we develop our own bag of tricks for helping kids from trauma without losing our sanity.
As I watched the movie unfold with fresh (foster mom) eyes, it was the last scene that stung. I heard my own inner dialogue coming back at me through the movie screen, the conversations I’ve had with other people who don’t understand how anyone could be a foster parent, the difficult late night whispers my husband and I have shared as we’ve tried to work through what it means to love and lose. All those conversations were boiled down into the chat between Mary Poppins and her talking umbrella.
Umbrella: That’s gratitude for you. Didn’t even say good-bye.
Mary Poppins: No, they didn’t.
Umbrella: Look at them. You know, they think more of their father than they do of you.
Mary Poppins: That’s as it should be.
Umbrella: Well, don’t you care?
Mary Poppins: Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.
Umbrella: Is that so? Well, I’ll tell you one thing, Mary Poppins, you don’t fool me a bit.
Mary Poppins: Oh, really?
Umbrella: Yes, really. I know exactly how you feel about these children. And if you think I’m gonna keep my mouth shut any longer, I–
Mary Poppins: That will be quite enough of that, thank you.
And there I sat on the couch, tears rolling down my cheeks. We can pretend that saintly foster parents never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking. But we know the truth that haunts us from the moment we say “yes” to that unexpected phone call until the time a judge decides if this child stays with us or is ready to go home. The goal is reunification. No matter how many times we say it to other people or chant it like a mantra to ourselves, it hurts.
When we do our job right, these children often end up thinking more of their parents than they do of us. And this is really, truly, as it should be. Our job is to be a safe, short term solution. We want them to know they have parents that love them, even if they need help in learning how to be safe with their children. We need to let parents know that we are on their team, hoping for their success, speaking positively about them to their children. As much as we would like to be the favorite adult, to be recognized for our sacrificial service, to be forever remembered, we have no ability to control the outcome. We love fully, completely, all in, with no promise of what our future with this child may look like. While it would be nice if we had umbrellas that lifted us away from the heartache of love and loss and just set us gently down at our next assignment, that isn’t the way it works. We kiss their cheeks and pack their bags, tell their parents we’re proud of them and we say goodbye. And then we let our agency know we’re ready to do it all over again. Because we know the value of what we’re doing in the lives of these kids and we know how they’ve impacted us, too.
It isn’t an easy job, but as we’ve learned from Mary Poppins herself, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The sweet smiles of these kids, watching them learn new skills, seeing how we’ve helped a family– that’s just the sugar we need to keep going.
If you’re interested in more information on becoming a foster parent, visit Christian Heritage.