Why Sharing Stories of Foster Care Experiences is Important

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Why is it important for resource parents to share their stories?

“We tell stories so we can find each other,” says storyteller and author Wendy Welch. “There are two reasons to tell a story. One is to find like-minded people who need information that only you can share. The other reason is to release the story that’s burning a hole through you.”

Telling and hearing stories from hard places offers comfort and recognition to foster, adoptive and kinship parents. Shared stories let us feel heard and seen, while affirming we are not the first or last to experience a particular pain, frustration, embarrassment — or surprising joy. Venting through stories also lets off pressure, so we don’t implode with tension or explode at the wrong moment to the wrong person.

Well-chosen stories can increase our numbers: try sharing the tale of a 9-year-old’s first trick-or-treating, or the pride of a teen who survives a first McDonalds’ work week, or the blessing of a Thanksgiving meal with a blended bio and foster family. Stories that strike an emotional chord help recruit new resource parents and suggest that indeed they could “do what you do.” From lobbying legislators to the Child Welfare Information Gateway’s annual “Real-Life Stories” webpage, many of us can speak hopeful stories into the world, while still respecting privacy.

Our stories let others imagine themselves into the role of resource parents and advocates. Yet, to be honest, once past the honeymoon glow of our foster journey, I’d start telling of a fulfilling experience, then segue into furious uncertainty about the children’s future, so instead of recruiting, I likely scared potential allies farther away.

Which is why we need to share our stories with each other — the others who “get it,” and know our bottomless impatience with shortcomings of the system, but have fewer nerves left to shock than our co-workers and friends. As foster, adoptive and kinship parents who deal with the fiery fallout of kids’ trauma every day, strive to maintain calm, teach spelling words, cook beyond the “nugget” food group, and treasure the preciousness of every child, as Dr. Karyn Purvis urged, we need to share stories within our own confidential circles just to find our equilibrium and hold on.

Regular peer support sessions, led by a volunteer or professional facilitator, empower parents to share experiences outside of a formal training setting. Ideally, there’s a balance of give and take, as conveyed by the name “Listening Circles” used by the U.K.’s National Association of Therapeutic Parents in offering “a chance to unwind and offload with other parents facing similar challenges.”

Many of us need such a circle of peers because our high-stakes new normal separates us from typical parents and their complaints about a new driver’s fender-bender or college entrance exams that used to spike our mental stress (if only that was our problem now). How long, I used to wonder, can I talk to this mom before I want to scream that her kid is staying, while mine is going — soon. In my more volatile universe, regular parent-talk feels isolating. I may have little in common with the politics, faith or work lives of other resource parents, but they’re the ones I yearn to hear from.

“Sharing stories releases us from the solitary confinement of suffering,” says novelist Abigail DeWitt, who teaches Writing as Healing courses. “To find a bond with someone else who’s gone through what you’ve gone through reduces the sense of isolation. And suffering depends so much on isolation — the feeling that no one else could understand this struggle.” She explains that there is also “the relief of humor at absurd situations — things that outsiders may get grim or uncomfortable about. It’s such a relief to be able to laugh with others who understand.”

The Story Recipe

As a teacher of creative writing, I know the basic elements of composing stories can help release stress. When dealing with so much that is out of our hands, the traditional triangle shape of stories — beginning, rise, peak or punchline, and end — imposes form and logic on a situation that feels like pure chaos. Fitting experience into that familiar framework gives the teller a momentary feeling of having control, and hints that an underlying purpose might exist.

Story sharing also prompts the teller to speak the subtext — to bring our greatest fears to the surface, where fellow travelers can give comfort and advice. As with a child telling a bad dream, putting dread into words may diminish its power. Away from even our most supportive social workers, we can give voice to our actual emotions, rather than to what we know we are “supposed to feel and [have] been taught to feel,” as Hemingway said. With a place to vent honestly, it’s more possible to persist.

For our kids from trauma, emotion floods from certain scents or touch; no less for parents, the specific sensory details of our stories matter. The messy meaning of daily life coagulates in the details, like Cheez-Its crumbs in a car seat. A listener connects first on the sensory/physical level and emotion follows, whether the cool wax polish smell of courthouse hallways triggers calm or fear, or the smell of cigarette smoke in a child’s curls brings rage or simply relief they’ve returned.

We share stories to decompress and normalize trauma’s aftermath, and to recognize things that go even minimally well. Experienced peer support parents can share a win, of whatever size, as a victory and voice the encouragement we all need to give a child who takes a micro-step forward.

Virtual Support

An in-person support group is the ideal, but Facebook support groups also offer instant empathy, advice and an always available respite from the “real world.” Like any online forum, however, some responses can sting on the screen. The scope and permanence of online posts cannot match the confidential nature of face-to-face groups. In “closed groups” of thousands, who knows who is reading the posts? Despite cautions about over-sharing, it’s all too easy to do in the rush to give or get support. Facebook group Foster Parenting Toolbox administrator Michelle Anthony suggests taking the time to rephrase responses “to protect the privacy of those in care and their families … Instead of saying ‘FS4 has developmental delays,’ try saying, ‘We have seen developmental delays in children with prenatal drug exposure.’”

If you worry about going public with your concern, just remember that if you lurk a few days, you’re likely to see a question or circumstance that resembles your own — support feels no less real when it’s elicited by someone else.

Deborah Gold is the author of “COUNTING DOWN: A Memoir of Foster Parenting and Beyond” (Ohio University Press/Swallow Press). She teaches reflective life-writing workshops for foster, adoptive and kinship parents and advocates at conferences and training events and writer under a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the children and families she works with.

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