It was a chilly winter afternoon shortly following Thanksgiving. The nights were getting longer and the days chillier. My family was decorating the tree, drinking vegan egg-nog (yes, that is a real thing) and rocking to our Christmas playlist. The doorbell rang and six of my eight children ran to answer it. Stumbling over each other and laughing, they nearly fell into the door. Mike and I hollered from the other room, “Wait before you open it!” We scooped up our 3-year-old and went to see who our surprise visitor might be. I flipped on the front porch light and unlocked the door to see a family standing on our front step holding a brightly wrapped gift. Mentally I checked through my calendar. Oh no, this must be the family delivering the gift from my son’s biological father. I had completely forgotten. I extended my hand toward the mom and greeted her, welcoming her inside. She was friendly but seemed to feel uncomfortable. The dad shook our hands as well and their three teens smiled awkwardly at my kids.
“We’re here to bring a gift for Nicolas!” They exclaimed. Nick hid behind my husband’s legs. The lady crouched down beside him and said, “Your dad sent you this, he wants to wish you a merry Christmas.” Nick looked up at my husband with confusion. Mike was the only dad he had ever known. Nicholas’s birth father had been in prison since before he was born and Nick had never known another father but the one standing beside him. I crouched down next to Nicholas and said, “Your birthfather sent you this present. Isn’t that nice? Let’s thank this nice family for dropping it by.” He nodded his head with a tiny gesture and whispered, “Thank you.” The other children looked around awkwardly. The four-year-old said, “Is there a present for me too? Did my birth dad send me anything?” I shifted my weight to the other knee and scooped the four-year old up in my arms, “Not this time kiddo, I’m sorry.” My other children felt the weight of this as well and began to look away. I saw one tear fall from my five-year old’s eye.
We said goodbye to the family and closed the door. The cheerful music coming from the other room seemed to mock us. We turned it off and finished decorating the tree in silence. All of my children are estranged from their birth fathers. Most of my children have had a parent incarcerated at some point. We agreed to allow our son’s birth father to send him a gift because it was a really thoughtful idea, simple as that. It wasn’t until that night that we realized there is so much more to this type of charity than we first imagined.
Organizations like the one my son’s birth father participated in are intended for incarcerated parents to maintain a connection with their children. In theory, they are a great idea. However, like most charitable organizations geared toward children, this one was more for the benefit of the adults than the actual child. The family who shopped for, wrapped and delivered the gift undoubtedly expected to participate in an activity that would bring joy to a foster child. What they and we didn’t realize was that this scenario would play out in a real home, with real children, real parents and real siblings. That night our children weren’t foster children, they weren’t adoptive children, they weren’t the children of incarcerated parents. They weren’t the children of addicts. They were just a family decorating a Christmas tree. That is, until the doorbell rang. With that one well-intentioned act of charity, all of the darkest fears and deepest losses of our family were exposed with that well meaning gift.
I hadn’t thought much about that incident until I was watching The Fosters with my teenage daughters. Callie, the one foster child in a family of adoptive children opens the door to find a person holding a Christmas gift for “the foster child, Callie.” She takes the gift with embarrassment and confusion. The person bringing the gift intends for it to bring joy but the result is that all of Callie’s insecurities and losses are laid bare in that moment.
So this is the question we asked ourselves and other foster families, What can we do differently to support foster children during this Holiday season? Here are a few ideas.
- If you bring a gift from a birth parent or family member, allow the foster family to give the gifts to the child at a time that is appropriate. If this is a gift from an incarcerated parent the foster/adoptive family may want to sit down with the child privately and explain who the gift is from and allow the child time to process any emotions that come along with the gift. A gift from an absent parent could bring a range of emotions from joy to fear to sadness.
- Support the entire family. Foster families are often strapped financially. The per-diem we receive (anywhere from $0 a day to $21 a day) is meant to pay for clothing, child care, food, bedding, school supplies, gas to get to and from endless appointments etc.) Buy a gift for each child, or gift cards so that foster parents can purchase needed items for all children.
- Find out what the family actually wants or needs. Socks, underwear, diapers, a dvd player, a vacuum. Do some research and find out what will really bless the family you are hoping to serve.
- Don’t single out the foster child. Put yourself in the child’s shoes. Getting a gift is fun but not if it singles out or embarrasses someone.
- Food is good! Make a meal and bring it to the family including paper plates, napkins and plastic forks.
- Easy Foods are even better. Make a care package of simple meals. Mac and Cheese, cereal, pasta and sauce, frozen pizzas. Give the family something they can grab and go on those busy nights filled with appointments, visits, homework and therapy.
- Give access to local attractions and experiences. Movie tickets, museum passes, zoo memberships. Many of these places are just out of reach for a typical foster family’s budget.
Every family deserves love and support. Every child deserves to be celebrated. What are some ways you are serving families this Holiday Season?
Got any additional ideas to share along with this post? Leave them in the comment section below this post.