That One Particular Word

For most families celebrating today, the word “mom” is not fraught with sadness, fear, hope, confusion, and powerlessness.  But for foster children, the word “mom” is one of the most difficult words they have to deal with and choose how to use.  It doesn’t fall off the tongue in uncomplicated reliance.  It is a constant reminder that something went terribly wrong for them.

When I was training to become a foster parent, the theme of trauma kept coming up.  In fact, the latest research shows that any mental health help that foster children receive should be “trauma informed.”  This doesn’t imply any one particular experience.  Any number of events can cause trauma for children:  abuse, neglect, exposure to drug use, exposure to alcoholism, exposure to domestic violence, exposure to death, exposure to crime, moving, bullying, weather events, auto accidents, etc. etc.  Removing a child from their bio home, no matter the situation they are being removed from, is a major trauma to a child.  A lot of kids in the most stable homes can experience singular traumatic events, and parents, teachers, and counselors can help them work through the fear and uncertainty that those events cause.  But repeated, untreated trauma can cause a child to get caught in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, and that massive influx of chemicals in their brain has a huge effect on their feelings of security, their behavior, and their ability to learn and adjust.  The sad truth is that the resilience that helps kids recover from trauma is variable from child to child, and we don’t have a lot of insight, yet, into how to boost resilience and why some kids are able to recover and some continue to struggle.  Foster parenting is a constant dance of support, patience, and rolling with the punches as kids work through the challenges that they don’t deserve, but have to deal with anyways.

Even before I became a foster parent last summer, I knew holidays would be hard.  But of all the holidays, I was dreading mothers day.  I knew it was really tough for some kids, and the thought that an outside holiday with a lot of societal pressure would cause pain for my kiddos, pretty much made me want to erase it off the calendar.  And for the whole year, the word mom has been a particularly hard one.  I’m not their mom.  I parent them, I love them, I support them, and I have built a strong relationship with them that I am proud of and that we all cherish.  But I didn’t give birth to them, and neither they nor their bio parents chose to sever their living arrangement and send them to a new home full of uncertainty.  They are in a situation that is utterly unfair to them, that they didn’t choose.  And no amount of “you deserve to be recognized for the work you do and the love you give them” to me erases the unfairness of it for the kids.  Sometimes we forget how powerless kids are, and when society sees foster kids acting out, we label them as if they weren’t powerless and faultless in their situation.  And we forget that as we are asking kids to be resilient and adjust to new situations, even if the new situation is safer and more appropriate, it creates divided loyalties.  And divided loyalties cause more pain.  So mom is a hard word.  And I definitely don’t think that I “deserve” to be celebrated today.  If celebrations hurt my munchies, then that’s a hard no for me.

But, like most of foster parenting, this mom thing and this mothers day thing has brought surprises.  I have a two year old who calls me mommy.  Well, it’s really more like he calls me “MOMMY!!!!”  (He is not a sedate and shy child…)  It is never accompanied by declarations of love.  It’s mostly accompanied by a declaration of a desire for snackies.  Which is cool.  I still love hearing it.  I have an 11 year old who calls me Karen, and that is accompanied by every declaration under the sun–including I love yous and thank yous.  Which is cool.  I still love hearing it.  How are we celebrating?  By having a pretty good lazy day of playing and movies.  I got a card from the 11 year old thanking me and saying I love you.  It made me cry, and I’ll keep it forever.  But more important, I’ll keep these beautiful kids in my arms and my heart.  And I don’t really care what they call me.



  1. Very beautiful, Karen. Thank you.

  2. jaxjensen says:

    “I’ll keep these beautiful kids in my arms and my heart. And I don’t really care what they call me.” And that’s what really matters. Good for you. God Bless!

  3. Wow, Karen. This moved me deeply. Thank you.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for sharing these extremely beautiful and well-considered thoughts. It’s hard to know how to celebrate knowing that many are in pain today. You have found a great path.

  5. Thanks for sharing and thanks for serving in foster care.

  6. Lovely. Thank you!

  7. Karen, this is just the most beautiful thing. I love that you have these kids and they have you.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice; thanks.

  9. This is wonderful, Karen. I love that you’re doing this important hugely difficult thing in foster parenting, and that you write about it so beautifully.

  10. Goodness but I love you and those two munchies.

    p.s. We share this complicated relationship, only with Father’s Day and things relating to dad. It’s hard, and even years-out, it remains hard. And that’s okay. We love each other through it, and make room for all the feelings; that’s being a family.

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