“Love is a decision”: Struggling to care for foster children like their own
Loving a stranger’s child is not easy, but foster parents say it is their commitment that keeps them going when compassion runs dry.
BY CHRISTY YIP
Ms Tay Li Ping was driving John* to school one morning when she found out that he had lied about brushing his teeth earlier.
It was a seemingly trivial matter, but the 41-year-old, running on just two hours of sleep, could no longer suppress her pent-up frustration toward her first foster son.
Seething with rage, she snapped at John, then 8, threw his bag out of the car when he alighted and promptly drove off.
Almost immediately, a wave of regret hit her.
“I felt like a villain because I had such negative feelings towards him,” said the homemaker, who studies part-time at Christian seminary Trinity Theological College.
As she struggled with her frustration, rage and guilt, she realised how much more effort it would take to love and care for a stranger’s child, as compared to her own.
“With your own kids there's always a reservoir of positive affection that never goes away. But with a stranger, you don't have that,” said Ms Tay, who has three biological sons between seven and 16, and a second foster son who is six.
While foster parents quickly realise that loving a foster child as their own is no easy task, many still strive to honour their commitment when frustration and fatigue threaten to overwhelm them.
When John came home from school that day, Ms Tay apologised for her behaviour and reassured him that she still loved him.
“Love is really a to make,” she said.
“When I tell him ‘I love you’, it’s not because I feel it — I don’t. I say ‘I love you’ because I am committed to caring for him for as long as he needs it.
“No matter how much I felt like giving up (on fostering), I’ve never seriously entertained it,” she added.
Ms Tay’s decision to foster did not come easy. With three sons of her own and a part-time degree to juggle, she wondered if she would be able to take on the added responsibility.
But when a friend told her about how John was struggling to cope in a children’s home and needed more attentive care, she was overcome with compassion for him and took the leap of faith.
(L-R: Ms Tay Li Ping's husband Joseph Gan, 41, John*, 11, Daniel, 12 and Joshua, 17.) The couple's three sons took well to John when he first arrived in 2016. In February, the family welcomed a second foster son, Damien*, into their home.
When the boy first joined the family, his behaviour really tested Ms Tay’s patience and commitment.
He often challenged her with his blatant defiance and anger. Whenever he was upset, he would cry and throw things around, something Ms Tay found difficult to tolerate. She also felt that she could not trust him as he would sometimes lie about his actions to avoid getting in trouble.
Now three years into her fostering journey, Ms Tay is better able to look past the difficulties. Friends and family have said that John has changed for the better — something she initially had not noticed herself.
While he used to be moody and withdrawn when meeting new people, he now has better control over his temperament and displays more positive emotions, said Ms Tay. His school teachers also said he has become more cooperative and less aggressive.
“To know that somehow we were part of that process brings a lot of satisfaction,” Ms Tay said.
“Just don’t ask us two months in,” she added with a laugh.
A REPEATED COMMITMENT
From conversations with nine pairs of foster parents, many highlighted that staying true to the commitment to love is not a one-off decision.
Madam Norlia Binte Mohd Ali Marican has had to repeatedly persuade herself to continue caring for Ben*, her third foster child, who is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The last five years have been incredibly trying, she said.
Each morning begins with the nine-year-old’s piercing screams as he protests preparing for school. At times, Madam Norlia has to resort to dragging him because he would refuse to walk.
“We have to psych ourselves up first before motivating him,” said the 53-year-old homemaker, who is married with three adult children.
Going out together is also a struggle as Ben often throws tantrums when he is upset. Madam Norlia still remembers in vivid detail the first time he had a public meltdown. The family was at Pizza Hut for dinner when Ben, upset and restless, yanked off his shoes and flung them into another customer’s pizza.
During times like these, Madam Norlia would find herself at her wit’s end, with her mind made up to throw in the towel. But after each episode, Ben would apologise: “Ibu (mother in Malay), I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“That breaks my heart,” said Madam Norlia, who would then resolve to hang on for a while longer and work with her foster care officer to improve the situation. She also recommits to caring for Ben each time she imagines him in a group home, where he will likely go if she gives him up.
“We just tell ourselves that we have to give ourselves a chance, again and again,” she said. “But I don’t know how long this will last,” she admitted.
Nevertheless, she credits the unwavering support of her foster care officer as the main reason she has managed to keep going.
“The officer with me is wonderful. She'll always be there,” Madam Norlia said, adding that the officer would be sure to show up at her house, even on weekends, whenever things proved to be too much to handle.
Aware of the effort it takes to foster, MSF provides emotional and practical support through its foster care officers, who also try to link up foster parents with support groups so they can share their concerns and seek comfort and solidarity from fellow foster parents.
On top of that, foster parents can call a 24-hour emergency hotline to contact the Ministry’s psychologists, who are readily on hand. On top of childcare and medical subsidies, MSF also provides a monthly allowance of $936, or $1,114 for a child with special needs.
Madam Norlia has also benefited from respite care, which refers to placing a foster child with other foster parents for a short time. Taking breaks to rest and spend quality time with her family has been important to ensure she does not burn out, she said.
Though she struggles with caring for Ben, Madam Norlia, who has fostered six children, still believes fostering is worth it.
Touched by the stories of other foster parents back in 2003, she signed up with the hope of helping children in need. Fulfilling this desire 16 years later is the most rewarding part of her journey, she said.
An environmental portrait series of foster parents in the spaces that are most representative of their foster children.
However, while most parents strive to honour their commitment to their foster children, some have had to draw boundaries for themselves and their families by giving up their foster child.
Also known as placement breakdowns, this happens when a fostering arrangement does not work out. MSF declined to comment on the reasons for and frequency of placement breakdowns.
When Ms Hope Kelly, a 48-year-old homemaker, found out that her first foster child was showing some signs of mental illness, she had to return the girl to MSF for her own family’s well-being.
In the first few weeks of caring for 14-year-old Emma*, who has high-functioning autism, Ms Kelly, an American citizen with permanent residency here, began to suspect that the girl’s mental condition had been under-reported to MSF.
Emma began to have regular outbursts of aggression, which were directed at Ms Kelly, and hallucinated about people hurting her.
While Ms Kelly questioned whether her family could cope with Emma’s condition, she persisted for the next few months with one goal: to document as much information about Emma’s mental state as possible so MSF officers and psychologists could give her the appropriate help.
But when Emma’s hallucinations intensified, Ms Kelly realised her family could no longer help with her psychological needs.
Giving Emma up was still a difficult decision, even though the four months of caring for her in 2016 had been taxing on the family, said Ms Kelly.
“Naturally, when you go into fostering, you don't want to be the person responsible for a child bouncing around in the system. We've come this far in trying to get help for this child. Should we stop here?”
Her daughters, who were eight and 11 then, were upset that Emma had to leave and concerned about what might happen to their foster sister.
We had no regrets (fostering her) but I had to think about my family’s welfare and our ability to cope.
— Ms Hope Kelly, 48, homemaker, on making the difficult decision to return her foster daughter in 2016.
Ms Kelly said: “I watched my girls care for this child and I was amazed. I was amazed even at my own capacity to love this child.
“We had no regrets (fostering her) but I had to think about my family’s welfare and our ability to cope.”
This experience, however, did not deter her family from taking in a second foster child, a 12-year-old girl, a few months later. Ultimately, she said, it is important for parents to go into fostering “with their eyes wide open” and be prepared for difficult situations.
“You're taking in a child that, no matter what, has gone through trauma. The very fact that you are removed from your family and are going through change is trauma.”
NOT ALWAYS DIFFICULT
While all foster children have suffered some degree of trauma, it does not always make them difficult to love. This is something Mr Jason Gwee, 47, and his wife Irene, 39, have found out.
The Gwees were initially daunted by the prospect of caring for a teenager after they heard at a training course about the delinquent attitudes and trauma they might have to deal with.
“For the first time, we realised we didn’t know what we had signed up for,” Mr Gwee, a legal counsel, said. But the couple remained firm in their decision.
“We are dealing with humans here, not products. A lot of times, the trauma is not their fault. Saying that all teenagers are rebellious and difficult to manage is a big, broad statement that will deny them care,” he said.
Their first foster child, 17-year-old Tina*, turned out to be a quiet girl who strove to cope with her problems healthily, they said. She packed her schedule with volunteer outings and dance classes, and studied hard in school.
Nevertheless, it was initially difficult for the couple to engage with her as she had often kept to herself.
But this has gotten better over time. A year on, the couple, who have three other children aged six months to 12 years old, says that Tina makes their family complete.
“Everybody might think that we are blessing a child by giving her a home but we realised that the blessing is mutual.
“We are able to provide a stable family structure for her and she has taught us how to love a stranger.”
Tina*, 17, and Chloe Gwee, 12, have forged a close friendship since Tina moved in a year ago. The Gwees make it a point to spend quality time with the girls over daily Bible studies and meals.
NOT A SUPERHERO
Despite having fostered four children, two of whom she eventually adopted, homemaker Joy Shuo, 40, does not feel that there is anything noble about herself.
“I hate to burst this bubble because in reality we are just normal people. We’re not superheroes,” said the mother of six.
While foster parents are often portrayed to be “selfless and full of love”, Ms Shuo, who stopped fostering after adopting her two youngest children, said she sometimes could not help but feel she was the opposite.
This was especially so whenever her third foster child Jessie*, 9, was rude to her.
“I couldn’t find one ounce of love for the child,” she admitted. “I thought I was just a hypocrite. I shouldn’t be fostering.”
But when she tried to empathise with her foster daughter, she realised that perhaps Jessie did not have the mental or emotional capacity to reciprocate her love.
“So many times these children come into care and put up the worst behaviour to challenge us because they feel so abandoned,” she said.
Despite these challenges, she trusts that her family’s efforts to provide a safe home will be worth it one day.
“In the right family environment, you will begin to heal.”
At her five-room flat in Tampines, space has been made to house her children, who are between three and 17, and two helpers.
As played in the background, Ms Shuo picked up her youngest son Jedidiah, her fourth foster child whom she later adopted, and waltzed.
“Who's mummy's darling favourite son?" Ms Shuo asked.
Chuckling in her arms, Jedidiah squealed: “I'm mummy's darling favourite son!”
So many times these children come into care and put up the worst behaviour to challenge us because they feel so abandoned.
— Ms Joy Shuo, 40, has fostered four children since 2012, and adopted two of them.
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.