When Foster Parenting Tastes Like Moldy Mashed Potatoes

Our son (now 9) has grown up with a severe allergy to peanuts.  Doctors have warned us that for him it could be fatal.  Not only has he not been able to eat peanut products, he can’t even touch them.  One time before we understood the severity of his allergy, I had unknowingly picked up a small dab of peanut butter on my shirt.  Hours later he gave me a hug, came into contact with it and started into a full reaction. At school, he has always sat at the peanut-free table at lunch and every time he gets a snack after a sporting event, he dutifully and without complaint, hands the package to us to check the label.  And of course, the emergency “bee-sting kit” syringe has become a standard piece of equipment for our family going with us everywhere we go.

Recently at a regular check-up they did some blood tests and said that they wanted to schedule a peanut challenge and keep him for observation for a few hours.  My wife took him in at the scheduled time and sat nervously as she watched them hand him a spoonful of peanut butter.  He put the spoon in his mouth and the look on his face made it abundantly clear that he didn’t like it at all.  In fact, in describing the experience to his siblings later that day, he said that it tasted like “moldy mashed potatoes”.

First of all I should establish that never in his life have we fed this boy moldy mashed potatoes, so I’m not sure where this point of reference comes from.  But I digress.  At the end of the day, the verdict was made official:  our son is no longer allergic to peanuts.

My wife was thrilled and was showing her excitement.  However, she could tell that our son couldn’t figure out what all the hoopla was about.  After all, this new verdict effectively just gave him permission to eat something that he thought tasted like moldy mashed potatoes . . . not really a big win for a nine-year-old.

But what he didn’t understand was that my wife’s excitement had nothing to do with his new-found ability to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but rather the realization that we were free of the much bigger consequences.  There was a gooey substance common in the world and in his school that we’d been told could potentially kill our son upon contact. That was no longer true and the recognition of the stakes was worth celebrating.

So when you anticipate something for a long time, what do you do when it turns out to taste like moldy mashed potatoes?

First time foster parents can feel like that.  They came to this monumental place of making the decision to foster.  They did the research.  They talked to friends and family.  They went to the classes and read the books and attended the webinars and subscribed to the blogs all in anticipation of the day they will get the call that a kiddo needs a place to go.

And once the call comes, and the kiddo arrives, some things are just like they imagined — just like they were trained for.  But, then there is a lot of other stuff that is just harder than they thought.  Navigating the system is even harder than they thought.  Responding to certain behaviors without taking it personally is harder than they thought.  Dealing with the persistent emotional ups and downs is harder than they thought.

Before long, all this waiting and anticipation results in what tastes a little bit like moldy mashed potatoes.  It makes one wonder why all the hoopla.  This doesn’t taste good.

But then you are reminded of the stakes.  You understand that the reason you got into it in the first place was because there were children who needed you to be there.  You recognize that the alternative is catastrophic and you understand that having the ability to eat something that sometimes tastes like moldy mashed potatoes is truly a privilege and worth celebrating.  And while there are days where foster care does taste like moldy mashed potatoes, there are a lot of other days when it tastes like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  My son hasn’t tried one of those yet.

This post originally appeared in our Foster Roster e-newsletter which is delivered each Friday. We keep it short and sweet and fill it with practical articles, videos, blog posts and other tools for leaders like you working to help kids and families in foster care.  To sign up, go to http://bit.ly/1rwn6eO.