Sharon's Reviews > Another Mother: Co-Parenting with the Foster Care System

Another Mother by Sarah Gerstenzang
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Jul 14, 08

bookshelves: adoption, foster-care
Read in July, 2008

The forward to this book praises Gerstenzang for providing a rare insight to the child welfare system from the perspective of a foster parent. However, as a white, upper middle-class woman with no prior experience with the system, the author is not a typical foster parent (as the author herself acknowledges). Still, I felt that the book provided me with some insight into the experience of foster parenting—specifically, how she felt before a child was placed with her, how she felt while she was a foster parent, how she felt after becoming a pre-adoptive parent, how her family and neighbors reacted to the situation, and how she felt about interacting with her foster daughter's birth family and with other foster parents. Additionally, the book provides insight into the system and policies that govern it, especially since Gerstenzang's perspective is informed by the masters' degree in social work that she completed around the time she was foster parenting. Gerstenzang's writing style is clear and straightforward.

The author describes her anticipation of fostering with almost the excitement I would think any prospective parent would feel. Yet at the same time, she felt uncomfortable that her family would benefit from some other mother's difficulty—and, when they hadn't yet had a child placed with them, it was as if they were waiting for this difficulty to occur. I found this interesting because I expect this would be how an adoptive parent might feel, but not necessarily a foster parent.

Gerstenzang also describes the awkwardness she experienced with her neighbors and acquaintances when the baby was first placed with them. She mentions the types of reactions she received, which seemed to come from either of two motivations: raw curiosity (which she felt as rude), or genuine concern.

A comment Gerstenzang frequently received was that others could never foster parent because they would become too attached to a child. She wanted to respond (but apparently didn't) that "…getting attached is a risk, but we are adults and we are supposed to care about children in our society, even if that is difficult (p. 39)." I agree with this sentiment: the best interest of the child should outweigh the best interests of the adults.

In general, the author wondered "why middle-class Americans showed little to no interest in these children…but could go to so much trouble and expense for children in other countries (p. 37)." However, she felt a benefit of her fostering was that it made her neighbors think about the plight of foster children—they couldn't just ignore it when directly confronted with the situation.

Another insight to her feelings as a foster parent included her description of the vagueness of her role as a parent. The conflicting roles of supporting reunification while wanting to keep the baby led to ambivalence about how attached she should become to the child. Additionally, she felt the "lack of ritual" in foster parenting added to the vagueness of her role. The baby is practically dropped at her doorstep with no "anticipation, baby announcements, baby shower, and so on (p. 36)." The vagueness of her role filtered into confusion and awkwardness about what kind of relationship she should have with the baby's birth mother. Yet at the end of the book, she notes that she "came to see the development of this relationship as a healthy and unwitting benefit of the foster care system (p. 182)."

She also notes feeling anxiety because her foster child could be removed from her home (not just to be reunified with her birth mother, but to be placed in a different foster home) at any time. She describes the concept of "anticipatory grief," which "is when parents are afraid of getting too attached to the baby (consciously or unconsciously) because they are afraid something might happen to the baby (p. 123)." Although it is a defense mechanism, she implies that it is problematic because it inhibits attachment. This seems to me to be the natural flip side of ambiguous loss (a concept defined by Pauline Boss, who writes on her website, "with ambiguous loss, there is no closure; the challenge is to learn to live with the ambiguity" http://www.ambiguousloss.com).

Another issue Gerstenang dealt with was caring for a child of a different race from herself. She initially felt self-conscious caring for an African American baby ("… sometimes my worry stemmed from a feeling that, by caring for Cecilia, somehow we had taken advantage of or stolen something precious from black people as a whole (p. 110).") She describes the position of the National Association of Black Social Workers (in favor of placing African American children with African American families when possible, but not to the extent that this goal should delay a child's placement in a permanent family), and she also briefly describes the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (which outlawed making adoptive placements based on race-matching). According to Gerstenzang, one reason she did not initially consider herself as an adoptive resource for the girl was that she felt it would be "easier" for her if she were placed with an African American family.

Gerstenzang argues that foster parents should be salaried. She says that the rationale for low reimbursements is to keep away foster parents who want to do it for the money, rather than for humanitarian reasons. But she points out a number of problems for foster parents that I hadn't considered previously: since foster parents aren't employees, they don't get health insurance, social security benefits, and they do not have liability coverage through public agencies. Furthermore, their non-professional status reduces their clout as a member of the team who might have valuable input about the best interests of a child. She notes that increasing the pay for foster parents would cost less than providing group care for foster children, and other workers with humanitarian roles are salaried professionals. She acknowledges that one could easily alternatively argue in favor of devoting more resources to birth parents to help them get on track.

Gersentzang addresses the way in which public resources in the United States are allocated to various potential beneficiaries. Factors on which decisions are made include 1.) the perceived "deservingness" of the group, 2.) the universality of the reason for need, and 3.) whether society at large will benefit from improving the condition of the group in need. Children are generally considered deserving, but abusive and neglectful parents are not. Therefore, relatively minimal assistance is provided to parents, and resources are instead provided for placing children in foster care (though foster parents themselves are not salaried and their stipends typically do not cover their expenses; Gerstenzang—citing Bernstein—asserts that the reason for this is that foster care should not be an appealing option for parents in need—it should be bad enough that no one would willingly place their children in foster care.) As a foster parent, she found WIC, Medicaid, and the foster care system difficult to deal with, suggesting that middle managers were building in a "deterrent" for their use based on their assumption that the beneficiaries were not deserving. In contrast, she had a more positive experience with early intervention (developmental services for young chilcren), a program that is universally accessible to anyone in the U.S.

Many of Gerstenzang's views on fostering and adoption seem progressive to me and she seems to have thought sincerely and carefully about what is really in a child's best interest. However, she does not seem progressive in one regard: once she and her husband became pre-adoptive parents for their daughter when she was about 12 months old, they changed her name from Cecilia to Ella. She explains that Cecelia's name was problematic because everyone shortened it to Ceci, which was the name of their family dog. She rationalized the name change because "some experts state that until the age of two, children are called by many pet names and haven't internalized their name, so a name change isn't thought of as harmful to the child (Michaels 2002, 48) p. 166." Further, she describes the name change as requiring "courage" because name changes are unusual and because the girls' adoption was far from finalized. However, she doesn't mention a study that suggests that babies recognize their own names as early as 4-1/2 months (Mandel, D.R., Jusczyk, P.W., & Pisoni, D.B. (1995). Infants' recognition of the sound patterns of their own names. Psychological Science, 6, 314–317).

Interestingly, near the end of the book, she notes that if they adopted the foster child, "we would probably not be foster parents again, a role we had enjoyed (p. 163)." This did not seem sincere to me, since I am pretty sure that, earlier on in the book, she was so frustrated with the "f****d up system" that she did not want to foster parent again. In other instance, she describes foster parents as "often traumatized and disempowered by the system (p. 92)."

An unexpected insight I gained pertained to the experience of parenting when one is not employed full-time. It seemed to me that Gerstenzang had more time to enjoy the baby and the role fo parenting because she was not overburdened with rushing the kids to child care, then rushing home to fix dinner and get everyone in bed. It seem slike this lifestyle would benefit foster children, and a foster parent salary might make it more feasible.
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